At the age of 8 years old, Jason was first admitted to the emergency department (ED) at Children’s Wisconsin due to a chronic illness. His symptoms were treated but he returned to the hospital several more times before finally succumbing to the effects of his condition at just 16 years old.
His fatal disease: violence.
“Ten years ago, violence wasn't talked about as a public health crisis, but now it is,” says Michael Levas, M.D., M.S., assistant medical director of Project Ujima and associate professor of pediatric emergency medicine at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
“We know the epidemiology, who's at risk and that it's communicable—violence begets violence; if you look at it from a public health viewpoint, it’s absolutely a disease.”
Jason’s story—and those of countless other youths like him—inspired the creation of Project Ujima, a program designed to break the cycle of recurring violence among Milwaukee-area youth. Children’s Wisconsin launched the initiative in 1996 using a multi-tiered approach, including:
- Hospital-based services. In addition to medical treatment for injuries, Project Ujima provides participants with behavioral health care, crisis intervention and case management.
- Home-based services. After patients are discharged, the hospital provides ongoing follow-up of medical care needs and psychological screening and counseling for patients and their families.
- Community-based services. The program connects members with youth development and support groups, as well as resources to address legal, educational and housing issues. A crucial component of these services involves mentoring. “Everyone's born with resiliency, but we know that no one can access their own inner resiliency without having at least four or five stable adult people in their lives,” Levas says. “We help them identify those individuals.”
The primary goal of these programs and services is to provide children with the support systems, coping mechanisms and violence-avoidance techniques to reduce the likelihood of future violence, regardless of what’s happening in their school or neighborhood. An important aspect of that, according to Levas, is helping kids embrace their positive possible selves.
“If you’re realistic view is that you're going to be in prison or dead, that makes you behave impulsively because you don't think there's any other option,” Levas says. “What we do is we give these kids hope and show them all the other possibilities—then those impulsive behaviors don't happen as much.”
The approach has had a profound effect on the Children’s Wisconsin community, touching the lives of thousands of young people over the years. Since 2004, Project Ujima participants have experienced a recidivism rate of less than one percent.
Since 2004, Project Ujima participants have experienced a recidivism rate of less than one percent.
The key to success
The program’s name comes from the third principle of Kwanzaa; Ujima means “collective work and responsibility.” Fittingly, Levas says he’s learned much from other children’s hospitals with similar violence-intervention programs. Expanding that network further will help other institutions establish best practices and destigmatize violence while reducing the overall numbers of repeat victims.
And he says a crucial component of the success Children’s Wisconsin has seen—in the spirit of Ujima—comes from strong community involvement. The hospital partners with a comprehensive network of local behavioral health specialists to ensure Project Ujima participants are getting the care they need, as well as programs such as Boys and Girls Club and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's community arts department.
“We have tons of community partners and we're always looking for opportunities to give our kids more enrichment experiences,” Levas says. “They're very important.