Building Better Communities expands ambassador program in effort to curb youth gun violence

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Published: Mar. 24, 2022 at 8:46 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 24, 2022 at 9:03 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Community and faith leaders, law enforcement, and mental health professionals are coming together in an effort to curb youth gun violence in Columbia and Richland County.

The nonprofit Building Better Communities is expanding its Community Ambassador Program. It is essentially a mentorship program for youth in the community to divert them from potential criminal activity, and help them realize their potential.

“We don’t all have the answers but we all have the tools,” Building Better Communities founder Perry Bradley said. “So how do we put these tools together to make them work? It’s almost like building a car. You have someone that makes the engine, you have someone that builds the tires, you have someone to do the framework, but you have to put it all together to make the car run. That’s what we’re going to do now.”

This comes amid recent incidents of youth gun violence. Earlier this month, four teenagers were arrested and charged with murder in the death of a 14-year-old in Richland county.

Less than two weeks ago, a 20-year old was fatally shot, and four others were injured, at a party at the Greene Crossing Apartments in Columbia.

Ambassadors will come from, and live in, the communities they serve. Building Better Communities says this is important because there’s often a lack of trust among young people with outsiders and law enforcement.

Those who participate will connect with partners from the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and Columbia Police, faith leaders and mental health experts. In meetings with these groups, they will receive training and educational resources.

By having the ambassadors take the message from these groups back into the community, the program hopes to change the hearts and minds of youth.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten,” Fifth Circuit Solicitor Byron Gipson said. “I say that to say the strategies that we’ve used to curb gun violence have not worked. So we have to be more innovative in our approach to saving lives, and to saving the children which are our future.”

Ambassadors will also get free training with first aid and CPR skills so that they can respond to a victim of gun violence immediately before first responders arrive.

“Training the ambassadors how to initiative first aid will possibly save some lives,” Melvin Whittenburg, the Chief Operating Officer for Building Better Communities, said. “I know that personally because I lost a brother from gun violence and if someone had gone through this program and knew how to stop the bleeding, he wouldn’t have died from a leg wound.”

Bradley is also requesting a donation of cell phones for the program. These cell phones would be equipped with an app that allows individuals to input any safety concerns they are having in real-time. Building Better Communities says the app would essentially serve as a “digital diary” for users.

WIS asked Columbia Mayor Daniel Rickenmann about the city’s involvement in the project as it relates to funding.

“We’re putting an overall plan together right now working with several different groups because this is just one part in an overall plan of public safety to use that ARPA money to make a difference,” he said.

The program currently has 12 ambassadors. Building Better Communities hopes to expand it to 50 by the summer and have 100 serving communities by the end of the year.

RELATED STORY | Gun violence advocates plan events in aftermath of Richland Co. shooting death

This is one of several local efforts to address youth violence. In December, school leaders and law enforcement signed a memorandum with the Be SMART campaign. This promotes gun safety and the importance of locking up your guns.

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