Kalamazoo's Life Camp to help young people find a path away from gun violence

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

KALAMAZOO, MI – When you’re talking to young people about gun violence, you never know who’s in the audience, says James Harris.
Those involved in shootings in Kalamazoo and other cities have included youths who were already headed down a path to violence and crime, as well as those who seemed to be on a path to a promising future, according to Harris, outreach manager for Urban Alliance Inc. of Kalamazoo.
“As we look at mass shootings in our nation, a lot of those kids were in normal classrooms,” Harris says of youths who became shooters. Realizing that an armed shooter could be anyone, the Urban Alliance staff wants to talk to as many young people as it can this month.
Young people make posters that call attention to life without violence during Urban Alliance’s summer Life Camp. Partnering with several other community organizations, Urban Alliance is inviting young people ages 11 to 16 to attend its second annual Life Camp, three successive day camps in which participants will take part in discussions and activities designed to help them avoid gun violence and learn to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable gun uses.
“We want to educate and encourage youth to turn away from gun violence,” says Terra Bautista, executive director of Urban Alliance. “We want youth to know that they have hope and a future. We want to provide space for them to be an active part of positive change in our community."
Titled “Hands are Meant to Heal, Not Kill,” the camp is intended to show young people paths away from gun violence by allowing them to hear firsthand from victims and perpetrators of shooting incidents.
Youngster write letters of compassion during the Life Camp. They are messages to those who have been involved and gun violence and those who may consider it.Participants are asked to write letters to other young people encouraging them to put down their weapons. Those letters of compassion will be addressed to individuals who have the potential to become shooters, as well as those who have been involved in an incident in the past. The events will also include fun and positive activities such as games and shooting paintball guns at non-human targets and having a NERF or water gun fight.
“Rather than lecture attendees, we will give them the tools and resources to step out of the cycle of gun violence to better themselves as well as the community as a whole,” Harris says.
The free Life Camps are scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on:
  • Tuesday, June 13, at Tree of Life School, 2001 Cameron St.
  • Tuesday, July 11, at Trenches Community Church, 1003 Gayle Ave.
  • Tuesday, Aug. 8, at Douglass Community Association, 1000 W. Patterson St.
Young people ages 11-16 are shown participating in events during last summer’s Urban Alliance’s Life Camp. Registration is requested by Friday, June 9, for those planning to attend the kickoff event of the camp on June 13. Parents and guardians may register their children online or in person at Urban Alliance or Trenches Community Church. Individuals who miss the first session or the sign-up may also sign up on the days of those events.
Breakfasts and lunches will be provided during the camp sessions, as will all needed materials and equipment. A $100 VISA gift card is to be awarded to the three attendees at each camp who demonstrate outstanding leadership.
Working with partner organizations, Urban Alliance has also planned three community marches to call attention to the need to stop gun violence. Each of the marches is set to precede the three camp sessions, and each is to be led by young people.
The community marches will begin at noon on:
  • Saturday, June 10, at Urban Alliance, 1009 E. Stockbridge Ave.
  • Saturday, July 8, at Eastside Neighborhood Association, 1301 E. Main St.
  • Saturday, Aug. 5, at Douglass Community Association, 1000 W. Patterson St.
The marches are family-friendly events that are to conclude with live music and outdoor grilling courtesy of Peace Smoke Not Gun Smoke. Several organizations will also be at each site to share information.
Organizations that are partnering with Urban Alliance to host the events include Christ Followers for Change, Trenches Community Church, and KYD Network. They will help fund Life Camp events. Additional volunteering partners include Tree of Life School, Douglass Community Association, the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker School of Medicine, and the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety.
Playing with paint ball guns and water guns are among the activities during Life Camp, a series of Saturday day camps hosted by Urban Alliance and other organizations. Urban Alliance was founded in 1999 with the mission of helping to break the cycle of generational poverty in Kalamazoo. Operating at 1009 E. Stockbridge Ave., the nonprofit organization’s motto and purpose is to, “Communicate through our actions that we value every individual.”
A young man is shown creating an anti-violence poster during last year’s Life Camp in KalamazooWhile the camp is intended to stop young people from doing violence, Harris says he also hopes the experience touches young people who may never consider handling a gun but “who have influence and may be able to speak into the lives of their cousin or a friend, or whoever. Peer education is so powerful.”
He says the event may not directly reach all the would-be shooters in greater Kalamazoo and “I might not be able to get into your home. But maybe I can impact somebody who is already in your home or who is your peer.”

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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.