Julian Johnson knows firsthand the consequences of rampant gun violence, and he wants his younger neighbors to know “you don’t have to live like that.” 

Two of his cousins have been shot and killed. He’s lost a lot of friends the same way. He knows the father of a young man who died in a shooting at 20. Outside of his funeral this October, another shooting injured six more people. 

“It takes a toll,” said Johnson, 51.

He hopes a program he completed at the Community College of Allegheny County [CCAC] will catch on – and change his community. 

With an $800,000 grant from the commonwealth, CCAC has launched the Guns Down, Level Up program, which welcomed its first cohort in September. The program requires CCAC students to participate in free therapy through the Allegheny Health Network [AHN] and meet with a student success coach each week. For participants enrolled in for-credit programs, the college picks up tuition and other educational costs that financial aid doesn’t cover. As of mid-December, more than 50 students had participated.

“How is it going to grow if the people who went through it don’t tell everybody else?,” Johnson said. 

“If you don’t have something for them to do,” said Johnson, referring to young people caught up in cyclical violence, “or if they think there isn’t another way they can get a better education or learn a trade – if all hope is lost – they’re going to keep doing what they’re doing.” 

‘Don’t give up now’

In January 2022, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency awarded 25 entities across the state about $23 million collectively to develop projects aimed at preventing gun violence and group violence. CCAC was the only college in the county to receive a grant in that funding round. 

CCAC’s Homewood-Brushton Center is located at the corner of Homewood Avenue and Kelly Street. (Photo by Benjamin Brady/PublicSource)

The funding comes as Pittsburgh’s homicide rate hit at least a seven-year high in 2022. Nearly nine out of 10 involved a firearm, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported in late October. 

The CCAC program broadly defines what it means to be impacted by gun violence, said Angelica Perez-Johnston, the college’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. Students are eligible if they have firsthand experiences or are from an area where this violence occurs – “which is everywhere in Pittsburgh,” she said.

People with criminal records can participate, too. 

“I wanted this to be an opportunity for everyone to work towards life-sustaining wages,” said Perez-Johnston, who wrote the grant for the program. “We are trying to get folks into a path of prosperity and not a path where they’re re-entering into the system.” 

Working side-by-side in CCAC’s Homewood-Brushton Center, the program’s two success coaches have seen their students grow in confidence and take steps toward careers. The coaches’ backgrounds have helped them genuinely connect with students.

Student Success Coach Amber Sloan does this work “because I’m being who I wish I had,” she said. Sloan, who was raised in Homewood, was incarcerated for 15 years. While she was away from home, she constantly thought about giving back to her community. She’s since launched a program to serve at-risk youth and engaged in violence intervention work.

Like Sloan, Mike Talley brings a personal connection to his work as a student success coach. Growing up, he learned how to navigate life with the tools passed down by those around him. He put himself through college at Norfolk State University by selling drugs, he said, but was incarcerated before he could continue his education in law school. 

“The majority of our students come in here and they have situations and life challenges that they only speak to me and Amber about,” Talley said. “Me and Amber know how to bring it down and talk their language. We’re from where they’re from. We know how to speak to them, sit down and kick it.”

Perez-Johnston and the coaches have supported students in a variety of ways. 

Sometimes it’s simple gestures. Sloan keeps a stash of Reese’s cups on hand because they’re the favorite of a student with diabetes — both flavor-wise and as a blood sugar pick-me-up. 

And, they offer the kind of sustained support that helps students stay enrolled. 

Perez-Johnston walked another student through resolving a long-standing problem with their financial aid. For those with criminal records, Talley and Sloan have discussed felony-friendly career paths that match the student’s interests. 

“A lot of them, when a problem occurs, you can see the defeat, because they’re so used to people not helping or people telling them, ‘Well, you need to figure this out,’” Talley said. 

He tells the students: “‘Obstacles are a part of life. At this juncture, I know you know that, because you overcame so many. This is why you’re here. So, you came this far, don’t give up now.’”

Read more: ‘How I can make a change’: Youth programs are helping the next generation halt the cycle of gun violence

This lesson means everything to Ashlee Bentley, a single mother who owns her own salon in Ambridge. Bentley enrolled in the program after meeting Talley during her CCAC orientation and learning about the resources and therapy services participants receive. After two decades of feeling afraid to ask for support, she said the guidance she’s received since joining, especially from Talley, has made her feel less confined and helpless. 

“Every resource that he could possibly find to try to help me, he did,” said Bentley, 37. “Even if I forgot because I was overwhelmed — or if I asked him five times already — it didn’t matter, it was still the same answer, the same help, the same compassion, the same understanding.”

As a Beaver County resident, Bentley’s typical commute to CCAC’s Homewood-Brushton Center takes about 90 minutes one way — a huge time-suck that cuts into her ability to operate her salon. When her car broke down this fall, her only option for getting to class was taking three buses. She wasn’t sure if she’d be able to continue with her studies. 

Talley helped her apply for grants that covered the cost of car repairs. 

In “the very near future,” Perez-Johnston expects to be able to reimburse students for transportation, including providing bus passes or gas.  

Ashlee Bentley, a student in the Community College of Allegheny County’s Guns Down, Level Up program, poses for a portrait inside the college’s barber school. (Photo by Benjamin Brady/PublicSource)

Providing mental health support — and encountering stigma

Along with receiving support from the success coaches, students in the program participate in therapy through The Chill Project at AHN. 

The individual sessions are focused on helping students develop coping skills to manage their trauma response and mental health, said Crystal Spano, a licensed counselor and behavioral health supervisor with the project. The program’s therapist helps students identify their strengths, work through their triggers and process feelings such as guilt or hypervigilance. 

Spano has seen a mixed response from students so far. She said the students enrolled in longer-term academic programs have been able to attend more consistently and receive more support than those enrolled in shorter-term workforce development programs. The depth of participation has also varied among students, which Spano said she thinks is common in therapy.

“It is hard for them to talk about it, because anybody with trauma, it’s a process. And so I think that a lot of them have wanted to stay on the surface,” she said. “You have some that really are utilizing it, and they’re coming in, and they’re invested.”

Some people who inquired about Guns Down, Level Up decided not to participate in the program because of the therapy requirement. Though Ebone Drake, 38, had a positive experience in the program, the therapy requirement was one aspect she didn’t like. She said she doesn’t struggle with her mental health. 

“Everybody doesn’t have an issue who lives in Homewood,” Drake said. “Don’t make it mandatory, like it’s something that we have to do.”

Other students benefited from therapy but were initially apprehensive. Spano said hesitancy may stem from a fear of being judged, a denial of their struggles or a desire to appear tough. On top of that, Black communities often face greater discrimination and stigma around mental health challenges, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 

Johnson didn’t mind going to therapy, as he hoped to help others by sharing his experiences. Scheduling conflicts with work, school and personal matters prevented him from speaking with the therapist more often, he said. 

“If I could get back the time to be there and work with her, I would’ve,” he said.  

Connecting to opportunities

Since Drake completed the program, CCAC has helped her find job opportunities. She was still looking as of early December, but she expected to hear back soon. 

For Bentley, participating in the program has strengthened her business. As a student in CCAC’s barber school, her peers and coaches with Guns Down, Level Up have pointed clients her way, some of whom now regularly book appointments at her salon, Lilly J’s Hairtorium

When her time with Guns Down, Level Up ends in March 2023, she hopes to pursue a business degree at CCAC. Talley has already helped her schedule a few introductory courses. She’s long wanted to open a barber and cosmetology school alongside her salon, and participating in the program has made her more motivated than ever. 

It showed her what’s at stake.

“There’s so many kids out here especially, I see so many teenagers walking by,” she said. “I would like to be able to get the finances and funding to be able to have a school to take so many students in for free so they’re not out here on the streets.”

Johnson enrolled in CCAC’s Commercial Driver’s License program, seeking a steadier income and greater security than his job in construction provided. He’s now working at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. 

As of early December, he was trying to move up in the water authority and start driving its rigs. He’s glad to have a better job with the authority.

His family is proud of him for finishing the program, too. He recently welcomed his first grandchild, a boy, and he’s excited to be a positive role model for him. 

“It’s helping people have a better life,” he said.

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

Amelia Winger is PublicSource’s health reporter with a focus on mental health. She can be reached at amelia@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ameliawinger. 

This story was fact-checked by Ladimir Garcia.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.