In 2020, I personally lost a mentee named Ruben Contreras to gun violence. He was only 16 years old when he was hit by a stray bullet walking home from the store with friends from the neighborhood.
That event changed the way I mentor and run my youth programs. I will always address the toxic gun culture that exists in this country and in Charlotte because gun violence remains a public health issue in our community: We’ve seen an upward trend in homicides over the past four years. And in response, this year, the North Carolina legislature repealed a law requiring a permit for buying a handgun. The governor vetoed it, but the lawmakers overrode his veto.
As the Founder and Executive Director of Heal Charlotte, I spend my day working towards preventing violence and being a good steward of my community, volunteers, donors, and the children we serve, while furthering the mission and vision of our organization.
Heal Charlotte is a continuation of the programming that is already happening at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School where we run our afterschool program. The children learn about village building, empathy, integrity, and systemic barriers they will face.
Many times as leaders, we speak on a macro level and the goals might not seem attainable to young people. So while we teach them, we also use methods to find solutions to the problems they face themselves. One example is the food disparities we face in the neighborhood. Young people in Charlotte don’t have to wait for someone else to help, they can do something right now. This community garden is a realistic solution that is tangible for them, and it’s a perfect introduction to activism and leadership.
The community garden idea came about organically as part of the partnership with our local group of Moms Demand Action. We were aligned way before this opportunity and have leaned on each other for many ideas, and in this project, we just needed to really continue to do the work we have already been doing in the community for years. We assign volunteers to the garden to utilize the grant from Everytown through the Everytown Community Safety Fund. It was an incredibly easy process with a like-minded organization that also prioritizes gun safety and building safe communities.
This project presents an opportunity for community members to build relationships and see immediate results: Something tangible that they can watch grow every day and be proud of. This builds hope — hope for a safer community is the seed that will be planted in the next leaders that walk past these projects.
We’re proud to be a part of National Gun Violence Awareness Day and Wear Orange this year because it’s a weekend of prevention, a time of declaring a culture that is violent and unsafe for our future generations must be exposed and held accountable, and it means we as leaders come together with a united voice sharing the same message.
We will be enhancing an existing community garden located on the grounds of Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School. The garden will serve as a “refuge for peace” for a community that has suffered more than its share of community violence. The sowing of seed and bearing of fruit is to show the children how to give back to the earth and how to appreciate the life that comes from it. The garden is a reflection of what the youth want in their neighborhood: a sense of community.
I pray the nation hears us loud and clear: Heal Charlotte will never stop doing the work that makes communities around the country safer. We are dedicated to being a solution. And if you want to join us, you can donate time, talent, and treasure by visiting our website.
During National Gun Violence Awareness Day and Wear Orange Weekend, we join together to demand a future free from gun violence once and for all.Join Us
Founder and Executive Director of Heal Charlotte