Pioneers for Peace

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Detroit, Mich.
(313) 745-5053

Objective: To increase awareness about the impact of violence and to help reduce violence among youth.

In a Nutshell: All Pioneers for Peace members have suffered permanent disabilities from gunshots. They hold panel discussions and violence prevention assemblies at schools, juvenile detention centers, hospitals, churches and other community settings, talking candidly about how violence and risky lifestyle choices permanently altered their lives. They discuss the challenges of living with disabilities, answer questions and encourage youth to find peaceful means to resolve their disputes.

Where and When: Pioneers for Peace operates out of the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan, but it conducts events throughout the state.

Who Started/Runs It: Rehabilitation Institute nurse Phyllis Graham began the program in 1996, after seeing statistics that showed the leading cause of spinal cord injuries in Detroit was gunshot wounds. (The leading cause nationally, by far, is automobile accidents.) Pioneers has been overseen for the past five years by its president, Weusi Olusola, a former high school basketball star who was paralyzed after being hit by four stray bullets.

Obstacles: Transportation. “Because the vast majority of our membership consists of people who use wheelchairs, we have to use wheelchair-accessible van services in order to transport them around the community,” Olusola says. “The costs of such services gets to be quite expensive.” He says members try to carpool and use public transportation as often as possible to defray costs.

Cost: The operating budget for this year is $57,000. Of that, $12,000 comes from the Rehabilitation Institute, $10,000 from the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation and $35,000 from the city planning commission for a series of 20 after-school workshops.

Youth Served: The Pioneers conduct presentations to youth from elementary through college age and from all backgrounds. The 30 current Pioneers speakers range in age from 18 to 42. Among the 11 women and 19 men, 28 are paralyzed, one suffered a traumatic brain injury and one is blind. Olusola estimates that Pioneers have spoken to more than 30,000 youth.

Youth Turn-On: “Many youth are infatuated with guns and violence as a result of television and movies, so they are very eager to know what happened in our lives,” Olusola says. “They’re very intrigued to see young vibrant people using wheelchairs.”

Youth Turn-Off: “So many youth have been touched by violence themselves. How we do our programs, the rawness, sometimes is emotionally difficult,” Olusola says. For the Pioneers, he says, the biggest turn-off is “definitely non-accessible facilities.”

What Still Gets in the Way: “Trying to keep up with the demand while operating off of very limited resources and staff,” Olusola says.