AKRON, Ohio — Lonnie Dampier knows the pain of losing a loved to gun violence. In April of 2021, his cousin, Nickolas Cowans, was shot and killed in Columbus.
"He was at the wrong place at the wrong time around the wrong people," Dampier said.
Dampier, an 18-year-old senior at Garfield High School in Akron, is also well aware of violence happening both in his community and in schools.
Over the last three years, there have been 137 murders in Akron, including a record number of 50 murders in 2020.
There have also been a number of violent incidents in schools in the current school year, including stabbings that injured students at Firestone and Buchtel High Schools and multiple fights that have hurt both students and teachers.
"Our day and age now, things are progressively getting worse, in my opinion, when it comes to the violence around here," Dampier said.
Dampier wants to be part of the solution and joined a new program called "The Locker Room Experience," which focuses on life skills, employment and community projects to prevent violence.
There are 24 students at each of Akron's six high schools participating in the project, meaning 144 kids are looking for ways to make a difference.
The program is sponsored by Love Akron, a Christian-based organization that looks for opportunities to unify the community.
The city of Akron has been awarded $4.4 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to fund Violence Intervention and Prevention (VIP) grants. Love Akron received $50,000 to help The Locker Room Project fulfill its mission.
Kemp Boyd, the executive director of Love Akron, is also the head football coach at Garfield High School.
He said the name of the program comes from the idea that a locker room represents a place to strategize and reach goals, and he hopes kids have the save mentality when it comes to ideas for curbing violence.
Some of the locker room kids play sports. Others do not.
"This is not a top-down approach. This is a, 'we're better together' approach," Boyd said. "The mentoring goes both ways. I don't think it's just older people mentoring young people. I think young people can also mentor us to help us to understand what's going on and how to give them a voice, because we need their voice, to be quite honest."
Boyd said each school will receive $10,000 to help the students reach their goals. The ideas will be presented at a symposium on March 1 at the student union on the campus of the University of Akron from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
"Violence has just become a lot more prevalent, prevalent because it's being exposed more, which it needs to be. So now, we need to galvanize and put resources behind: 'how do we help to decrease it?' I think it starts with our young people," Kemp said.
Dampier said his group is already brainstorming ideas, including community dinners and block parties where meaningful conversations could take place.
"I want to go out and talk to different people from the east side of Akron, the north side, the west side, the south side and get their input on what they think the problems are and what they think could be possible solutions," Dampier said.
Allison Luedy, a sophomore at Garfield High School, said the stabbings at Buchtel and Firestone rattled her and added that students "shouldn't have to think negative thoughts at school."
"It's scary, honestly. Parents shouldn't have to worry about if their kids are going to be okay while they go to school, or have to call the school making sure their kid is okay while they're at work. I feel like everybody should have a safe spot," Luedy said.
Luedy said one of her ideas is to find or create more places that can serve as safe spots.
"People can speak up and not be afraid to talk about what's going wrong in our community," she said.
Drew Terry, a Garfield High senior, said the idea of kids and adults coming together with solutions to violence is important.
"We care about our safety too," he said. "Just come together."
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