- Associated Press - Saturday, March 4, 2017

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) - He’d had enough.

Christian Harris wasn’t going to take any more guff from the small, yet rowdy class of Dickinson High School students sitting in front of him.

He didn’t want to scare them - that wasn’t the point of a Christiana Care presentation on gun violence in Wilmington.

But he did want them to take what he was saying seriously.

Walking up to freshman Shaheed Cooper, he fingered the bottom of his T-shirt.

“You want to see?” he asked, looking the teen in the eyes. Harris was talking about his scars, which he got in a shooting about two years ago.

Cooper shook his head no.

“Show him!” someone yelled from the back of the room.

Harris considered it for a second, then yanked up his shirt.

“It’s not pretty,” he said, too late.

A litany of scars crossed his lower abdomen. He was also shot in the arm, shoulder and face, he told the teens.

“I wasn’t shot in the leg,” he added.

But he lost it anyway. It needed to be amputated as a result of the shooting, and now Harris wears a prosthesis.

The Bear man is living proof of the severity of gun violence in Wilmington, which many health-care professionals have come to call an “epidemic.”

So far, less than 60 days into 2017, 11 people have been killed by gunfire.

Last year, it took 140 days (until May 19) to see that many people killed by guns in Wilmington. In 2015, it took 118 days (April 28).

“This is shaping up to be one of the deadliest years on record,” said Chaz Molins, a licensed social worker and coordinator of Christiana Care’s Violence Outreach, Intervention and Community Engagement or V.O.I.C.E. program.

He holds presentations at local middle and high schools talking about the consequences, medical and otherwise, of gunfire. Christiana Hospital is the only Level 1 trauma center that treats both adults and children in Delaware and the only one located between Baltimore and Philadelphia, which is why it focuses so hard on violence prevention - a majority of gunshot victims pass through its doors.

“If they go into that lifestyle, they’re going to be dead or in jail,” Molins said.

The program is part of Christiana Care’s efforts to reach out into the community to prevent death and illness through programs such as Blood Pressure Ambassadors, diabetic screening and more. As health providers wrestle with the exploding costs of health care and shrinking payments, they are increasingly reaching into the community to try to help people adopt healthier lifestyles, stop illnesses or catch illnesses and make them more manageable and less of an impact on a patient’s quality of life and everybody’s wallet.

Part of the V.O.I.C.E. presentation is a 15-minute film called “Choice Road: An American Tale” produced in Wilmington and on the Christiana Care campus. The actors are local students, police officers, first responders and medical professionals.

In the film, a 16-year-old boy decides to join a gang. He is shot and becomes a quadriplegic.

“Life is all about choices,” the video concludes.

While the idea of a 16-year-old joining a gang and getting seriously injured seems dramatic, the story line has some very real parallels to Wilmington.

Just last May, a 15-year-old boy from Howard High School of Technology was shot and killed as he walked home from school - later, it was revealed the shooting was gang-related.

And last Monday, two Wilmington teens were sentenced to prison after pleading guilty to being part of a street gang, Only My Brothers, blamed for much of the gun violence in the city.

So far, eight of the defendants in the indictment have pleaded guilty to charges related to the gang.

Molins has met at least two of them.

“I saw both of them in the hospital with violence-related injuries,” he said.

He said he talked to them about gun violence and their choices going forward, but apparently, the message didn’t stick.

“They feel they were born into it, and they’ll die into it,” Molins said.

Which is a shame, since gun violence is preventable, said Joan Pirrung, director of clinical operations for trauma at the Christiana and Wilmington hospitals.

“Picking up a gun and shooting it is something you don’t have to do,” she said.

And yet the hospitals have seen an uptick not only in gunshot wounds but penetrating injuries, which include those involving a knife or other foreign object.

Gunshots wounds have nearly tripled since 2000, going from about 65 to about 200 in 2015, Pirrung said. Many of the victims are in their teens or twenties.

“They’re typically young,” Pirrung said.

Though the V.O.I.C.E program reached about 2,400 students last year, it’s hard to tell if it’s having any effect.

Pirrung said it could take four to five years to see positive results, partly because some of the teens on the street today are dropouts and haven’t heard the message. Others just continue to make bad choices.

Harris told the students that bad choices have defined his life.

“I chose to sell drugs,” he said. “I chose to hang out in the street.”

When he was shot, four times total, he was sitting in his car. Someone was trying to rob him, but he wasn’t going to hand over any of his “product” without a fight.

Afterward, he was taken to Christiana Care, where he died three times while on the operating table. The last time, chest compressions didn’t bring him back - surgeons had to cut open his chest and crack his ribs so they could massage his heart.

“When does it end?” Harris asked the students. “When do we draw a line in the sand and say we don’t want to do this anymore because I don’t want to die?”

He was in the hospital for months - that’s where he met Molins.

Though still recovering, Harris volunteered to be a part of the V.O.I.C.E. program and speak to students about his experience.

Joining him Monday was Rodrick Buckworth, a rapper better known as El Rod. In 2014, when he was 19, he shielded his mother after a gunman burst into their Pike Creek apartment.

The shooter, later identified by New Castle County police as 41-year-old Jason Brunson, was a neighbor. He shot the teen twice and his mother once before fatally shooting himself, police said.

It wasn’t the first time the family was impacted by gun violence - Buckworth was 7 when his 20-year-old cousin, Aunyea Marian Hawkins, was murdered by her estranged boyfriend, Leon K. Perkins, following a struggle in his Wilmington apartment in 2002.

“I was in the safety of my own home,” Buckworth said, describing the shooting. “First thing I had to do was get to my mom’s room. I had to protect my mom.”

Afterward, the teen was hailed as a hero. But in Buckworth’s mind, he could have done even more.

“I tell her to this day, I wish I could have taken all three of those bullets,” he told students Monday.

Buckworth drove home that gun violence affects everyone, even if you’re not directly involved with drugs or in a gang.

At the end of his presentation, he rapped for the class, having them join him on the chorus.

“Guns down,” they said. “Guns down. Not another body hitting the ground.”

Cooper, the freshman, said after class he knows someone who’s been killed by gunfire and that “it just builds up anger.”

Quadir Hunter, another freshman, said he hears about gun violence almost every day.

“I think people need to take all the guns off the street,” he said.

Another student said his 32-year-old brother was killed in a shooting.

“Empty,” he said, describing how he felt afterward. “Just empty.”


Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., https://www.delawareonline.com

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