When April Roby-Bell joined the Gangster Disciples in middle school, the street gang treated her like family when she felt abandoned by her own. She was looking for love, acceptance, and stability.
“They trained us as little kids. How to own your ’hood, own your street: ‘This is my territory,’” Roby-Bell said.
The experience also taught her tough lessons about life and death at an early age. At least half of the friends she grew up with are now dead. “At times, it became hard because you just get tired of fighting,” she said. “I probably should have been dead a long time ago.”
At 42, Roby-Bell isn’t defending territory for a gang anymore. Instead, she is standing up for the families in the southern Illinois communities of East St. Louis and neighboring Washington Park who want their children to be able to go outside to play without fearing for their lives. As a survivor of the violence, Roby-Bell serves as a source of strength for others. Those traumatized by gun violence call her for counseling. She has planned funerals for victims. And, for years, she has presided over burials of both strangers and friends. She sleeps with her phone by her side, so she doesn’t miss a cry for help.
Nearby, Larita Rice-Barnes, 47, also carries a phone that doubles as a lifeline for grieving families. And Terra Jenkins, 50, receives similar calls. She typically checks her phone throughout the day, replying to messages from locals and nearby funeral homes.
As young women, all three ran with street gangs around East St. Louis and its surrounding communities. Today, Roby-Bell works for a school district mentoring high school students. Jenkins is an outreach leader for a local clinic, and Rice-Barnes is a published author who spends countless hours volunteering and running two nonprofits.
Still, their battle scars and faded tattoos recall their past. Because of those experiences on the front lines, some people trust them more than they do the police. The women fill in the gaps for a community fighting economic inequality, homelessness, health disparities, and gun violence.
“In East St. Louis, you’re into it with death,” Jenkins said. “Nine times out of 10, the position that I’m in, I just be involved with a whole lot of death because I’m at the morgue.”
Jenkins, who goes by “T-baby Ooh-Wee,” said she stumbled into the work of helping people. In the late 1980s as a teenager, she joined the Gangster Disciples, commonly referred to as “GD.” As time went on, she became a leader in the organization, a queen who called the shots.
She turned her grandmother’s basement in neighboring Washington Park into a barbershop. Her business became a therapeutic space for clients who confided in Jenkins while she trimmed their hair.
“Just like the beauty shop, the guys want to talk,” Jenkins said. “They couldn’t talk to their homeboys, so when they sat in my chair they started talking to T-baby. They started talking about their problems. I mean the big gangsters, they’re crying. They’re just spilling their guts to me.”
As time went on, she became a trusted friend and activist whom many in the city could call on in their times of need. While she still is considered an “OG,” or original gangster, she said, somewhere along the way the gang life she knew changed. Rival gangs started to talk less and shoot more.
“These kids act like their hands don’t work,” Jenkins said. “And they never had a fistfight in their life.”
They use guns instead, she added. “Then you ask them: What y’all mad for? And they don’t even know what they arguing each other for. It couldn’t be money because lately here, lately here, the killing, ain’t nobody getting robbed. A lot of these kids still got the money in their pocket, their jewelry on them,” she said. “It’s, like, over Facebook.”
Jenkins blames herself and her generation. “We dropped the ball,” she said. Now, she is trying to pick up the pieces.
Every case is different, Jenkins said, but most grieving families need empathy, money for the funeral, and practical help, such as a haircut for their deceased loved one or a space to hold a memorial service. Jenkins said she is an introvert but rises to the occasion when alerted to a need in the community. She gathers clothing, food, and basic essentials. She sits with families after the funeral is over — when the families are left alone to deal with the grief.
In Roby-Bell’s case, her life changed in 2009. That’s when her cousin Keyatia Gibson was gunned down in front of a liquor store in the city.
“It took a while for them to come cover her up,” Roby-Bell said. She added that her cousin’s two young children stood over her body. “And they saw that. And I watched the pain.”
A mother of three herself, Roby-Bell decided to change her life. She started going to church and turned her focus toward helping those in need. Two years ago, Roby-Bell opened Restoration Outreach Center, a church in Washington Park, where she often shares her story.
As a member of a gang “I hustled,” Roby-Bell said. “But I survived the worst season of my life. And I didn’t just survive for me. I survived for my three daughters.”
At her church, she often prays for the youngest members of her congregation. “We always cover them in prayer. We pray for their safety, for their life span,” Roby-Bell said. “I work in the schools, so I’m always praying for their future.”
But religion cannot always be their salve. When a child is caught in the crossfire, Rice-Barnes said, she chooses her words carefully when meeting with the grieving family. She doesn’t tell parents that their deceased child turned into an angel. That kind of rhetoric isn’t in her playbook.
“People need the ministry of presence,” Rice-Barnes said. “In most cases, they don’t need you to say anything. They just need to know that you’re there.”
Earlier this year, Rice-Barnes wrapped her arms around the family of 3-year-old Joseph Michael Lowe, who was killed by gunfire while in a car with his older brother. But as she deals with each family’s pain, she must grapple with her painful past, too.
During Rice-Barnes’ adolescent years, she had friends who were Gangster Disciples, but she spent most of her time with a rival gang, the Vice Lords. She lost two close friends to gun violence and had her own close calls. She feared for her life when a man held a gun to her head. And a few years later, she ended up flat on the ground in a field after someone in a nearby car started shooting.
“In the midst of running, I fell,” Rice-Barnes said. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if someone was standing over me.”
She walked away that day but carries the memory as she helps those who experience loss. “I’m still dealing with the devastation of what happened,” Rice-Barnes said. “In more recent years, I find myself telling those stories, but they were just packed down and suppressed.”
Rice-Barnes hosts rallies in East St. Louis to remember victims of gun violence, survivors, and their families. Her nonprofit Metro East Organizing Coalition brings residents together for conversations about solutions. Dozens of people showed up to a June event where Rice-Barnes reminded city leaders of the need for policy changes and programs that could potentially save lives.
Rice-Barnes’ nonprofit teams up with other crime reduction organizations to analyze data, so she believes her efforts have helped reduce crime in the past 18 months. Still, she knows the city has a long way to go. Yet the idea of giving up on this city isn’t an option for Rice-Barnes — or for Jenkins and Roby-Bell. The trio believe their community will thrive again, so they focus on the future.
“It doesn’t matter how you start, but it matters how you finish,” Roby-Bell said.
This story was produced by KHN (Kaiser Health News), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.