A column of nine cursive names is taped to a pale wall in the Youth Enrichment Services office in East Liberty. 

These are the teens the organization has lost to gun violence in recent years, including its own members and their friends and relatives. 

The wall was designed by Matthew Steffy-Ross, a 17-year-old who joined Youth Enrichment Services [YES] in 2015 and, over the years, became a mentor to his peers. He had only just finished the wall when he was fatally shot in April during a party at an Airbnb, where another teen was killed and at least eight others were wounded.

“I do not want to go to another one of my kids’ funerals,” said YES Executive Director Dennis Jones. “I don’t. I just don’t. I can’t.”

The “Loved Ones Lost” wall at Youth Enrichment Services’ office in East Liberty honors the lives of teens who were fatally shot in recent years. The wall was designed by Matthew Steffy-Ross, a teen member of the organization who died during an April shooting. (Photo by Benjamin Brady/PublicSource)

The students at YES are acutely aware of gun violence’s toll on Allegheny County — they’re grieving the losses of family, friends, classmates and neighbors who were caught in the crosshairs of shootings. This month, the organization released the “Reducing Gun Violence in Our Community: Teen Voices and Visions” report, which includes teens’ ideas for reducing gunfire across the county. The report is a culmination of the organization’s yearlong effort to train teens to heal from the trauma of gun violence and become activists promoting solutions to the crisis. 

“Nothing will get done if you don’t take action,” said Takara Pack, a 15-year-old YES member. “You can’t just sit back and just watch it all happen. You have to actually step up and do something.”

From January through November, there were 23 homicide victims ages 18 or younger in Allegheny County, accounting for about 19% of overall victims. 

City officials believe that shootings are often catalyzed by tensions between cliques of teenagers and young adults, whose social media fights escalate to gunfire. 

In a Dec. 2 press conference, Mayor Ed Gainey said young people citywide are inheriting the “culture of violence” created by previous generations, which — coupled with the availability of firearms — perpetuates the cycle of gun violence. “If a kid can get a gun like they can get potato chips, then we understand what the end result is.”

Taking up the mantle

Tya Carter, 16, is tired of seeing headlines about people losing family members to gun violence. “At this point for me, I’m just over it.” 

These headlines are a reminder of what she could’ve lost. One of her younger brothers has been shot twice, and she’s “surprised he’s alive” today. 

Tea Carter (right) shares her thoughts about the root causes of gun violence and ways to prevent shootings while sitting at Youth Enrichment Services’ office in East Liberty on Dec. 7. (Photo by Benjamin Brady/PublicSource)

She and her fellow teens at YES believe their advocacy isn’t an opportunity, but a necessity. For the county to move the needle toward reducing gun violence, youth voices must be heard. 

“It’s something we have to do because no one else is doing it,” Pack added. 

In November, nearly 40 of the group’s teens came together for a three-day retreat at Seven Springs, where they worked together to identify root causes of youth gun violence, including poverty, unresolved trauma, cultural influences, neighborhood conflicts, limited social opportunities, limited conflict mediation training and barriers to sustainable employment. 

They then proposed actionable ideas that government departments, educational institutions, businesses and nonprofit organizations can implement for prevention. The organization synthesized the teens’ recommendations in the report, including: 

  • Creating programs for teens to build skills in mentoring, conflict mediation, listening and empathy
  • Increasing teens’ collaboration with police departments, along with initiating a gun buy-back program specifically targeted to teens
  • Generating opportunities for local business owners to network with their communities and help teens strengthen their employable skills
Nearly 40 teens from Youth Enrichment Services participated in a retreat to discuss how to prevent and heal from gun violence. The retreat was held from Nov. 11 through Nov. 13 at the Seven Springs Mountain Resort. (Courtesy photo)

Teens especially wanted to create more safe spaces in their communities where they can engage in after-school activities. They feel that few of these spaces exist today because many recreation centers have limited their operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic and low staffing. 

Teens also want to see more programs helping them and their families heal from the trauma of gun violence, including grief counseling programs. Carter especially wants to create a program to help teens navigate depression. “It’s basically a safe place or area where people can come and do their things to just help them to feel healthy again.”

Jones said the report’s findings are “not abnormal.”

“These kids want to be kids,” he continued. “They want to have enough food. They want to have the ability to walk through the neighborhood without getting shot, and want to have the ability to get treatment for the trauma and the pain that they carry with them.”

He said he hopes the report will provide gun violence prevention stakeholders with the necessary building blocks to prioritize youth perspectives as they pursue solutions to the crisis. “We want people to look at it and see areas that they can take it and work with it,” he added. “Nobody can say, ‘We don’t know what the kids want.’”

Jones began pushing to create the report in July after YES hosted its Teen Violence Prevention Summit, which brought teens together with researchers, law enforcement officials and community leaders. In the coming months, the organization will begin seeking partners at the local, state and national levels to begin implementing the report’s proposals.

Collaboration, he said, could help them overcome the greatest challenge of implementing the prevention initiatives: securing funding. 

“This is the crux of the matter: Are we willing as a city, as a community, as a region, as a state, to invest the level and the magnitude of the resources that it’s going to take to address the problem?” Jones said.

‘Someone believes in you’

The YES report is a culmination of the organization’s mission to amplify teen advocacy throughout what the organization has dubbed the “Year of Peace and Nonviolence in our Neighborhoods.”

Since its formation in 1994, YES has worked with teens impacted by gun violence. Jones recognized the need to turn violence prevention advocacy into their flagship project after a friend of one of the organization’s members was shot in September 2021.  Shortly after announcing the decision, two other teens — friends of YES members — were shot, which Jones said only validated their decision.

“We have such a 100% saturation of gun violence upon our kids, there’s this constant trauma,” Jones said. 

Jones wanted their approach to gun violence prevention to be proactive, providing teens with opportunities to engage with positive role models and activities. Throughout the year, the organization created educational opportunities for teens to research solutions to gun violence, and connected teens with mentors who have helped them develop the tools to care for their minds, bodies and emotional well-being. 

They’ve also linked teens to jobs that have helped them gain technical and leadership skills. This opportunity is what brought 15-year-old Sarah Nervais to the organization, and she’s stayed because of the friends she’s made. “I came into the office, and everyone here was so loving,” Nervais said. “They’re like a second family.”

At their November retreat, teens attended healing circle discussions and workshops about music therapy, meditation and peer mentorship. Since then, Pack has begun incorporating breathing exercises into her daily routine and tries to meditate every day.

“I struggle with both depression and PTSD, I also have very bad anxiety,” said Pack, whose brother was severely wounded from gunfire and whose uncle was fatally shot. “When I was told about the breathing circles and the meditation, it really helps me relax and just find myself again.”

Jones said he hopes he’s teaching teens the most critical skill for protecting them from gun violence: resilience. A combination of information, preparation and community “allows them to reach their peers, allows them to feel they have some agency.”

Will Sheffield (right) sits at Youth Enrichment Services’ office in East Liberty on Dec. 7. (Photo by Benjamin Brady/PublicSource)

The trust that YES vests each member with is what gives them the confidence to pursue their goal of reducing gun violence while working with YES and in their everyday lives.

“It felt good knowing that someone believes in you,” said Will Sheffield, a 16-year-old member. “And they can in other places if you just allow it.”

As the organization looks to 2023, Jones hopes the training they’ve provided teens to become informed, responsible and empathetic leaders will amplify their activism and empower them to bring their ideas for solutions to fruition. 

“We’re going to give it our best shot.”

Amelia Winger is PublicSource’s health reporter with a focus on mental health. She can be reached at amelia@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ameliawinger. 

This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.

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Amelia Winger is a health reporter for PublicSource, with a focus on mental health. She is telling solutions-oriented stories that combine human experiences with broader context about data and policies....