‘Step up and do something’: Teens at Youth Enrichment Services are leading the conversation about solutions to gun violence

Takara Pack (left) and Sarah Nervais share their thoughts about the root causes of gun violence and ways to prevent shootings while sitting at Youth Enrichment Services’ Office in East Liberty on Dec. 7. Behind them: A wall of “Loved Ones Lost,” including the names of nine teens the organization has lost to gun violence in recent years, including its own members and their friends and relatives. (Photo by Benjamin Brady/PublicSource)

After a year of training teens to heal from trauma, Youth Enrichment Services released a strategic report to begin implementing their teens’ ideas for reducing gun violence.

by Amelia Winger, PublicSource

A column of nine cursive names is taped to a pale wall in the Youth Enrichment Services office in East Liberty. 

These are the teens the organization has lost to gun violence in recent years, including its own members and their friends and relatives. 

The wall was designed by Matthew Steffy-Ross, a 17-year-old who joined Youth Enrichment Services [YES] in 2015 and, over the years, became a mentor to his peers. He had only just finished the wall when he was fatally shot in April during a party at an Airbnb, where another teen was killed and at least eight others were wounded.

“I do not want to go to another one of my kids’ funerals,” said YES Executive Director Dennis Jones. “I don’t. I just don’t. I can’t.”

The “Loved Ones Lost” wall at Youth Enrichment Services’ office in East Liberty honors the lives of teens who were fatally shot in recent years. The wall was designed by Matthew Steffy-Ross, a teen member of the organization who died during an April shooting. (Photo by Benjamin Brady/PublicSource)

The students at YES are acutely aware of gun violence’s toll on Allegheny County — they’re grieving the losses of family, friends, classmates and neighbors who were caught in the crosshairs of shootings. This month, the organization released the “Reducing Gun Violence in Our Community: Teen Voices and Visions” report, which includes teens’ ideas for reducing gunfire across the county. The report is a culmination of the organization’s yearlong effort to train teens to heal from the trauma of gun violence and become activists promoting solutions to the crisis. 

“Nothing will get done if you don’t take action,” said Takara Pack, a 15-year-old YES member. “You can’t just sit back and just watch it all happen. You have to actually step up and do something.”

From January through November, there were 23 homicide victims ages 18 or younger in Allegheny County, accounting for about 19% of overall victims. 

City officials believe that shootings are often catalyzed by tensions between cliques of teenagers and young adults, whose social media fights escalate to gunfire. 

In a Dec. 2 press conference, Mayor Ed Gainey said young people citywide are inheriting the “culture of violence” created by previous generations, which — coupled with the availability of firearms — perpetuates the cycle of gun violence. “If a kid can get a gun like they can get potato chips, then we understand what the end result is.”

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