CEDAR RAPIDS — It has been just over five years since gunshots shattered the night air at Redmond Park in southeast Cedar Rapids, leaving a 15-year-old boy dead and eventually leading to the birth of the Creating Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities Fund.
The death of Aaron Richardson — and the fact that he was shot and killed by a 14-year-old peer over a gang rivalry — was a tipping point for the community, said Stacey Walker, a member of the Linn County Board of Supervisors.
“We had a series of shots-fired incidents before that, and there was a lot of frustration,” he said.
At about the same time, Walker said he participated in surveying middle school students from several Cedar Rapids schools, all of whom said they could access guns or had been impacted by gun violence.
“So we’ve got this information, we’ve got these random acts of gun violence happening and then a 14-year-old kid shoots and kills a 15-year-old boy, and that was the breaking point for the community,” he said. “They could no longer ignore this issue. It no longer was just a problem for the southeast side of town and everybody who lived below 19th Street.”
From that frustration, the SET task force was born. The goal, Walker said, was to identify the root causes of gun violence and develop strategies to address them.
Linn County, Cedar Rapids and the Cedar Rapids Community School District have supported the program.
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Now, five years later, the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation oversees the SET Fund, which was established in 2018 and provides grants to programs that aim to engage area youths.
This month, the SET Fund was awarded a “transformational” grant of $465,000 — essentially doubling the money it had on hand. The grant, which was awarded to SET after a competitive process, comes from an anonymous donor over three years.
“We’re very excited about what this grant means for our community,” said a statement from Rachel Rockwell, the SET program officer at the Community Foundation who oversaw the grant application process. “Cities of all sizes across America have improved safety through this multi-sector approach, resulting in significant and measurable reductions in gun violence. Bringing organizations together to implement this model will be transformational.”
Walker said the grant not only will enable the fund to invest in more violence prevention projects, it could open the door to more help.
“I also think it signals to other potential funders and potential partners that people believe in this (work), and maybe that’ll make it easier for them to partner with us,” he said.
The money will be used support the fund’s effort to back the work of organizations and community partners in creating a system of wraparound care and services for people engaged in or affected by violence, said Cedar Rapids City Council member Dale Todd, chair of the city’s Public Safety and Youth Services Committee.
This system of “wraparound” care could include mental health resources, educational support, job training and substance abuse counseling or treatment.
“We have numerous organizations working to keep our young people safe but research shows us that a comprehensive strategy is critical to success” Todd said. “Bringing everyone to the same table and coordinating our work will make our efforts much more effective.”
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The grant also will allow Rockwell to become full-time and provide for technical assistance from the National Network for Safe Communities. Rockwell said the national network will work with “key community partners in Cedar Rapids to implement and support both the core Group Violence Intervention approach the city is working to employ, as well as cutting edge innovations in support and outreach for the highest-risk communities.”
According to the network’s website, the “Group Violence Intervention” approach reduces gun violence “by replacing enforcement with deterrence, and fosters stronger relationships between law enforcement and the people they serve.”
The model relies on a partnership between law enforcement, social service providers and community leaders to deliver a unified, comprehensive anti-violence message directly to groups that engage in violence. That message conveys that violence will bring swift law enforcement attention, but also makes clear the services and alternatives available — a “genuine offer of help for those who want it,” the website explains.
Though there still is a long way to go, Todd said he is hopeful that if all sectors of the community can band together to employ new strategies, it will make a difference.
“I still firmly believe that most kids want to do the right thing,” Todd said. “These kids want to get out. They don’t want to continue down this road. They want to put down the guns. But we’ve made it incredibly tough for them to do so. We throw up roadblocks and it’s our job to remove those obstacles.”
The community, Todd said, has to work together to address the systemic causes of the violence, including poverty, lack of opportunities, job and housing discrimination, the lack of mental health and substance abuse support if its wants to see an end to the violence.
That, he said, is where the multi-sector approach comes in.
“Too many good kids have tragically died,” he said. “And Cedar Rapids is no different from other cities with this issue. There are a lot of things that we’ve tried in the past that haven’t worked, but putting an end to the violence is the No. 1 priority for the police department, the public safety committee and the City Council, and so we have to keep going, we have to keep trying, and we have to keep finding new ways to develop more community capacity and marshal our resources to put a laserlike focus on the violence and those who are engaging in this behavior.”
Applications for the next cycle of SET Fund grants are due by 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Rockwell said. A total of $200,000 will be available for four to eight projects or programs. Grant requests should not exceed $50,000, Rockwell said, and the duration of the grant is 12 months, beginning in January.
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