On any given Monday or Wednesday afternoon, in a third-floor room in a church on Kingston Avenue, a group of 14- to 17-year-olds are gearing up for important work: tackling the issue of gun violence in their community.
These teens are part of a group in Crown Heights called YO S.O.S. (Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets), and they all went through an application process to join a program that many of them say hits very close to home.
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Mariama Barry, a ninth-grader at Wingate, a school nearby on Kingston, lives in Bed-Stuy and said she was motivated to join YO S.O.S. because of the shootings in her neighborhood.
"I've heard the gunshots and it's really disturbing," Mariama explained. "I wouldn't want something like that to affect any of my family members."
This year, the group is putting together an Arts to End Violence Festival, and the teens are tasked with soliciting artwork from their classmates and friends by April 1. Led by YO S.O.S. Case Manager Ruby-Beth Buitekant, they discussed their outreach efforts at a recent Wednesday meeting.
Buitekant asks one girl, Imani, how she was able to be comfortable approaching people at school to be in the arts festival.
Imani explains that she strategically approached the kids she knew would be interesting in spoken word and performance, but added, "Why wouldn't they want to speak up on something that affects all of us? We're all teenagers and we all hear about people getting shot."
This is true for nearly all of the kids in the room, including Rezziea "Rezzy" Alexander, 16, who said that not only has she lost friends to gun violence, she was recently almost shot near her home in Brownsville.
Rezzy insists that outreach programs like YO S.O.S. are the best way to decrease gun violence, and explains how the program has taught her to control her temper, and given her insight on how to "de-escalate situations and just walk away."
"I think some people… don't have much to live up to or live for, so it's like going to jail or hurting somebody is what they know," Rezzy said. "Some people just don't have anybody to talk to about their problems or any way to release anger because that's just how they grew up, that's all they know."
For those people, Rezzy says YO S.O.S. is the answer.
Funds running out
Amy Ellenbogen, Project Director at the Crown Heights Mediation Center, the parent group of YO S.O.S., said that they had so many people applying and bringing friends to YO S.O.S. this year they didn't have enough space to let everyone into the program.
The kids who didn't make it this year may not have another chance, unfortunately: YO S.O.S. is funded by a three-year grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the Department of Justice that expires at the end of 2013.
Ellenbogen said they are working to find new funding to keep the program going.
Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat