CDC awards $6M grant to VCU to address youth violence in Richmond and beyond

September 29, 2021

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday awarded a $6 million grant to two Virginia Commonwealth University researchers who will co-lead a project on community-led strategies to promote healthy communities, positive youth development opportunities, and to prevent and decrease youth violence in Richmond.

The five-year grant was received by Terri Sullivan, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and associate director of research at the VCU Clark-Hill Institute for Positive Youth Development, and Nicholas Thomson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Surgery in the School of Medicine and the Department of Psychology and director of research at VCU Health’s Injury and Violence Prevention Program.

an aerial view of the v. c. u. Health building
The CDC has awarded a $6 million grant to two VCU researchers who will co-lead a project to identify strategies that prevent and decrease rates of youth violence in Richmond. (File photo, University Marketing)

The grant is one of only five awarded nationally and designates VCU as one of the CDC’s Youth Violence Prevention Centers that work closely with community partners to support the project’s activities.

The project will be conducted primarily by the Clark-Hill Institute for Positive Youth Development and the Injury and Violence Prevention Program, and in collaboration with the VCU Center on Society and Health.

“Our role in reducing youth violence relies on the partnership of our community in the Richmond region, and I am grateful to our community with entrusting us to do this important work,” said Peter Buckley, M.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine. “We recognize the importance this work could have beyond our community. The public health impacts of our faculty’s work have the potential to be felt far and wide as they develop a model for interventions that work to reach youth in other communities as well.”

Jennifer Malat, Ph.D., dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, said the project has a tremendous impact, studying an area of great concern with the goal to reduce youth violence.

“The collaborative work between Dr. Sullivan in the College of Humanities and Sciences and Dr. Thomson in the School of Medicine is a great example of how VCU uses our resources from both campuses to benefit the community in which we are located,” Malat said. “I am eager to see how the prevention strategies developed and implemented through this research have positive and lasting effects on the Richmond community.”

As part of the grant, VCU will work in partnership with Richmond Public Schools, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority and the mayor’s office.

“There can be no higher priority in this city than the safety and security of our children,” said Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. “That’s why we’re deeply gratified that VCU has received the CDC Youth Violence Prevention grant and are committed to working with the VCU Healthy Communities for Youth project.

“We must all do our part to decrease youth violence and increase positive outcomes in our community. This partnership is critical to providing the support and intervention for our youth that will steer them away from violence and toward a brighter future.”

Jason Kamras, superintendent of Richmond Public Schools, said he “is ecstatic that the CDC has recognized the incredible talents of our partners at VCU.”

“I am grateful and thrilled to be part of a collective partnership that bridges across city agencies and has the potential to truly enhance the trajectory of our children's lives,” Kamras said.

The grant is the fifth time the CDC has designated VCU as a Youth Violence Prevention Center, with the Clark-Hill Institute being awarded funding over two decades.

“I am proud of the VCU Clark-Hill Institute’s over 20 years of involvement in these centers. VCU is the only university that has been continuously funded as one of the CDC’s National Centers of Excellence since the inauguration of these centers in 2000,” said Albert D. Farrell, Ph.D., a co-investigator on the grant, a Commonwealth Professor in the Department of Psychology and founding director of the Clark-Hill Institute who served as principal investigator on the CDC grant from 2005 to 2016.

“Clark-Hill Institute faculty have been involved since the beginning with our faculty serving as [principal investigators] since 2005,” Farrell said. “The community-based partnership and projects funded by these grants has been a centerpiece of the institute’s work. This funding has enabled us to develop, implement and evaluate evidence-based programs within the local community and provide training for the future generation of researchers focused on youth violence prevention.”

The new grant builds on prior work, including the current VCU Youth Violence Prevention Center grant that ends this month and was co-led by Sullivan and Derek Chapman, Ph.D., interim director of the VCU Center on Society and Health and an associate professor in the Division of Epidemiology in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health. Chapman will serve as the surveillance data lead and will guide implementation of violence prevention stakeholder education strategies with Torey Edmonds, the community engagement coordinator on the current grant.

The new grant engages youth and adult stakeholders in collective decision-making to address factors that contribute to inequities in positive youth development opportunities in their communities. The goal is for residents, particularly youth, to work with local government and community organizations to create a collective impact that increases the availability and accessibility of opportunities.

As part of this work, Fantasy Lozada, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, will develop a culturally responsive curriculum for African American adolescents in partnership with Richmond Public Schools. Another project component draws on the success of previous VCU models in building community capacity and will expand the scope and sustainability of this model. This component also focuses on increasing the capacity of grassroots community organizations through stakeholder education.

The hospital-based component of the project builds on a grant awarded last week to Thomson to conduct a randomized control trial that will evaluate the effectiveness of a modified version of VCU Health’s Bridging the Gap program, aimed at preventing youth from engaging in retaliatory firearm-related violence and becoming injured or killed. Last fall, Thomson also received a grant from the CDC for a similar project to evaluate Bridging the Gap’s effectiveness in preventing retaliatory firearm violence among adults. The hospital-based violence prevention program, called Emerging Leaders, features virtual reality coping skills training for youth, a technology developed by Thomson with funding from VCU’s Commercialization Fund.

“As the region’s only comprehensive Level I trauma center verified in adult, pediatric and burn trauma care, VCU Health System and our trauma care providers are superbly skilled at treating the physical consequences of violence. But they also know that the best way to address youth violence is to prevent it,” said Art Kellermann, M.D., senior vice president for VCU Health Sciences and CEO of VCU Health. “From our Bridging the Gap and Emerging Leaders programs’ research initiatives led by Dr. Thomson, to VCU Health’s Injury and Violence Prevention Program led by Dr. [Michel] Aboutanos, M.D., VCU and VCU Health are creating a safer world for our region’s youth. This CDC award sets the stage for our teams to achieve even greater impact and generate important insights that will benefit young people across our nation.”

Aboutanos, medical director of the VCU Trauma Center and a co-investigator on the grant, said he is grateful for VCU’s leadership and community partners, and is proud of the team and the work of VCU Health’s Injury and Violence Prevention Program, the VCU Clark-Hill Institute for Positive Youth Development and VCU Center on Society and Health.

“We are committed to preventing the devastating effects and suffering from the injuries that we see and treat every day,” he said. “We are committed to working with our community partners, city leaders and stakeholders to make a meaningful, measured impact. This is the most integrative we have ever been, and I am thrilled of the role that VCU, [the Injury and Violence Prevention Program] and our health system will be playing in hospital-community violence prevention.”

Eva Colen, senior policy adviser for youth initiatives and manager of the Richmond Office of Children and Families, said the mayor’s office is thrilled that the CDC will continue to support the research of VCU Healthy Communities for Youth, a project led by Sullivan within the Clark-Hill Institute that aims to reduce youth violence and that is part of the CDC grant.

“Healthy Communities for Youth’s research was a significant contributing factor to the decision to establish an Office of Children and Families in the city of Richmond. We’re humbled by [Healthy Communities for Youth’s] ongoing commitment to the young people of our city, and we’re honored to partner with them to ensure that Richmond is the very best place to grow up and raise a family, no matter your background or family structure.”

Ralph Stuckey, director of resident services for the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, said the agency is grateful for its longstanding partnership with VCU that will continue with this project. “The level and value of the data and analysis that VCU provides is invaluable when it comes to our agency’s planning, programming and implementation of the programs for our public housing youth and families,” he said.

The researchers will also work in partnership with several community organizations, including RVA League for Safer StreetsThe Osiris Foundation and the Carol Adams Foundation Inc.

“We are excited about our partnership with VCU’s Healthy Communities for Youth, which has afforded the Carol Adams Foundation Inc. the opportunity to expand our work focusing on positive youth development,” said Carol Adams, founder of the organization, which provides emergency assistance to victims of domestic violence.

The project will also include co-investigators Emily Zimmerman, Ph.D., a senior researcher and director of community engaged research and qualitative research in the VCU Center on Society and Health and an associate professor in the Division of Epidemiology in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health; David Wheeler, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biostatistics; and April Kimmel, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy.