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Gun violence concerns continue, grow among advocates in Pioneer Valley 

Amber Ward (left, at podium) speaks to attendees at the Darrell Lee Jenkins Jr. Resource Center on Tuesday, June 4, detailing her experience of surviving a drive-by shooting in 2019.
James Paleologopoulos
Amber Ward (left, at podium) speaks to attendees at the Darrell Lee Jenkins Jr. Resource Center on Tuesday, June 4, detailing her experience of surviving a drive-by shooting in 2019.

Amid a week of deadly shootings in the region, advocates and local leaders in the Pioneer Valley have been gathering to call for an end to gun violence – whether it’s part of a national push or local change.

Near the center of Springfield’s Forest Park neighborhood, a small resource center devoted to those affected by gun violence was packed Tuesday.

More than two dozen people filled the Darrell Lee Jenkins Jr. Resource Center for its annual “Save Our Streets” event – featuring talks on how gun violence has affected lives throughout the city, including that of the center’s founder, Juanita Batchelor, and the youngest members of her family.

“When my son was taken, his oldest daughter was seven, and the baby was one - who's eleven now, and so they are getting in touch with gun violence way before they even hit the streets,” Batchelor told those gathered at the center. “When my son-in-law was murdered, my twins were seven, and the baby was three-months-old, so, they're already affected with gun violence.”

The center is named after Batchelor’s son, who was shot and killed at age 23 in 2014.

Filling the room were a number of locals clad in orange shirts – part of a special “Wear Orange” initiative. The group uses the month of June to raise awareness across the country, with June 7 considered National Gun Violence Awareness Day.

Tuesday’s event was organized in part by the center and the group Moms Demand Action, with “Wear Orange” volunteers encouraged to attend.

They also turned up in Holyoke where Mayor Joshua Garcia took part in a “Gun Violence Awareness” event in front of city hall, filmed by Holyoke Media, only a short distance from the scene of a deadly weekend shooting.

“Here we are, once again gathered for the annual ‘Gun Violence Awareness ‘observance,” he said. “And here we are, once again, gathered in the wake of a deadly shooting in Holyoke that just happened this Saturday morning, right down the street, here on High Street.”

The Hampden District Attorney’s office said only a few hundred feet away, police were called to High Street for reports of a shooting around 2 a.m. Saturday. Officers came across two men suffering from gunshot wounds, one of whom later died of his injuries.

Also speaking Monday was Holyoke native and Wear Orange member Anne Thalheimer – an activist and survivor of the 1992 shooting at Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington that left two dead and four injured.

“- but the lived reality that I have experienced is not the gun violence that we see every day, throughout our nation,” she said. “It is truly an epidemic at this point, and part of what we wanted to do with Wear Orange was not only to recognize that, but to put a human face and remember and honor those that we have loved, that have been taken from us, those who have been wounded and survived, those who are still living with the after-effects of gun violence, because you do not come out of it the same person that you were before it happened.”

According to the organization, orange was chosen by those looking to honor the life of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl who was shot and killed in Chicago in 2013. Linking orange to the effort grew from there.

Springfield also experienced a deadly shooting Saturday - nearly a mile away from the resource center, police say a male victim was shot on Central Street around 10:20 p.m.

The city is coming off of a record-year of homicides, totaling 31 deaths, though not all involved shootings. 

Following the weekend shootings, event-goers in both cities took time to acknowledge ways to try and reduce gun violence in their communities.

In Holyoke, the mayor listed the kinds of solutions that often get discussed in the aftermath of shootings, like the one that claimed the life of an infant after a pregnant woman was shot in the city last October.

Still, he noted, some of those ideas carry baggage that can split the community.

“The best we can do locally is to invest in ideas and initiatives that we think and that we hope can prevent or at least minimize gun violence,” he said. “Often, these initiatives spark debate and come across as controversial- that’s the least that we want to do is to divide our community. Things like ShotSpotter, the conversation around whether or not we should invest in more police, active shooter lockdown drills in our schools, more surveillance or even metal detectors in our public schools - these are the things that have created divide in communities everywhere.”

In the case of Springfield, many at the Darrell Lee Jenkins Jr. Resource Center rallied around youth outreach.

Speaking about her experience as a victim of gun violence, 29-year-old Amber Ward recounted her long recovery after surviving a drive-by shooting in 2019.

Left with PTSD, legally blind and a number of other issues she works through every day, Ward ended with a call to keep the youngest members of the community involved.

“It definitely does start with the youth - getting the youth off the streets is very important, getting them involved in community centers, having mentors to guide them – that’s very, very important,” she said Tuesday. “Just take anything from my story - I always tell myself- I have a tattoo that says - ‘what doesn't kill you makes you stronger’ and I truly do believe in that.”

More information on Wear Orange can be found here.