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Thursday, April 28, 2011 03:20 pm

Group aims to bring CeaseFire to Springfield

Program aims to quell violence at first signs of conflict

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When a young man from a high-risk neighborhood gets shot and survives, he has the potential to become a hero. But what kind of hero he chooses to become can mean either peaceful progress or continuing violence for his community, says James Hodges, pastor at King’s House Church of the Living God, located at 430 N. Milton Avenue in Springfield.

“If he lives … his younger friends are looking at him like he’s the man, surviving getting shot,” Hodges says. With all eyes on the survivor, the gunshot victim can choose revenge and anger and become the leader of a gang or squad, or choose to break the cycle by going back to school, getting out of town or pushing peace on all who surround him, Hodges adds.

In order to encourage the latter option, Hodges last week was preparing to meet with one of the still-hospitalized victims of Springfield’s recent rash of shootings, most of which occurred on the east side and some of which are thought to be retaliatory in nature. It’s the kind of outreach he and a small team of “violence interrupters” – street-wise city residents armed with mediation skills – perform on a regular basis in Decatur as part of that city’s on-the-ground, in-your-face CeaseFire program, a project Hodges is now trying to bring to Springfield.

Expanded to include Decatur in December of 2006, Illinois’ CeaseFire program aims to keep violence at bay by building relationships with high-risk individuals, police and community organizations, and, should a shooting occur, intervening to convince those involved on either side that continued violence isn’t the answer. In 2006, before Decatur’s CeaseFire program got off the ground, the city of fewer than 80,000 people saw 103 shootings.  In 2010, the fourth full year for the CeaseFire program, Decatur saw only 53 shootings, according to program data.

“We know things are going to happen. We know people are going to have arguments. Hopefully no one pulls out a gun, but if something does happen, you have to have someone who can intervene as soon as possible,” Hodges says.

Through marches and vigils, CeaseFire also works to spread to the community at large its message that shootings and killings are not tolerable. “Sometimes, the community itself, they get terrified, no one really wants to go outside at a certain time of the day or night because they feel that this stuff is going to happen, these guys are out there,” Hodges says, adding that when that happens violence only becomes more prevalent. “What we work on is getting the whole community to speak against it.”

Hodges says he and a handful of volunteers are geared up to bring a full-fledged CeaseFire program to Springfield, but first he needs to see if the city is willing – such a program requires close cooperation with the police department, he says.

The Springfield Police Department’s Deputy Chief Cliff Buscher says he’s not familiar with the effort to bring CeaseFire to Springfield, but adds: “I’m sure any time you’ve got people talking it’s definitely going to be something in a positive direction, hopefully. It’d be something we’d be happy to meet with them and discuss and see what kind of role we can play,” Buscher says.

Hodges also needs to secure funding. Paid for largely through grants from the Illinois Department of Corrections, CeaseFire Decatur lost its funding before it had even been in place for a full year and has worked through tumultuous budget years ever since. Now it is once again operating, courtesy of an IDOC grant. Hodges says it takes about $250,000 each year to run a full-time CeaseFire program.

Hodges’ Springfield congregation has been working for about three years toward moving to a new location – from 430 Milton Street to the vacant city-owned public health building at 1411 and 1415 E. Jefferson Street, where he says a CeaseFire program could be housed in conjunction with the church. He says the church had been discussing purchasing the building, which city spokesman Ernie Slottag says is still for sale, with Mayor Tim Davlin, but those efforts have been put on hold since Davlin’s December 2010 death. Hodges says that in the coming weeks he hopes to reignite conversations about the building and present a CeaseFire plan to the new city council.

Holly Dillemuth contributed to this report.

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.

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