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A Kalamazoo camp aims to help children and teens avoid tragic encounters with guns

Three campers stand on a stage holding handmade signs with messages against gun violence
Jodi K. Miesen
Three campers present handmade signs at Trenches Community Church, the site of the Urban Alliance's June Life Camp.

Many parents send their kids to camp during the summer. It’s a rite of passage. But at one camp in Kalamazoo, the experience is about more than just being in the great outdoors. It’s about escaping gun violence.

On a hot day in June, kids and adults sit in the shade of tents by Trenches Community Church on Kalamazoo’s east side. They plan to march later in the day to call for an end to fatal shootings. But first, they need slogans.

The group workshops proposals such as this one from a camper named Antonio: “If you put more guns in motion, violence will be approaching.”

Trenches and the Urban Alliance co-organized this day-long camp, one of three being held this summer. They call it Life Camp. It’s for kids ages 11 to 16. The goal: give campers the tools they need to avoid committing, or being the victim of, a shooting. Pastor James Harris said he wants these children to be able to avoid the kind of trauma that has devastated communities in Kalamazoo.

“There’s just so many lives being hurt. And that pain is perpetual. You know, it doesn’t stop with an individual being killed. You see the trauma that it causes, the parents, the trauma that it causes the siblings,” Harris explained.

As in so many communities, shootings rose in Kalamazoo during the COVID-19 pandemic. 13 people died in 2020, nearly double the total from the year before. Another 13 people died in 2021. Harris said in his own congregation, two members’ children were fatally shot in the last year. They were 16 and 23 years old.

Youth and adults stand under a large tent awning between tables and chairs. There's a short green lawn and playground in the background.
Jodi K. Miesen
Life Campers in a tent outside Trenches Community Church prepare for an anti-gun-violence march.

“As we were processing that, you know, life camps just came up. I really don’t know how it came about. But it just happened like, okay, life as opposed to death. Let’s do a life camp,” he said.

The campers write “Dear Shooter” letters, or messages to peers who may be thinking about shooting someone. They also listen to guest speakers talk about gun safety, guns and hunting and gun laws.

Fatal shootings have gone down in the city this year; there have been three to date, as opposed to seven this time last year. However, non-fatal shootings by minors are on the rise, according to the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety. It’s a reality Harris hopes to change.

“We’re hoping that they leave here encouraged and they can tell some of their friends about the camp and encourage their friends who they may know not to pull the trigger or family members not to pull the trigger," he said.

Before the march, the campers take a break to eat lunch. Monica Espinoza, an 11-year-old camper (who's since turned 12) said at first, she didn't want to go to Life Camp.

“I was kind of forced to come but like, I’m glad I came,” she said.

Espinoza added that the camp has taught her to take gun safety seriously. She said many of her peers don’t think of guns as dangerous.

“Kids at my age, they think of it as a toy, and don’t really care if it does any damage until they shoot it and then something happens,” she said.”

A bar chart in blue and red showing the numbers of fatal and nonfatal shootings in the city from 2014 through 2021
Courtesy image
Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety
Data from the City of Kalamazoo's Group Violence Intervention (GVI) shows the number of fatal and nonfatal shootings in the city in recent years

For 13-year-old Javier Word, there’s nothing theoretical about the harm guns can cause. Word has lost two family members to shootings. The first was his aunt Tawana Henderson. She was 35 in 2013 when she died on Kalamazoo’s north side. It happened near the Glassmaster Controls building.

“On Florence and another street by the glass factory. She got shot. And we just, like a couple - two weeks ago – went to where she got shot and we put up balloons and stuff”, the middle schooler said.

Seven years later, Word lost his 23-year-old cousin Travontae Brown. He was shot and killed in Kalamazoo on May 13, 2020. Word says the loss was hard on him and his entire family.

“It's heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking to see all that happening and growing up and now they’re gone,” Word said.

He added that kids just a little older than him risk their lives playing with guns. But he said he’s embracing Life Camp’s message.

“Trying to stop the violence. So, this march I'll make sure I say it loud and clear. I’ll make sure everybody can hear me say stop the violence,” Word said.

The kids load up with water to combat the heat and pick up their signs and drums. With the help of a police escort, they will march through the east side, chanting the anti-gun-violence slogans they composed. Urban Alliance held a second Life Camp last week. The final one is set to take place August 16 at the Douglass Community Association.