WASHINGTON — For the last several years, the D.C. region has been shaken by the murder of young children -- unintended targets who get caught in the middle of gunfire. One after another, the names and sweet, innocent faces hauntingly flash on our screens.
Just last week, a 3-year-old Bowie boy died after a stray bullet pierced the walls of someone’s apartment he was visiting, according to the Bowie Police Department. That young boy's identity is still unknown, but before him, it was Carmelo Duncan, Davon McNeal, Karon Brown, Makiyah Wilson.
Their names -- and the many others killed in the wake of senseless violence -- are seared into memory, and the children who survive -- their friends, classmates and siblings -- are not escaping this pain.
In 2018, 10-year-old Makiyah Wilson was killed while eating ice cream on her front stoop. In 2019, it was 11-year-old Karon Brown who was shot and killed walking home from McDonald's with his brother one summer night. And in December 2020, 1-year-old Carmelo Duncan's life was cut tragically short when someone shot into his dad's SUV as he was strapped in his car seat, next to his 8-year-old brother.
The impact of these murders is palpable in many communities. Josh Fenner, 16, remembers asking for grief counseling after learning of Makiyah’s murder.
“It broke me down a lot,” Fenner said. "I wasn't feeling myself. It's just like it wasn't me after I heard about it. I felt like I needed to get back to my regular self, before I heard about it.”
To deal with the perpetual pain inflicted by gunmen in his neighborhood, Fenner joined a relatively new program at Dunbar High School in Northwest, started by Physical Education teacher, Alex Clark. Prime Ability infuses athletic training and mentorship, and includes a bike program that Clark calls "Stay Prime."
The goal is to help students steer clear of trouble and expose them to areas outside of their neighborhood, thus broadening their world perspective.
"Our biking program aims to curb the rate of violence in our community and give our students a quality outlet and safe space to grow physically, mentally, emotionally and professionally," Clark said.
Several Dunbar High School students have been shot and killed in recent years.
“It humbles my mind,” Fenner said. “It’s very easy to fall into the trap.”
For many teens and young children, it’s tough to escape the violence, but they are trying. Ten-year-old Rashaun Merryweather and 13-year-old Ilijah Hamilton said they spend a lot of their time after school in the Triumphant Leaders mentoring program. Like Prime Ability, this organization is also using physical activity to inspire young minds, their parents and protect families.
“With the youth crime rising daily, it’s important that we instill good morals, ethics and values into our kids into today’s society," Triumphant Leaders Founder Kevin Cannaday said.
According to D.C. Police data, 389 juveniles have been arrested so far in 2021. However, there were 561 arrests during the same period in 2020.
On a Tuesday afternoon at Oxon Run Park in Southeast, Cannaday and his team were surrounded by a group of young men and their families. Football practice had just ended and Cannaday was using his last 10 minutes to share his thoughts on life and the challenges facing his young men.
“What you all just did is what happens in life," he started. "Y'all worked hard, but guess what? Sometimes in life, you all are going to get tired, but you have to keep pushing."
A block away from their practice is a larger-than-life reminder of the dangers they face. A mural of 15-year-old Maurice Scott is painted on the side of a convenience store, just feet from where he died. Scott died when a gunman sprayed the area with bullets while he was walking to the store during Memorial Day weekend in 2019.
Hamilton said this is one of very few places where he feels safe.
“Not really many things happen when we're all around," the 13-year-old said.
When playing in his neighborhood, Hamilton said he’s often on the lookout for criminal activity, especially after the trauma he experienced during a drive-by shooting. Hamilton thought his friend was hit by the barrage of bullets.
"I just started shaking him to see if he got up or anything like that," he said. "I look around him and I didn't see blood. It was scary for all of us. We look back at it and just remember how our friend nearly got shot that day."
At just 10-years-old, Merryweather said, he's exhausted and is trying to protect his family, including his 1-year-old brother.
"I don't want him to go quickly," he said. "I want to keep him."
Keeping him, Merryweather said, means having a plan in place when the shooting starts.
"I turn my lights off everywhere," the 10-year-old said of his response to neighborhood shootings. "I get down on the ground and make sure everyone in the house is doing the same. Somebody that I fought in football last season died in a shootout. So, I'm just like, dang, that's sad. He's my age, 10-years-old. It's like everyone I meet can't get past that age."
Heading into the summer months, these young children are pleading for more protection and for gunmen to drop their weapons.
"I just want it to stop," Merryweather said.
The DC Police Department’s Summer Crime Prevention Initiative was launched earlier this month, with additional officers and resources in the neighborhoods where Fenner, Hamilton and Merryweather reside.