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New healthcare program in Florida aims to prevent gun violence

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Miami, violence intervention workers regularly visit neighborhoods prone to shootouts. The group, called the Peacemakers, wants to steer people away from using guns. It already has financial support from the U.S. Department of Justice, and now a local health foundation has started funding their work because violence reduction is part of community well-being. From member station WLRN, Veronica Zaragovia reports.

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA, BYLINE: The wall paint is peeling, and plastic bottles dot the perimeter of a low-income housing complex in Miami called the Lincoln Fields. Shamika Pierce has a delivery of diapers for a family here.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)

ZARAGOVIA: She works with a group called the Peacemakers.

SHAMEKA PIERCE: Hi. How are you? I brought you some Pampers for your sisters. We have two packs of wipes. And what you could do is you could just let your mom know that we'll supply more to her probably in the next week.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you.

PIERCE: You're welcome. Bye.

LAMONT NANTON: Bye.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Say thank you.

NANTON: Bye. Bye.

ZARAGOVIA: As Pierce makes her rounds, Lamont Nanton walks with her. He manages the Peacemakers and says they show up regularly trying to figure out what people here need.

NANTON: If you plant the seeds now before something happens, when something happens it's that much easier to engage and get involved because you're a familiar face. If you just show up on the scene after a shooting and they're not familiar with you, you're just like the police.

ZARAGOVIA: Nanton speaks from experience. He says he carried guns in his youth until mentors taught him, he was bigger than that.

NANTON: This is my way of reconciling that life that I once lived and reach some other young folks that are heading down that same path and let them know that there is another way to live. There's another way to think.

ZARAGOVIA: He and his team want to make Lincoln Fields a safer place to live.

KAREN ROBERSON: My son was a victim.

ZARAGOVIA: Karen Roberson is a resident here.

ROBERSON: He was walking home one day and got shot just because we live in this area. But thank God he lived. People, they out here up to no good, gangbanging, gang violence. And they just, I guess, target anybody.

ZARAGOVIA: Roberson feels stuck at Lincoln Fields. She also grapples with a chronic mold problem. Miami, like cities across the U.S., lacks quality affordable housing, but the Peacemakers come to listen. The group is under the Circle of Brotherhood, a nonprofit led by Lyle Mohammad.

LYLE MOHAMMAD: The canvassing effort is almost like putting a caring hand over that neighborhood and that community for that day, letting them know what resources may be available.

ZARAGOVIA: His nonprofit received a $290,000 grant from the Health Foundation of South Florida to grow the Peacemakers team to six full-time and one part-time employees. The Health Foundation had never funded gun violence intervention in its 30-year history. Then it heard from psychology professor Roger McIntosh. He studies the effects of stress on brain health at the University of Miami. McIntosh says people who lack resources tend to internalize the stress from their problems.

ROGER MCINTOSH: You learn how to suppress as opposed to express emotions, and this obviously can lead to the buildup and the frustrations.

ZARAGOVIA: Frustrations that people often can't resolve because they can't access expensive professional help. Instead, they grab a gun.

MCINTOSH: Ready to draw and shoot because of that buildup. They don't necessarily know how to dispose of all that toxic stress.

ZARAGOVIA: And that's the goal of the Peacemakers - help with that toxic stress. Something Olivia Eason, another Peacemaker, knows about firsthand.

OLIVIA EASON: Growing up in urban areas was hard. You know, it's hard mentally, physically, emotionally. All we're trying to do is build relationships and get our community the help and the resources that it needs.

ZARAGOVIA: It's not easy work and often done one person at a time. She approaches a man standing outside of his apartment.

EASON: You've been OK? Everything's been, you know, quiet? You ever heard of the Circle of Brotherhood? They have a phenomenal group - men's group meeting on Tuesday nights at 6:30. One session will change your life.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Their address on there?

EASON: Right here, right on that card. Yes, sir. You see it? Right up the street.

ZARAGOVIA: Through the health grant, the Peacemakers will measure how many people they reach and the problems they encounter in hopes they can eventually make a difference in the level of violence this community experiences. For NPR News, I'm Veronica Zaragovia in Miami.

CHANG: This story comes from NPR's partnership with WLRN and KFF Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Veronica Zaragovia - WLRN