By Tom Wilbur
An open letter to the young people of Salina:
Last week, a tragic event took place in our community. A 17 year student was recklessly and ruthlessly shot because a group of misguided individuals were intent on killing someone. Even though they missed the intended target, someone was probably going to die that night. And they were successful in their mission of taking a life.
As adults, and parents, in this community many of us are still grieving at the innocent loss of life. Allie will never have the opportunity to enjoy a life that looked promising. This event was senseless, and in so many ways, preventable. We know that within the dynamics and daily routine of real life, we can give guidance, shout, stomp or punish—but at the end of the day, young people have choices to make. These young adults made a very bad choice, filled with anger and retaliation. Now they are shackled, as they appear in court, and some of them are openly sobbing about what they did. This isn’t a video game where people get back up. There’s no button to push to restart the game. This game is real life, and it’s too late for do-overs because the damage is done.
As I mentioned, this was all preventable. Whatever the reason— a lack of communication, a distrust of the community or the police, an unwillingness the stand up to the mentality of a small mob, or a total lack of any moral compass by anyone involved— no one apparently made any attempt to contact someone in position to help, prior to what took place. I’m guessing every one of them had a cell phone, or knows how to send a text message. I doubt that any of these morons considered letting anyone know—of what was taking place—or if they did, no one responded. Further, it’s unclear, but when kids sat in the street that night, did any residents in the area identify this as being out of the ordinary and take the initiative to call 911? Or is it someone else’s problem? I’m not casting blame here, but we do need to keep our eyes and ears open to the potentials of threats in our neighborhood. Maybe it was just normal activity. I don’t know.
But these young people, some of your peers, were moving down a road to destruction, and all the signs were there. There had been physicality. Hatred was brewing. Someone in this group knew bad things were about to occur.
Ahead of them all was a cliff—and a giant drop-off— filled with anger, danger, weapons, too much ego and a total disrespect for the life of another person. As they fell, they took one of our own, with them. Allie was murdered for no reason at all. She was simply riding in a truck. And the perpetrators most likely be locked in a prison cell for some time to come—a total loss, all the way around. There are no winners here.
Preliminary responses I saw from young people on social media revolved around things like:
“Salina is a terrible town, and is continuing to spiral out of control.”
“We’re just like a little Wichita these days, and everything’s going to hell.”
“Serves us all right—guns can be owned by anyone now without a license.”
“Sure glad I left Salina, it’s an awful place to live now.”
“Those police—they just can’t get anything right. They are the worst police department anywhere.”
Well, you know what? I refuse to allow someone to label us as something we are not. We do not have shootings nearly every night like Wichita. Salina is a great town, filled with lots of opportunity, if you seek out the positives, instead of dwelling on negatives. Possession of a gun with the intent to kill another human being? There is no license for that. And I have never had a negative incident with police, in a lifetime of living in Salina—teenage years, young adult life, raising my family, and now an empty nester. I have a great deal of respect for the law enforcement folks here. I certainly don’t place myself in harm’s way, to protect us all—and I appreciate that there are folks willing to step up and do that.
We live in a world today that’s rapidly changing. Our population is more diverse, our economy has changed, employment opportunities for kids are tougher, and young people grow up fast in a world that brings flashing images, 8 seconds at a time, of people that are happier than them. Young people hear messages in their music about violence and killing— that the world’s out to get them— and to take no lip from anyone.
Further, the makeup of households have changed, and a typical household anywhere in America, including Salina, has brought absenteeism to parenting, as most kids are not raised by their own set of nuclear parents. Sometimes, neither parent is around, anymore. There are fewer kids in church. Many of them are on a baseball field or soccer field instead, on Sunday mornings. There are more kids going hungry, here, than ever before. Drugs are easily accessible in an area where too major interstates meet. And there is a lack of trust between many young folks and their elders.
So what can we do? We need to come together as a community, and create the chance for young people to share what they’re going through— to create the kind of bonds that might have motivated one of these kids, intent on murdering someone, to seek out help. To do something, or to prevent it. Or to know enough to just walk away from a fight.
As parents, and mentors, and teachers and clergy, we need to have that level of dialogue with kids, and young adults, that instills within them the sense of value and level of self-worth they should own internally. The set of values that in choosing the road less traveled— when a fork in the road is approaching, and the angry mob is headed toward the cliff, they will have enough insight to make a better decision. We need to be vigilant in our neighborhoods, in recognizing problems or unusual situations, and in letting someone know—someone of authority who is position to help ward it off.
And we need to respond, as a community, in a way that says “this is not who we are”. That in this community “we care about each other.” And that ultimately in this place, Salina, Kansas— we will demand of each other that our streets our safe, our kids are surrounded with love, and that we will choose to make a difference, in preventing the same types of things that occurred— when Allie Saum was taken from us.
To Allie and her family, you are in our prayers. To the young people who have opportunity to read this—take time to share your feelings and thoughts with someone you know. Let us help build a path of safety, honest, and a real understanding of the challenges that you face, so that we can continue to diligently work to provide a safe and caring environment for each of you.
We’re here to listen, and respond.
God bless us all, on this Memorial Day weekend.
Tom Wilbur is President/CEO of Salina’s BANK VI. He regularly contributes to periodicals, newspapers, and magazines, and has lived most of his life in Salina, Kansas. He is a graduate of Salina Central High School and the University of Kansas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org