Heat sweltered on a bright and sunny afternoon as basketball teams squared off in the middle of Castleton Corners’ lustrous Clove Lake Park.

Many kids and parents were cloaked in anti-gun violence orange T-shirts that matched the orange decorations sprawled all over the courts and tables for the annual Peace in the Park Fest held this past Sunday, June 27.

The usually massive park event was cancelled last year due to COVID restrictions. The crowds were not nearly as vast as previous years in the park, said the organizers, but spirits were not at all dampened.

The fest is organized by The Central Family Life Center, which is a non-profit, minority-led community center on Staten Island established in 1979 by the First Central Baptist Church. It is one of a kind on Staten Island and houses many critical social services programs, such as the True2Life Crisis Management System.

“We usually like, turn up. But, you know, getting the other community of organizations involved to just offer the community services and resources and using the peace model right to bring people out. And when people do come out to these events, they know that we’re all about peace,” said True2Life Program Director Malcolm Penn. “And with all the crazy stuff going on in the Staten Island community, we need as much peaceful influence as possible.”

True2Life is one of many of the city’s violence interrupter and outreach programs that aims to reduce violence and gun violence by promoting public health in Black and Brown and/or low-income communities. The program generally offers legal aid, mental health workshops, mentoring, conflict resolution, support groups, job training, and substance abuse counseling to local residents in need.

The program covers parts of Mariners Harbor, Stapleton and Park Hill, parts of it, but not the entire landscape in the North Shore, said Penn.

On Staten Island, shootings are up compared to last year’s police stats.

“There are seven different high red zones. The color red means high in crime, higher shootings. Seven different communities, we only cover three,” said Penn. “So at least four different communities in the district that are stricken by gun violence. They don’t have services, they don’t have anything pretty much to give them some type of hope, when we look at the conditions in a lot of these places.”

Penn said that politically Staten Island hasn’t changed in the last 50 years which makes it difficult to get adequate resources and services to communities.

Staten Islander businessman and Democratic candidate Mark Murphy is currently leading in the polls with 10917 votes or 46.23% (without ranked choice voting or absentee ballot totals) in what is typically a Republican-led Staten Island borough president race. Murphy said that one of the most important things for his campaign was ensuring that he put an end to unnecessary or illegal guns on the street and gun violence on Staten Island.

“It is an absolute tragedy that we read at least once a month, if not every week, about somebody being killed or shot with any legal gun in Staten Island. I wanted to do whatever I can from the borough president’s office and as a candidate to try to stem that violence in this city,” said Murphy at the park event.

Similarly, City Council candidate for North Shore’s 49th District Kelvin Richards said he has a vested interest in keeping the community safe from gun violence as a public defender and attorney. Richards is trailing behind fellow candidate Kamillah Hanks in the primaries’ unofficial results.

“This is what you want to see actually happening in the summertime. I want to see young people get involved and being active. It takes them away from activities that may not be becoming of our young people,” said Richards about the festival.

“We’re the only anti-violence initiative on Staten Island,” said True2Life Program Manager Mike Perry, who also advocated for more funding and resources to create more Crisis Management System sites on the island.

True2Life leadership partnered with local hospitals, domestic violence awareness groups, book vendors, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, Bigger Than Basketball, the Legal Aid Society, and Black Health, a national Black health leadership organization that provided materials on COVID and HIV outreach and screenings for the Sunday event, said Perry.

True2Life members said they understand that violence persists despite punishment, pressure or moral judgment, but they are just as adamant in reaching out to people to effectively change the mindset and narrative of individuals more likely to commit crimes and shootings.

“Okay, so that’s the first thing I have to do is change myself. So my life is change. I’m the living example of how you should live and what you should be doing talking to the street person,” said Penn about how he connects with people.

“Because I was that person and he knows, and if he doesn’t know, he could check my background, you could google me, my criminal background is public record. I’ve shot, I’ve tied people up, I’ve sold drugs. I’ve done those things. I can’t tell you that you should change and this could benefit you in your life but I could show you how it’s benefiting me. I can show you through my life,” he said.

Penn said the other steps to helping individuals is trying to understand whatever they’re going through at the time and providing solutions.

“So we try to figure out what they need/want. And then we try to help them help them with that,” he explained. “A part of us helping them is us showing them that look, this is somebody who cares about you, we care about you. If nobody else in the world cares about you, we care about you.”

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