JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It has been three years since Operation Save Our Sons set out to attack and transform the culture of violence in Jacksonville.
Friday they will continue that mission with an annual summit where hundreds of young men from across the city will come together under the theme "Young Lives Matter."
Bishop John Guns, the founder of the program, said that he knows young people aren't the only answer when it comes to stopping the violence, crime and even the death of young men in Jacksonville, but he does believe they have saved and changed lives.
Young Guns is a group of about 20 fourth and fifth graders at Sallye B. Mathis Elementary School started by Operation Save Our Sons.
Every week they meet with male mentors to take trips, do service projects and just talk about working hard, respecting authority and making good decisions.
For fourth-grader Bryant Hill, it's more than just a conversation.
"I don't really have a dad in my life because my dad works a lot so it's really good to have three men that I know close. That I know can mentor me and help me.
Young Guns is just one of several programs developed by Operation Save our Sons in the three years since the organization started.
They have a similar program at Ribault High School, programs for fathers, and an annual summit for young men.
It's all in an effort to stop the violence, shootings and deaths of young black men in Jacksonville.
A reality even a fourth grader can see, and one they say, that Operation Save Our Sons has helped them overcome.
"A lot of teenagers and stuff are getting shot and they are being in a lot of things and I don't think that's good for them because they are really risking their life just to, like, fit in I guess," said student Leondre Stewart. "It's kind of telling me to like just, focus on my dreams and goals to get what I want to be in life."
Bishop Guns said that the Young Guns approach is strategic, because gangs are now targeting children at younger ages.
"Gangs are now looking for the sixth-grader or the seventh-grader of the eighth-grader and these kids get integrated into the culture. If we can change that at an earlier age, then a decision to connect to a gang becomes less likely," Bishop Guns said.
Though the future is still up in the air for the young men of Jacksonville, Guns believes Operation Save Our Sons has made it a little brighter and Hill agrees.
"Not having them, it would be horrible because I wouldn't know how I would learn how to be the person I am right now," said Hill. "I think I'm smart and helpful and becoming a man and becoming a leader.
Guns said that his goal is to expand Operation Save Our Sons into 10 schools next year and intimately dismantle the culture of gangs
They received $15,000 from the Sheriff's Office but said they really need more funding to keep and grow these programs.
Guns and Operation Save Our Sons is holding a fundraising dinner Thursday at the Regency Hyatt Jacksonville Riverfront Hotel and tickets are still available at the door.