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Ashyah Johnson-Simpkins chokes up at a gun violence summit on Feb. 29 at the Springfield Boys & Girls Club Family Center. The center’s executive director, Keshawn Dodds, comforts her.
Reminder Publishing photo by Sarah Heinonen

SPRINGFIELD — In an instant, a life can be changed. Ashyah Johnson-Simpkins was 19 and enjoying herself at an after-prom party with friends when someone in a passing car fired a gunshot, which struck her in the head.

At first, Johnson-Simpkins said, “I didn’t know I was shot.” After surgery and months of recovery, she has physically healed, but being shot has had long-lasting impacts. “I was supposed to go to Howard,” she said, referring to Howard University, a prestigious historically Black university in Washington, D.C. “I had a full ride, and I wasn’t able to go,” said Johnson-Simpkins, who wants to become a nurse. “I thank God every day that I got to my 20th birthday.”

Experiences like those of Johnson-Simpkins are not rare in Springfield, a city which saw a record number of homicides in 2023. To address the issue of gun violence in the city, a teen summit on gun violence titled, “My Voice, My Story, My Future” was hosted at the Boys & Girls Club Family Center on Feb. 29.
The summit, the first of three focused on the issue, centered on the experiences and ideas of the teens.

Keshawn Dodds, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club Family Center; Nicole Coakley, founder of Nicole Coakley Consulting LLC; and Tracy Hill, CEO of True Vine Music Group, jointly hosted the summit to hear ideas about how to curb gun violence from the generation that any changes would affect most.
Johnson-Simpkins, who works at the Family Center, was one of about a dozen Springfield teens who attended the summit, though only a few spoke on the topic. Two of Coakley’s children shared their ideas. Kevaun Coakley said, “I don’t see a lot of job opportunities in Springfield. If [teens] need a job, make it easier for them.”

Like Johnson-Simpkins, Ivelisse Brenes became emotional while speaking. She said there are many teens who need help and said that she was not very motivated while young, but a supportive program has helped. She said her friends use open gyms to cope with stress.

Darius Vizcarrondo said there have been a few shootings near his home and during one shooting, a bullet went through a window in his house. He said the shootings were upsetting because he was “still a child.” He has begun telling some of his stories through a podcast he started.

Libertas Academy students Edwin Pulinario and Cliff Salgado spoke about fights in school. “In a learning environment, why should they fight?” Pulinario asked, adding that school should be “a safe environment.” Salgado said students had had some of “our rights and our freedoms” taken away in reaction to the fights. Pulinario said teens cannot make changes on their own and need the help of adults.

Local and state officials, including state Sen. Adam Gomez (D-Springfield) and state Rep. Orlando Ramos (D-Springfield); City Councilors Malo L. Brown, Tim Allen, Victor Davila, Lavar Click-Bruce and Tracye Whitfield; and Lawrence Akers, who will take over as Springfield police superintendent in April, had come to listen.

Click-Bruce shared that he was a lifelong citizen of Springfield who had grown up in a single-parent home. He said his mother instilled in him a belief that he could do anything. “As a city councilor, it’s our job to implement [changes],” he said. Of the ideas the teens identified, including the need for wrap-around services, jobs for young people, after-school programs, open gyms, bike trails, skate parks and housing, he said, “I can guarantee you; we’ll make it happen.”

Bishop Talbert Swan II said young people are “both the future and the present” and their input is needed now. He noted that people of color are now a majority on the Springfield City Council and Akers will be the first Black police superintendent in the city’s history. He added that a 2022 consent decree will help ensure police accountability.

Akers said that he had told Mayor Domenic Sarno that they need to listen to the city’s youth. He said he will be working to change the perceptions of the Police Department and make law enforcement better from the inside. Akers shared that he had gotten into trouble when young, “but the important thing is making the right turn coming into adulthood.” He promised the teens at the summit that if they needed anything, they could call his office and he would provide “the help that so many of us needed.”

In addition to elected officials, about a dozen social services agencies and nonprofits were represented at the event, including MassHire and CHD. Dodds said many people do not know what help is available to them and asked the service providers to talk to the teens. He also urged everyone that, if they could help access housing or employment, to speak with Brenes. “We want to get her needs met.”

The summit was funded as part of the Charles E. Shannon grant initiative.

The next summit will take place June 7.

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