Englewood First Responders violence prevention group vows to carry on after volunteer is gunned down

“When we put out one fire, another will spark up,” Englewood First Responders founder Charles McKenzie said after Dennis Green was fatally shot this month. “But my motto is, we keep hitting it until we get the fires out.”

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Three members of the Englewood First Responders including Charles McKenzie wear black vests with white reflective stripes over T-shirts, two walking and one on an electric scooter, as they make their way in the middle of the street during patrol a block party in the Englewood neighborhood.

Charles McKenzie and members of the Englewood First Responders patrol a block party in the Englewood neighborhood Friday.

Jim Vondruska/For the Sun-Times

Summers are always a dangerous time for violence prevention groups like the Englewood First Responders. This year, the season began with the death of one of their own.

“When I got that call, I was so hurt, I physically couldn’t drive,” group founder Charles McKenzie told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Dennis Green, a volunteer with Englewood First Responders, was fatally shot the morning of June 9 in the 700 block of West 66th Place. By the time McKenzie arrived at the scene, Green had already been pronounced dead. While circumstances of the shooting remain unknown, Green fell victim to the violence he was working to prevent.

To McKenzie, Green was more than a dedicated volunteer. He was like a brother.

The pair grew up together in Englewood and, despite facing challenges as kids, worked together as adults to improve the place they called home.

McKenzie founded Englewood First Responders in 2019.

“When I started my nonprofit organization, [Green] was one of the first ones that came to me and said, ‘I see you making a difference. How can I be a part of that?’” McKenzie said. “His heart was just so big.”

Green often intervened in arguments he saw escalating in the neighborhood, pulling individuals aside and talking them through their issues, McKenzie said. “He played a big part in bridging the gap between a lot of things that were going on throughout our community.”

Dennis Green’s mother, Rachel Hardwick, wears a white sleeveless top and black-rimmed glasses as she stands next to a cardboard cutout of her son against a wrought iron fence.

Dennis Green’s mother, Rachel Hardwick, stands next to a cardboard cutout of her son in Englewood on Friday.

Jim Vondruska/For the Sun-Times

Green had a particularly strong impact on young men in the neighborhood, who often came to him for guidance and advice. Green was “part of the problem” as a kid, but grew as an adult and wanted to help others do the same, McKenzie said.

“He said, ‘From a community that I helped destroy, I want to try to bring it back the best way I know how,’” McKenzie said. “That says a whole lot to me about a person.”

Preventing violence in Englewood

So far this year, homicides and shootings are down in the Englewood Police District, according to Chicago police data. But over the past month, the community has been hit hard by gun violence, reporting at least 16 people shot over Father’s Day weekend — the most of any police district.

“It hurts me just to see all the hard work that I put into my organization and [then] it blows up,” McKenzie said.

Green’s death was not the first time the violence hit close to home for McKenzie. He lost a brother to gun violence, and three years ago his 1-month-old niece was wounded in a mass shooting.

Charles McKenzie of Englewood First Responders wears a black T-shirt and speaks to local organizers, one clad in orange, at a block party in the Englewood neighborhood on June 21, 2024.

Charles McKenzie of Englewood First Responders speaks to local organizers at a block party in the Englewood neighborhood on Friday.

Jim Vondruska/For the Sun-Times

Englewood First Responders hosts community events, offers mentoring and after-school programming, and leads daily walk-throughs of the neighborhood.

The group is smaller than some of the more established violence prevention groups in the city, with McKenzie taking on the brunt of the work.

If McKenzie’s phone rings in the middle of the night, he hops right out of bed.

“I’m working daily … I don’t get sleep because I’m trying to keep a lot of stuff down in the community,” McKenzie said.

“When we put out one fire, another will spark up,” he added. “But my motto is, we keep hitting it until we get the fires out.”

A man seen from behind wears a black vest with "Englewood First Responders" and reflective stripes.

Englewood First Responders stage at a gas station on the corner of Marquette and Halsted before going on patrol in Englewood on Friday.

Jim Vondruska/For the Sun-Times

Toll of nonviolence work

The nature of outreach work puts staffers in near-constant contact with violence, according to Kelly Carroll, associate director of behavioral health for the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, one of the largest community-based anti-violence organizations in the city.

“On the job, what we find is they’re exposed to trauma pretty much on a daily basis, pretty much every time they respond to a [shooting] scene,” Carroll said.

Outreach workers are hired because they have “lived experience” as residents of some of the city’s most violent areas and often were participants in that violence, Carroll said.

"[Shootings of staff] are not an everyday experience, but it’s definitely not uncommon,” Carroll said. “The staff know they are putting their lives at risk doing this work.”

Still, workers often have to be persuaded to take time off when they, a colleague or a participant have been injured or killed, partly because such incidents underscore the importance of the work they do.

The night before the shooting, McKenzie and Green were barbecuing and cracking jokes.

“The next day he was gone,” McKenzie said. “I just remember seeing his blood stains on the ground.”

“Sometimes you want to give up … It feels like every time I go a step ahead, I get pushed back. It gets frustrating sometimes. It can break you down.”

Despite the pain, McKenzie feels a responsibility to Englewood.

“This is a community that I love so much,” McKenzie said. “I’ve seen it from the good days and bad days. I’ve seen it go from peace to violence. That’s the challenge.”

An Englewood First Responders member rides an electric scooters through overgrown vegetation in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side on June 21, 2024.

Englewood First Responders riding electric scooters patrol the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side on Friday.

Jim Vondruska/For the Sun-Times

Contributing: Andy Grimm

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