Bringing coloring books to Peoria crime scenes: Q&A with PCAV leader Becky Rossman
Last year, Peoria saw a record breaking number of homicides.
Behind every statistic is a group of family and friends ... and the grief and trauma of each death lasts years.
Becky Rossman is the CEO of Peoria Community Against Violence. PCAV meets with families of homicide victims in the immediate aftermath of a killing, connecting them with resources at the outset of a tragedy.
Before taking over PCAV in March of last year, Rossman led Peoria's Neighborhood House nonprofit. Last fall the Peoria Chamber of Commerce presented Rossman with the 2021 Athena International Woman of the Year award for her work in the community.
In an interview with WCBU's Hannah Alani, Rossman reflects on how she's seen gun violence leave long-lasting impacts on families.
The following is a transcript of an interview that aired on All Things Peoria. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Becky Rossman: Obviously, we saw the disparity with COVID. We see the disparity in the communities affected by gun violence. And unfortunately, Peoria ... last year I did an interview because we were the 15th deadliest city from 2019 statistics. And we had a 40% increase in homicides in 2021. We're consistently in the top 10, for worst cities for African Americans. ... All of those things are tied together.
Because when you look at the statistics, and you're looking at poverty, it's really about what's going on in those communities of color. I have been at PCAV for a year. And some of my families I've seen on multiple scenes. And the statistics show, if you know someone who's been a victim of gun violence, you're 900% more likely to also be a victim of gun violence. It's what's going on within your network. And you see those statistics ... and I'm seeing that in anecdotal stories, and the families that we help.
Hannah Alani: How do you see poverty interlaced with the violence that occurs in the lives of the families that you help through PCAV?
Becky Rossman: The majority of our families, like I said, are in poverty. I've met the most wonderful families and moms who are really trying their best. But you know, they have a lot of barriers, financially, you know, making sure kids have enough to eat. So sometimes they're working two jobs. A lot of kids I see are working to help their families. I know a lot of kids that help with their mortgage payment. There are kids who have to sometimes watch their younger siblings, so they're missing classes. I've been in homes where there's not a single piece of furniture. I just don't think all of Peoria really understands just the ... I don't even know what the word is, how deep poverty runs in our community.
...At Neighborhood House, one of the things we did well was Meals on Wheels. When COVID happened, and we had to stop feeding kids after school, we decided to make Meals on Wheels for kids. We had 60 kids in our program. But by the end of the first week, we had 235. Children were self-referring themselves on the south side of Peoria, because they didn't have enough to eat. I mean, the gun violence, if you look at the heat maps, it's gonna be on the south side, the East Bluff. And the 61605 ZIP code is the second-poorest in the state of Illinois. And 61603 is the 22nd-poorest in the state. Poverty is very closely correlated with gun violence, whether it's becoming a victim or a perpetrator.
Hannah Alani: In the year that you've been in this role, what has been the most surprising, or maybe challenging aspect of this job?
Becky Rossman: I would say one of the most surprising things ... When we go on homicide scenes, there's a lot of children. My very first one, I saw a handful of kids under the age of eight. So that kind of changed how we responded. We have a nationally certified crisis response team now, which we didn't have before. And we bring water and chips ... phone chargers. But now we also bring coloring books. I mean, we've had as many as 20 kids on scene. ... I'm talking to the parents, because I couldn't understand ... sometimes they just don't have a place to take their kids. So if your brother gets shot, you don't wanna leave your little kids at home. So we spend a lot of time in the OSF parking lot as we wait for news on family members. The other thing is, when I talk to some of the parents, they want their kids to see this, almost in a 'scared straight' type of thing. Like, 'You got to do what's right.' These little kids watch body bags be carried away. And you know, there's also a developmental component to that, right? Like, what's age appropriate?
I will tell you, when I worked at Neighborhood House, PCAV kept coming across. That's kind of why I chose to do this job. I want to see them make a go of it, because they never had staff before. When I got there, we had $1,300 in the bank. Now we just got a grant extension for $525,000. I want to see it succeed because I thought it was just something this community really needs. And I had a Meals on Wheels driver who was murdered. ... I spoke at his vigil.
I would talk to my staff, which were wonderful people, and they would tell me ... I'd be like, 'What did you do this weekend?' ... 'Well, we heard a lot of gunfire, so we didn't leave our house.' And I lived 20 minutes away, and I just couldn't imagine it, because I'm someone who runs at 10 o'clock at night when I finally have the time. And I don't even think about it. I have my headphones, my music loud ... it's a completely different world, just 20 minutes away.
Hannah Alani: Can you talk a bit more about the trauma that children experience when they are either victims of gun violence or, or just exposed to it?
Becky Rossman: You know, a lot of the kids we come across ... maybe they haven't lost anyone to gun violence, but when there's a lot of gunfire, when the ShotSpotter goes off ... we have some kids who are afraid to leave the house. If kids are getting afraid to leave the house or go to school, or their reaction when a car backfires is to hit the ground, obviously, they need some help processing some of the things that they're experiencing. And it doesn't make them dramatic. Everyone has their own reactions.
A lot of the families that I work with, they've lost their spouse. One in particular, and she lets us use her story ... She was going to school for nursing. And her boyfriend of 10 years — they had four kids together — when he was killed, she had to take care of all of her kids. And she actually has five kids, but four by him. And then she had to go back to work, on top of going to school. So she's dealing with her own loss. And she's got to be there for her kids.
...I always ask the moms, 'Who's taking care of you?' Because they're taking care of their kids. But sometimes the moms are, you know, depressed, and going through their own grief, and can't necessarily always be there for their kids ... like they would want to be. So a lot of kids in our summer program, I've seen kids throw chairs who were 12 or 13 years old, and they're wearing these shirts with loved ones faces on them, 'in memory.' ... It's kind of a constant. That's a lot of trauma to deal with.
Hannah Alani: What do you think is the best, most tangible way that people in greater Peoria can really help and make an impact in the lives of these children?
Becky Rossman: You know, my good friend Jamie Trueove is the CEO of Big Brothers, Big Sisters. And they constantly have a huge waiting list for boys. I mean, there's a waiting list for girls, but it's just not the same. And I can tell you, I'm a single parent now. And I have a son and a daughter. And I went and became an archery instructor, because that was the kind of things he liked. And I coached my daughter in basketball. But it's still not the same as having a male in their life, a male mentor or role model. And it doesn't always have to be a parent either.
... It's really important that if people are going to make that commitment, they need to understand that they need to stick with it. And that if have a job that may move them out of town, you know, that can really affect the child. One of the families I worked with, he was a victim ... he had a Big Brother, and he loved it. And he got exposed to all these wonderful things. But his Big Brother worked for Caterpillar, and moved him out of town. And they still communicated via letter, but he never got another Big Brother. And that kind of really affected him. It's just one more person who came in and out of his life. So I think the big thing is ... just helping one kid can really make that ripple grow. And really, you don't know what that kid's gonna be able to do. How many lives can they touch. But they do have to make that commitment.
But there a lot of one-time opportunities in town as well. Neighborhood House, we used to feed kids on Sundays. Well, we fed the whole community. But that's a great opportunity. A lot of churches came in, think we had 13 churches and the Fire Department. They took a shift every 13 weeks, and then they got to build relationships with these kids. And that was really powerful as well.