On a hot June day, children and adults sit in the shade of tents near Trenches Community Church on the east side of Kalamazoo. They plan to march later today to demand an end to the fatal shootings. But first, they need slogans.
Suggestions for group workshops like this from a camper named Antonio: “If you put more guns in motion, violence will come.”
Trenches and the Urban Alliance co-organized this one-day camp, one of three organized this summer. They call it Life Camp. It is aimed at young people aged 11 to 16. The goal: to give campers the tools they need to avoid committing or being the victim of a shooting. Pastor James Harris said he wants these children to be able to avoid the kind of trauma that has devastated communities in Kalamazoo.
“There are so many lives that are hurt. And this pain is perpetual. You know, it doesn’t stop when an individual dies. You see the trauma it causes, the parents, the trauma it causes the siblings,” Harris explained.
As in many communities, shootings have increased in Kalamazoo during the COVID-19 pandemic. 13 people died in 2020, nearly double the previous year’s total. Thirteen more people have died in 2021. Harris said in his own congregation, the children of two members have been shot and killed in the past year. They were 16 and 23 years old.
“While we were processing this, you know, life camps just popped up. I really don’t know how it happened. But it just happened like, okay, life versus death. Let’s make a life camp,” he said.
Campers write “Dear Shooter” letters or messages to peers who may be considering shooting someone. They also listen to guest speakers talk about gun safety, firearms, and hunting and gun laws.
Fatal shootings have taken place in the city this year; there have been three so far, up from seven at this time last year. However, non-fatal shootings by minors are on the rise, according to the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety. It’s a reality that Harris hopes to change.
“We hope they leave here encouraged and that they can tell some of their friends about the camp and encourage their friends they may know not to pull the trigger or their family members not to pull the trigger. not pull the trigger,” he said.
Before the walk, campers take a break for lunch. Monica Espinoza, an 11-year-old camper (who has since turned 12) initially said she didn’t want to go to Life Camp.
“I was a little forced to come, but I’m glad I came,” she said.
Espinoza added that the camp taught him to take gun safety seriously. She said many of her peers don’t think guns are dangerous.
“Kids my age, they think of it as a toy and don’t really care if it does any damage until they shoot it and something happens,” he said. she stated.
For Javier Word, 13, there is nothing theoretical about the damage firearms can cause. Word lost two family members in shootings. The first was his aunt Tawana Henderson. She was 35 in 2013 when she died on the north side of Kalamazoo. It happened near the Glassmaster Controls building.
“On Florence and another street near the glassworks. She got shot. And we just, as a couple – two weeks ago – went to where she got shot and we set up balloons and stuff,” the college kid said.
Seven years later, Word lost his 23-year-old cousin, Travontae Brown. He was shot and killed in Kalamazoo on May 13, 2020. Rumor has it the loss was hard on him and his entire family.
“It’s heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking to watch all of this happen and grow and now they’re gone,” Word said.
He added that children a bit older than him risked their lives playing with guns. But he said he embraces Life Camp’s message.
“Trying to stop the violence. So this march, I’ll be sure to say it loud and clear. I’ll make sure everyone can hear me say stop the violence,” Word said.
The children stock up on water to beat the heat and collect their signs and drums. With the help of a police escort, they will march on the east side chanting the anti-gun violence slogans they have composed. Urban Alliance organized a second Life Camp last week. The last one will take place on August 16 at the Douglass Community Association.