Larita Rice-Barnes (left), Terra Jenkins (center), and April Roby-Bell work behind the scenes in East St. Louis, Illinois, and its surrounding communities to help grieving families after tragedies. The three women grew up around street gangs and now fill in the gaps for a community overwhelmed by gun violence. Credit: Whitney Curtis for KHN

By Cara Anthony

When April Roby-Bell joined the Gangster Disciples in middle school, the street gang treated her like family when she felt abandoned by her own. She was looking for love, acceptance, and stability. 

“They trained us as little kids. How to own your ’hood, own your street: ‘This is my territory,’” Roby-Bell said. 

The experience also taught her tough lessons about life and death at an early age. At least half of the friends she grew up with are now dead. “At times, it became hard because you just get tired of fighting,” she said. “I probably should have been dead a long time ago.” 

At 42, Roby-Bell isn’t defending territory for a gang anymore. Instead, she is standing up for the families in the southern Illinois communities of East St. Louis and neighboring Washington Park who want their children to be able to go outside to play without fearing for their lives. As a survivor of the violence, Roby-Bell serves as a source of strength for others. Those traumatized by gun violence call her for counseling. She has planned funerals for victims. And, for years, she has presided over burials of both strangers and friends. She sleeps with her phone by her side, so she doesn’t miss a cry for help. 

Nearby, Larita Rice-Barnes, 47, also carries a phone that doubles as a lifeline for grieving families. And Terra Jenkins, 50, receives similar calls. She typically checks her phone throughout the day, replying to messages from locals and nearby funeral homes. 

As young women, all three ran with street gangs around East St. Louis and its surrounding communities. Today, Roby-Bell works for a school district mentoring high school students. Jenkins is an outreach leader for a local clinic, and Rice-Barnes is a published author who spends countless hours volunteering and running two nonprofits. 

Still, their battle scars and faded tattoos recall their past. Because of those experiences on the front lines, some people trust them more than they do the police. The women fill in the gaps for a community fighting economic inequality, homelessness, health disparities, and gun violence. 

“In East St. Louis, you’re into it with death,” Jenkins said. “Nine times out of 10, the position that I’m in, I just be involved with a whole lot of death because I’m at the morgue.” 

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