Losing one mentee to Philadelphia violence was hard. Losing two is just unbearable. And losing a third will simply be unacceptable.
By Alex Peay
11.20.17: Philadelphia – When I met Philadelphia 4th grader Azim Chaplin, he was too young to participate in Rising Stars, the afterschool mentoring program that Rising Sons – the organization I founded 10 years-ago after experiencing a racial incident on my college campus – offered to middle-school students. But I couldn’t tell him no; there was something special about him and he was very mature for his age. Over the years, Azim became a leader on our basketball team, and also held me and my Vice President, Mr. Mubarak Lawrence, accountable to our mission.
By 8th grade, Azim was on the honor roll and I couldn’t have been prouder of him. But his life was cut short. In fact, him sharing the news of his academic success was the last time we spoke. That winter, Azim, who then 14-years-old, was fatally stabbed in the heart on the 2100 block of Watkins Street in South Philadelphia by then 15-year-old Amber Hellesten, who was initially charged as an adult with attempted murder, aggravated assault and simple assault – a judge later evaluated Amber, declared she wasn’t fit for adult incarceration, and lessened the charge to 3rd degree manslaughter (as a juvenile).
At the request of Azim’s mother, Lynette – who soon after his death became my source of strength despite her continued heartbreak over what she perceived as leniency to Amber – I visited Children’s Hospital for his final neurological testing. The once joyous boy who I mentored was lying motionless in front of me. When he was pronounced dead in February of 2014, my tears flowed and they seemingly never stopped. For years, I blamed myself, thinking I should have been with Azim that day.
Azim was the first kid from Philadelphia that I mentored who died due to violence. And sadly – and maybe even predictably, given the violence he was susceptible to as a young black man in Philadelphia, America’s poorest big city where boys who look like Azim make up the majority of homicide victims and perpetrators – he wouldn’t be the last.
Earlier this month, I received a text message which informed me that 20-year-old Khalil Carmichael, who had been in my program since he was a 7th grader, had been fatally shot near Broad and Catherine Streets in South Philadelphia. I was numb upon digesting the bad news.
In basketball, Khalil was my center. But in life, he was my protector, though he never knew it. Khalil dwarfed me and others, so when we walked around town, I perceived him as the muscle.
Losing one mentee to Philadelphia violence was hard. Losing two is just unbearable. Tallying a third will simply be unacceptable. And though the homicide rate here isn’t as bad as it was in 2007, when the city recorded more than one killing a day, it is up double-digits from 2016, a damning fact that should concern us all.
After losing two loved one’s to violence, I’m more committed than ever to making Philadelphia a safer place to live.
Things have to change here, and the new Office of Violence Prevention, which will analyze the programs the city funds to determine whether they’re effective, is a good start. The next step should be to increase the community’s awareness of the $60 million spent a year on violence prevention, then identify grassroots organizations – who everyday keep youth productive with activities despite their limited resources – and allow them to offer solutions and apply.
These lesser known organizations I speak of – who require grants to take youth on trips and implement professional development among their staff – are often times more intimately familiar with the communities experiencing high-levels of violence than those who are often contracted to reduce and/or prevent crime. In other words, their solutions are informed by lived experience.
I know of many grassroots organizations who want, and are ready, to take their programs to the next level but they can’t do it alone, they can’t do without capacity, nor can it be done without substantial funding from the City of Philadelphia. To be fair, the city does make activities grants available to grassroots organization who promote the educational values of sportsmanship, the arts and health to individuals, though the dollar amount isn’t large enough to significantly scale programming.
A commitment to unearthing grassroots ideas for violence prevention, and closing the opportunity gap so that more community organizations are well-resourced, reinforces a commitment to keep safe all of the youth of Philadelphia.
This article was submitted and published as part of a multi-media campaign to amplify the public’s voice on the issue of violence. Alex Peay is an award-winning social entrepreneur who resides in North Philadelphia.