June 11, 2009

Lessons Learned: Teaching Kids the Costs of Urban Violence

After surviving a difficult childhood that included the death of his father, the loss of siblings to AIDS and suicide, and a drug habit he kicked as a young adult, Scott P. Charles began reaching out to troubled children in his hometown of Sacramento. He was recruited, in 1988, by a small nonprofit organization, the now-defunct Young Adults for Positive Achievement.

He subsequently was hired by the state to help put together a new program — Visions — that would focus on ways to solve the problems of young black men in California.

Scott P. Charles

Age: 41

First nonprofit job: Youth advocate, Young Adults for Positive Achievement, Sacramento

Current job: Trauma outreach coordinator, Temple University Hospital, Philadelphia

Key lessons: Show, don't tell.

Following his college-professor wife to the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Charles — who acknowledges he "barely squeaked through" high school — earned a degree in psychology at Penn, in 2000.

Last year, he was named a Community Health Leader by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in Princeton, N.J.; the award honors those who have overcome long odds to improve the health and quality of life of people who typically lack health care and other services.

What were the most important things you learned in your early nonprofit career?

Visions tried to nurture and guide young men, particularly working to keep them out of gangs. The idea was to build their character and reorient their lives.

I was hired to interview and write profiles of successful African-American men, such as the surgeon Ben Carson and the filmmaker Reginald Hudlin. Following that, I traveled the state to evaluate how successful the various programs were.

At the end of the day, we learned that these interventions have to come from common sense, as well as a sense of daring and the intellectual courage to try new things. Over the years we had abandoned young kids to the concrete streets, and they were writing their own social codes, and frequently not very well. We knew we had to have the courage to engage these young people, even when our own personal safety was at risk.

How did you wind up as the trauma outreach coordinator?

In 2004 and 2005, Philadelphia had a lot of homicides and a record number of them were children under the age of 18. In the previous decades the homicide victims were adults, but now they were younger and younger kids.

At the time, I was working for another nonprofit organization — Need in Deed — when my boss put me in touch with Amy Goldberg, who is chief of trauma surgery at Temple University Hospital, which treats a lot of gunshot wounds.

I told Amy that I'd like to have someone talk to my Need in Deed children about what gunshot patients go through and what they experience, and to take them through the trauma bay. Amy said that she had been dreaming of this for years.

At that time, Need in Deed children were involved with National Public Radio's StoryCorps. We had already taken them to New York for training about how to interview people, and when we returned home the children interviewed the family and friends of other children who had died of gunshot wounds.

One of the most compelling interviews was with Jennie Clark, who was the grandmother of Lamont Adams. Lamont had been shot and killed when he was 16. Amy and I ended up sketching out the idea for a program, and I was hired by Temple to develop an outreach program — we called it Cradle to Grave — aimed at reducing the number of gunshot injuries that involved children under 18.

After I was hired by Temple, I was able to have access to Lamont Adams's medical records — he had 24 bullet holes in him — and I was in tears. I knew that if I was responding to his story in this way, I could use his death as the basis for working with the youngsters.

Many of our children who participate in Cradle to Grave are coming out of the juvenile-justice system, but others come from various schools and other child-welfare organizations.

Cradle to Grave begins when 19 or so kids and a teacher or counselor arrive at the hospital. I greet the children in the parking lot and talk about Lamont's story. I show them where the police squad car stopped with his body and tell them his story. Then we walk them into the trauma bay where surgical residents guide the students step-by-step through all procedures that were done to try to save his life. One student acts as Lamont, and I put on red stickers for each of the bullets' entry and exit wounds.

We've learned that the children who come from the most violent backgrounds are the most moved by the tour. They are the ones who are most likely to faint in the trauma bay or to break down looking at photographs after the tour.

Then we go to a classroom where we have photographs of those who have been killed by guns. Society has sterilized the notion of getting shot. We're exposed to violence on video games, in rap music and in the movies and are numb to it. When the children see the photos, they are stunned.

At this time, we have a series of reflective exercises and then wrap things up by playing StoryCorps interviews — the last one being with Lamont's grandmother. The students begin with Lamont's story when they arrive and end with his grandmother's interview.

What are you most proud of?

I love what I do and I am so happy to have a career where I can have conversations with the children I really want to reach. We have had nearly 3,000 children participate in the program since we began. Right now, we don't know how many children will turn their lives around, but if we have an impact on 20 to 40 I'm pleased, although I certainly would hope it would be more.