EAST ST. LOUIS — Young people who brought toy guns to the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center Saturday were given educational toys and other positive toys to replace them.
Some parents said they didn't realize that buying toy guns for children could lead to a fascination with guns.
But, according to the Lion and Lamb project, children learn through play. And violent toys and video games can send violent messages, according to literature from the Toy Gun Buy Back Initiative.
"Non-violent toys and games encourage children to build and create rather than to destroy. They stimulate creativity and imaginative play, promote cooperation and problem solving and are open ended and encourage children to create their own scenario, rather than re-enact television, movies or video games," the literature said.
Everyone who entered the event was given the literature.
For three hours at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center, children brought their toy guns in and handed them to two East St. Louis police officers who received them and dropped them into a box that was boldly marked "Violent Toys."
Once the guns were handed off, the children were allowed to pick a toy of their liking from a mound of toys that were spread out on the floor behind the officers.
About 120 children attended the event. Some of them opened their toys at the center and played with them while others decided to wait until they got home.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee said, "It means a lot to me that we as a community can come together in safety and welfare to focus on stopping this violence by increasing the awareness. Too many old and young people are dying. It is nonsense."
Vera Jones, development and marketing director for Lessie Bates Neighborhood House, said the toys that were given out were donated by community organizations, churches and the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House.
"We are very grateful to everyone who donated to make this event successful," Jones said. "We are trying to change a mindset. So, instead of giving our kids guns, no matter that they are toys, we want them to have positive and educational toys. We gave them baseball bats and balls, basketballs, cellphone cases, trucks of different sizes and kinds, trains, educational and athletic toys."
The children and their families were treated to hot dogs, chips and juice.
Bill Kreeb, executive director of Lessie Bates Neighborhood House, said the turnout was OK, but he hoped that more people would have come out.
"It's going to take more of these kind of events. We're going to have to do a better job of getting the word out," he said.
Kreeb said the faith-based organizations were going to be spreading the word too. "A lot of churches have programs on Wednesday nights. The more we talk, the more we can try to develop strategies to combat violence. No matter what the child's age is, we have to start teaching them that violence is not the way to go - whether it be a fight with a brother or sister at home or a fight in school.
Joyner-Kersee said children are very impressionable an in some cases they might mock what they see on television.
She noted, too, that in some houses guns are not in safe places and this leads to the possibility of children finding a way to get to them. They could think they are like the toy guns they've been use to playing with and they turn out to be the real thing.
"I want to step up and do my part. That's the whole reason the JJK Center is here. We want kids to come here for safe, fun, positive activities, but we also want to be a vehicle for change
"If you are going to have a gun, I want people not to be naive to the fact that guns do kill. I want people to be educated about the safety steps they need to know to prevent serious injuries or death because of a gun," Joyner-Kersee said.
Temesha Johnson brought several young boys and girls who are in the East St. Louis Township summer program. She has two boys, ages 2 and 10. She said she bought them toy guns before she knew better. "Now, I will strive to buy positive toys for the kids so they can stay positive and learn they do not have to play with guns."
DeMarco Mickens, 18, who is one of the young people Johnson brought, said he thought the event was powerful.
"It's a good thing," Mickens said. "I think people should not give kids toy guns. And, I think the killings need to stop. Too many people are losing their lives. I also think people need to stop watching all of these bad movies."
Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.