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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Too many Memphis children lost their life to gun violence this year. In the neighborhoods where the homicides are happening the most, children tell WREG they’re concerned and want change.

“I take out a lot of the things that have happened to me in my life. I put them into my song,” 14-year-old Jeremiah Cotton said.

He said music is an expression of his emotion. The lyrics tell his struggles, but also his hope.

“I am hopeful of me changing,” Cotton said.

If not a musician, he wants to be a lawyer. Those are dreams other children had too, but they were lost to violence this year.

Ta’shun Hardrick was shot and killed in a drive-by Nov. 4. The 12-year-old loved playing football for the Memphis Cowboys.

In April, someone opened fire at homes in Frayser. A bullet hit Aison Golden and killed the boy, two weeks after his sixth birthday.

Ta-shun Hardrick (left) and Aison Golden

WREG uncovered where every child death happened this year. Two were in 38127. That’s Frayser, where Ricky Floyd is a pastor.

He launched the Husband Institute, a program where men from The Pursuit of God Church and Bellevue Baptist in Cordova mentor young boys.

“I’m trying to give them a safe space that we call an environment of father figures,” Floyd said.

Earlier this year they had 40 boys in the program. Then COVID paused the program for several months. The first night they came back, they only had about 12.

Floyd said the pandemic created new challenges. Kids – in an unstable home– now unable to find relief at school or through after-school programs.

He said the concern is that those kids went somewhere else that didn’t shut down for COVID — like a gang.

“If you can’t find real gold, you’re going to find a replica,” Floyd said. “What’s happened is that gangs have become a replica for structure, the family structure that many of these boys need, want and deserve.”

Floyd said their program is now at 20 boys, including Cotton, who recently signed up.

Cotton also started working at the church’s new boutique, a store in the church basement that gives the boys a job and helps them build a resume.

“It stopped me from doing a lot of things that I would’ve done. Probably would be in worse trouble than I’ve gotten in. Probably would’ve sent me to jail or worse,” Cotton said.

Cotton thinks mentoring is critical, because the kids aren’t in school and may have nothing productive to do.

In March, Shelby County Schools ended the year to stem the spread of COVID, and students have yet to go back, learning virtually instead. Many youth programs have been suspended, and community centers remain shut down.

Since that same time in March, police say they’ve investigated more than 20 child deaths. Most were due to gun violence.

Some victims are just months old, others up to 17 years old. A majority are African American males.

“It’s just crazy because a lot of stuff has started to happen,” Kaleb Almo said.

Kaleb Almo

Almo lives in Hickory Hill, the 38115 ZIP, where five children were killed this year.

He says he’s had to avoid gangs and drugs since elementary school. He credits football.

Almo went to Kirby High, but his senior year joined a home school football team since SCS sidelined all sports this season. He wants to get a college scholarship.

“I am going to be the first person in my family to go to college. Kind of, you know, set the narrative,” said Almo.

But he’s concerned about those who can’t play sports. He truly believes that sports help keep kids safe.

He told WREG he keeps thinking about the Whitehaven High football player shot and killed at a gas station in September. It happened on a Thursday afternoon.

“He would have been prepping for a game that Friday instead of being at a gas station,” said Almo.

Ladell Beamon with Heal the Hood, a non-profit that works within schools to help kids find creative outlets, said COVID just opened a whole other door for kids to not have the support.

Since March, he said six teens they worked with were murdered. One happened just weeks into the city’s stay at home order.

“That was one of the kids that we had been working with for a long time,” Beamon said.

He said virtual doesn’t compare to in-person support.

“It’s kind of like a Catch 22. Either you’re going to contract COVID if you’re not careful, or you’re going to end up being murdered in the streets,” he said.

Memphis Police Director Rallings said their youth programs like D.A.R.E. were halted too, and he asks parents step up.

“We as a community need to do more to intervene in the lives of young people,” said Rallings.

Cotton says intervention has worked for him.

“Let me notice that I don’t need to go down the path that I was going down at first,” he said.

Heal the Hood’s Empowerment Center in Hickory Hill

Find out more information on the Heal The Hood Empowerment Center here. 

Beamon said Heal the Hood was donated land near Winchester and Ridgeway Road. He wants to build an empowerment center for children.

The state-of-the-art facility will inlcude theaters, a rooftop, urban garden, art classes, music studios, a gym and more.

“The world is going to open up again, and at that time, we have to be prepared to catch these kids,” he said. “If you don’t build for the future, it’s going to be a huge issue.”

Right now, he’s raising $50 million for the facility thorugh local, state and national campaigns.