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By Patrick J. Bradley
A not-for-profit agency best known for providing crisis and community support services is off to promising start with an innovative program aimed at reducing gun violence.
Named SNUG – that's guns spelled backward – it sends outreach workers into targeted areas of Niagara Falls to interact with teens and young adults who are believed to be at risk for involvement in gun violence. It's the newest service provided by Community Missions of Niagara Frontier – and one of 14 in the state funded through state Department of Criminal Justice grants.
Unlike other crime prevention crime programs, the outreach workers SNUG employs are uniquely qualified by their criminal backgrounds and life experiences.
"There are two criteria for being an outreach worker," said SNUG Program Manager Eric Boerdner, vice president for specialized services at Community Missions. "They have to be from the community, and have been involved in gun-related events and the criminal lifestyle."
They must also have done prison time. Tommy Sanders, a SNUG outreach worker who spent 17 years behind bars for armed robbery, credits his incarceration for his ability to connect with at-risk teens and young adults.
"The person they will listen to is someone who has been like them," Sanders said. "They respect me because of my life experience."
Images courtesy of Community Missions
SNUG treats gun violence like a disease by identifying its symptoms and intervening to halt its spread. It's a proactive approach that involves meeting teens and young adults in their environments, talking to them about the consequences of their actions, and emphasizing the pitfalls of gang membership and gun violence. Outreach workers also counsel at-risk youths on the importance of making good decisions that don't involve using guns to solve their problems.
The SNUG team also responds to shooting scenes and hospital emergency rooms, where it addresses emotional conflicts between the supporters of shooting victims and their accused shooters to prevent further violence. Members don't always work alone.
"Clergy response can also play a big part in SNUG's response," Boerdner said. "Trust in the clergy is big in our community."
Community Missions Vice President of Public Relations and Development Christian Hoffman said providing support to the families of gun violence victims is another way SNUG demonstrates a commitment to the community. That support has included delivering a week's worth of groceries, assuming expenses for the repass – an informal post-funeral gathering for family and friends – and providing linkages to crime victims assistance programs.
SNUG was launched in January, so it's too early to measure its effectiveness in a meaningful way. However, the early indications are promising. Monthly programs held in its center city target area including a free community meal, a presentation by 16 small business owners on the basics of entrepreneurship and an Easter basket giveaway, have been well received and relationships are being formed.
"You have to give these kids something different," Sanders said. "I don't want these young kids going to jail. If we can save one life, we've done our job."