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She’s at the bedside and on the streets: ‘Credible messenger’ works to stop gun violence in York

December 06, 2021

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Tiffany Lowe (center) is the 'credible messenger' who is working at WellSpan York Hospital and in the community to reduce gun violence in York. With her is the team of WellSpan and community partners who are supporting her work.

Tiffany Lowe (center) is the 'credible messenger' who is working at WellSpan York Hospital and in the community to reduce gun violence in York. With her is the team of WellSpan and community partners who are supporting her work.

WellSpan York Hospital has cared for 245 gunshot wound victims from York City since January 2018.

But while the hospital’s surgeons, doctors, nurses and other caregivers can often stitch up wounds and send patients back home, they can’t address the issues that led to the shooting or stop the retaliation shootings that often happen in the city of York.

Due to a new WellSpan partnership and grant, a person called a “credible messenger” is now showing up at the gunshot victim’s bedside, with that goal in mind.

Tiffany Lowe works directly with gunshot victims to address the problems that lead to and perpetuate violence. In her first week on the job, she spoke frankly to a gunshot victim – a young man she knew personally who was in the hospital for the second time with a gunshot wound – and told him that if he didn’t stop the cycle of violence, he would end up dead.

“The most important or effective time to see people is when they are vulnerable and just got shot,” said Tiffany, a 36-year-old York resident who feels like her whole life has led her to this role. “I see if they want to tell me who shot them and why they got shot, and also offer them resources, like counseling or food vouchers.”

Tiffany’s work is part of an innovative national effort called Group Violence Intervention (GVI), a strategy that came to York about four years ago and is overseen by the GVI Project Manager, Jim Tyson. It involves York City Police, social service providers, and community groups. WellSpan funds Tiffany’s salary, via a community outreach grant to a local group called Friends & Neighbors of Pennsylvania.

“WellSpan got involved because we know there is a large violence problem in the city of York,” said Dr. Michael Bohrn, a WellSpan York Hospital emergency department physician and vice president and chief academic officer. “We know we can help but, like any organization, we can’t do this by ourselves. It has to be the entire community working together on this.”

Credible messengers are outreach worker with roots in the community and the connections and credibility to effect change. A York native, Tiffany grew up in the city in an abusive, chaotic and drug-filled household, by her own description. She ended up selling drugs and was in and out of jail, even serving time with her mother. Her life was out of control until her mother ended up dying in jail and Tiffany had the responsibility of caring for a son.

“I realized if I didn’t tighten up, I was going to die in jail too,” she said. “I had to figure some things out.”

She got a steady job and eventually ended up working as a hall monitor and then a teacher’s aide for the York City School District, also coaching girls’ basketball William Penn Senior High School in the district. The district jobs, she said, saved her life. She now is working toward a degree in education.

“I noticed that so many kids were going through the same things as I did,” she said. “My story was their story and then I had these kids looking up to me. I had no choice but to stop doing what I was doing. … I became the person that I needed when I was a kid. Once I did that, everything else just got easy.”

When she was approached to apply for the credible messenger position, she said she realized, “I have been doing this job for years, but I didn’t know it.”

“What she does is all about relationships,” says Robin Shearer, executive director and co-founder of Friends & Neighbors. “It’s someone who gets it because they have been there, done that, and they know the players, they have the credibility.”

The value of Tiffany’s background became apparent when she responded to the hospital to talk to a gunshot victim during her first week on the job, Shearer said. She spoke to the victim, whom she known since he was in school, and talked to the victim’s family outside the hospital.

“The trust people have in her, the way she can talk, she knows people that they know,” she said. “This is her community. It just changes the dynamic in such a huge way. She can have real conversations.”

The victim initially told Tiffany he was an innocent bystander in the shooting, which was his second gunshot wound this year. She told him: “No you’re not. You are a shooter. I know you are a shooter. And you are going to die if you don’t stop. Look in my eyes and say, ‘Miss Tiff, I don’t want to die.’ What are you going to do to stop this? “

“To hear it from someone he knows and trusts and that he knows once lived the life he is living,” she said, “it just hits different.”

Beyond the straight talk, Tiffany works to connect people to resources. Does their family need food vouchers, or diapers for a baby? Do they need mental health counseling? Do they need housing or job assistance? Do they need funds for a funeral? Or maybe a bus ticket out of town? Through the network of Friends & Neighbors and other community groups, she will get people hooked up to those services.

She also goes out into the neighborhoods and talks to people in rival groups, talks to their families and friends, and urges them not to retaliate.

“I feel like if I continue to work hard at this goal eventually these kids will learn to stop killing each other but it’s going to take more than just me,” she said. “I need the community support. That’s one of my goals is to get the community back to loving each other, policing each other and holding our kids accountable. It takes a village to do this.”

The work is in its early stages but Bohrn said WellSpan is supporting it because it believes it will reduce the rate of gun violence and repeat offenses in York and bring together community groups, which will build momentum to create a healthier community overall.

WellSpan has a large team of people who were involved in the planning and support of the credible messenger program, including those who work in trauma services, emergency medicine, social work, behavioral health, community health, spiritual care, and vulnerable populations support.

“WellSpan is a big organization,” Bohrn said. “We are willing to go the extra mile to dig into this. It would be easy to say, ‘Here’s a donation’ and walk away but we are in it for the long haul. Our teams live in this community too and we are going to stay in the game.”

To read about other community partnerships that WellSpan supports, go here.