May 15, 2024 - News

Local mentoring program tries to reach at-risk youth before gun violence

Photo illustration of a sign reading "I Choose Peace" with children and Kareem Hines running in the background.

Photo illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios. Photos: Jon Cherry

How do you save the lives of kids who aren't afraid to die?

Why it matters: Hines' New B.O.Y. program — short for New Breed of Youth, a nonprofit founded by Hines — is one of several in Indianapolis trying to reverse an alarming statistic: the highest number of youth homicides involving guns in at least six years.

  • New B.O.Y. works exclusively with boys. Most are teenagers, and many of them are Black — the kids who are most at-risk in this city of getting shot, of dying young or going to prison.

The big picture: The program works with about 125 boys, from elementary through high school, and is based on the mantra of "connection before correction."

  • The kids are facing enormous challenges, afforded few opportunities and often are in an environment that means the stakes are higher when they make a bad choice.

How it works: Some are referred to the program through the Department of Child Services, and some are ordered to attend the program as part of their probation.

  • Others come not because they have to, but because a parent or guardian wants them to have a mentor.

Caveat: It's hard work and they don't always succeed.

  • Last year, the program lost six participants who died or went to prison.
  • "We, unfortunately, lose kids a lot," Hines told Axios. "The positive stories, the successes that we see with the kids, keep us going."

What they're saying: Kids are "more famous when they're dead than alive," Hines said.

  • They see the social media posts, the gatherings, the T-shirts and memorials for kids who are killed and, he says, it's often the only time people are holding up kids in their communities.

Part of New B.O.Y.'s work — through field trips like ski outings and college visits, and weekly programming that includes youth martial arts classes, boxing classes and leaders' circle — is giving them something to live for.

  • On a recent Saturday, dozens of kids and teens were sprawled out on a gym floor.
  • There were no teams, no basketballs, no weights.
  • Instead, they had poster board, scissors, glue sticks and magazines and one task: envision their future.

They have hopes and dreams, and that Saturday they brought them to life on vision boards.

  • Many want to be NBA players, or get drafted into the NFL.
  • One 11-year-old wants to be an astronaut, his poster covered in bright planets.
  • Another wants a family and a nice car, so he can safely take his kids to school.

Yes, but: When they leave New B.O.Y., they're walking back into reality.

  • Many aren't going home to their parents.
  • They're going back to a world where teenagers pose smiling with guns on Instagram, popular "drill" rap music describes shootouts and social media beefs too often spill over into reality and a kid dies.

Last year, a teenager was shot and killed in Indianapolis nearly every week.

  • The 44 young people shot and killed in 2023 — 10 more than the year before and two more than the previous high reached in 2020 — belies the number of non-fatal shootings among youth, which are three to four times higher, and the impact each incident has on each victim's friends, family, neighbors and classmates.

What's happening: Since 2019, nearly 200 kids between the ages of 0 and 19 have been shot and killed in the city.

  • Axios Indianapolis and Chalkbeat Indiana reviewed court documents for cases where arrests have been made during that time and found a pattern of social media fighting, drug deals and remarkably easy access to guns.

Reality check: One 15-year-old New B.O.Y. participant said it's "easy as one, two, three" to get a gun. He could get one in 20 minutes, he said.

  • The teens say there will be guns at any party they attend.
  • Several boys were at a Halloween party last year where a mass shooting left one 16-year-old girl dead and nine others injured.
  • "We're just a piece of the puzzle," Hines said. "We understand the plight of these young men, so we try to stand in the gap in every area, but we can't be with them 24 hours a day."

Hines knows the power of a mentor.

  • Growing up in Harlem with a single dad, Hines met his mentor at the neighborhood YMCA.
  • That mentor was the reason he moved to Indianapolis at age 20 in 1995, when he got a job at the Fall Creek YMCA that has since closed.
  • Hines worked in various mentoring and community outreach programs until launching New B.O.Y. in 2009.

Zoom in: The heart of what New B.O.Y. does happens Wednesday nights at leaders' circle.

  • Dozens of boys, ranging from ages 6 to 18, sit in a circle of folding chairs in an empty storefront.
  • For three hours, they talk about what's going on in their lives — their successes, their challenges and what's going on in the city around them.

The evening always starts with wins from the week before — good grades, positive changes in attitude.

  • There are no phones, no hoods up and no bullshit.

There's the young man with a penchant for yo-yos who has lacked a strong female presence in his life and struggles with anger issues. But he celebrates his weekly wins at circle sessions — in January, he reported, he'd "been thinking about what I do before I do it."

There's the teenager in and out of the juvenile court system who, under New B.O.Y.'s guidance, wrote a memoir sharing his family trauma.

Yes, but: Accountability is the name of the game and Hines doesn't let them get away with anything.

At a recent leaders' circle, one boy said he's been good to his mom. Hines pushed back.

  • "You stole your mom's car," he said, calling the 15-year-old out in front of the group. "You had a gun on Instagram. Whose gun was it?"
  • "My mom's," the kid said.

Hines frequently passes out the latest articles of teenagers arrested for murder or killed in shootings, asking the boys to read it aloud and assess what the subjects should have done differently. In one session, he encouraged the boys to play chess, not checkers — in other words, to think critically about their decisions.

  • "I'm just trying to have the balance of ... the harsh reality of what they're really dealing with but at the same time I show them I love them."
  • "I know that we can be consistent in a young man's life. We can develop a real transformational relationship with him and that's where the connection before correction philosophy comes in."
  • "It's all about the connection with them and the more we can see them, the quicker we can make that connection."

Kids like Patrick Collier, 18, are what keep Hines and his mentors going.

  • He started with New B.O.Y. six years ago as an angry seventh grader, in his fourth foster home and about to be kicked out of school for fighting and destroying school property.
  • "Going from home to home, I didn't really find a connection with anybody," he said. "So that led to a lot of just standoffishness … being really rude … the destruction of property."
  • Collier's mother struggled with substance abuse issues, which caused him and his four siblings to be split up and placed in care.
  • He's never had a relationship with his father.

He'd be sent to other mentors and therapists before, but none of them connected with him until Hines.

  • It took time to build trust, but Hines kept showing up.
  • A year after Collier joined New B.O.Y., Collier was back with his mom for two weeks when she called to say she couldn't keep her kids anymore. Hines showed up to get Collier.
  • "That's when I really locked in with the program and with Kareem," Collier said.

Threat level: Collier said the New B.O.Y. referral from his foster family at the time came at a pivotal moment.

  • His middle school friends carried guns, were committing robbery and stealing cars — a path he was about to go down, too.
  • "I didn't feel like anybody cared," he said. "So I kind of stopped caring, too."

The latest: Collier just finished high school. He's working two jobs and aging out of the foster care system, so he'll be getting an apartment of his own in the coming months.

  • The nonprofit he started with another New B.O.Y. participant to bring food, clothing and other services to those in need is going strong.

What's next: His relationship with Hines has inspired him to want to study social work in college.

This story was co-published with Chalkbeat Indiana's Amelia Pak-Harvey as part of a reporting partnership about youth gun violence in Indianapolis. Read the Chalkbeat story here.

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