Regional
6:00 am
Fri July 25, 2014

Summer Camp Aims to Help Children Impacted by Gun Violence in Milwaukee

Camp attendee practices praise dance for Project Ujima talent show.
Camp attendee practices praise dance for Project Ujima talent show.
Credit Aaron Heffernan

For thousands of kids in Milwaukee, violence is a constant threat.

Just this week, bullets hit two children, ages 10 and 11, while driving with their mother. It happened days after the family of 10 year-old Sierra Guyton laid her to rest. She was caught in a gunfight, while on a playground.

With so much violence, we wondered how it impacts children. We visited a summer program designed to help Milwaukee kids cope with, what might be, daily trauma. We have changed the names of the children, to protect them.

11-year-old Keyanna Flowers has seen a lot of violence in her young life.

“My brother got jumped by 10 dudes and my cousin got shot and my other cousin got shot. And they didn’t go to jail,” Flowers says.

Keyanna says there’s never been a place where she’s felt truly safe until this summer, when she started attending the camp Project Ujima runs. She says people smile.

“When you first walk in, they greet you and they make you welcomed. They don’t make you scared, they make you welcomed,” Keyanna says.

Otherwise, Keyanna says she feels like she’s surrounded by violence and doesn’t sleep well.

“Like I’m nervous and I don’t know what’s coming toward me,” Keyanna says.

The soft spoken sixth grader seems fragile until she steps up to practice for the Project Ujima talent show. Keyanna dances to the gospel hit Shake It Loose. As Keyanna spins and jumps, allowing the music to take control, she seems like a different person—powerful and energetic. She says she feels free, and if feels awesome.

Aaron Heffernan, a therapist at camp,  uses hip hop, not only to help kids stage a talent show, but also to help them work through their problems. Heffernan has set up what he calls Studio A. It’s really a classroom on the third floor of a Milwaukee elementary school. All he uses are a mic, a couple speakers and his laptop to help kids express their pain.

Camp attendee prepares song for Project Ujima talent show
Camp attendee prepares song for Project Ujima talent show
Credit Aaron Heffernan

“It’s in that creative linking that trauma narratives and trauma stories get transformed," Heffernan says. "Doesn’t make the trauma go away and we still live in a violent city, but this camp is building more resilient children.” 

Heffernan says kids here display symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder--changes in eating and sleeping patterns, mood swings and anxiety. He says while that’s expected among veterans, it should not be acceptable for children.

“The kids that we work with are not adults, they’re not soldiers. They’re suffering from developmental trauma," Heffernan says. "Negative experiences happening at critical developmental stages can really impact how a child functions.” 

Heffernan says when children don’t deal with trauma in their lives, they can develop anti-social behaviors. Sometimes they’re classified as having attention deficit disorder or oppositional defiance disorder, and if they carry unprocessed trauma into adulthood, they may end up hurting other people. So he says the goal of Project Ujima is healing.

“When the threat of violence is removed and a child feels like they’re in a safe, stable and predictable environment the brain has a way of healing itself given the right opportunity,” Heffernan says.

Heffernan says he’s seen Keyanna’s 16-year-old brother, Kenneth, change. He says he’s healing and learning daily.

“We like open minds at Project Ujima. And you can just let, you can let all this stuff inside of you, you can just let it all out like that,” Kenneth says.

At the talent show, Kenneth will perform a song he wrote called War Stories. One poignant verse from Kenneth’s rap talks about going to war with grief at the age of 15 and finally deciding to make peace.