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Peacemakers give kids 'safe passage' home after school

Each day when high school lets out in Buffalo, thousands of kids fan out across the city for the voyage home.

For some, that journey can be a perilous one – dodging bullies, traveling through gang territory, avoiding confrontations that spill over from the school day.

Standing watch are the Buffalo Peacemakers.

You know them as the volunteers clad in gold and black, patrolling summer festivals or Canalside or special events, like Tuesday's high school basketball playoff game where a Peacemaker was injured trying to break up a fight. But one of their main gigs is staking out corners in some of the city’s tougher neighborhoods, providing safe passage for kids just trying to make their way home after school.

“Radio check,” Murray Holman said through his two-way radio.

Holman, the supervisor, stood on the corner of East Delavan Avenue and Grider Street waiting for the high school down the street to let out, as his team took its positions around the city.

His radio crackled.

“Copy Main-Utica,” Holman said.

The radio crackled again.

“Copy East High School,” Holman said.

The Peacemakers, a core crew of about 30, have been volunteering their services to the kids of Buffalo for an hour or two a day after school going on four years now.

Buffalo has started to buy in.

City Hall, which accounts for the majority of the group's funding, agreed to up the amount last year with an additional $35,000 from Mayor Byron W. Brown for the Safe Passage initiative.

The Board of Education followed suit in December and approved a matching $35,000 – although the Peacemakers are still waiting for the money from the school district.

“They do a very good job working with the city and our police department,” the mayor said. “This just provides a presence of caring adults who are on the ground, who are highly visible and who have come to be respected by young people in the community."

There's usually a patrol vehicle on site or in the area, but police can't do it alone. That's particularly true around high schools, where there's a lot of "he said, she said" that leads to violence, said Capt. Steve Nichols.

“We’re not asking them to be security guards," said Nichols, who oversees the Buffalo Police Department's community policing program. "We’re asking them to be concerned parents and concerned community members and to do a little mentoring and talking to these kids.”

And, he said, they've made a difference.

"I'm a big fan," Nichols said. "We obviously couldn't do this without them."

Safe Passage began as an effort to resolve conflicts and prevent problems from starting around Math Science Technology Preparatory School on East Delavan Avenue, where Holman stood with Peacemakers Morris Barber and Kenneth "Bleu" Stephens on a recent afternoon.

"They stop fights. They stop people from smoking. They stop a lot of bad things from happening," said Yazier Reddick, a freshman at MST who was waiting on the corner for a bus.

"I feel safer when I'm around them," said Mikeya Foster, an MST sophomore.

Now, the Peacemakers are at six locations – five on the East Side, one in Riverside. All are strategic intersections where students from around the city converge while hopping from Metro Bus to Metro Bus or Metro Rail en route home.

Shelby Tolerson and Lee Bostic staff the corner outside the KFC at East Delavan and Fillmore avenues.

"Most kids are just playing on their phone trying to get home," said Tolerson, 53. "Then, you got the knuckleheads."

Tolerson keeps an eye out for the kids who roam in groups and prey on the defenseless.

"Some of the kids are just angry," Tolerson said, "and when they go to school they want others to be mad like them."

Bostic said you have to know how to talk to them – how to speak their language.

"Approach," said Bostic, 60, "is everything."

The Peacemakers are actually a compilation of several violence prevention groups that came together under one umbrella in 2008 after problems arose at Juneteenth the year prior, explained James Giles.

Giles, a pastor, is coordinator for the Peacemakers and the head of Back to Basics Outreach Ministries, from which the Peacemakers get many of their volunteers. Holman, who was awarded the FBI's community leadership award last month, is executive director of Stop the Violence Coalition.

Holman left his post at Grider and Delavan this day to make the rounds in the coalition's small, 16-year-old bus that has 197,000 miles on the odometer and starts easier when you hold the wires hanging beneath the dashboard.

He stopped to check in at French and Fillmore avenues.

"What's up, gentleman?" Holman said to a group of boys he recognized. "You fellas miss the bus?"

Peacemakers Jackie Sagere, Steve Edmund and Willie Green have pushed the drifters and loiterers away from the storefront on the corner so the kids can catch the bus. Across the street, bouquets sprinkled the ground near a tree where there have been several shootings.

"The most important thing for us," Green said, "is to get to know the kids by name."

Sagere ushered a group of girls from East High School down to the bus stop at the corner.

"I always walk down with them, ask them what kind of day they had, if there are any fights brewing," Sagere said. "They're all-right kids, you know? They're just kids."

There would be no problems for the Peacemakers on this day, but there would be the next: A group of kids jumped another student after his first day at East.

In fact, one Peacemaker was knocked unconscious Tuesday night while getting in the middle of a melee between fans during the high school basketball sectionals at SUNY Buffalo State and hitting his head on a wall. He's OK, Giles said.

It's part of the hazards of the job.

“It ain’t too much the boys being a problem – it’s the girls,” said Peacemaker Eddie Steele. “It’s crazy what they’ll say to you.”

Steele, a bearded burly guy of 62, mans the corner at Kensington and Fillmore avenues with partners Jameko Washington and Daveda Patterson. He acknowledged not all the teenagers are happy to see the Peacemakers. "Fake police" they call them.

But Farzana Singh loves them.

"They keep the peace with the kids," said Singh, who owns the In and Out Mart on the corner. "It's a big help."

For the Peacemakers, this is their way to give back.

Steele is an ex-convict.

"I'm trying to help them not make my mistakes," Steele said.

Washington was an Army soldier who did a tour in Iraq before he returned home to struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, drugs and alcohol.

"You have to have a personal commitment to do this," said Washington, 37. "It's not about money or fame. It's about being in the trenches."

Patterson's son, Ronnie, was gunned down in August 2014. He was 17.

Patterson, 42, was a little scared when she first started as a Peacemaker, but her proudest moment came when she eavesdropped on a group of teens threatening to shoot another boy. She pleaded with them not to and talked them onto the bus without incident.

"This really changed my life," Patterson said. "I feel like I'm doing something good."

While their presence is being requested more and more at local events, the Peacemakers have limited volunteers – and resources.

Every couple of weeks, the volunteers will receive a $50 stipend that helps them buy gas or pay the phone bill.

“That’s OK,” said Ella Martin, a Peacemaker at the busy corner of Main and East Utica streets. “I’m not doing it for the money.

“Once upon a time I was one of these kids,” Martin said. "If I can help with one youth, it's worth it to me."

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