BUFFALO, N.Y. – By her own estimation, Iyona Wilson has already buried nearly two dozen friends, family members or acquaintances, a pace of more than one death per year. She’s only 18 years old.
In Oct. 2014, her cousin was shot and killed. She’s attended a funeral for a 14-year-old, saw a shooting outside of the McDonald’s on Grider Street and constantly refreshes her Facebook feed only to learn of new victims and more tragedy. In the past nine months alone, she’s read about an 11-year-old shot and injured on Humason Avenue, an 8-year-old wounded on South Division Street, and a 16-year-old killed in a shooting on French Street. The 16-year-old was the 8-year-old’s older brother.
Although violent crime in Buffalo has dropped lately – by as much as 10 percent in 2016 compared to the previous 10-year average – it’s still a haunting reality for thousands of people in this city.
Wilson, who graduated last year from Math Science Technology Preparatory School in Buffalo, works tirelessly with the Buffalo Peacemakers to de-escalate the violent activity in her city’s neighborhoods.
But in her work, she carries scars, which developed gradually over her 18 years.
“I just feel like I bury more friends than I have friendships,” Wilson said. “We can’t enjoy our teenage years.”
Earlier this month, Wilson and two friends, 17-year-old Nakira White and 18-year-old Rachel Cofield, shared their personal stories of gun violence with 2 On Your Side, each bringing a unique perspective to the conversation. Cofield graduated from MST with Wilson last June; White is a senior at Sweet Home High School but attended MST for a year as a sophomore.
They believe in Buffalo, and they believe more must be done to highlight the positive things happening in their community.
But the three young women also spoke candidly about the friends they’ve lost and the emotional trauma they’ve endured. And they’re hardly alone— close to 35 percent of high school students in the Buffalo Public Schools reported they’ve seen somebody shot, stabbed or beaten in their own neighborhood. Exposure to such violence can significantly impact a child’s long-term health, and in the most serious of cases, this exposure can result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to academic and medical research conducted in cities across the country.
Buffalo is no different -- it still consistently rates among the most violent cities in the United States.
“It’s sad that we have to bury more people our age – there are adults who are 45, burying their kids who are 16 and 17,” Cofield said. “Innocent kids are getting hit.”
But these three young women, even in the face of immense adversity, are hoping to break the cycle of negativity.
On Oct. 9, 2014, a 17-year-old Burgard High School student named Shmerea Nailor was walking home from basketball practice in the Riverside section of Buffalo, near the intersection of Riverside Avenue and Ontario Street, accompanied by a few friends. Around 10:30 p.m., Nailor was shot and killed in front of a church by a person police have yet to formally identify or arrest. She was eight months away from her high school graduation, which she hoped to parlay into a college basketball career, potentially even at the Division I level.
Nailor was Iyona Wilson’s cousin, one of the many painful losses Wilson told 2 On Your Side about in this lengthy interview.
But Nailor was also a loyal friend, a loyal sister, and the daughter of Marquita Nailor.
“You think your kid is going to college, she’s gonna make something of her career, and she’s gonna be something,” Nailor said, “and then she’s gone.”
Nearly three years have passed since Nailor lost her daughter. She has since started a van service in honor of Shmerea’s name, created a scholarship program for area high schools and holds at least two charity events each year.
But the pain is immense, and it will not go away. Nailor’s other children have attended counseling after losing their sister. The loss of her cousin devastated Iyona Wilson. And it deeply affected Shmerea’s friends, basketball teammates and high school classmates, who honored her at the Burgard High School graduation in June 2015.
For Wilson, working with the Buffalo Peacemakers has offered perspective— that there’s nothing normal about living through constant reminders of violence, no matter how often it happens in your inner circle.
“Because I just thought that was the way of life,” she said, “because so many of my friends was dying, but now I’m older, and I’m looking at my generation, and sometimes it makes me want to cry because I just miss my friends. I wish they were here to enjoy the things that I’m learning, that I can experience, and they can’t experience that because they’re already gone.”
Gun violence has impacted Rachel Cofield directly in her Buffalo neighborhood. She feels unsafe sometimes when she takes her nephew outside or walks somewhere with her brother.
“We live in a cruel world and I don’t understand it. Because of gangs. Because of streets. Teenage males are killing each other over a street name,” Cofield said. “The street was there before you were even thought of, and it’s gonna be there after you’re gone, so what’s really this issue? Gun violence is sick.”
Nakira White, the soon-to-be 18-year-old who will graduate from Sweet Home this year, grew up mostly in the suburbs, where she said her mother shielded her from gun violence. But having attended MST in Buffalo – and having so many friends touched by gun violence one way or another – she feels the residual trauma.
“When I was growing up, I wanted to get a new puzzle for Christmas. I wasn’t worrying about if I would lose one of my family members,” White said. “It’s robbing the kids of their childhood. It’s not OK. It’s just not OK.”
Todd Timmons was a teenager when he buried his cousin, Kevin Carter, who was shot and killed at his home on Navel Avenue during a robbery attempt in 2007.
But that’s not his only personal encounter with gun violence.
Three years ago, the 23-year-old found himself in the middle of a violent melee at a house party on Newburgh Avenue. Timmons first noticed a heated argument. Then he saw someone in front of him firing shots, and soon, everyone was firing.
Timmons, a bystander to all the commotion, estimated he saw or heard at least 30 shots.
He tried to jump out of the line of fire— but a stray bullet caught him in the hip.
“I didn’t really feel it until I got to the emergency room,” Timmons said. “My adrenaline was rushing. I didn’t know if I was gonna die.”
When Timmons arrived at the hospital, doctors cleaned and patched his wound. A surgeon observed that the bullet had bounced off the hip bone and was stuck under a muscle, causing nerve damage.
Doctors told Timmons they couldn’t remove the bullet— because a surgery could cause further injury or paralysis.
So Timmons now walks around with a bullet inside of him, a reminder of that night three years ago when he was caught in the middle of a violent encounter. After rehabilitation, Timmons regained the ability to walk and run, although he still has to be careful he doesn’t put too much weight on either leg.
“I’m just thankful I’m alive,” he said.
Timmons now hopes to become a Buffalo Police officer.
He’s also a volunteer for the Buffalo Peacemakers as well as a youth mentor.
“I come from this community, so I know what’s going on in these neighborhoods. I know what some of the kids are going through in their houses, because I’ve been through some of the same things,” Timmons said. “I’ve been to a lot of funerals, where I see people I know losing people, and it’s the same hurting. It’s like, enough is enough.”
Exposure to chronic violence during childhood and adolescence can affect everything from school performance to psychological functioning to future relationships, according to Dr. Amanda Nickerson, the director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo.
Nickerson and her colleague, Dr. Rina Das Eiden, are in the second year of a five-year study into youth violence and victimization pathways. By interviewing more than 200 Western New York children, the two researchers are attempting to better understand the risk factors – and protective factors – that might predict whether a child grows up to carry out violence or become a victim of it.
One thing is already clear: seeing and hearing about violence so constantly has a profound impact on child development.
“It has a wide range of effects— there’s pretty much no area I can think of that it wouldn’t affect,” Nickerson said. “You’re not going to feel as safe, you’re not as willing to have healthy relationships, and you’re more likely to turn to risky behaviors, substance abuse and violence.”
And, depending on a number of factors, PTSD is a possible outcome.
“A good percentage of the kids who are exposed to chronic violence will go on to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Nickerson said. “Not everyone, but again, that’s a pretty serious clinical diagnosis that can come from that kind of ongoing stressor.”
In Buffalo, community and faith leaders are very conscious of the impact of violence on the city’s youth population.
Following the murder of 16-year-old Lewis Brewer on French Street in January, True Bethel Baptist Church took immediate notice and held an emergency forum for more than 200 young men and women. The church, after all, is only a few blocks from the French Street location where the shooting happened.
On that January evening, Pastor Darius Pridgen and other leaders served dinner before separating the boys and girls into different rooms. Each person in attendance filled out a questionnaire, which included four questions:
What are your thoughts about the violence we are seeing in the city?
What do you feel should be done about it?
Do you ever feel pressure to be violent, join a gang or do other illegal things?
If you had the power, what would you change in your city?
Pridgen vowed to take the responses back to City Hall, where he serves as the Buffalo Common Council President.
Two participants in the forum were Alfred Middlebrooks, 12, and his brother, 16-year-old Amari Middlebrooks.
"The community's going through a lot," Alfred said before the meeting began. "We have a lot of shootings going on. Young black kids getting killed. We're just here to protect that, to protect the youth."
Pastor Rhonda Henderson, a True Bethel member, said one of the problems is that children don’t have time to process their feelings. They attend funeral after funeral, she said, without taking any time to reflect on their pain.
“They're losing friends. They're losing brothers. They're losing fathers. They're losing sisters,” Henderson said. “It just takes a toll.”
In their roundtable discussion on gun violence, Iyona Wilson, Nikara White and Rachel Cofield proposed a few solutions.
Repair a strained relationship between the African-American community and the Buffalo Police Department. Hold more community events. Emphasize the effects and impacts of gun violence in the public school system.
Cofield sees the problem largely as a vicious cycle.
“It starts in the home,” Cofield said. “If you’re growing up and you see your brother, your sister, your dad with a gun, then that’s all they know. But I just want kids to know—you do not have to choose that path. There are people out there who will help you.”
White would like to see more resources for children and teenagers to deal with the emotional trauma of losing friends and family to violence, in addition to the resources already available at school or at church.
“We just need an outlet. An outlet,” White said. “We just need to know, if I need someone to talk to, I can go into this building. I might not know the person, but they’ll be there to let me sit, and let me talk.”
All three agreed that positivity – not negativity – is sorely needed, particularly because people who live outside of violence-prone communities often feel as though they know all the answers.
“We have people saying false things. They don’t really know what’s going on out here on these streets. We actually know. We’re living it. Daily. We’re actually seeing it,” Wilson said. “Don’t speak about something you really don’t know about. That’s one. And, two, don’t feel sorry for me. If you’re gonna feel sorry for us, help us out.”
Wilson, White and Cofield aren’t children anymore— they’re entering adulthood, and they recognize that they have now have an opportunity to help the younger kids in their neighborhoods.
Back when Wilson attended a funeral for a 14-year-old, she noticed a 10-year-old kid crying in the corner of the room. The boy was the victim’s cousin, and he was struggling to comprehend what had happened.
Wilson grabbed the boy and tried to console him.
“He said, ‘I’m just mad.’ He doesn’t even know why he’s mad,” Wilson said. “He just knows he’s upset because he sees his 14-year-old cousin in a casket.”
These are the stories that stick with Wilson— the image of a 10-year-old experiencing tragedy and loss in such a profound way at such a young age. They are the stories that motivate her to seek solutions, no matter the incredible complexity of gun violence in the United States and in Western New York.
But as she works with the Peacemakers and other allies in the community, she wants the public to understand one thing:
Waiting is not an option when it comes to violence.
“Don’t feel sorry for us when it happens,” Wilson said. “Feel sorry for us before it happens.”
Photjournalists Franco Ardito and Mike Luksch contributed to this report.