Shooting victims in Detroit preach peace to youth
Tuesday, June 14, 2005
DETROIT -- Darice Ray doesn't usually choke up when describing to young people the day a man shot the eyeballs out of her head.
But the emotion of the memory sneaked up on her recently at Finney High School in Detroit.
Ray was giving the talk just as she had countless times before. But this time, she found herself fighting through tears.
The moment proved contagious, and nearly every student in the room was crying with her.
This is the work Pioneers For Peace calls its mission.
The Detroit-based not-for-profit organization made up of two dozen gun violence survivors -- all wheelchair-bound except Ray -- has received increased notice during the past few years for its exhibitionist style of intervention.
The Pioneers visit schools, youth homes, jails and community centers all in the name of preaching against violence in its many forms. They speak in detail of how they were ambushed at their houses and in their neighborhoods, or hunted by rivals in gang shootings that ultimately changed their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
Ray was ambushed by a stranger with a shotgun in 1999. In retaliation, Ray says, for having her ex arrested, she was shot in the forehead through a car windshield as her children watched. Shattered skull fragments around the sockets left her eyes resting on her chest.
The glass replacements she wears make for an easy transition to the Pioneers' message when young people compliment her.
"I tell them, 'These are not my eyes. I can take them out and clean them,'" Ray says. "That's when there's the silence and the gasps."
Founded in 1996, Pioneers For Peace first was established by the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan, which supports spinal cord injury patients like many of the Pioneers. The volunteer group is housed at the facility and promoted as an injury-prevention program.
"They're very passionate," says Paula Denison, director of specialty services at the Rehabilitation Institute. "They carry a lot of credibility with youth because of the way they were injured."
The Pioneers received a Daily Point of Light award from President Bush in 2003, and a Detroit City Council resolution commended their work last year.
Not all the Pioneers were helpless shooting victims like Ray. Some admit to having sold drugs and other crimes that contributed to the circumstances by which they were paralyzed.
"Fifty-four bullets bind us together," says group president Weusi Olusola, who was 16 when he was shot.
Olusola, 34, was a promising basketball player being recruited by colleges when he was caught in crossfire that killed an 8-year-old girl.
He calls the Pioneers' crusade a "battle for peace" in an era of music, movies and video games that glorify violent images.
"I don't think it's getting better," he says. "I think it's getting worse. We like to counteract a lot of negativity."
"It's just a lot of hype that isn't real," Olusola says. "We tell the youth, 'Don't eat the hype cookies.'"
Pioneers For Peace has developed a weekly conflict resolution curriculum taught at six Detroit middle schools and two elementary schools. The group urges adolescents to recognize that the choices they make in the next three to four years will be an influence on the rest of their lives.
A major theme the members explore with young people is the concept of friendship.
Vice president Myreo Dixon, 35, tells the story of how, at age 18, he pushed a "friend" out of the path of a bullet that's still in Dixon's spine. The two sold drugs together, but Dixon says he never even received a hospital visit.
"Judge Hatchett," a television court show syndicated across the country, flew Olusola to Arkansas last month for one of its youth intervention episodes. Executive producer Michael Rourke says the show featuring Olusola that mentions Pioneers For Peace will air this fall.
"It's an extraordinary organization," Rourke says. "Their innovative program of violence prevention and awareness was a powerful message for the teenager we worked with, and Weusi Olusola and his [partners] make an invaluable impact when they relate their life experiences."