Baltimore kids give up toy guns, get a prize — and a lesson on peaceful living

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
"If they give us a toy gun, we'll give them a prize." Kids learn peaceful living at exchange.

To celebrate 10 years of teaching peace tactics to children in East Baltimore, Ralph E. Moore Jr. decided to have the children hand over their toy guns.

As the faux weapons — traded for basketballs, stuffed animals and other goodies — were collected Saturday night at St. Frances Academy Community Center, they were painted and incorporated into the background of a mobile mosaic.

"If they give us a toy gun, we'll give them a prize," said Moore, adding that the project has several symbolic meanings and a very practical one: "It's to get the guns out of the kids' hands."

Over time, more children can choose to trade in replica guns and place them into the art project. It will be displayed in part to honor Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy shot and killed by Cleveland police in 2014 while playing with a toy gun at a community center.

Gun violence also has long plagued Baltimore, where nearly 1,000 people were shot and more than 300 were killed last year. More than 260 have been killed this year.

"The replica guns are what's dangerous," Moore said. They remind him of the toy cigarettes prevalent during his own childhood. "It was orienting kids to smoking. I think toy guns, in many ways, are doing the same thing."

The art project will be overseen by a team of artists from the nonprofit organization Mosaic Makers, which has contributed to more than two dozen public community artworks in the city. Moore said the project follows the biblical instruction to make "swords into plowshares."

"We should put every effort we can to live and play by peaceful means, and that's what that's saying," Moore said.

Sebastian Taylor, 6, surrendered his two least favorite toy guns in exchange for a ball for his older brother, Eli, and a set of walkie-talkies for himself. Sebastian said the replica assault weapon, which he describes as "the green one," wasn't that much fun. It made a lot of noise. "I got it at the beach," he said. It doesn't even shoot water.

A few feet away, Crosby King smeared glue on the back of a colored tile fragment and affixed it around Sebastian's old toy.

"It's easier than it looks," said King, a volunteer. When complete, the mosaic will be a brightly colored hand flashing a peace sign, surrounded by surrendered toy guns.

The toy-gun surrender at St. Frances is the centerpiece of this year's community Halloween party in the Johnston Square neighborhood. In prior years, a vampire-themed event accompanied a blood drive. Another year, dental hygiene was emphasized since the children were getting so much candy.

This year features the traditional moon bounce and face painting, but it also serves to celebrate a decade of the "Peace Camp" run by Moore and Nawal Rajeh, co-founders of the By Peaceful Means organization.

Its three-to-four week-summer "Peace Camp" in Baltimore teaches about 50 children between 5 and 12 years old how to de-escalate situations, how to collaborate and how to peacefully resolve conflict.

The children study peaceful leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela. They dance, cook and create artwork together. A handful of students who attended each summer — now teenagers — are junior counselors, Rajeh said.

Ten years ago, Moore ran a literacy camp for children at St. Frances Academy when Rajeh was a young volunteer. She persuaded Moore to launch a summer peace camp instead after she watched a fight break out between two third-grade girls on a day that coincided with the anniversary of the Iraq War.

"That really struck me that solving our problems with violence is not just a national issue or a personal issue," Rajeh said. "It really permeates civil life."

The camp grew and now includes a second location at the 29th Street Community Center. All the events are free.

Ariyonna Pritchell, 7, found the toy gun exchange perplexing. She had a conundrum, since she's not allowed to own a toy gun. She worked the room trying to find an adult who would let her have a new toy anyway.

"I can't play with guns," she said. "They're dangerous."

ecox@baltsun.com

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