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'They Look Up To Me': Local NFL Star Joins Philadelphia CeaseFire To Fight Gun Violence In North Philly

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — After a tragedy in his own family, one local NFL player is determined to stop the escalating violence in his hometown of North Philadelphia. Denver Broncos safety Will Parks has joined forces with anti-gun violence organization Philadelphia CeaseFire and volunteered his time to speak directly to kids in these troubled neighborhoods.

Growing up, Parks said he had a strong group of people surrounding him and pushing him to use his gift, the ability to play football, to get himself out of the crime-filled streets.

"The older guys from around my area, they kind of kept me and a couple of my other brothers out of the streets for the most part," Parks said. "Every time something [happened], they made sure we were in the houses. They made sure we weren't affected by it all. And a big thanks to my mom and dad, they told me that the only way I would be able to make it outta here [would be] if I used this gift I have."

But one dreadful day changed everything. In August 2018, Parks was preparing for a preseason game when he received a call that his uncle had been shot and killed at the intersection of 6th Street and Erie Avenue in North Philadelphia.

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"That was the last straw," Parks said.

He decided to partner with Philadelphia CeaseFire, an organization that targets the 22nd and 39th Police Districts in North Philadelphia. Founded in 2011, it's a replica of Chicago's anti-violence organization Cure Violence, formerly known as Chicago CeaseFire.

In a recent talk with students at Simon Gratz High School in Tioga, his message focused on the importance of education. He also urged them to start doing the "little gestures" in life, like doing their homework, tucking their shirts in, and doing household chores.

Will Parks
Credit: CBS 3

"Those little things lead to big things," Parks said.

Tawfiq Smalley, 18, found Parks' message motivational.

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"I look up to him, we both play d-back. I want to be there someday," the high school junior said, adding that he would be focusing on getting his grades up. "Grades get you into college, college gets you education and wherever you want to be after that."

Parks hopes his life story convinces these students that they can be successful like him -- if they study hard and devote time to their talents like sports, writing, or art.

"A lot of kids around Philadelphia, the outskirts, they look up to me, they know who I am, so I can only do one thing and that's be an example for them and that's by doing all the positive things," Parks explained.

Kids have reached out to Parks on social media to thank him for making a difference in their lives.

"It happens actually a whole lot and I'm excited when I see that because that means that kid, or those kids, are listening to me," Parks said. "If it's something I'm doing [to help these kids] than I got to keep doing it, I can't stop now."

Violence in the streets

Philadelphia Police said 115 shooting victims were 17 years old or younger in 2018, a 26 percent increase from 2017.

There were also 17 homicides by firearms where the victim was 17 or younger.

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"Philadelphia is unique. We don't really embrace the fact that we have a problem [in comparison to other cities across the country battling gun violence]," said Dr. Marla Davis- Bellamy, director of Philadelphia CeaseFire.

She said other cities, like Chicago, are addressing their violence issues and working together throughout the community to change it. But Philadelphia is not "all-in."

"It's kind of like so much a part of our culture, we don't necessarily blink," she said. "It happens, then we go on to the next thing."

The organization's goal is to reduce violence, particularly gun violence, by distributing educational and employment resources in schools and hospitals.

It receives funding from local and national partners, including Parks, the Denver Broncos, Temple University School of Medicine, the City of Philadelphia, and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Parks and the Broncos donated $15,000 to Philadelphia CeaseFire this past December.

Getting role models involved, Dr. Davis-Bellamy said, is a step in the right direction for the future of these neighborhoods. "It's encouraging, they look at these individuals as someone who was able to overcome these challenges in the neighborhood, but they are also in the position to lend their voice, resources."

Safe havens for kids

Dr. Davis-Bellamy and Parks are working to create activities outside of school for North Philadelphia children.

"Many of [the children who speak with Philadelphia CeaseFire] often times complain there is not enough to do," Dr. Davis-Bellamy said. "[There are] not enough kind of constructive programs or sports programs that they have interest in."

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She explained other cities replicating the Cure Violence model have created what they are calling a "safe haven," where kids can learn new skills or pick up a new sport.

"Places where young people can go and engage in, whether it's a sporting activity or something fun, in a safe environment," she added.

In the past, Philadelphia CeaseFire has hosted a basketball tournament called "A Game of Peace."

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