Clevelander's Send Message to Drug Dealers and Users

by Cynthia K. Berry

The push is on. Drug pushers in Greater Southeast Cleveland are being asked, "Why not sell out to Jesus today instead of selling drugs?" And, thanks to the untiring efforts of citizens like Thomas and Lilly Bell, this push is making a difference in neighborhoods around the city.

Almost weekly, the Bells and other concerned residents are fighting to take back their neighborhoods by holding "drug vigils" on the very corners where the pushers usually stand. A group of 25-30 people lock arms together, pray, and display signs with strong messages, such as "Choose Life Today - Jesus Can Help You Kick the Drug Habit" and "Elect Jesus as Your Lord -- Not Drugs."

According to Lilly Bell, the vigil participants don't initiate conversation with the drug traffickers or buyers because that would be considered confrontational. "If they come to us, we share with them that they don't have to live this way," Lilly explains with compassion. "I tell them, 'Jesus can help you. You put forth the first effort and He will work it out for you. There is a better life available to all of us.'" She also encourages the young people to get an education, a high school diploma instead of a felony charge.

As would be expected, some people are afraid to get involved. "You can run, but you can't hide," Lilly states her philosophy as a 33-year resident of East 106th Street near Aetna. "We need to stand up, invade their territory, and say, 'You've got a fight on your hands. I'm not going to let you do this to my neighborhood.'"

"No family is untouched," continues Lilly, whose sister and niece have struggled with drugs. "Mothers and fathers are hooked, and grandparents are caring for the children who are being bombarded with drug messages every day. It impacts the whole family."

The push against drugs started four years ago when President Clinton set aside money for cities to hire extra police to improve communities. As a result, the 4th District, where the Bells reside, got 32 of 100 newly hired officers. Commander Michael McGrath heads the team, called "Fresh Start," and their only focus is quality of life issues in this specific district. This team, along with the Substance Abuse Initiative (SAI) of Greater Cleveland, headed by Rev. Richard McCain of the Southeast Cleveland Church of Christ, has given the residents strategies on how to take back their neighborhoods.

First, residents were told to clean up their neighborhoods. Fresh Start and SAI explained that the drug dealers target neighborhoods with vacant properties and unkempt yards because it sends a message that there is no pride among the residents. So, neighbors began cleaning what they could, and city workers began cleaning the streets as well as contacting absentee landlords to enforce housing codes. Drug vigils were held three times each week.

"It definitely impacted the drug business," says Lilly. "The media came and the druggies certainly didn't want to be caught on camera. You hardly see pushers in our neighborhood anymore. They shifted to 108th Street, so now we are working hard there."

Today, a total of eight "Drug-Free Zones" span six to eight blocks in Southeast Cleveland, including Fairfax, Glenville, Collinwood, Union-Miles areas and Wards 1, 2 and 4. In these areas, signs are posted on telephone poles stating, "Drug-Free Zone. Penalties Strictly Enforced."

A Strategy Council holds a public meeting the second Thursday of each month at the Greater Cleveland YMCA, 1300 Miles Ave., to review tactics and progress.

"Many of the people involved in this are born-again Christians who know the power of prayer and of a changed life," says Lilly. "One of our intents is to try to involve our churches to witness to our young men and women."

Lilly sums up her conviction like this, "I know all my help and support comes from the Lord. I truly believe He has made all the difference in my life and He can make the difference in our neighborhoods."

For more information contact Substance Abuse Initiative of Greater Cleveland at 216/771-8281.

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