A ‘cure’ for gun violence in Johnstown? Civic leader thinks he has it

Larry Olek, a longtime Johnstown civic leader, speaks to the Rotary Club of Johnstown about the Cure Violence program on Wednesday, March 28, 2017.

When Larry Olek looks at Johnstown’s cycle of gun violence by local teens, he likens it to a fast-spreading neighborhood infection.

The longtime Johnstown civic leader said that he is confident a former World Health Organization disease control specialist’s road map to address the disease – one that’s shown clear success in some of the nation’s most violent neighborhoods – is part of the vaccine needed to eradicate it.

In a presentation to the Rotary Club of Johnstown on Wednesday, Olek said he’s working alongside the grassroots Hope 4 Johnstown group to bring that plan – called Cure Violence – here.

Olek said he discovered Cure Violence days after he met the mother of a 13-year-old boy who was shot dead in Hornerstown late last year.

“She was all out of tears,” he said, recalling the heartbreak in her eyes.

And she was looking for answers that Olek said he didn’t have.

“She asked me ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know why.’ ”

‘A disease’

As it turns out, a former World Health Organization leader who spent more than a decade using a proven public health model to fight disease epidemics has shown time after time that he does have the answer – and a solution – for what is causing today’s seemingly endless cycle of gun violence among the nation’s inner-city teens, Olek said.

Gary Slutkin, who is also a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, spent more than a decade in Africa fighting the rapid spread of infectious diseases such as cholera and AIDS.

When Slutkin returned to the United States in the late 1990s, he saw a trend of gun violence spreading through the nation’s cities in an almost identical way.

“Gun violence is a contagious disease,” Olek said.

In some of Johnstown’s neighborhoods, “kids are killing kids ... in clusters” as part of a lifestyle that spreads from person to person.

Often, in what has become all too common here, a shooting that claims one life prompts a retaliation by someone else in the victim’s close circle of friends.

“The greatest predictor of an act of gun violence is a previous incident of gun violence. You have retaliation from someone being disrespectful, and they turn to the gun to be able to resolve that issue,” Olek said.

Interrupters

Slutkin’s Cure Violence data-driven model works to interrupt the source, much like his foundation’s team of disease control specialists worked to target a disease’s source.

It involves a three-step plan, his cureviolence.org website shows: detect and interrupt; identify and treat; and mobilize to change community norms.

Every step involves establishing a nonprofit to oversee Cure Violence locally, something Hope 4 Johnstown is already working toward, Olek said.

“When someone decides to pull the trigger ... unfortunately, that bullet never goes back into the gun,” Olek said, noting that the only people who can hammer that message home with teens is someone who understands that firsthand.

The Cure Violence model calls for hiring “interrupters” to serve that role. They are essential to making it work, Olek said.

If the community can launch the effort, Cure Violence would screen and identify people suited to work with at-risk teens one-on-one.

In areas such as Central Harlem in New York and crime-ridden Chicago neighborhoods, nonprofit organizers hired people who previously lived similar lives of crime, and in some cases ex-convicts, to make inroads against turf wars and other conflicts that cause street violence in the first place.

As people who understand the street game, they are more likely to have credibility with the troubled youth they are trying to reach, he said.

They are trained to get to work as soon as one act of violence occurs, going into that neighborhood where emotions are likely running high to deescalate tension. That might mean going into a hospital to talk to a young man still recovering from a gunshot wound to reach him before he makes a decision that he will regret for the rest of his life, Olek said.

“The ideal interrupter is someone who has done drugs or shot someone, and now they are out of prison, trying to reform their lives,” he said. “They have the access, credibility and trust in the community.”

They can tell someone that pulling a trigger isn’t going to get their friend back, that it will ruin their lives, too, and countless more around them in a way that the teen will understand, Olek said. 

Results and change

After the approach debuted in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood in 2000, gun violence dropped by 67 percent, Olek said.

A nonprofit called Street Corner Resources implemented the Cure Violence model in a dangerous, eight-block section of Harlem over the past several years. Late last year, they celebrated an entire year without a single shooting, let alone a murder, in the neighborhood, according to the New York Daily News.

Johnstown’s Hornerstown neighborhood had a handful of shootings late last year alone.

Olek said there’s no question Greater Johnstown can find success with the program, too.

But it’s going to need the community’s support, he told Rotary Club members Wednesday during their meeting at Sunnehanna Country Club.

Olek said it will likely cost $8,000 to bring Cure Violence here to study Johnstown’s needs, a precursor to helping Hope 4 Johnstown launch its own anti-violence program.

Olek, a former Lee Foundation executive director who helped lead Johnstown’s 1977 Flood recovery efforts, said he has pledged to work on a volunteer basis with Hope 4 Johnstown to help the group navigate the process of launching a 501(c)(3) nonprofit needed to oversee the Cure Johnstown initiative and implement it here.

He’s also helping them to look into other potential funding sources. He started a GoFundMe page, which had generated $100 as of Wednesday, earlier this month to help spearhead their effort.

A Community Foundation for the Alleghenies fund has already been established to collect those donations. 

NAACP Johnstown President Alan Cashaw, who is Hope 4 Johnstown’s co-founder, said earlier this month that the group recognizes it will have to commit to tackling the problem over “the long haul” if members expect to change a norm among some of today’s teens that gun violence is the answer to many of their problems.

"We know it’s not going to happen overnight,” he said.

Regardless, the community must look at new ways to tackle the city’s gun violence problem, said Scott Yates, Rotary Club of Johnstown president.

“When you see young people brutally shot down in your own community, any effort we can take to see it go away is positive,” said Yates.

Looking at it as a dangerous disease makes sense, he said, noting that winning that battle could have benefits for both the area’s economy and the neighborhoods they serve.

“The Rotary (Club) is built on peace throughout the world,” Yates said. “Any efforts we can make to help this go away is positive.”

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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