We’ll never fully know the  courage it took for eight young survivors of gun violence to visit the Holocaust Memorial Center/Zekelman Family Campus in Farmington Hills recently and hear the story of guest speaker Erna Gorman. They didn’t attend the presentation as most student groups do – as a requirement of a history class. They came with no previous knowledge of the Holocaust. Even so, they understood the concept of a ghetto where life was ever in peril. Erna’s words deeply resonated with them when she said, “Just being alive is a daily surprise to me.” They connected. And they responded, “We’re a family,” as they shared their own experiences and how they came to be cohorts in the work of D.L.I.V.E. (Detroit Life Is Valuable Everyday).

Sharing the stories of D.L.I.V.E.

As survivors know, it takes courage to remember. And it takes courage to share their stories.  But sharing stories – survivor to survivor – can be a powerful experience and a tool for healing. And who better to understand how the healing process might work for young survivors of violent trauma than Ray Winans and Calvin Evans? Both Ray and Calvin have turned their lives around in service to the community, as leaders in the  D.L.I.V.E. organization.  Born out of the necessity to treat the frequency of injury and deaths associated with violence in Detroit, D.L.I.V.E. is a hospital-based intervention program providing survivors of violence, aged 14-30 evidence-based holistic  support to break the cycle of pain and violence.

“Here in Detroit, the cycle of violence takes a terrible toll on our young people,” says Ray. “Homicide is the leading cause of death for residents aged 14-30. And when someone is injured in an act of violence, they have a high risk of repeated injury, incarceration or losing their life to violence.”

“Violence is a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue,” says Calvin. “So thus we take a health-based approach with the young people we work with.”

 Making the connections

“Transforming trauma into teachable moments,” Ray and Calvin bring their life experience and compassion into the emergency room and beyond to provide crisis intervention and the crucial link between the hospital and community resources. This also includes D.L.I.V.E. providing direct support services and integrating critical support such a mental health therapy – all geared towards the improvement of health.

D.L.I.V.E. – the only program of its kind in Michigan – was founded in 2016 by Sinai Grace emergency physician Tolulope Sonuyi, MD. In 2017, the organization gained the attention of Margo Pernick, Executive Director of The Jewish Fund, who heartily endorsed D.L.I.V.E. as a potential grant partner  – and a strong service provider in Detroit working to build a healthier community caring for the young and most vulnerable of residents in the city.

As a result of those first meetings with Ray and Calvin, and subsequent meetings that included Michael Eizelman, Vice Chair of the Board, The Jewish Fund awarded two grants to D.L.I.V.E. The first, from The Jewish Fund Teen Board, was a grant of $19,000 awarded in June 2018 for the purchase of a van to provide participants in the program much needed transportation to weekly meetings, skill-building and mental health services and job opportunities. The second grant, announced in November 2018, is a commitment of $450,000 over three years, to enhance D.L.I.V.E. operations within DMC Sinai Grace Hospital and to build capacity in its services at Receiving Hospital.

Commenting on the support of The Jewish Fund, Margo observed, “D.L.I.V.E. is working on the frontline in saving young lives in our city. The fact that the program is based at DMC Sinai Grace Hospital, working to make a significant impact on the community,  brings us full circle to the legacy of Sinai Hospital on which The Jewish Fund has been built.”

From trauma to teachable moments: and hugs at the Holocaust Center

To date, with limited staffing and resources, there have been more than 75 participants who have been served by the D.L.I.V.E. program. Not one has sustained a repeated injury, thanks to the creative ways Ray and Calvin reach out, engage and mentor those in their care.

The recent D.L.I.V.E. visit to the Holocaust Memorial Center proved to be an extraordinary experience, not only for the group, but for the museum staff as well. Erna Gorman set the tone for her harrowing story with gentle tugs of humor. “If I don’t joke a little bit, I become very sad,” she began. So, let’s joke a little . . . I also like hugs. Lots of hugs. At the end of my talk I intend to hug each one of you.”

 Erna’s story

At nearly 85, Erna has been telling her story in public presentations for 25 years. “For a person who was not supposed to survive, I am here, and I have three grandchildren. So, who won? Hitler or me?”

Holocaust survivor and author of her story, Erna Gorman

Born in Metz, France, Erna was 5 years old when the war broke out in 1939. Her childhood memories are scattered, but vivid. She recalls her family traveling to Poland to attend a wedding and never coming home again. She tells how her father’s entire Polish family disappeared within a year; and then, how the family moved to her mother’s parents’ home in the Ukraine. She describes life in the ghetto, moving into hiding under floorboards in a small house; then an escape through the woods in 1941 to  find the barest of shelters for the family on a meager farm in the loft of an abandoned barn: “my home, my hell.” She describes her family in hiding, living with nothing but the clothes on their backs – and the scraps of food and two buckets of water the farmer could spare each day. No water or soap to bathe, no place to stand or walk, ridden with lice. Confined in silence for 18 months, Erna stopped speaking and could barely walk when the Russian Army arrived in 1944 to liberate her family. It was hardly a rescue, as German attack planes hit the truck carrying the family, Erna’s mother was hit, then died unattended in a Russian field hospital…

Erna’s way forward was slow, painstaking, still filled with hardship. A child of 10, she was bullied in public school, never finished and instead went to work to support her family. Erna emigrated with her father to the U.S. in 1953, and never spoke of her past until the sight of Skinheads in the news terrified her once again and compelled her to find her voice. “The world is still in turmoil. There are people suffering everywhere, and it hurts me. That’s why I tell my story wherever I can.”

The takeaways: first impressions from the D.L.I.V.E. group

“Anyone who can talk about such pain and laugh about it . . . now there’s a very strong person.

“She’s shown us, no matter what, you got to keep pushing. It isn’t over.”

“Where I come from, things can be a hard, but what occurred in her life is way different than mine. We all are survivors – but how do you survive something as massive as that?”

“You have to appreciate how far she’s come. I respect that.”

“All of us here have lost someone, but Erna lost a whole family!”

“I think our story can make other people strong, too.”

“I couldn’t imagine life without my mother. . .and to hear her experience watching her mother left to die . . . how do you recover from that?”

“I was amazed at her resilience . . . she uses her experience to fuel herself and give other people that kind of wisdom and energy.”

“To hear her say that she worked from age 10 and a half. At age 10, I was out playing, the last thing I was thinking about was going to work! And her story took me back to incarceration — when you really understand the psychology of that, to be able to remain sane in an insane environment– man!

 (Ray): “If I had to use one word to describe this experience, it would be motivation. I’m motivated! That’s the word for my feeling today.”

 (Vickie Adler, social worker and tour guide): “I am totally blown away by the group discussion here. I’m a psychologist, so I’ve seen this kind of thing before in a different environment. . . but meeting you this afternoon is truly a privilege. The thing that comes to my mind is empowerment. That’s the purpose of psychology, that’s what I try to do with all the people I’ve tried to help. This is a place where you learn about the incredible things people overcame. That’s one of the lessons of the Holocaust – that people survived, they started new lives, they had families, many of them struggled, but they all did what they could, and they overcame death, defamation and tragedy.”

 (Evan): “The one word to summarize everything here today is resilience. All of us are going through stuff—it’s that resilience that continues to allow us to where we want to get to manifest our changes.”

 (Michael Eizelman): “I first met Ray and Calvin a few months ago on a site visit with The Jewish Fund. And one of the reasons I wanted to get involved with D.L.I.V.E. is because there’s a parallel here – as you can see. You’re all survivors, too. At the end of the day, you guys are all doing what Erna did: you realize that you have to step up and help yourselves, that you have to know you are responsible for yourselves. And, at least today, you can find people out there – like Calvin and Ray – here to help you. God willing, one day, you’re going to be up there telling your story to your children and grandchildren—to your family—this is where I started, this what happened to me, but this is where I got, this is where I am. You guys are heroes, and I’m proud to be a member of your family.”

For more information on D.L.I.V.E. please visit online.