‘If I can hear you, I can find you’: the woman teaching kids to dodge bullets in their neighborhood

Elana Bolds has held active shooter drills for decades in her northern California community, where exposure to gun violence is almost inevitable

Boom, boom, boom, Elana Bolds called out.

The bangs froze the small group of children playing on the new jungle gym on this sunny northern California afternoon last week. The kids stopped swinging and playing tag and ran full speed to hide behind buildings and the garbage cans. They sat silent for a few moments before Bolds called them out of their hiding places.

No coughing, no sneezing, Bolds told the small cluster of seven- and eight-year-olds. Just remember if I can hear you, I can find you.


The kids had just participated in an active shooter drill that Bolds, a longtime anti-violence advocate, had organized for children in the Crescent Park apartment complex in Richmond, an industrial city less than 20 miles north-east of San Francisco comprised of mostly Latino and black residents.

Bolds has run these types of drills since the late 90s. During her tenure, they have become mainstream in schools throughout the United States. This is due to tragedies like the Sandy Hook and Parkland school shootings which have turned many suburban parents and students into gun control activists. But shootings on campuses account for just a small percentage of shootings in the country each year. So Bolds focuses on helping children reckon with the steady stream of daily gun violence by teaching them how to get to safety when bullets are flying.

Im a mom, Im a grandmother. I feel like Im fighting for future kids, she said.

Bolds shouts out gunshot noises and children run. Photograph: Jason Henry/The Guardian

In Richmond, gun violence on the streets is a persistent issue. In the 90s and early 2000s, Richmond became synonymous with the same kind of daily violence that larger cities like Chicago and Detroit experienced. According to a Guardian data analysis, gun violence throughout the Bay Area has decreased dramatically in the past decade, with Richmond seeing a 67% drop between 2007 and 2017. Still, community organizers, law enforcement and officials struggle to eliminate gun violence within the city.

This past May, Richmond saw six shootings within two days. On 21 June, a drive-by shooting left five people with non-life-threatening injuries.

In places like Richmond, where gun violence exposure is almost inevitable, Bolds uses a mix of straight talk and candy to prepare kids for reality.

Before the drill, Bolds gathered the kids in her home while she poured bags of Laffy Taffy and sour straws into a large plastic container. The sweets were an incentive for the elementary schoolers to sit through the drill. I hate that I have to do it like that. But it is what it is. Im a realist, Bolds said.

Children hide as part of the drill. Photograph: Jason Henry/The Guardian

Once out on the playground, the kids laughed and ran as if they were playing hide-and-go-seek even though they knew that they were preparing for hiding from stray bullets. They even brought friendly competition into the scenario as they debated who ran fastest or discussed the effectiveness of running in a zigzag to avoid being hit by a Draco, a type of AK-47.

Bolds gathered the kids around the big container of candy and told the kids to play on the jungle gym until they heard her yell boom, boom, boom, her simulation of gunfire. The kids stopped what they were doing and ran through a grassy area to safety before repeating the process several times.

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After Bolds reminded the kids of the importance of knowing how to run and hide quickly, the serious tone of the day was broken and Bolds let the kids dig in the grass and wood chips to find a sweet reward for their hour of work. When they returned to the bright multicolored play structure, Bolds watched with a slight smile.

It was easy. Im just happy it wasnt a real one, a nine-year-old boy said after the drill. [Playing outside is] not scary to me because I know if it happens again I know what to do, he added before running off to collect all the candy he could fit into the plastic bags Bolds provided.

In Boldss living room sat three poster boards with obituaries of young men who had been shot and killed. Bolds is also known as the funeral singer and has sung at a handful of the funerals for the young men who are remembered on her collages.

Children look at posters of people who have died from gun violence in Boldss community over the years. Photograph: Jason Henry/The Guardian

The boards feature a set of brothers who were murdered within less than two years of each other, and Mark Markie Henderson, Boldss godson and another violence reduction activist, who was shot and killed last April. Henderson died in front of Boldss home, and a vigil with photos of Henderson hangs on a tree a few feet from her front door.

There are a lot of men that live here in Crescent Park that I did the same thing with and theyre alive, she added.

Initiatives like Boldss drills build childrens resilience and help them cope with the trauma of gun violence, said Yolanda Mitchell, an assistant professor in the University of North Texass educational psychology department. They have to have an increased level of resilience, Mitchell added.

I think something like [this exercise] builds upon their ability to be stronger later and to work in these communities, Mitchell continued.

Elana Bolds, known as Ms Lana by her community. Photograph: Jason Henry/The Guardian

Loss of life is just one consequence of gun violence. Many school-age kids who are confronted with gunshots, or lose a loved one to gun violence, hold on to toxic stress and develop anxiety issues. They can carry these feelings into school and may have trouble in class because of them.

A lot of symptoms of trauma can masquerade as issues like oppositional defiance disorder or a learning disability, Christine Gerchow, a psychologist who works with young men in a Contra Costa county juvenile hall, said.

Like countless children in urban communities across the US, each of the kids participating in Boldss exercise could recall an instance in which they heard gunshots ring out and they ran for cover in their homes or backyards.

One nine-year-old boy recalled a domestic dispute between his family members that nearly turned deadly when one of his uncles began firing a gun. And an eight-year-old recalled having to lie on the floor of her home after a stray bullet flew through a window and into her kitchen.

Usually, similar drills in schools include lockdowns, and, in some cases, simulations which depending on the intensity of the drill may traumatize students.

And while Boldss exercise includes simulated gunfire and requires that the kids hide, Gerchow says that Boldss presence and deep ties in the community set her drills apart from school-based ones in terms of the potential for re-traumatization.

A memorial for Mark Henderson Jr, an anti-gun violence advocate and killed in 2018 by gunfire in his community. Photograph: Jason Henry/The Guardian

[Bolds is an example of] the power of credible messenger, and people in the community rising up to be the mentors and leaders we need, Gerchow says. Shes validated, she knows whats going on in Crescent Park.

The active shooter drills are just one part of Boldss violence reduction work. She also holds Put the Guns Down events in Richmond and Oakland free community gatherings to raise awareness of gun violence in the area.

I love them, and they know I love them, Bolds said of the kids in her community.

If we teach them not to be violent and not to use gun violence, thats a lot of babies that will be saved. Because after a certain age, you either got them or we lose them.

Original Article : HERE ; The Ultimate Survival Food: The Lost Ways