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Rochester kids are living in the middle of serious violence. One afterschool program tries to help

Children walking in a line on a sidewalk
Max Schulte
Kids walk from School 54 to the Cameron Community Ministries afterschool program.

It’s about 4 p.m. on a Monday, and a group of elementary students and their chaperones walk along a sidewalk in the Lyell-Otis neighborhood in Rochester. They’re headed to an afterschool program.

The mood is cheerful. Some of the kids are leaping or skipping. But their path takes them past roughly 10 spots where murders and aggravated assaults have happened in the last decade.

They cross Otis Street where, six years ago, a man was shot and killed one morning as children were arriving to school.

Just a few blocks to the west, a high school student was fatally shot three months ago after he stepped off a school bus.

The rate of gun violence in Rochester is on track to break last year’s record high. The afterschool program is located in an area that has one of the city’s highest crime rates.

It takes barely 10 minutes to walk from School 54 to Cameron Community Ministries’ afterschool program. What’s happening there sounds like any other program.

A child sits on a teacher's shoulders on the playground.
Max Schulte
Kaila Toppin carries third-grader Blessyn Mays on the playground at the Cameron Community Ministries after school program.

“First, we eat snacks. Then we go, like do some reading or do some homework. And then when we’re done, we go outside or do some activities,” says third-grader Blessyn Mays. “And tomorrow I have a tournament with ice cream.”

But there’s a bigger goal: disrupting the cycle of violence.

Blessyn is one of more than a dozen children attending the program this day. Most of them live in this neighborhood, where roughly 25% of city crimes occur according to the Rochester Police Department.

That exposure to violence and crime adds up. While there has been some research into the impact of societal violence on children, there’s not a standardized way to measure it.

Other forms of trauma are measured by adverse childhood experiences scores, or ACEs.

ACEs are defined as potentially traumatic events that occur at a young age, like abuse and neglect. Research has shown that higher ACE scores are often linked to worse health outcomes later in life.

But a standard ACE questionnaire does not include exposure to violence outside of the home as one of them.

That may seem out of touch these days; as of 2020, gunshot wounds are the leading cause of death for children and teens up to 19 years old, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

‘It's been a lot of violence’

During this day’s afterschool program, the students’ first activity is a taste test of leafy vegetables with a 4-H volunteer. Some students said they’d never tasted a salad before.

Cameron 5 (2).jpg
Max Schulte
Deavon Parks tries a leafy green as part of a program, offered in partnership with Cornell University, where kids are introduced to fresh vegetables at the Cameron Community Ministries afterschool program.

Standing farther back with a purple Children's Defense Fund lanyard around his neck is Luis Mateo, the youth program director. While today’s mood is pretty light-hearted, he said sometimes, he’s had to help students through difficult moments.

“I think it was a month ago, I had two kids that were just like, stunned because a friend of theirs was shot,” Mateo says.

That boy was about 12 or 13, Mateo says, and he survived. But he was allegedly already swept up in a lifestyle of glorifying violence, posting images on social media with weapons around him.

“It's been a lot of violence,” Mateo says. “And unfortunately, they've normalized to it. And it's just another day in the neighborhood for them.”

Cameron 3.jpg
Max Schulte
Sandra Amaro and Phyllip McKnight on the playground at the Cameron Community Ministries afterschool program.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, since about 2017 or earlier, there have been increasing trends of elementary school-aged children being recruited into gangs.

The organization identifies several vulnerability factors that could lead to a child joining a gang. Things like too little adult supervision, unstructured free time outside of school, a lack of positive role models, and a sense of hopelessness about the future.

All things that Mateo is prepared to provide here.

“When I started my psychology degree, I had the mindset of ‘I need to help, I need to help.’ But then ... it reshaped from help mindset to ... like just empower them, uplift, and give them the tools so they can handle things on their own,” he says.

“If you don't know the violence, I'm teaching you right now,” Phyllipp says. “And when you become 6 years old, like me, I don't want this dark future that happened to me when I grew up.”

Children are asking for help

There’s been some research into whether afterschool programs can help reduce youth violence. One Georgia State University study in 2015 found that programs that emphasized teaching children how to improve their conflict-resolution skills and their ability to react more positively to situations can prevent youth violence.

But not every child has access to afterschool programming, so the researcher, Cordero Tanner, proposed policy interventions and state-run afterschool systems.

In April, the federal government announced $130 billion of American Rescue Plan funds for schools, requiring that states and school districts use at least 1% of those funds for afterschool programming.

Young person looking off to their right
Max Schulte
Phyllip McKnight, a first grader, takes time out from playing with friends at the Cameron Community Ministries afterschool program to talk about his hopes for the future.

In New York state’s latest budget, $88 million were earmarked for eligible afterschool programs, according to an analysis by the New York State Network for Youth Success.
Outside on the playground, violence prevention is top of mind for first-grader Phyllipp McKnight. Unprompted, he walks up to the microphone with a purpose.

“If you don't know the violence, I'm teaching you right now,” Phyllipp says. “And when you become 6 years old, like me, I don't want this dark future that happened to me when I grew up.”

Phyllipp recently participated in a Peace Walk. And his teacher showed his class some calming techniques. He demonstrates by placing the tips of his thumb and pointer finger together and counting his breaths.

“Miss O’Brien taught me,” Phyllipp says.

“Does it help?” a reporter asks.

But Phyllipp doesn’t say.

“I'm afraid I have to go because I got a game,” he says.

Phyllipp runs off to join his friend. Other children run about on the wood chips and blacktop, swing on swings, climb on the play structure, shoot hoops and follow their imaginations.

But other days, the playground is silent. Times when it doesn’t feel safe to play outside.

‘I just feel like we can teach them here’

Kaila Toppin has been with the youth program since she was in third grade. Now 19, she’s still here, working as an assistant.

Last spring, she and her younger sister were stocking the community food pantry outside when she heard popping noises. Barely 300 feet away, a man had been fatally shot.

“I turned around and like, the guy was running, you know, the guy had just been shot. It's honestly kind of a blur to me,” Toppin says. “It’s just a really crazy thing to happen. And it really can happen. And I guess that just put it in perspective for me, you know, even after all the years of this stuff happening, I've never had something like that happen right in front of me before. And it just made me more nervous."

People playing basketball in front of overgrown trees and brush
Max Schulte
Volunteers from McQuaid High School play basketball with kids in the Cameron Community Ministries afterschool program.

For about a week or so, playtime was spent indoors. After the Buffalo shooting in May, the kids were kept inside again out of an abundance of caution. In both cases, Toppin said there were open conversations about what happened between students and adults.

“It really feels like a family here,” she says. “Like, it feels like this is my home and I can always come here. And they have helped me so many times throughout the years.”

That support has been life-changing, and Toppin wants to keep paying it forward.

“I just feel like we can teach them here,” she says. “That they can, you know, grow up and be successful and stuff without having to sell drugs or without having to be in a game, that there's other options because I feel like that's the thing, too, you know?”

But she still doesn’t feel safe -- not while there’s street violence and mass shootings and racist hate crimes going on.

“The amount of things that I see that happen every day, and especially last summer, it was so, so bad last summer,” she says. “Literally, if less violent crimes happen, I would feel safer.”

In 2021, there were 81 homicides in Rochester, setting a record high. There was also a 44% increase in the national homicide rate compared with 2019.

Given those current trends, the change Toppin wants to see might not come soon enough, but she hopes it will happen in her lifetime.

Noelle E. C. Evans is an education reporter/producer with a background in documentary filmmaking and education.