According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 20,000 people die from homicide every year and more than two million people suffer injuries received in violent conflicts. Hospitalizing someone who has experienced a traumatic injury and providing lifelong care can cost more than a million dollars. At greatest risk are African American males between the ages of 15 and 24. For this population, homicide is the number one cause of death. This may be hard for many young people to comprehend because they believe that they are invincible. Pioneers for Peace reminds them that they are not.
Pioneers for Peace is an innovative violence prevention and awareness program for youth. Developed and sponsored by Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan in 1996, the goal of the program is three-fold: 1) to educate others about the impact of violence, 2) to discuss means for conflict resolution and making wise decisions, and 3) to increase awareness about the abilities of persons with disabilities. The primary target audience is adolescents in middle and high schools.
Pioneer members are all survivors of violence who have sustained a spinal cord injury, brain injury, or orthopedic injury. Each member views his or her disability not as a tragedy, but rather as an opportunity to make a difference by becoming an advocate for violence prevention. All members are volunteers who, despite their challenges, have taken leadership in the development, implementation and growth of the program. Most are young adults, having sustained their injuries as a teen.
The Pioneers for Peace objectives are met through various means. Panel discussions are held at hospitals, schools, churches, and other community settings. Members talk candidly about how violence has permanently altered their lives. They discuss the challenges of living with a disability, answer questions, and encourage students to avoid guns, gangs, and drugs. Through the Pioneers’ personal accounts, the audience witnesses firsthand the potential consequences of guns and violence. This past year, they have expanded their reach through teleconferencing to schools in New York, California, Missouri, and Pennsylvania.
Hands-on workshops are conducted by the Pioneers for Peace in partnership with hospital staff to show students what it is like living with a disability caused by violence. Students actually experience what it is like to be in a wheelchair and how they would have to perform daily tasks such as dressing, climbing a staircase, or going to the bathroom.
The first year, the Pioneers conducted 44 presentations and reached 3,000 community members. In 1999 the Pioneers averaged 25 presentations per month and reached more than 40,000 students. The group has developed relationships with the Detroit Public Schools, the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department, the 36th District Court and a multitude of other community organizations striving for the goal of peace. Partnerships have been developed to collaborate on broader programs, Peace Rallies, and fundraising.
The impact of Pioneers for Peace is witnessed daily by student evaluations, personal testimonies, letters from teachers, new program development, and the positive behavior of the members in changing their lives. The Pioneers for Peace has a part-time paid coordinator , but the heart of the program remains the volunteers. They continue to share their vision, time, passion, and energies in making the program a success.