What do the holidays look like at your home?
For many of us, that question sparks memories of reuniting with family from far and wide to celebrate the year with plenty of food, gifts, and good cheer.
But for thousands of American families living in poverty, the holiday season isn’t so bright. Aside from the added pressure of buying gifts and making meals on a tight budget, the holidays can be a painful reminder of the brokenness of family.
Fractured families — through divorce, teen pregnancy, or “fatherlessness,” to name a few — produce significant emotional, educational, and financial tolls on parents and children alike.
Research has shown children of broken families — from the 400,000 children currently living in foster care to the 46 percent of Dallas children living in single-parent homes — are more likely to suffer depression, use drugs and alcohol, perform worse at school, and have a far higher risk of living in relative income poverty.
Parents, on the other hand, often experience similar challenges, as the stress and strain of being a sole provider can lead to mental health issues like depression and low self-esteem, making it harder to manage the financial and emotional demands of parenting.
That’s why Prime 5 is committed to connecting parents and children with organizations that will empower them to overcome the obstacles of poverty and live happy, healthy, and loving lives.
An Innovative Solution
One such organization, Urban Specialists (US), is already hard at work transforming lives in South Dallas.
Earlier this year, a neighborhood park, sandwiched between homes and situated behind an elementary school, was teeming with families, teens, and young adults, who gathered to remember the lives of two gang members who had been shot to death in a car exactly one year ago.
The memory of senseless violence became reality once again as a rival gang opened automatic fire on the crowd. Over 100 bullets were sprayed across the park, injuring two teens. Miraculously, more community members weren’t caught in the fire of multiple automatic weapons. But, two innocent youth were. A 17-year-old young man, a star athlete and high school senior, was shot in the leg, and a 16-year-old young woman was shot in the head and back as she covered and protected a two-year-old child.
In the wake of this tragedy, Urban Specialists sprang into action. They not only helped the victim and her family navigate the days, weeks, and months after the incident; they also supported the community by working to mediate the dispute between the two gangs to prevent further violence.
Those efforts were led by Urban Specialists co-Founders Pastor Omar Jahwar and Antong Lucky. The first recognized state gang specialist in Texas, Jahwar has a long history of gang mediation and anti-violence work, particularly with youth. He founded Urban Specialists over 20 years ago with Lucky, who was the former head of the Bloods gang chapter in Dallas.
They started Urban Specialists because they were fed up with the instability, violence, and unrest they were seeing in neighborhoods across the country and in their own back yard. The solution, they thought, was transforming the widespread fear and apathy fueling those issues, so individuals and families might be inspired to actively seek solutions and help one another.
Change Starts Within
Today, Urban Specialists is the catalyst to that transformation, starting community-wide conversations that are creating real change.
A primary focus thus far has been gang violence, which acutely affects young people from broken homes because they’re typically more vulnerable, more willing to engage in violence, and their age makes them more likely to avoid harsh criminal sentencing.
That’s why Urban Specialists recruits individuals from the community who have the unique experience, knowledge, and credibility necessary to work in dangerous, troubled communities and help others walk the same path of positive transformation. This often includes former offenders and ex-gang members who have fundamentally transformed from a life of violence to one of empowerment and giving back.
Their approach focuses on what they call the 3-I model:
- INVADE. US invades culture to change these destructive beliefs and rewrite a positive narrative of unity rather than division, peace rather than violence.
- INTRUDE. US shows up and stays present in the lives of at-risk youth to have the most positive impact.
- INSTITUTE. US works with institutions to analyze and build the most effective programs and services that promote peace, prosperity, and progress in urban communities.
Through this model, Urban Specialists leverage their past-experiences to foster relationships and collaborative communication to solve community challenges from the inside out, and ultimately change harmful cultural narratives around violence, racism, and division.
They play an important role in helping children navigate the potentially negative outcomes of growing up in a broken home — like providing one-on-one support to youth who might otherwise look to gang life, crime, or drugs to fill their need for belonging. Partnering with 18 of the toughest schools in the Dallas Public School District, they mentor kids, participate in school programming, and provide safety and security on campus.
These schools consistently see a decrease in truancy, disciplinary actions, and violence where Urban Specialists are present, and those results are starting to influence the community at large. Indeed, since their inception, they’ve helped more than 17,000 people, earning them the respect of local law enforcement and the trust of their community — but they’re just getting started.
With the support of Prime 5 and Stand Together, Urban Specialists will further amplify their impact in 2018, helping thousands more young people plant seeds for happier holidays by proving that their past doesn’t have to define their future.