PATERSON, NJ - Bullets are flying in Paterson over blocks, money, pride, and respect, one man told TAPinto Paterson when asked the cause of violence, that for too long has been a hallmark of life in New Jersey’s third largest city, and by many accounts is only getting worse. 

And while men like Odell Lashley, who has had his own run ins with the law, would like to see that stop, he said, there are things missing in the community, like jobs, recreational outlets, and access to basic social services, that seem to keep violence as a more attainable alternative.

Many of those involved in violence, Casey Melvin, the program's assistant director has said, “have been a dealt a bad hand from the beginning,” and are likely suffering from their own trauma. “This is a public health crisis,” Melvin adds. “It needs to be taken as seriously as COVID-19.”

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Enter the Paterson Healing Collective, the first hospital-based violence intervention program in Passaic County. Funded by a $1.38 million federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grant, the organization, run out of a small office in Downtown Paterson by a small, but committed, group of individuals with a wide range of academic, work, and life experience, is seeking to reduce, if not end, the violence through a series of measures.

At the core of the Collective’s efforts is giving those most prone to violence access to opportunities to save themselves, even if that means emergency first aid training that can help save a life in the event of a shooting.

“Since violence is still present and there is a sense of urgency and heightened fear amongst communities, the trainings help to prepare them on how to respond when violence does occur,” Chowdhury said. “It is a form of intervention that the community can do for themselves, so they can take care of each other when violence does occur.”

This was exactly the mission Friday as the group set off to visit four of Paterson’s notoriously violent “hot spots” to meet with members of the community and impart on them simple, yet potentially life-saving, knowledge.

“We wish we could stop all instances of violence immediately, but that is not reality.”

Liza Chowdhury, project director, has said previously, and indeed that reality pervaded Friday’s community outreach, notable to TAPinto which participated and found the conversations taking place on the streets to be rooted in that reality, yet full of offers for those individuals prepared to make a lifestyle change.

The ability to connect with the community, Chowdhury said, starts with building relationships and trust, a process helped along both through the use of “credible messengers” like Teddy Martinez, and the receipt of a “license to operate” in each of the neighborhoods being visited. 

Martinez is no stranger to living a violence filled life, he readily admitted. Shot on three separate occasions, the first time taking 11 bullets, some of which are still lodged in his body, it wasn’t until he spent 15 years in prison that he made the decision that there was more to live for.

Watching the program from its incubation period, Martinez said, and despite having by now built his own successful business that took him into the depths of South Jersey, and away from Paterson’s streets, he couldn’t resist Chowdhury’s invitation to come back and be a part of the change for the simple reason that he believes in her.

Recognizing they are not themselves immune from violence, those that would be making the stops Friday, including Dr. James Pruden, medical director of emergency preparedness; Steve Weinman, trauma education & injury prevention coordinator; and Tracy Evan, trauma program manager; spent time together before taking their message to the streets, discussing strategies to keep themselves safe. 

Confident in their mission and with a strategy in place, the already battle tested trio from St. Joseph’s Health, as well as trauma surgeons Dr. Franz Yanagawa and Dr. Jide Aniukwu, along with their Healing Collective counterparts, set out in a caravan of vehicles with 10th Avenue as their first stop.

The springlike weather and extended daylight meant that people would be on the streets, and, using history as an unfortunate guide, the potential for increased violence greater. While their initial overtures to a group of teens were rebuffed, Chowdhury and Martinez were not dissuaded, and indeed suggested that an important part of their effort is to make sure that they remain accessible for any, or all, of the young men when they are ready to talk.

Within minutes, a small group had gathered, each of the medical professionals offering individual or small group training on how to stop bleeding using nothing more than strips of material like a ripped up t-shirt and something solid, like a stick, to serve as a vice.

“High and tight” Weisman said repeatedly, as though offering a mantra on the new technique. One by one, with incredible patience and warmth, each would demonstrate on a passerby before encouraging them to try it on their own.

Following the brief training every participant would receive a certificate they signed themselves, accompanied by a friendly admonition from Evans that the lesson they just completed could be the difference between a gunshot victim losing their lives or surviving long enough for an ambulance to arrive.

The importance of his new-found skill was not lost on Jerome Alexander who said that he felt “kind of great,” and grateful to the team that gave him a new way to help his community. For his part Andre Gordon, who also took in the lesson, looked around and said “we need more people like this, reaching out to save lives.”

Ganelle Hickman was only passing by with her son, when she came upon the lesson. “This was helpful,” she said after. “We should all help one another.”

The mother of two lamented that violence is so prominent in the community she has called home all of her life. Those committing the shootings, she suggested, “have problems with each other,” and, when it comes to conflict resolution, “don’t know how to talk and walk away.”

“We need to give them education, to teach them what’s going on in the world, to give them jobs,” Hickman continued. 

Asked specifically how she and her husband have tried to protect their children, 20-year-old twin boys, Hickman said that she advises them what streets they can walk down, and which they can’t. “When they see someone they know,” she said, “I tell them just to say ‘hello’ and keep going.”

Standing at her side was one of the twins, Xzavion, who shared his view that Paterson is “rough” along with a hope that “it will get better over the years.”

A PCCC students majoring in criminal justice, Xzavion hopes to become a police officer because he believes that’s a career that can take him places he’s never been, and help him “save lives.”

Intent on making three additional stops, the group would leave 10th Avenue and head towards Auburn Street and Carroll Street, again met by several young men and women, as well as a group of volunteers from the Paterson chapter of Black Lives Matter. 

A third stop at Presidential Towers proceeded the final neighborhood visit along North Main Street where an apparent initial reluctance to engage, perhaps brought on by the white coats of the medical professionals, was quickly overcome by the congeniality of Pruden. 

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Kaven Mitchell said, by this point not just at ease but trained in the emergency response. “This is something I didn’t know, I wouldn’t have known what to do.” Contributing to the conversation was Desmond Kinchen who got more philosophical and wondered aloud how the guns are getting to Paterson.

“They are coming from somewhere,” he said, and that flow has to be stopped. Asked specifically about Friday’s outreach Kinchen said that it was positive, but had to be continuous. “It’s got to be constant, this can’t just be today.”

With the day by now turned to night, and the scheduled stops completed, the group, minus one last short visit with a group of individuals hanging outside the Paterson Community Health Center, the work of the Paterson Healing Collective was, at least temporarily completed. 

While perhaps only a short term victory, and acknowledging one incident is too many, Chowdhury was happy to tell TAPinto Paterson that both Friday and Saturday passed without any violence, a harbinger, perhaps to a goal she stated to TAPinto Paterson previously.

“Our hope is that we become the agency that can help the community resolve conflict and utilize mediation, restorative justice and resource allocation to help reduce violence in the community.”

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