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Two children lost loved ones to gun violence. They’re now each other’s ‘safe haven’

The first five months of this year suggest it could be the worst year for mass shootings in decades. More than 8,000 people have been killed by gunfire, according to The Washington Post and Gun Violence Archive. The Post's ongoing analysis also found a sharp increase in deadly incidents involving children. Stephanie Sy reports the story of two such children linked by gun violence and loss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We have reported on several high-profile mass shootings that have claimed too many lives.

    But we want to take particular note tonight of the overall level of gun violence in America. The first five months of this year suggest that this could be the worst year in decades. More than 8,000 people have been killed by gunfire, according to The Washington Post and Gun Violence Archive.

    Last year was a terrible here. Gun violence claimed nearly 20,000 lives, 24,000 more by suicide with a gun. The Washington Post's ongoing analysis also found a sharp increase in the number of deadly incidents involving children so far this year.

    Stephanie Sy brings us the story tonight of two children linked by gun violence and the losses in their lives.

    Ava Olsen, Friend of Gun Violence Victim: How have you been doing?

    Tyshaun McPhatter, Son of Gun Violence Victim: I have been doing good.

  • Ava Olsen:

    That's a good thing.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Ava Olsen and Tyshaun McPhatter's video chats are mostly about typical kid stuff, like "SpongeBob SquarePants."

  • Ava Olsen:

    I love that show. It's so funny.

  • Tyshaun McPhatter:

    My favorite episode is, like, when they went to the jelly field and like they start capturing everything. SpongeBob was, like, dancing or something. Like, he was like — or something like that.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But, sometimes, they share things other friends may not understand.

  • Tyshaun McPhatter:

    Have you went anywhere this past year?

  • Ava Olsen:

    I mean, I have been to the mental hospital, but that's not really the best place.

  • Tyshaun McPhatter:

    Are you doing OK now?

  • Ava Olsen:

    Yes, I am.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Tyshaun and Ava have a tragic bond. In 2016, a gunman shot and killed Ava's best friend, 6-year-old Jacob Hall. It happened on the playground of Townville Elementary in rural South Carolina.

    Six months later, at an intersection across from Tyshaun's elementary school in Southeast Washington, D.C., his father Andrew was gunned down and later died.

    John Woodrow Cox, Author, "Children Under Fire": These two kids have both been devastated. Their lives have been derailed because of gun violence,

  • Stephanie Sy:

    John Woodrow Cox first wrote about Tyshaun and Ava in The Washington Post. In his book "Children Under Fire," he explores the trauma they live with even years later. Ava was 7 years old at the time of the shooting. She loved Jacob so much, she thought she might marry him one day.

    After he was killed, she wrote in her journal: "Today, I feel mad. I miss Jacob. I hate guns. I hate that they ruin my life."

  • John Woodrow Cox:

    Ultimately, she had to leave school because it was it was such a triggering environment for her. She was diagnosed with severe PTSD. And she started to have these really serious and often violent episodes, where she would harm herself or hit her parents. And, often, she wouldn't remember afterwards what had happened.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    By the time he was 8, Tyshaun already knew four people who had been shot. Despite the prevalence of gun violence in Southeast D.C., nothing prepared him for the death of his father.

  • John Woodrow Cox:

    Tyshaun dealt with a huge amount of anger, because he doesn't know really how else to express it. And he also feels like he can never show weakness. And his mother, she's worked really hard to deal with his anger, because she knows, as he gets a little bit older, if he says the wrong thing to the wrong person, that the way his dad's life ended could be the same way that his life ends.

    And she is determined to stop that.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    A child gets shot, on average, every 2.5 hours. Cox says Tyshaun and Ava's stories show the scope of the problem is even bigger than that.

  • John Woodrow Cox:

    These are kids who've not been shot. They're not legally victims of anything. They represent millions of children in this country who are victims of gun violence, undeniably victims of gun violence.

    And I don't think most Americans understand that. I don't think they have any idea that children go through this, even if they don't get shot.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In 2017, Ava saw Tyshaun's picture in an article Cox wrote in The Washington Post, and decided to write him a letter.

  • Ava Olsen:

    Because he lost his dad, and I lost my best friend, so we're similar. And I wrote him because I wanted to be his pen pal.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    "I get sad and mad sometimes, too," she wrote. "I used to go to Townville Elementary School. I don't anymore because something scary happened there. Do you like ice cream? I love chocolate."

  • Tyshaun wrote back:

    "I heard about your school. I hope you are having a bless day. Stay strong. And I'm praying for you. Sure, I will be your pen pal."

    And so began their friendship, writing regularly and exchanging gifts.

  • Ava Olsen:

    He sent me a little dog, like, from Las Vegas. And I sent him — I sent him several things, like squishies.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Squishies are polyurethane stress toys.

  • Tyshaun McPhatter:

    I use them like when I'm mad sometimes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Ava showed Ty one of hers…

  • Ava Olsen:

    See, a little dragon squishy.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    … when they video chatted on her ninth birthday.

  • Tyshaun McPhatter:

    Who gave you that?

  • Ava Olsen:

    Cameron, my brother.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Today, Ava is 11 and Tyshaun is 12. And they still video chat.

  • Tyshaun McPhatter:

    What's your favorite fast food restaurant?

  • Ava Olsen:

    Taco Bell.

  • Tyshaun McPhatter:

    I like Taco Bell, but it just makes me use the bathroom a lot.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Ava Olsen:

    I like Chick-fil-A too.

  • Tyshaun McPhatter:

    Yes, Chick-fil-A is my number one favorite.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    They talk about food, Minecraft, Ava's pets. Tyshaun even named one of Ava's five cats Jordan, after Michael Jordan.

  • John Woodrow Cox:

    They are each other's best therapists. And they're not getting into, well, what did you go through? It's just two kids who are loving each other and supporting each other and making each other feel OK.

    Donna Johnson, Mother of Tyshaun McPhatter: Ava, how you been?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Tyshaun's mother, Donna Johnson, agrees.

  • Donna Johnson:

    I just think that the friendship is like a safe haven for both of them. He knows how to interact with her. And I think that's how they have just been friends for so long now.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Tyshaun, who loves video games, is careful not to discuss violence or expose Ava to sudden noises.

  • Tyshaun McPhatter:

    I don't have loud stuff around her, like, because I don't want her to have bad thoughts or, like, bad memories about what happened to her.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    He knows how that feels.

  • Ava Olsen:

    It's kind of easier for him to understand than it is for, like, other people to understand how that really affects people.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And he was really affected by it too.

  • Ava Olsen:

    Yes, he gets it.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Ava's pet parakeets also help.

  • Ava Olsen:

    They help me, like, normalize noise.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Cox says Ava isn't alone in dealing with this kind of trauma. Proximity to gun violence has long-term effects on lots of kids.

  • John Woodrow Cox:

    It can be devastating to a child's development. They have more heart disease. They have more cancer, stronger likelihood of having things like diabetes, all sorts of illnesses that actually shorten their lives just because they're living in proximity to this epidemic.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Ava doesn't want other children to go through what she has. So, in 2017, she wrote to President Trump.

  • Ava Olsen:

    I told him what we need to change some stuff about, like, safety for kids, put, like, better-quality fences around schools, more security cameras, stuff like that.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And I understand he wrote you back.

  • Ava Olsen:

    Yes. He said that him and his wife are "sorry to hear the loss of your friend Jacob. It is my goal as president to make sure that children in America grow up in safe environments, giving them the best opportunity to realize their full potential."

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Did that satisfy you?

  • Ava Olsen:

    No, not enough.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Ava plans to write to President Biden, too.

    Tyshaun remains skeptical.

  • Tyshaun McPhatter:

    I can't say really anything to be done about that, because everybody is not going to just up and give their gun away.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Tyshaun's mother, Donna, believes it's up to her to keep him safe, amid continued violence in their neighborhood.

  • DONNA JOHNSON:

    It starts at home, the parents. I protect my son. He's not going to ever go through any of this stuff that the normal Southeast kids go through, because I'm going to make sure of that.

    Tyshaun will tell you, like: "Mom, why you got to be so difficult?"

    It's not me being difficult. It's me loving you, me protecting you, me making sure that you're OK. I can't allow — I can't.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    When it comes to making sure kids are OK, too many kids lack access to adequate mental health care, says Cox.

  • John Woodrow Cox:

    Tyshaun especially is a great example. He went months and months and months without any therapy, none, just because he didn't have it. His mother couldn't afford it, and there was no access.

    The least we can do for these kids is give them therapy. We just have to decide as a country that these kids matter, and that we're going to do what we can to support them.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Just as they support each other.

  • Tyshaun McPhatter:

    I want to make sure that she feels OK about talking to me. She goes through a lot, and I just check up on her a lot. And I hope she feels like I do too.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Tyshaun and Ava haven't recovered from their trauma, but they're facing it together.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.

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