PORTSMOUTH, Va. – Jakari Wilson, 17, is all too familiar with the seemingly endless gun violence in the projects of Swanson Homes and its surrounding neighborhoods.
“It’s crazy,” said Wilson. “You literally have to watch your every surrounding.”
Back in September in the Swanson Homes neighborhood, surveillance video caught a disturbing scene. Three men are shown shooting at two others out of the roof of an SUV. Police are still looking for those suspects.
The uneasiness of it all is taking a toll on the Portsmouth teen. He said he lost his friend, Zay, in a senseless shooting a couple months ago.
“We all went to school together, and when I found out, that hurt me,” Wilson said. “We was always hanging out, going to the rec center, playing basketball. Just being boys, really. When I found that out, it really bothered me because you don't know when it’s going to be your last.”
The heavy emotional load that many teens carry is something Big H.O.M.I.E.S Community Outreach is trying to chip away at.
The grassroots group has teamed up with the city to take the kids out of their high-crime neighborhoods and give them a different experience, even if just for a few hours.
Big H.O.M.I.E.S recently brought dozens of kids from two rival communities – Swanson Homes and Dale Homes – to a Norfolk State football game.
“Some of the kids don’t see anything outside of what they see out here,” said Big H.O.M.I.E.S Community Outreach President Eugene Swinson. “For us, it’s more positive influences, more positive people, more positive experiences.”
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Swinson said it’s all about breaking down barriers between groups of kids that might otherwise clash, redirecting some of that anger and being a mentor to put an end to the cycle of violence.
It might sound a bit unconventional but Swinson said it’s working.
“I know all the kids by name,” he said. “They call me Uncle U, which is weird, but it's cool. I'll take it. I don't want the kids looking up to the little dudes walking around here with the guns. I don't want them because that's all they see all the time. So, of course, eventually you're going to kind of think that's what it is if that's all you see. For us, it's like being a positive influence by just showing up.”
Swinson knows firsthand what it’s like growing up in a family struggling to make ends meet and getting into trouble as a teen.
“I just want to let them know there’s people out here that care for them,” he said. “There’s people that’s just like you that’ve been through the same stuff that you’ve been through, but I don’t want you to do some of the stuff that I did.”
Jamiya Hines, 14, said that college football game was her first ever, adding it allowed her to have some fun while taking her mind off the gunfire she says she hears too often.
“It made me feel good to feel like, to be seen, and to know somebody actually care about you,” Hines said.
Meantime, Jakari Wilson said he wants police to step up so he and those younger than him can feel safe walking down the street and not have to ever experience another gut-wrenching loss.
“I can't lose no more friends to gun violence, or train accidents,” he said. “I really want the guns to go away because I really don't want to go to another. I'm not going to another funeral. I told my mom I’m not going back.”
Big H.O.M.I.E.S will continue to work with the city to build relationships, bridge gaps and unite kids. The organization is bringing a second group of children from a different neighborhood to another NSU game this Saturday.
Big H.O.M.I.E.S is looking for volunteers to help curb the violence among teens. Click here to find out how you can help.