By: Vinny Vella

HARTFORD — A sea of people crashed against the doors of St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center the night of June 21.

The first people to hear that Ashley Spence, 21, and Cameron Mounds, 19, had been hit by gunfire came on foot, pacing nervously as they waited for updates, struggling to sift through the white noise of the neighborhood rumor mill.

Above the din rang one, singular truth.

“Mommy, Ashley got shot,” a woman sobbed into a cellphone as she walked on the grassy hill leading up to St. Francis’ emergency room. Around her, cars slid into the hospital’s crescent-shaped driveway, directed by the security staff.

Minutes ticked by as the crowd swelled. Friends. Relatives. Even the woman who cuts Spence’s mother’s hair.

There were tears, hugs and bellowing cries, the kind that are summoned from some unknown depth within a person by raw grief.

It was a caldron of negative emotion. But it never boiled over into a conflict like the one that brought the crowd to the ER in the first place. There to make sure it didn’t were people who circulated among the distraught, stamping out any signs of mounting tension with nothing more than a few consoling words. Some of them wore a uniform: T-shirts and polos printed with the words “Peace it Up.”

For five years, the Compass Peacebuilders have been fixtures at the hospital whenever the victims of violent crime end up there. It’s an unusual partnership, as hospitals officials acknowledge, but the workers from the youth-outreach organization — mostly reformed criminals and ex-gang members — have excelled at conflict resolution.

And in that half-decade of working in the ER, the Peacebuilders have presided over a sharp reduction in lockdowns and conflict, according to St. Francis’ staff.

“Some of the best healers I’ve known are people who are wounded healers, people who’ve actually been wounded,” said Marcus McKinney, the director of St. Francis’ Curtis D. Robinson Center for Health Equity and the man who helped bring the Peacebuilders into the fold.

“That doesn’t mean, ‘I was in a gang and now I’m not,'” he added. “It’s more like, ‘I’ve been wounded in a way that I’m learning from it and going out to help someone. I’m listening in a different way because I didn’t forget that I was wounded.’ Someone who’s called into this work because they know how hard it is.”

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Photo Credit: Brad Horrigan/Hartford Courant