As gun violence looms over Pennsylvania youth, local organizations offer safe spaces

Center City seen from the Bok Building

Philadelphia's Center City is seen from the Bok Building on March 28, 2024. (Hannah Yoon for NPR)

Trevor was 14 years old when he bought his first gun from a friend.

Although he is like any other teenager — he likes Sprite, playing Monopoly and dreams about owning a Mercedes — he has lived in constant fear that someone could take his life.

“Being around the wrong type of people just brought problems,” Trevor said. “People would fight, and I’m not the biggest. Everybody was bigger than me, and somebody might have a gun. That makes me nervous and anxious and that makes me wanna grab a gun, too.”

A month after his 14th birthday, Trevor was arrested for gun possession.

“I felt threatened, so I just had to do what I thought I had to do at the time,” Trevor said.

Firearms, including homicides, suicides and unintentional injuries, are the leading cause of death for American children and teens. Gun injuries were the leading cause of death among children and teens, ages 1-19, in 2020 and 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

High gun violence rates are a problem that no other affluent nation is facing.

But it is not just the physical damage that American youth are grappling with. They are also harmed when they lose a friend or family member to gun violence, learn that someone they know was shot, or witness and even hear gunshots.

A "Stop. Shooting. People." flyer by Philadelphia Ceasefire
A “Stop. Shooting. People.” flyer by Philadelphia Ceasefire is posted in East Germantown in Philadelphia, Pa., on March 25, 2024. (Hannah Yoon for NPR)

Trevor is a skinny, white, 15-year-old boy who lives in Lancaster, Pa. His last name is not mentioned in this story because we are discussing his arrest record as a minor.

He says the problems that led to his arrest started with threats on social media.

“A couple people that I had problems with texted me on Instagram and they were like saying disrespectful stuff and they wanted to fight me and I was just tired of it,” Trevor said. “So, I was like alright. Today is the day. Like, we’re going to see what happens.”

He said he never intended to shoot anyone, but when he showed up to the altercation he realized he was outnumbered. So, he fired a few warning shots. Luckily, no one was shot.

The fight happened last year before Christmas, and after the brawl Trevor knew Christmas would look completely different for him.

“Right before I was about to go to sleep, I had just closed my eyes, and I heard the police on my window,” Trevor said. “I already knew I was cooked. So, I just gave myself up. I told my dad, like, everything’s gonna be alright.”

After his arrest, he spent time at a detention center and has since been released. That is where Trevor met Will Kiefer, the founder of the Bench Mark Program, a group that helps vulnerable and at-risk youth. Kiefer combines his love for fitness with his interest in working with kids and teens to help them lead healthier lives.

“The truth is, the kids don’t feel safe,” Kiefer said. “They’re more scared of being shot when they go to the corner store by someone who drives past them in a car. And until we can crack that code, we won’t solve this problem.”

Will Kiefer
Will Kiefer, the founder of the Bench Mark Program
(HJ Mai/NPR)

Kiefer founded the Bench Mark Program in 2014. A couple of years ago the program moved into a new space in the heart of Lancaster, an historic city in southeastern Pennsylvania that’s surrounded by rolling green farmland and has become a thriving art and culture hub. On the outside, the Bench Mark Program looks like any other gym. But just inside the door, it’s equipped with cameras and metal detectors.

Kiefer has come to the conclusion that there is no quick way to stop gun violence, as it has become a part of the culture for many children and teens.

“I’ll tell you one thing that we found to be moderately effective, most of that [violence] is fueled by social media,” Kiefer said. “And most of the reaction comes from, ‘I got to respond quick, or else I’m going to lose the credibility that I have and the clout that I have.'”

In 2023, a majority of teens said they’re using social media, YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram, several times a day or almost constantly, according to a Pew Research report.

Kevin Bethel
Kevin Bethel, Philadelphia Police Commissioner, stands for a portrait at the Philadelphia Police Headquarters on March 28, 2024. (Hannah Yoon for NPR)

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel says youth in the city use social media to flaunt guns, some not even real, to give the illusion of safety and protection.

“I remember a young kid, when I was working in school safety, would come to school with bullets,” Bethel said. “Well, why was he doing that? Because if he got caught with bullets, people would think he had a gun. And if they thought he had a gun, then he was being protected.”

Children and teens are on both sides of the gun barrel — as victims and perpetrators, sometimes in the same incident. It’s a vicious cycle — one kid carries a gun out of fear, more kids start carrying guns to protect themselves and then one day someone uses it.

“They have circumstances in their lives that I didn’t have growing up, so they are bound to respond to those circumstances,” Kiefer said. “But they’re just kids.”

With local law enforcement overwhelmed and political leaders at a stalemate — Pennsylvania’s government is divided with Democrats in charge of the Governor’s Office and the House, and Republicans in control of the Senate — community members like Kiefer are trying to address the violence by creating safe spaces for kids to simply be kids.

Tajee McLaughlin
Tajee McLaughlin, 14, grooms his horse, Shady, at the Northwestern Stables in Philadelphia, Pa., on March 30, 2024.
(Hannah Yoon for NPR)

Work to Ride is another organization helping at-risk youth in Philadelphia. Founded by Lezlie Hiner in 1994, the group uses horsemanship, equine sports and education to keep children and teens busy.

“I just had the idea that if I could find kids that had as much passion about it as I do, right, that it would keep them out of trouble,” Hiner said.

Kareem Rosser was one of those kids who discovered that shared passion for horsemanship. He was born and raised in west Philadelphia, and he credits Work to Ride for broadening his horizons outside of his neighborhood.

“I’ve lost a lot of people in my life to gun violence, most recently my brother, David, who introduced us to this barn,” Rosser said. “He was killed right before the pandemic started in March. He was gunned down in Philly right around the corner from where we grew up,” Rosser said.

It’s not just adults who want to make a difference, it’s young people, like Jordan Dill, too. He is a 16-year-old standout basketball player at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia. But even his basketball stardom has not made him immune to the violence around him.

Lezlie Hiner,
Lezlie Hiner, owner and founder of Work to Ride, stands for a portrait at the Northwestern Stables in Philadelphia, Pa., on March 30, 2024. (Hannah Yoon for NPR)

“When I was young, when I was probably in grade school, a couple of friends passed away from gun violence,” Dill said. “It’s hard, but I’m used to it now. I know that’s crazy to say, but I’m used to it.”

Two riders ride their horses at the Northwestern Stables in Philadelphia
Two riders ride their horses at the Northwestern Stables in Philadelphia, Pa., on March 30, 2024. (Hannah Yoon for NPR)

Despite his demanding schedule of homework, school practice and keeping up with a club basketball team, Jordan spends almost every Sunday afternoon shooting hoops at another community project, Shoot Basketballs NOT People. He hopes that sharing the experiences and skills he has gained as an accomplished basketball player will draw other kids to the program, giving them a safe place to work out and build community.

Jordan’s mother, Judith, supports his work. Her and her husband, Juwan Dill, drive Jordan to the program every week. They’re committed to making sure Jordan is able to participate in the program because gun violence has directly touched their immediate family.

“My oldest daughter was a victim of gun violence at the age of 8, and I can’t go through that again,” Judith said. “So, these programs really touch home for us.”

A rider and horse at Northwestern Stables in Philadelphia
A rider walks her horse, Squidward, out of the corrals at the Northwestern Stables in Philadelphia, Pa., on March 30, 2024. (Hannah Yoon for NPR)

Trevor is another testament to the success of community-based organizations in Philadelphia that are motivated to keep kids and teens out of trouble. He says his outlook on life changed after his arrest for gun possession, and he credits the Bench Mark Program for that. Trevor says he doesn’t want to be the person that the district attorney depicted.

A rider at the Northwestern Stables in Philadelphia
A rider rubs a horse’s hair at the Northwestern Stables in Philadelphia, Pa., on March 30, 2024. (Hannah Yoon for NPR)

“When I was going to court, they was telling me that I’m a menace to society, and that they don’t trust me being in society,” Trevor said. “I was a little upset but that didn’t really faze me. I know the truth. I know I’m not this crazy person. I feel like I’ve done everything for some type of reason.”

Kiefer says offering kids and teens respect and a consistent support system is vital to get to the root of gun violence among younger age groups.

“If we’re going to solve this problem, it’s not about a gazillion more dollars to fund programs like this,” Keifer said. “It’s about a model and how we treat kids. That’s not easy. That’s long term. And it’s hard to find people who are willing to go the extra mile.”

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