Juanita Thompson remembers the anxious frenzy of the emergency room after her son Jeremiah was hit by stray bullets that tore through a storm door on Mother’s Day in 2020.
When Melik Coffey introduced himself and offered to talk to her about the Life Outside of Violence program, she found some hope.
Melik is a licensed therapist and case manager with the Life Outside of Violence (LOV) program, a St. Louis-area hospital-based violence intervention program designed to provide individualized therapeutic case management and guidance to help adolescent and young adult patients move forward in positive ways after becoming victims of violence. Its mission is to decrease incidences of retaliation, criminal involvement, re-injury and death.
Melik is the program’s case manager at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, which participates in the initiative along with SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital, Barnes Jewish Hospital and St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
The program is open to St. Louis City and County residents and Illinois residents within a certain radius, age 8-30 who have been injured by gunshot, stabbing or other assault and have been seen at one of the four participating hospitals.
The program is overseen by the Institute for Public Health at Washington University in St. Louis and the participating hospitals in partnership with the Office for Victims of Crime. LOV was launched in 2018 with a three-year, $1.6 million grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health. The program is now funded by the Cardinal Glennon Children’s Foundation through generous community support, among others.
By helping victims of violence and their families through stabilized environments, counseling and positive community engagement, LOV reduces the risk of retaliation or self-harm, Melik said. And that need has only grown: In 2018, Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital treated 57 gunshot victims; in 2022, it treated 85.
As he did with Juanita Thompson, Melik connects with families in the emergency room or within 48 hours following to offer support and listen to their needs. When Jeremiah was released from the hospital after nearly two weeks, he faced both physical challenges — like learning to walk again — and mental health challenges.
“When I started working with him, he didn’t have a lot of goals, and he was angry — really angry,” Melik said. “He felt, at that point, there was no point in even attempting to do something different, because this had happened to him.”
“Fast forward to today, he’s completed high school, he’s working, he wants to have a military career,” Melik continued. “He’s got goals, his communication has improved, he is very vocal about how he feels.”
Melik’s help was invaluable to her family as Jeremiah recovered, Juanita said. Melik coordinated with Jeremiah’s school to make sure he was on track with his coursework during the pandemic. During home visits, Melik helped Jeremiah learn to express and validate his emotions and develop coping strategies to deal with anger, she said.
“Melik let him know he still has options. (The shooting) is not paralyzing him from doing anything he wants to do. He can still have a prosperous life and be successful,” she said. “…To know that somebody truly cares is important. And with Melik, you could tell he truly, genuinely cared about our family, the mental state of my son, the mental state of our whole family.”
LOV works with families for up to a year after the violent incident. Each family’s needs vary, Melik said. For some, the first challenge is to stabilize the recovery environment.
“If a family doesn’t have access to working utilities, that’s going to be an impediment, right? If they need to get wound care, you need wound care supplies, simple things like over-the-counter medicine that’s not covered by insurance but you need to treat the wound,” he said. Some families need help with transportation back and forth to doctors’ or therapy appointments. Sometimes, the home has to be repaired after damage from bullet holes or modified to accommodate patients’ mobility challenges.
Melik then works with the whole family on processing the traumatic event, especially focusing on increasing communication and teaching positive emotional vocabulary. He also seeks to help them reengage with the community in positive ways, he said.
“We’re getting them connected to sports, art, any outlets where they can channel emotions and express themselves,” he said. “And if they’re of employment age, a lot of my teens want to get jobs and talk about navigating anxiety and feelings about jobs. These are the things that help them start to get on that pathway to positive and productive citizenship, to feel like they have more of a purpose within their community.”
Finally, he makes sure that his patients are set up for long-term success, getting them plugged into further counseling if needed and other positive relationships.
Life Outside of Violence participants are more than 50% less likely to return to the hospital with a violence-related injury than victims of violence who did not participate in the program, according to the Institute for Public Health. Cardinal Glennon also offers free gun locks, no questions asked, in its emergency department and various clinics.
Melik sees his job as a true embodiment of the SSM Health mission: “Through our exceptional health care services, we reveal the healing presence of God.”
“My job is to show up and keep showing up,” he said. “That’s our most powerful tool — our presence.”
Life Outside of Violence
Life Outside of Violence (LOV) helps those harmed by stabbing, gunshot or assault receive the treatment, support and resources they need to find alternatives to end the cycle of violence.
LOV’s mission is to decrease incidences of retaliation, criminal involvement, re-injury and death.
Four St. Louis-area hospitals are part of LOV: SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital, Barnes Jewish Hospital and St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
As of December 2023, 47 families have enrolled in LOV at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital.
To learn more about LOV, visit publichealth.wustl.edu/programs/lov.