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Hillsborough County program getting teens to put guns down

Safe and Sound Hillsborough is a violence prevention collaborative working with youth who commit crimes to show them there's a better path.

TAMPA, Fla. — A teen is in the hospital recovering after being shot by a 13-year-old boy at Tampa's popular Winter Village at Curtis Hixon Park.

Officials with the violence prevention collaborative, Safe and Sound Hillsborough, said gun violence among teens is on the rise. 

"I’m a scarred mother for life," Lamaria Smith stated. Her daughter Savannah Mathis was shot and killed in Tampa last year. 

Unfortunately, Smith isn't the only one heartbroken due to gun violence. 

"It’s so depressing to hear people are picking up these guns and killing people, senseless … no reason," Smith explained. 

Freddy Barton is the Executive Director of Safe and Sound Hillsborough. He works with teens involved in gun violence. 

Within the organization, there is a program that takes teens who commit crimes and instead of jail time, they do a 12-month program.

Barton works to answer this question – how do we work with those in the system to stop from going further in the system?

The executive director brings teenagers to trauma centers and funeral homes so they see the impacts shooting a gun can have.

Barton also makes sure they hear the pain pulling the trigger can cause. "We’re taking them to sit in front of people who have lost individuals to gun violence," he said.

That means these teens are hearing stories from people hurting, like Smith.

"I will never be the same. I’m going to spend the rest of my life missing her," Smith said. 

Teens will listen to her describe what she had to go through as she lost her daughter Savannah. 

"Wait on the doctor to see if they’re going to live or not. Then you have to plan a funeral when you’re mourning. It makes life next to impossible," Smith stated. 

Barton said experiencing that and giving these teens mentorship is working to get them to put the guns down.

"One of my biggest roles outside of Safe and Sound is I am a dad," Barton said. He talks to these teens the same way he talks to his two sons.

"Look, even though you made a mistake, you can turn your life around," Barton explains.

That’s what Safe and Sound Hillsborough is seeing – kids are coming out of the system and staying out.  

"When I ask the youth, what was the one thing that got to you? They say, 'You showed me that you cared, that I meant something. I knew that I could make a better choice.' That makes it all worth it," Barton explained.

Safe and Sound Hillsborough is working to expand. So far, 190 kids have been through the program and 80 percent of them aren't repeating crimes. 

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