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Why there is hope on this National Gun Violence Awareness Day

Wear Orange Weekend
Wear Orange Weekend

Friday marks National Gun Violence Awareness Day and the start of Wear Orange Weekend, created to honor the victims of gun violence.

Awareness? What about action?!?

That response would be understandable considering the following statistics:

• According to Everytown for Gun Safety, the organization behind the Wear Orange movement, 120 Americans are killed with guns every day.

• Guns are the leading cause of injury-related deaths for children under the age of 18, according to a study by the New England Journal of Medicine.

• There have been another 14,807 injuries this year in the United States due to gun violence as of May 31, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

• In Philadelphia alone, there have been 149 lives lost this year due to gun violence as of May 31. This is coming off a year in which Philadelphia experienced 514 homicides, setting a record for the second year in a row.

So, what's the solution?

The gun violence epidemic is complex. There isn't a solitary play call that will make it disappear overnight.

But there is reason for optimism. The Eagles provided nine local nonprofits whose mission is to help end gun violence with over $400,000 in grant money from the Social Justice Fund. Organizations interested in applying for funding can learn more here. Each of these nonprofits is tackling the issue from a different vantage point.

"Clearly gun violence is a crisis that affects everybody, but most importantly, it impacts the physical and mental health of our children," said Joel Fein, MD, MPH, who co-directs the Center for Violence Prevention at CHOP with Stephen Leff, PhD. "What gives us hope is seeing how our Center's research and programs in clinical settings, classrooms, homes, and neighborhoods help our patients and their families rise above the adversities that they may face each day."

CHOP's Center for Violence Prevention was established 10 years ago in the wake of the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that took the lives of 20 children and six adults. Aiming to bring all the existing initiatives related to aggression and violence at CHOP under one umbrella, CVP was formed, and its vision is to be a national leader and innovator in violence prevention programming and research, supporting communities in which children, teens, and families can be safe and thrive.

According to the Center for Violence Prevention, more than 40 percent of kids in the U.S. are exposed to some form of violence – in their home, their schools, or their neighborhoods. There are six main pillars to the Center for Violence Prevention's work that feature touchpoints at any of its patient care facilities, at schools, and in the community:

• Bullying Prevention – CVP's evidence-based bullying prevention programs, implemented in schools throughout the School District of Philadelphia, teach children as young as third- to fifth-graders the skills needed to prevent bullying in schools by understanding feelings, recognizing social cues, and being positive and proactive bystanders. Teaching youth valuable problem-solving and conflict-management skills early in life can help prevent future violent acts from occurring.

• Community Violence and Trauma Support – Through CVP's trauma-informed model, these programs promote physical and emotional health and safety for youth and families impacted by trauma and/or violence. Children between the ages of 8-18 who are treated at the CHOP Emergency Department for an assault-related injury are eligible to meet with a social worker to learn about CHOP's Violence Intervention Program, which provides trauma-informed advocacy and intensive case management to help youth and their families recover.

• Gun Safety – Gun safety device distribution is currently underway at three of CHOP's Primary Care practices and for behavioral health patients in CHOP's Emergency Department. Healthcare providers have nonjudgmental conversations with families about guns in the home and, if appropriate, offer educational resources and gun safety devices at no cost. To date, more than 2,700 free safety devices have been provided to families to help keep guns locked away from children and this work is currently being expanded in other inpatient and outpatient settings at CHOP.

• Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) Prevention – STOP IPV at CHOP is a multi-component, collaborative program, jointly supported by CHOP and Lutheran Settlement House. STOP IPV is designed to address intimate partner violence and teen dating violence, while also considering the impact of community violence on individuals and families.

• Suicide Prevention – CVP aims to strengthen CHOP's youth suicide prevention efforts and increase patients' access to mental health services. CVP leverages technology to help screen teenagers for many behavioral health issues, including depression and suicidal thoughts, regardless of why they came to the Emergency Department. CVP also works with the Department of Psychiatry on the Zero Suicide initiative.

• Professional Development and Training – CVP provides trauma-informed care training and consultation for staff in medical settings, schools, social agencies, and law enforcement agencies. This includes recognizing and addressing reactions related to pre-existing trauma and identifying children who need additional monitoring or referrals for more help. Additionally, to combat racism, CVP is contributing to the development of internal anti-racism trainings and programs at CHOP as well as school-based interventions to prevent youth microaggressions.

The Center for Violence Prevention has also learned that people do not need to be shot to be a victim of gun violence. A 2021 research paper, in a joint effort between CHOP and Penn, unearthed how the mere exposure of neighborhood gun violence increased pediatric mental health-related visits to the ED among children living within four to five blocks of a shooting.

Center for Violence Prevention at CHOP
Center for Violence Prevention at CHOP

VestedIn looks to break the cycle by providing loans and grants to small businesses, working with real estate developers, and highlighting Philly businesses. Originally named the West Philadelphia Financial Services Institution upon its inception 25 years ago, VestedIn has provided over $5.5 million in direct financing, over $70 million in leverage capital, and created over 1,600 jobs in the area.

But the money from the Social Justice Grant went to expand a financial literacy program that is crafting the city's future leaders who will want to reinvest in their neighborhoods. The WesGold Fellows program is a comprehensive opportunity for high school students in the City of Philadelphia. It's a year-long fellowship, starting with an eight-week intensive internship during the summer.

"We focus on financial literacy, real estate, and entrepreneurship. Those are the basics of the program, but it also focuses on personal and professional development," said Samantha Lyons, Director of the WesGold Fellows program for VestedIn. "We also do college and career planning. We get them civically engaged. We connect them to our network. We pay them, so they're being paid to learn. And at the end of the eight weeks, Fellows become eligible for a savings match of up to $2,000."

"Our concept is essentially recognizing that financial literacy rates in communities and neighborhoods directly impact the violence rates and the gun violence in the community. This is an alternative. This is an opportunity where students think about their future in a way that encourages them and allows them to put themselves in a different space."

VestedIn is in the process now of reviewing applications for the 2023 program but has extended the deadline to next week. The WesGold Fellows program has expanded from 15 students in its first year of 2007 to 50 in 2023. Any Philadelphia high school student who is at least 14 years old is eligible.

"We have a lot of youth that come to us saying they want to do something different for their families financially. They already have that mindset," Lyons said. "Our interns come to us with a lift-as-you-climb mentality. Students get that from their families. They don't get that from us. They already have that.

"It's mindbogglingly amazing to see the development that our interns have just in the first eight weeks. Seeing that change in one student is amazing, but seeing it in so many at one time is phenomenal."

CHOP's Center for Violence Prevention and VestedIn are just two of many organizations in the City of Philadelphia working to reverse a disturbing trend. While this weekend is about bringing awareness, the work is underway to turn the tide one person, one family at a time.

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