With nine youths 14 to 18 years old among Jacksonville’s 117 homicide victims so far this year, and many teens getting arrested in shootings, Florida’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference has launched a violence prevention program for at-risk youths at two North Jacksonville churches in the New Year.
Funded with a $1 million Florida Department of Juvenile Justice grant secured by SCLC, the church-based programs will also be in Tallahassee, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Called Peace Hubs, the program will be year-long for youths ages 8 to 17.
Using a curriculum to build safer schools, relationships and communities, 150 Jacksonville children will alternate Saturday sessions at Greater El Bethel Divine Holiness Church at 725 W. Fourth St. and Open Arms Christian Fellowship at 2763 Dunn Ave. Church officials and others will lead the sessions that teach children that guns are not “a means to an end,” said Bishop Leofric Thomas of Open Arms.
“We have to make the attempt. Others have tried and fallen by the wayside,” he said. “We have to keep plugging. I believe not just with the kids, but getting parents, grandmother or guardian involved as well can help train the children. Everything emanates from the home.”
This program will be monitored by the state and administered by people who “see what’s going on” in their community, Greater El Bethel Bishop Lorenzo Hall said.
“We are reaching out to the community, but also the legal community and justice system,” he said. “We have judges who want to come and speak to the youth. We will have the sheriff speak, and they will have jail visits. We have to do what young people like to do. We will take them bowling and form a basketball team to keep them busy and doing something.”
The Peace Hub program was born as legislation approved in 2017 by the Florida Legislature, setting up inner-city gun violence prevention efforts. Those are “the most critical high crime, high murder rate and high at-risk youth crime prevention areas” in Broward, Duval, Leon and Miami-Dade counties, the bill summary says.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference is rolling out four pilot Peace Hubs in “the most critical areas” of those counties, the bill said. Participants will come from the community’s highest crime areas, chosen among economically disadvantaged or at-risk teens and victims of crime. The programs will be evaluated every 90 days, with results reported to the state’s Juvenile Justice Department regarding progress.
“We were picked out as one of the high crime areas and an area that has a lot of gang and gun violence,” Thomas said. “This is one of the target areas in the state where we thought we could make this work.”
Teens are often on both sides as victims and suspects in Jacksonville. Just in the past two weeks a 16-year-old was shot and killed outside the Baymeadows Apartments and a 17-year-old was shot to death in a car in the 4400 block of South Trenton Drive, the Sheriff’s Office said.
In August in one of the highest-profile homicides in the city this year, a 17-year-old was among three young men (the others 19 and 21) arrested in the death of 7-year-old Heidy Rivas Villanueva. She was caught in the crossfire in a shootout while parked in her family’s car with her father and sibling at shopping center on 103rd Street.
The Peace Hubs’ curriculum is based on an existing program called “Making the Peace.” Its 15 sessions are broken into units addressing safety and respect, the forms which violence takes and how to heal from the past through activities.
“It is the intense attention we will pay to kids to help them understand the significance of what gun violence can bring about and what they should not participate in and how it can affect their lives,” Thomas said. “It is awareness of the ramifications of what guns bring in the community, what comes about if you are caught with one and what the laws are … and that it’s not good to have one just to have one.”
The older participants will also get academic and job-seeking help.
This isn’t the first time clergy have banded together to react to violence and rising area crime.
In late April 2015, following 30 shootings and seven deaths in a month on Jacksonville’s streets, three different Jacksonville clergy groups offered proposals to curtail the violence as then-Sheriff John Rutherford proposed a return of his Operation Ceasefire initiative. One proposal included a temporary state of emergency and a 9 p.m. curfew for people 18 and younger in neighborhoods where gang activity thrives. Another ministers’ group urged the community to work with law enforcement for the crime problems to subside, while an A.M.E. Ministers Alliance proposed a plan that included neighborhood walks, working with city leaders and having community block parties to make things safer.
Dan Scanlan: (904) 359-4549