CU Fresh Start Offers A Path Away From Gun Violence In Sixth “Call-In”
CU Fresh Start held its sixth “Call-In” Thursday, attempting to set a new path for young men in trouble for gun-related offenses in Champaign-Urbana. At the same time, local officials say they’re looking at ways to expand the program’s reach.
Modeled after programs used in Boston, Minneapolis, Peoria and other cities, CU Fresh Start takes an interventionist approach, warning young people in trouble of the dangers and legal consequences of gun violence, while offering help with education, job-training and cutting through legal red tape.
Thursday’s Call-In, like previous ones held over the past three years, took place in Champaign. Nineteen young men, a larger number than in previous Call-Ins, came in for the event. Their names were not released, and the invited audience, including local officials and reporters, were told not to disclose the names of anyone they might recognize. The audience was present only for the first part of the program, which featured speakers ranging from local prosecutors to mothers who had lost sons to gun violence. After that, the men went to another room for one-on-one discussions, after which they would decide whether to continue with the program.
The first part of the Call-In began with remarks from Mayor Deb Frank Feinen, who told the men, “Tonight can be a turning point for you. It can be a fresh start, if you choose. So please choose to stop the shooting.”
The men were also warned of the legal consequences of gun violence by Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz and U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois John Milhiser. They were warned of the consequences in lives lost and shattered by Mary Brown and Yvonne Johnson, two mothers of gun violence victims.
Johnson told the men, “You’re all looking at a broken mother.” Johnson’s son, 16-year-old David Sankey, was shot and killed in the Garden Hills neighborhood last year.
“I’ll never see David again, because he had one shot to the head,” said Johnson.
Brown, who lost her son, Champaign Public Library security guard Rashidi Overstreet to gun violence in 2014, talked about the grief and anguish she had suffered due to her son’s death. Unlike some of the speakers, Brown was speaking at a CU Fresh Start Call-In for the first time. Afterwards, she said she was unsure what to say to the men at first.
“And then I looked at them and saw they really need motherly love,” said Brown. “That they need to realize that they are loved. We don’t point at them and say, hey, you doing wrong, but let ‘em know you can do better.”
Before her talk was done, Brown hugged two of the men at the Call-In. Another speaker, Rev. Rickey Parks of Champaign’s Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, says she could see that the mothers’ impact on the men.
“I was proud to see both, especially Miss Brown, offer hugs to the young men,” said Parks. “And you could see that the shield that they had before them begin to fall. And they understood that --- as I said to them --- we’re here to help them, but we’re also here to save them.”
While CU Fresh Start’s goal is a real reduction in gun violence in Champaign-Urbana, the impact of such intervention efforts are limited. Typically, only a fraction of those who take part in the Call-Ins in Champaign or other cities actually choose to complete the program. After the fifth Champaign Call-In in February, Champaign Community Relations Manager said the completion rate for CU Fresh Start was about thirty percent.
Call-In participants are 18 and over. CU Fresh Start has plans to expand its program to reach people outside of the Call-Ins, including those who could access the program’s services before being arrested for gun-related offenses. There are plans to reach out to teens as well.
“The fact that we are realizing that our shooters are becoming younger and younger will require us to have a more focused attention,” said Parsons. “It won’t be a call-in. We’ll have something more youth-specific.”
Parsons says the youth-specific plans are still being formulated.
Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin, who says she has attended every Fresh Start Call-In, told the men gathered on Thursday night that she had sadly noted a trend toward younger people being involved in gun incidents, some as young as 13 to 15 years old. Marlin told the men, “They’re learning it from you.”