A Year of Living Dangerously

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Dr. Jeff Claridge's pager keeps him tethered to his job as trauma specialist in the Intensive Care Unit at Metro Health Medical Center. As the "Safety Net Hospital" for Cuyahoga County, Metro has to accept anyone who shows up, and Claridge has seen all sorts of patients. But, it's the younger shooting and stabbing victims that he finds the most disturbing. He pauses outside his office to point out some national statistics, taped to the door.

JEFF CLARIDGE: You can see what's the leading causes of death, after car accidents -- the ones I've highlighted are all trauma. Suicide, homicide, violence, fire, homicide, suicide, homicide -- and these are kids.

In 2006, about 40 teenage gunshot victims were admitted to MetroHealth alone. And many of the young patients that Jeff Claridge sees don't seem to be shocked by the fact that they were almost killed.

JEFF CLARIDGE: I think it's something that's almost part of their culture. There are a lot of patients that you see, and you talk to the family members -- you talk to Mom, you talk to the sister -- they've already lost someone, due to similar circumstances. It's too accepted. It's like, "Oh, I got shot." "My brother got shot."

Two weeks ago, Carmencita Richardson's son Shawn was shot and killed by a robber, a block from their Glenville home. At a memorial service for this aspiring artist, his mother tries to fathom the senseless loss of her son.

CARMENCITA RICHARDSON (crying): Shawn just wasn't one of those kids. I just miss him so much. I can't believe that he's gone.

His was the most recent of a number of high-profile deaths of young people, this past year. Like 12-year-old "Cookie" Thomas, killed by a stray bullet from a Slavic Village gun fight last September. 15-year-old Arthur Buford was shot to death by a man he was trying to rob in Mt. Pleasant, last April. A month before that, 18-year-old west sider Johanna Orozco was shot in the face by an angry ex-boyfriend. It seems violence is everywhere, and those left to cope with the aftermath do so in different ways. At Shawn's memorial, two of his friends take a moment to offer condolences to the family. One trembles as he searches for the right words.

SHAWN'S FRIEND (voice quivering): You know, when I seen it happen, I couldn't believe my eyes. It was my first experience with something like that. And I just wish there was something more that I could have did for him at that time. And that's all I want to say. And I'm sorry that I couldn't do more.

In stark contrast, his companion wants someone to answer for Shawn's death.

TOUGH TEEN: If I find out who did it... I got you. I'm not saying I'll kill him, but... don't worry about it.

Two teenagers, two different attitudes. One, still shaking from having seen the reality of death. The other fronting a tough facade. The potential for a life of fear, or a life of vengeance. Khalid Samad, who heads the urban activist group "Peace in the Hood" wants to give young people another alternative.

KHALID SAMAD: A message of peace... A message of reconciliation...

Samad has worked with a number of Cleveland communities this past year, to try and end what he sees as an "epidemic of violence" perpetrated against and by young people. Speaking after a memorial service for 15-year-old stabbing victim Damesha Sharp, he says the challenge is to change an adolescent mindset.

KHALID SAMAD: We have to let our young people know that it's okay to resolve a conflict peacefully, and that doesn't make you any less of a man or a woman -- in fact, you're MORE of a man or MORE of a woman if you walk away from a situation without bloodshed or without violence.

Pastor Stephen Rowan of Glenville's Bethany Baptist Church, is concerned about the attitudes he sees in some of the boys that gather in groups along East 105th street. But, he also sees something else that he says gets lost in the seemingly endless stream of news reports about youth violence.

REV. ROWAN: The element that perpetrates these kinds of things against the community are not appreciated and they don't represent the community as a whole. The vast majority of the people in this community are good people. People are trying to build up their lives. They care about their children, they love their children, and then to see something like this happen, it's just devastating.

That's a sentiment that you'll hear in a number of other neighborhoods. Donna Lykes of East Cleveland says there was a drive-by shooting outside her home this year.

DONNA LYKES: And that scared me tremendously, because I like to take my little grandson out in the stroller, to the store or something, you know when it's warm and nice? So, that really did frighten me.

Her son, Jonathan, says he's come to terms with the fear that his mother speaks of, as have most of his friends. He thinks an even bigger challenge faces his community -- overcoming its own image. As a 17-year-old who has been mistaken for a hoodlum when visiting white suburbia, Jonathan is sensitive to the impressions of the outside world.

JONATHAN LYKES: I mean, I'm not saying it's the best place ever, because the simple fact is that East Cleveland is in poverty, and that's not something we want to embrace. But, I'm also saying, it's not like: "Oh, East Cleveland people need to be thrown away."

But, he says, many young people feel like they have been thrown away. They've started to believe the negative images that others have put on them. His mother Donna nods in agreement.

DONNA LYKES: I know a couple people where that image has taken hold of them. People don't believe in education, it's like an East Cleveland stigma. And a lot of the guys here have felonies and can't get a decent job. It's a vicious cycle.

A cycle that starts at a very young age, says MetroHealth trauma specialist Jeff Claridge. As the father of a seven-month-old infant, the fragility of a child is more real to him, now.

JEFF CLARIDGE: I think kids are little sponges. They're born innocent and they stay innocent and if we can somehow decrease their exposure to violence and unhealthy lifestyles early, I think they've got an excellent chance. Somewhere in their early years, after they start going to school, I think they start getting exposed to unhealthy environments... lack of parental supervision... violence in the community... and I think that's where [HIS BEEPER GOES OFF] things start to deteriorate.

Jeff Claridge's beeper pulls him off to another emergency. Before leaving MetroHealth, I make one more stop at the maternity ward, where several nurses attend to a half dozen newborns. These infants may sport an assortment of skin tones, but their faces look pretty much the same, as they take their first peek at the world through squinty eyes. Right now, they're all bundled up in blankets and wearing little knit caps to keep their delicate heads warm. One can only wonder what's in store for them once they go home.

Photo Gallery

Carmencita Richardson at memorial for her son, Shawn

Glenville mural that Shawn Richardson helped design and paint

Lighting candles for Shawn at the base of his mural

Rev. Stephen Rowan at Shawn's memorial service

Dr. Jeff Claridge answers another emergency page

Jonathan and Donna Lykes

Jonathan Lykes at East Cleveland memorial for gang members

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