EAST ST. LOUIS — Young people in East St. Louis and leaders from several community programs and a local charter school executive got a chance Friday to tell U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin their thoughts on the gun violence in their city and how to stem the shootings.
The young people who spoke are participants of the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House programs and their partner organizations, including Catholic Urban Programs, that are geared toward preventing juvenile delinquency.
Vicky Forby, executive director of Tomorrow's Youth Builders program said the most basic need is after school programs and jobs.
"Sixty percent of my students are parents. Sixty-five percent are court involved, and 80 percent meet the federal definition of homelessness," Forby said.
Forby said her school serves individuals who are between 18-24 who have not been successful in regular schools.
Durbin, D-Springfield, praised Bill Kreeb, executive director of the Neighborhood House, and their partner organizations "for helping young men turn their backs on that dangerous life."
"These organizations are not giving up on the goal of reducing gun violence in our communities and neither should Congress," Durbin said. "East St. Louis has been scarred by gun violence perhaps more than any other community in America."
Herkeisha Lester, 19, told Durbin she has an 11-month- old baby and lives in the John DeShields Housing complex where she hears gunshots daily and finds it hard to get police response to her calls reporting it.
Lester said she is tired of having to deal with circumstances such as this.
Durbin told her that some things are being done to make the federal housing projects more safe for the residents. He said he is working with St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly and U.S. Attorney Stephen Wigginton to do everything they can to attack the violence in East St. Louis.
Lester told Durbin she's been a student at the charter school for between four and five years. She said she has been homeless off and on, which has made things a lot harder for her. But, when she met Forby and was introduced to Kreeb they helped her find living quarters and get her life on track.
"My thing is we have no money and no jobs. Nobody is hiring us," Lester said.
Sylvester "Sunshine" Lee, who directs a Male Involvement program to mentor young men and teach them that violence is not the way, urged Durbin to talk to President Barack Obama and tell him that the "great city of East St. Louis needs money and jobs."
He said there were 17 centers for young people to go to when he was growing up in East St. Louis.
Durbin didn't promise anything, but he told Lee and others in the office that he would do what he could to help East St. Louis, the city where he was born and raised.
"The stories of the young people here today are yet another example of why we need to pass common sense measures to reduce gun violence in East St. Louis and across America," Durbin said.
Durbin talked about the gun control legislation that the Senate voted on this week. Durbin said reforms that he supported along with provisions that he helped write to crack down on individuals who purchase guns for those who cannot buy them themselves and a bi-partisan compromise on background checks received the support of most of the senators, but failed because 60 votes were needed to overcome a filibuster. He noted Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., supported the bill.
Montez Moore, a former charter school student who is currently at Rankin trade school, said the violence is happening largely among young people. "Maybe we need to think about what we need to do," he said. "How about the next time we go to a club let's help each other out. We have little brothers and sisters, moms and Aunties. How about we calm down and don't let our anger over a situation cause us to be involved in a shooting."
Arturio Miller, an employee with Lessie Bates, said he enjoys helping young people do positive things and make positive choices. He asked Durbin to help get more centers in East St. Louis for young people.
He said following a midnight basketball game recently, his brother was shot in both legs, something he said probably could have been prevented if the youths had more positive things to be involved in from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., when most of the violence occurs.