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Proactive steps: Mentoring program seeks to help West Side youth

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WCHS) — In April 2021, there were four deadly shootings on Charleston’s West Side. One of those victims was Capital High School student, Kelvin "KJ" Taylor.

Police have increased patrols, but the ongoing issue of gun violence is affecting children.

At Risen City Church Teen Center on Charleston’s West Side, a group called Step by Step is trying help kids reach their full potential.

The nonprofit organization, in partnership with Risen City Church and Community Center, is trying to give children in the neighborhood a safe place to grow with free after-school activities and mentoring.

Risen City Pastor Michael Farmer explained that there is not a quick fix to the problems on the West Side.

“There’s no short-term answer, but by investing in healthy relationships and building resiliency with our kids with programs like mentorship and after-school programing, we can see through studies kids who are going through the trauma," Farmer said.

According to the most recent figures from Kanawha County Metro, the West Side of Charleston has had the most reported shootings over the past five years, with 2020 having the most reported shootings.

Eyewitness News requested and received a breakdown on the number of homicides in the Capital City.

Police records show homicides investigated since 2010, with the West Side consecutively having the most homicides for the past 11 years.

In 2020, police investigated 12 homicides in the city. Nine happened on the West Side. Guns were used in six of those nine cases.

Farmer said most of the people involved in these shootings are not from the West Side, and do not represent West Side values.

“We definitely believe that some of the gun violence is perpetrated by people who aren’t from the West Side," Farmer said. "They don’t value our city or community and that’s unfortunate. So, we try to protect our kids and provide the best places for them."

Young people losing their lives, such as KJ Taylor and Tymel McKinney, are just two of the names out of many who have died due to gun violence on the West Side.

Community leaders such as Charleston City Councilwoman Deanna McKinney knows firsthand how badly she wants things to change. Her son was Tymel Mckinney.

"It’s going to take each of us to look into the mirror and see what part do we play? What part do our families play? What part are we allowing? Where do we draw the line? And a lot of times, people don’t have a line," McKinney said.

Step by Step has a large role in the community. The program has 15 sites between Logan, Lincoln and Kanawha counties. Six sites are in Kanawha County with two on the West Side.

There are about 70 children enrolled in Step by Step on the West Side - about 15 to 20 go to the Risen City Teen Center and about 45 go to the Switzer Center.

Farmer explained they are seeing results.

"One of our kids had an 8% in class and brought it up to an 88%. So, it was amazing because they just sat down and did the work together and spent a whole couple of days digging into it getting it complete. The achievement that they felt was exciting. We get that a lot from the kids. They bring me their iPad and they're like, ‘Look what I did,’ and I’m like, 'OK, cool down,' but it’s so exciting for them to bring their grades up," Farmer said.

When the pandemic hit, the program stepped up again to provide kids an environment where they could study and do school online.

“Some of the kids may struggle with being on the computer all day long in isolation. We’re able to provide them a place with staffing and teachers, to be able to give them help if they need to address some of the questions, " Farmer said.

One of the first signs of a child going off track is missing or not caring about school, but the mentors help guide and provide one-on-one feedback to students.

Ethan Godby, the Family Resource Center AmeriCorps Vista staff member for Step by Step, originally worked in the schools with students. He became an ally for them.

"I was making sure that they had that positive adult support in their life because sometimes teachers aren’t able to give them that one-on-one help they need all the time," Godby said. "I would say, ‘Hey, I’m in your corner. I’m here for you. Specifically, if you need my help, I’m here.' "

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, youth violence peaks in the afterschool hours, and in the evenings, on non-school days.

Step by Step gives kids a place to be in the morning through the night.

Another community leader, Rev. Matthew Watts of Grace Bible Church on the city's West Side, said to change the community, there needs to be a focus on young people.

"We have to strengthen the young people to build their resiliency and conflict resolution skills so they can influence the influencer. We need to cast a vision and maintain a vision that we will be a healthy, wholesome, whole-hearted community," Watts said.

Community involvement is the long-term solution to a problem for which the West Side community never requested.

Step by Step is also encouraging other churches and buildings in the area to open up for children to keep them safe.

McKinney explained that gun violence is a real problem, and there needs to be a stronger focus on it.

“This is a real problem and we really need to stop acting like it doesn’t exist until it affects us," McKinney said. "If you think about the people that you know and love that are affected by this, it should motivate you to get involved and find ways to get involved. We need more people involved.”

Watts explained that having conversations about violence are extremely important.

“We need to start having conversations about violence, about how do we resolve conflict. How do we de-escalate? How do we address when there’s tension and solve the problem?” Watts said.

Farmer is working on building a stronger generation now. That way the future can be brighter on the West Side.

“I always say it takes a generation before to effectively change the generation afterward. And I’m not working right now for my 30-year-old generation. We're working on the generation that’s going to affect my kids that are 11 and 1-years old," Farmer said.

For these kids, it's a goal worth striving for.

Step by Step is encouraging other churches and buildings to open up for children to use in order to keep them safe.

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