From grief to action: A Wichita woman tries to help others affected by gun violence
For this month’s In The Mix, Carla Eckels speaks with Keena Charles, the CEO and founder of Violence Impact Victim Assistance.
Keena Charles meets with survivors of gun violence at the door of Violence Impact Victim Assistance before the start of weekly group meetings.
Charles says the mission of the organization "is to build an alliance of gun violence victims and survivors who support and empower each other as we find ways to shatter pieces of our new normal back together."
The death of her son Semaj lives on in Keena. It was a senseless act in December of 2017, unrelated to gang violence. An argument led to her 25-year-old son's murder at the hands of a 17-year-old with a gun. She tells the group she's grief-stricken every time she drives by the cemetery near Wichita State.
"I hope I hit all green lights because I know my son is over there in Old Mission, so my leg begins to shake, and I have that anxiety and the emptiness," she says. "I feel ... overwhelmed. So, I still struggle."
That struggle led her to create the Violence Impact Victim Assistance in 2020. Since then, she's sought advocacy to help navigate the judicial system, supported therapy and held monthly rallies against gun violence.
In 2021, there were 213 shootings, 28 of them fatal.
Of those, nearly half the victims in Wichita were 24 and under. Also, most of the gun activity is within three zip codes — 67214, 67219 and 62708.
Keena says those are the zip codes she is trying to target, starting with a new youth violence prevention program.
"We have to find better ways to resolve conflict that does not involve guns," she says.
The program runs three sessions a week with the Tuesday victim support group aimed at the youth. Keena is reaching out to young people through other youth programs and social media. She hopes that by interacting, they'll get to know each other.
"Because what they don't understand is we have the same struggles ... so fighting against each other we're not going to get anywhere so we all need each other," Charles says.
Keena says we must encourage our youth to respect life.
"I talk to so many young men, age 15, who tell me that they don't expect to make it to age 20. That does something to me, and that should touch everybody in this community that our young men feel that way."
The new prevention program starts next month. Keena hopes it will make a difference.
"I don't want any other mother to feel how I feel every day. Anything that I can do — any way that I can prevent that from happening — I will take the challenge."