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Healing through art: Story Stitchers promotes healing from school-shooting trauma

Branden Lewis of Story Stitchers shows off his black hoodie at the St. Philip church Harvest Festival. The hoodie says #STOPTHESPREAD and #KEEPTHEPEACE.  There is a colorful castle-shaped bounce house in the background.
Sarah Fentem
St. Louis Public Radio
Branden Lewis, the youth program coordinator for the artist collective Story Stitchers, shows off his hoodie at the St. Philip church's Harvest Festival at Sumner High School in the Ville neighborhood. Story Stitchers performed at the festival a week after a shooter killed two at a south St. Louis high school.

A St. Louis young artists nonprofit this weekend joined with a north St. Louis church and a trauma surgeon to promote healing from last week’s fatal school shooting.

On Saturday, the St. Louis Story Stitchers visited the St. Philip’s Evangelical Lutheran Church Harvest Festival at Sumner High School in The Ville neighborhood to express their pain from the shooting at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School.

“Nobody wants to suffer alone,” said Story Stitchers Youth Program Coordinator Branden Lewis. “I think part of the job of an artist is to express yourself for the people that aren't as able, because when they hear a song that says exactly what they're feeling, or that they can completely relate to, it makes them feel better.”

The gunman killed a student and teacher and wounded several others.

Sumner High School invited the group, which is made up of young people who combat gun violence through song, dance and other forms of artistic expression.

While kids jumped in a moon bounce and adults grilled hot dogs, the artists performed original songs and dances.

“I’m determined to turn the tables, despite opposition,” two sang. “Know that we matter.”

Several members of the group, including Lewis, are CVPA graduates. But Lewis said that students from other high schools around the region are hurting from the shooting.

“Everybody could be the victim of a school shooter,” he said. The fact that it happened at CVPA, Lewis said, means “it could happen to anybody, anywhere.”

The picnic also featured a lecture from trauma surgeon Dr. LJ Punch about the psychological harm gun violence causes.

Trauma surgeon LJ Punch addresses the crowd at the St. Philip church Harvest Festival on Oct. 29.
Sarah Fentem
St. louis Public Radio
"Right now, they want the adults to care," said trauma surgeon LJ Punch at the St. Philip Harvest Festival, of kids affected by gun violence. "They're like, 'How are you not losing your mind?' That's why I'm saying, 'I AM losing my mind. It is that big a deal.'"

“When this powder, fire and missile, faster than the speed of sound, hits someone's flesh in a disconnected way, it cuts the soul,” Punch said.

Gunfire-inflicted trauma is different from interpersonal trauma, he said. Unlike when someone has conflict with a person, there’s an opportunity for closure. That’s not possible with a bullet, he said.

After the lecture, Punch, who founded the community health organization the T, took questions from the audience about how to cope with the effects of gun violence.

“Simple things like kindness, generosity, listening and holding still, not having judgment and just telling them as much as you can in every way possible that they’re safe now, is a very powerful way to help people,” he said.

Punch said both adults and children need to first listen to what their bodies need — whether it’s sleep, relaxation or food. They also need to remind themselves the tragedy is not their fault.

Adults, he added, need to show young people that they’re taking their pain seriously.

“The safe haven of our creatives was destroyed,” Punch said. “I don't know what's more precious — that is one thing I can say. The kids need to know how much we care.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter:@petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.