Having grown up in a troubled neighborhood off Gardere Lane, Bruce Stewart knows first-hand about the violence and strife that permeates the neighborhoods in that part of the parish.
He witnessed his first murder when he was 15 at a Sweet 16 birthday party and lost several more friends and people he grew up with over the years to violence.
So he jumped at the chance to help his mother, Alma Stewart, organize the Youth Peace Olympic, a six-month program in which youths ages 10-16 sign up, learn life lessons from mentors on topics like bullying and drug abuse prevention, and participate in sporting events on the fourth Saturday of each month to earn points toward receiving medals at the award ceremony in September.
“It’ll be fun, but the intent is for them to learn skills and attributes to be successful young people,” Alma Stewart, president and founder of Louisiana Center for Health Equity, said.
Saturday marked the opening ceremony for the event as more than 50 youths, volunteers and parents walked down Ned and Keel avenues in Gardere during a muggy morning for a peace march in an effort to bring awareness to the games and get people to sign up.
Members of the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office and St. George Fire Department also participated in the march.
Bruce Stewart made several stops along the route as he talked to and introduced himself to people who walked outside to see what was going on as sirens wailed and music blared. He said he specifically targeted teens in the age group they were trying to reach.
Following the march, Gardere residents began trickling into BREC’s Hartley/Vey Park, where the sign-up table is located, to sign up their children.
Ricky Gayden stood on the corner of Marine Drive and Ned Avenue and watched the march go by with his three young children. He said he had never heard about the Youth Peace Olympic before Saturday but said he was going to sign them up because he thinks the games are a worthwhile event.
That was a good sign for Alma Stewart and her son. Both said they were happy with the turnout for the march and response from people in the community, but they still had a long way to go before they hit their mark of between 100-150 youths.
Elsie Dickerson, who lives in Gardere, signed up her three grandchildren — Trinity Ross, 11, Jerrod Dickerson, 11, and Demetrique Dickerson, 13 — because she said she believes in the ideals of peace and non-violence the Youth Peace Olympic strive for.
“It’s good for the community,” she said. “It shows unity and peace.”
She said her grandchildren were just happy to get out the house Saturday because while they have a neighborhood watch set up in her subdivision, she is still scared to let them out the house because it’s nearly impossible to see everything that’s going on.
Following the march, everyone boarded a bus and headed toward the Perkins Road BREC park for lunch, flag football, dancing, art, theater and talks about peace and nonviolence.
While the program itself may be in its first year in Baton Rouge, its root come from north Philadelphia, where five churches banded together in 2011 to come up with the Youth Peace Olympic.
Under the watchful eye of the Rev. Mary Wade and members of Building Respect in Communities, they have held one Youth Peace Olympic, with another planned for later this year, as well as several other events like an elder’s and teacher’s appreciation days.
Wade said the idea of the Youth Peace Olympic came from seeing youths walking through the neighborhoods carrying basketballs and footballs.
“We decided to wed the idea of sports with conflict resolution, anger management and peace,” Wade said. She and four other people from Philadelphia traveled to Louisiana for Saturday’s events.
Wade and Alma Stewart met following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when Wade traveled to Baton Rouge through her church, Wayland Temple Baptist Church, to assist with recovery efforts. Wade arrived at Alma Stewart’s church, and they kept in touch throughout the years.
Once Wade got the Youth Peace Olympic in Philadelphia started, she began prodding Alma Stewart to start a similar program in Baton Rouge.
“This is a peaceful activism,” Wade said. “It’s all about making change.”