By Mo Scarpelli
Twins Arnet and Noel Le used to see their friend Trizznie Van every day in the neighborhood. He remembers her watching them play basketball, he remembers her playing Uno and checkers, and he remembers her sitting out on the steps leading up to his apartment building.
Two years ago, though, he formed a memory he wishes never happened – he saw her body wheeled away from her house in a body bag.
“It really shocked me,” said 16-year-old Arnet Le, who glimpsed Trizznie’s feet as she was taken out of her house a final time by the paramedics. “She’d talk about wanting to kill herself when she was angry, but I didn’t think she had the guts to really do it.”
Not more than a week after graduating from Gideons Elementary, the 14-year-old girl allegedly rigged two belts to a closet rod in her room in Capital View Apartments and hung herself.
The tragedy barely made the newspaper in a city of more than half a million people, especially coming from the Pittsburgh Community, a neighborhood where residents hear gunshots several nights a week.
But it devastated a core of people in the local neighborhood, too – the Salvation Army Lakewood Corps, to be precise.
“For her to turn up dead really shocked us into action,” said Captain Platt, director of the Lakewood Corps. “After Trizznie was buried, it really began to affect us that she was one of our kids. We decided we didn’t want to do outreach for outreach’s sake there – she gave us focus and mission for the kids.”
Captain Platt remembers first hearing the news. He grabbed a one of his cadets and drove to CVA, an area visited every so often by the Corps.
Platt, whose own daughter is only a couple of days from Trizzie’s age, shakenly walked up to the young girl’s house, ready to console and assist her family and neighbors.
“Some of the kids were outside talking, just hours after it happened,” Platt said. “And I realized, here I am trying to compose myself and these kids standing outside are already in the gossiping.”
To Platt, the scene was a clear example of how at-risk youth develop a defense mode that’s hard to break down.
“One of the chief survival mechanisms is knowing how to shut down any sense of pain,” said Platt. “It cripples you if you empathize or sympathize with all the pain you see here because you’ll see so much of it that you wouldn’t be able to function.”
Platt realized then the need for the Corps’ presence at CVA, where children may lose a sense of compassion amid violence and pain.
But the Corps as a whole realized the need for South Atlanta at-risk youth in general.
Captain Platt and a Lakewood Soldier, Jason Pope, approached CVA owner ** Leathers about creating a time and place to spend with the complex’s kids. He excitedly showed them a furnished basement already complete with books, games and a television. The area had been previously used for summer camp, adult English as a Second Language classes, and several other events during the year.
In just three months, the Lakewood Corps set up a full program with a Bible study, crafts, and free time with the kids.
Children’s ministry didn’t stop where Trizznie used to live, though.
Once the CVA program was up and running, Platt turned to another area the Corps visited often, but hadn’t quite dived into fully.
“My wife and I had been riding by Jonesboro [Colony Park] for three years and every time we did, we’d point to the community and say, ‘We need to be here,’” said Platt.
The Colony Park trailer park sits on Jonesboro road, across from a rundown liquor store and a welding factory. Most of the about 500 residents are Latino, and few adults speak fluid English.
Almost all the trailers in the park house at least three children. On sunny days, some come out to play on streets ridden with broken beer bottles and trash.
Platt and Pope wanted to form a constant presence in Jonesboro, but they lacked resources and helpers to show up four afternoons a week.
That’s when 24-year-old Daynas Viera, a recent graduate from Taccoa Falls College, found Captain Platt. She told him she felt called to minister specifically in Lakewood.
“It would scare the paints off some people to come here and minister permanently,” said Platt. “But Daynas did it. And as a Spanish-speaker, with her heart for kids, she was a perfect fit for Jonesboro.”
Daynas asked Platt what she could help with and his reply was, “Make friends.” After a Three Kings Day celebration for Colony Park families in January, that’s exactly what she and several other Salvation Army volunteers did in Jonesboro.
Now, more than thirty Jonesboro kids show up for the day’s activities.
Experience Mission volunteers also chip in each day for the summer. They lead games, scribble chalk drawings, and role-play Bible stories for the kids, but more importantly, they just maintain a positive presence for the Salvation Army.
“Trust is the most expensive commodity,” said Platt. “You could give Christmas dinners to a whole community, but that wouldn’t gain the trust. You need to have faithful accountability, people need to see you from time to time.”
Experience Intern Matt Crouch knows this – the first several weeks he spent in Jonesboro, some mothers would hardly crack their doors open for him when he asked if their kids would come out and play.
Now, after six weeks, mothers chat and joke with him in Spanish and then smile as he walks away, hand in tiny hand with their young ones, to where the Salvation Army hold activities.
“The parents have been burned a little more,” said Platt. “They hold their cards a little closer. If you lived in a jungle, you’d be suspicious of every little thing you saw, heard, or ate. When the Salvation Army shows up, what they really want to know is, ‘Are these people my friends?’”
Gregoria Sanchez, a 28-year-old mother of three, has been living in Colony Park for four years and speaks almost no English. She usually sticks around the house, but she is grateful that her kids don’t have to anymore.
“If they didn’t come, the kids would not go out, I would keep them here and they would play in a small room,” says Sanchez. “They are excited to go to the activities, and I trust they will stay out of trouble there.”
Sanchez’s main concern is that her kids stay in school. In such a tight-knit community, the children are influenced mostly by the teens around them – and the Salvation Army has noticed that many Colony Park teens drop out.
“If you are well educated, you will stay away from drugs and drinking,” says Sanchez, whose parents attended only primary school in Mexico. “I want my children to be well-educated.”
Platt knows many parents of at-risk youth in South Atlanta like Sanchez that would give anything for their kids to have better, but simply don’t have the resources.
“Every day I see a place where we need to be,” said Platt. “The fields are white, we want to be out there.”
As the Corps tries to maintain a constant presence in both Jonesboro and Pittsburgh, street ministry proves to be hard work for both Salvation Army workers and Experience Mission volunteers alike.
“The important thing to remember is that when Experience Mission partners with us, they become the Salvation Army,” said Captain Platt. “They are the face of the Corps, that’s how the neighborhoods see it. And it’s been a blessing, because we could make a lot of things happen without money, but not without people.”
**To learn more about what Experience Mission is doing, visit our website at www.experiencemission.org.