Kinston, North Carolina, is a “great small town” according to 16-year-old Chris Suggs. It has been that way as long as he can remember.
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“Everybody knows everybody. Everybody loves and supports each other,” he said.
But in 2014, the city was on edge. A spree of gun violence played out on the streets, at times involving local youth. Organized gang activity was a major factor and residents were afraid of getting caught in the crossfire.
Tired of the seemingly relentless shootings, Suggs wanted to figure out how to curb the violence.
“Since young people are affected by these issues, we also need to be at the table when it comes to developing solutions,” Suggs said. That’s when he came up with the idea of starting Kinston Teens. “I've always been passionate about my community and trying to make a difference. So when it came to trying to start an organization focused around those things it was really easy for me.”
In Oct. 2014, Suggs held a press conference at the local library and invited community officials, young people and the school administrators to hear a clear message: Kinston youth has a voice, too.
“Immediately young people started getting on board and adults started supporting us,” said Suggs. “We started making the news and to make a difference.”
From street cleaning to creating mentor programs and a youth leadership summit, Kinston Teens is focusing on short-term goals with immediate visible impact while planting the seeds for Kinston’s younger generation to be inspired and reach their potential.
Since it began, the organization has had more than 1,000 youths participate and get involved in the Kinston community.
“One thing I've learned is that a lot of people don't volunteer because they've really never been asked to,” said Suggs. “But once I ask them, that lights a spark in their head and they want to join the movement.”
Suggs has also developed strong relationships with Kinston leaders and the Kinston Police Department.
“Chris came to us as a young boy. He wasn't even a teenager then. But he had unbelievable outside-thinking strategies. As a police chief, you want that connection with the youth.” said Chief Greg Thompson.
“One lesson that I have learned working with Chris,” said Kinston Mayor BJ Murphy, “is that in most communities the young people probably aren't getting heard. And it's taught me not to discount the youth in this community.”
ABC News' Jason Kurtis, Ben Brown and Angel Canales contributed to this report.