BROWN: Gunshot victims offered chance to break cycle of violence

SHARE BROWN: Gunshot victims offered chance to break cycle of violence

Dantrell Blake visits with social workers in the trauma unit at Stroger Hospital, where he participates in a program to help gunshot victims escape the cycle of violence in their neighborhoods. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

Dantrell Blake’s life changed for the better because he got shot.

It’s sad it had to come to that, but better that it did than for the likely alternatives of Blake being shot again by now or having shot someone else.

Those are the usual outcomes for young men caught up in Chicago’s cycle of violence, where one shooting begets another, and Blake admits he was tempted.


“I definitely wanted to retaliate at first,” Blake told me of the March 2015 incident that left him with a bullet in his leg and anger in his 18-year-old brain.

But by the time he healed up well enough to carry out his thoughts of revenge, Blake had the start of a different mindset.

Now 21, Blake marvels at the changes in his life since then: opportunities to travel, to work, to earn money and express himself artistically through music, dance and even the obscure craft of glassblowing. Most of all, he’s happy for the opportunity “to be me,” as he puts it, a “me” he may not have entirely understood was inside him.

That didn’t happen by accident.

It happened because when Blake landed in the trauma unit at Stroger Hospital he was offered a chance to take part in the Healing Hurt People program.

The program, a collaboration between Stroger, University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital and Drexel University in Philadelphia, tries to intervene in the lives of young trauma victims — most with gunshot wounds — to help them mend emotionally as well as physically.

They do that by first changing their mindset through counseling support groups that allow them to see other life possibilities, then providing them with educational and employment resources needed to get there.

“We get them at a time when they are open to it,” said Brad Stolbach, a pediatric trauma psychologist who serves as the program’s clinical director.

I interpret that to mean escaping death has a way of causing one to more carefully consider their life options.

In Blake’s case, he said he was certain the young man who chased him through his neighborhood, semi-automatic weapon blazing, would have killed him if he hadn’t run out of ammunition.

For most of these young gunshot victims, this is not their first exposure to trauma, said Rev. Carol Reese, a social worker who is the program director.

Blake told me that during a short period starting before and continuing after he was shot, he experienced the shooting death of his 14-year-old friend, Endia Martin, then an uncle killed in a hit-and-run, a cousin shot and killed, his own sister killed in a house fire, another cousin shot and killed and the shooting deaths of a “couple more of my friends.”

Blake said he realized: “It’s like something’s got to change.”

And so it was Blake who changed, with a big assist from Healing Hurt People.

He attended group sessions with other gunshot victims, gradually finding his voice and some coping skills. He finished high school and worked a while for a moving company. He began speaking at national conferences about his experiences, a huge leap for a kid who had rarely been out of the hood.

Through a sister program, Project FIRE, he learned the art of glassblowing, and now gets paid to teach it to others exposed to violence — something about the controlled danger of working with 2,000-degree molten glass that gets their minds off the everyday fight for survival.

Before joining Healing Hurt People, Blake performed his own “drill music,” a form of hip hop extolling drugs, money and guns.

Now, he writes songs with positive messages. A Canadian film crew in town for a story about PTSD in urban neighborhoods produced for him a professional music video he hopes will lead to bigger things.

Stroger’s Reese said fewer than 10 percent of those participating in Healing Hurt People have been shot again in the past three years.

Gun violence truly is a public health crisis, a contagion, and until we devote real resources to programs like this one, it will continue to spread.

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