Helping Kids Survive By Preventing Violence In The First Place

By Sammy Mack
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Listen: Helping Kids Survive By Preventing Violence In The First Place

On the second floor of the Range Funeral Home in Liberty City, a group of teenage boys is getting a tour of the display caskets, urns and vaults.

Patrick Range, the funeral home director, is telling them about the business side of burials.

“A lot of families are not prepared to have a young person that's killed,” Range says. Unexpected funerals mean unexpected costs. A nice cemetery plot and casket can easily cost $15,000.

“It's not something cheap, if you want to bury your child in a nice way,” says Range.

The young men are at Range Funeral Home on a field trip with the GATE program. For the past 17 years, GATE has served as a diversion program for teenagers with weapons charges—most of them guns. Instead of going to jail, most of the teens are court-ordered to spend six months in this intervention program.

This is not a “scared straight” approach. The organizers of GATE are more pragmatic. They expose the young men to the consequences of violence beyond death--the financial burdens, the long-term injuries, the harm to families. Along the way, the boys take classes on topics like conflict resolution and anger management.

Connecting

In addition to the funeral home, the GATE participants visit Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Ryder Trauma Center, they tour the county morgue, and they go to a nursing home where they hear from a middle-aged man who was left paraplegic when he was shot as a teenager.

That nursing home talk is where something clicked for one GATE alumnus, Mason. (We’re not using Mason’s real name because he’s afraid sharing the details of his story will make him a target.)

“He kind of looked at me with a face expression like, ‘You're lost and I don't know why you're lost, because I know you could be great if you just put your mind to it,’” says Mason. “And when he told me that I was just thinking, ‘I'm a bad kid; what are you talking about, I could be something?'"

Mason was first referred to GATE when officers found a knife in his backpack at school. On his phone, they found pictures of him holding guns. By the time he got caught, Mason had been involved in drugs and carrying guns for a couple of years. He’d lost four friends to gun violence. He’d been shot at himself. He says he was numb.

“You could tell me so-and-so died at that point when I was starting out the program, or my mother just died, and I would just have this blank face. Not even feel sad or cry about it,” says Mason. “I’d just be like, ‘OK, what am I going to eat?’ That was kind of my mental state at that time.”

But at GATE, Mason says, he started to believe that he could be something; he gained a new respect for his life and others.

He began untangling himself from his old gang. And when his court-mandated time with the program was up, Mason stuck around as a volunteer peer mentor.

Program coordinator Rene Gamboa says a large contingent of the participants who come to GATE show signs of suffering from anxiety or post-traumatic stress, but the teenage boys here don’t like to ask for help.

Gamboa explains that the boys often put up a tough front when they’re hurting. “It's reflected more in, ‘You made me hurt. I'm going to make you hurt more,’” says Gamboa. “And so what happens is a cyclical act of senseless gun violence.”

Last year, 35 kids went through the GATE program. Between 80 and 85 percent of participants complete the course. Right now, the program is funded by Miami-Dade County. It costs about $3,500 per person.

The program coordinators wish they had the resources to study what happens to graduates in the years after they leave GATE, but there just isn’t funding for that. Still, they point to the constant stream of alumni who drop in to say hi as an indicator of their success. And a few years ago, 180 young men—some of them not so young anymore—came back for a GATE reunion.

Processing

Mimi Sutherland, founder of the GATE program, often tells the young men, “I don't want the first suit you wear to be the one in a coffin that your mom buys.”

Until she retired 10 years ago, Sutherland was also a neurosurgery nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital. She was tired of seeing young men rushed to the E.R. from gun-violence injuries.

After each field trip, the young men go through what Sutherland and Gamboa call a “processing class”—the idea is for them to digest what they’ve just seen and look for meaning in it.

Back at the GATE offices after the visit to the funeral home, Sutherland asks what the young men remember most. They tell her the prices.

Sutherland gives them a writing assignment:

“I want you to write a eulogy. How do you want to be remembered if you died right now? What would you say to your family? What would you like to say? So at the top, put your name and write the word ‘eulogy.’”

She asks them if they need help spelling ‘eulogy’; they do. She asks the boys if they want to read what they’ve written; they don’t—they say it feels too much like a premonition.

Helping More Kids

Sutherland and Gamboa are waiting to hear about a grant that would let them double the size of the GATE program and open an office in South Miami-Dade. They’re steadily seeing more kids with weapons charges coming to them from the southern part of the county.

But Mason, the alumnus of the program, wishes GATE didn’t need more spots for teens like him.

“We hope that one day the county tells us, ‘There's no more juvenile arrests. You guys have to leave,'" says Mason. “We would love to hear that one day.”