published Sunday, March 25th, 2012

Chattanooga gang summit begins as girl lies in coma from shooting

Christine Dobbins, left, and Joseph Kotsis hold hands as they pray during a "Stop the Violence" gang summit and breakfast and hosted by the community development group Hope for the Inner City on Saturday.
Christine Dobbins, left, and Joseph Kotsis hold hands as they pray during a "Stop the Violence" gang summit and breakfast and hosted by the community development group Hope for the Inner City on Saturday.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

There couldn't have been a more perfect day to be outside on Bennett Avenue.

St. Patrick's Day was one of the first warm Saturdays of the year, and folks on the Highland Park street took advantage of it, lugging out lawn mowers and hedge clippers. Kids rode bikes and practiced flips on the trampoline at the street corner.

The smell of barbecue drifted down the street that evening as families pulled out their grills, and a large crowd turned out for a block party one street over on 12th Street.

Dozens of teens and children lingered on Bennett Street after the party ended, staying out late in the 70-degree air. Thirteen-year-old Keoshia Ford, who was visiting friends in the neighborhood, was laughing and dancing with a group of girls.

A block over, a pair of cars circled the crowd on 12th Street. Someone in one of the cars fired into the crowd, Chattanooga police say. No one was hit. One of the cars then veered onto Bennett Avenue and parked in front of the house where Keoshia was staying.

Police say someone broke away from the crowd on 12th Street and ran behind the house, pulling a gun and firing at the car. It's unclear whom the bullet was meant for, but it hit Keoshia, who was perched on the back of a car.

Keoshia remains in a coma, drawing every breath with the help of tubes, wires and machines. The surrounding community is coming to grips with the scope of the tragedy: That a sixth-grade girl playing with friends could be gunned down in an exchange of what police believe was gang crossfire.

Not only is Keoshia the 22nd person wounded in a shooting in Chattanooga this year, she is one of the youngest victims of a suspected gang-related shooting in recent years, according to newspaper records.

"It's the worst-case scenario," said Chattanooga's Gang Task Force Coordinator Boyd Patterson. "We always know gang violence is bad when young men are shooting at each other. That's tragic, but there's always that element that you reap what you sow. But here's this girl who's doing great; She's getting direction, she's doing great in school -- and yet she is in the wrong place at the wrong time because these guys were shooting at each other."

Keoshia plays on a soccer team with Chattanooga Sports Ministries and participates in Girls Inc., Patterson said. She loves dancing and listening to hip-hop, and on many Saturdays she goes roller-skating with friends.

"We like to see movies -- any movie. We like to hang out, walk around the neighborhood, talk on the phone," says Keoshia's 13-year-old friend Raven Marsh, sitting on the steps in front of where she watched her friend get shot. "Keoshia's not the type to get in trouble."

Raven says East Lake Academy, where she attended school with Keoshia, is still buzzing with talk about the shooting.

Classmates have made Keoshia posters and are sending her cards. Parents and members of the school staff have cooked meals for her family, which has kept a constant vigil outside the intensive care unit at Children's Hospital at Erlanger.

"We emphasize that when something affects our school family, it affects us all," said East Lake Principal LeAndrea Ware. "I think everyone realizes this is a senseless tragedy. The kids deserve the ability to live and learn without being paralyzed or distracted by unsafe living conditions."

Ware said counselors were in the school Monday and that the school is encouraging students to think about positive ways to confront gang violence.

Local churches and outreach programs are also bringing up the shooting as they try to direct their congregations to step into more anti-gang initiatives.

"This is definitely a catalyst for more work," said Paul Green, executive director of community development group Hope for the Inner City, which is affiliated with Chattanooga Sports Ministries.

About 160 people from more than 20 churches turned out for anti-gang summit hosted by Hope for the Inner City on Saturday.

At the event, Patterson urged the churches to be active partners with the city's anti-gang efforts, and pastors stressed the need to build more intentional relationships with at-risk youth.

"We must engage and enlist fatherless children into mentoring relationships," emphasized Randy Nabors, pastor of New City Fellowship. "Building a static institutional edifice with the idea that people will come does not work with dysfunctional families in the inner city. We have to invade their lives."

Other speakers talked about the importance of joining local neighborhood associations, helping out with post-prison rehabilitation and helping with job training.

Green said Friday that Keoshia's shooting only pushes him to do more.

"Sometimes you lose hope. You don't know why you raise all this money. What's the end result? What kind of impact do you really have in the life of a kid? But this just reminds me that we must keep on with our work, for the sake of someone like her."

On Bennett Street after school Friday, a group of kids jumped on a trampoline, while others sped down the sidewalk on scooters.

Kimberly Reed, who lives two doors down from where the shooting occurred, played outside with her 3-year-old grandson. She said her 16-year-old couldn't go to school Monday after seeing Keoshia gunned down, but said things have been quieter this week.

"We are all just praying for her. We are all wanting her to be okay, and we're all just going to keep praying for that little girl," she said.

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