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Community advocates working with Toledo's youth to stop gun violence

A former gang member talks kids into making better choices on the same streets he used to hustle on, and a local leader teaches fatherless children the essentials.

TOLEDO, Ohio — Antwan Walker Jr. was shot in and killed in west Toledo the night of June 14.

He is the fifth child to be gunned down on the Glass City's streets this year.

Two teenagers are charged with murder in the shooting death of the 17-year-old, but for two local community advocates, solving the murder isn't enough. They're separately working to try to stop violence at its source, by changing the hearts and minds of youth on the street.

At one time, Malik Smith was a gangster in the Smith Park neighborhood where he grew up. But he says as he grew older and became a father, he realized how damaging the lifestyle is and he walked away.

"It's not worth it. You're out here 'gangbanging' and fighting, shooting, and for what? What's the cause?" Smith said.

Tired of seeing kids fall into the same culture he did and then get shot, Smith has spent the last four years encouraging kids in Smith Park to walk a different path. He does so by being a mentor... breaking up fights, encouraging nonviolence and building neighborhood unity through cookouts and pool parties.

He said in order for real change to happen citywide, more people need to step up.

"It's gonna take these big homies, these people that they look up to, to take the initiative and step forward and to tell them, 'come on, this ain't right, let's do this.' You could take a kid to McDonald's and just have a talk with him. That would go a long way with that kid."

Smith isn't the only one who sees the value in presenting positive influences to kids. Tremain Rayford is the founder and director of The Program Inc, a nonprofit teaching fatherless children ages 7-18 essential life skills.

"Teaching young men everything from how to tie a tie, to financial literacy, This weekend we have an event teaching young men how to handle tools," Rayford said.

Rayford has been working with kids who need the skills for 5 years now. Fatherless children are normally twenty times more likely to end up in prison, but Rayford says their research shows that having an involved mentor leads to an incredible transformation in their lives.

"They're 46% less likely to use drugs, they're 86% more likely to get involved in extracurricular activities and they're 55% more likely to enroll in college," Rayford said.

Smith said his mentorship has shown similar results in Smith Park. Crime is down, kids are comfortable playing outside. He even invites people in other neighborhoods who want to turn things around to reach out to him on Facebook by searching for Abdul Malik.

The Program Inc's free event teaching kids how to use tools is Saturday, June 19, at 10 a.m. at the Marina Lofts.

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