ELKHART — Ten years ago, Dionell Hill left Chicago and took refuge in a city called Elkhart about 100 miles to the east.
He needed a fresh start and a new environment where he could clean up his act; where he could get away from a non-existent home life and negative influences in a city that had seen nearly 1,100 people murdered over a two-year period at the time.
Growing up, he had no guidance, was abused and felt used, but change did not come overnight in Elkhart. Even after moving, he continued to struggle to straighten out his life and did some jail time.
Eventually a spiritual influence grabbed hold of him.
“I had every reason to be angry at the world, but God gave me the gift and the ability, and he remade me and allowed me to say that, 'Hey, you don’t have to be mad at the world, but you can make something out of the hardships that you went through’ … and that’s what I use today,” Hill said.
These days, Hill, 29, is married to Roberta. They have three children — boys aged 7, 10 and 12 — and reside on West Indiana Avenue within blocks of other family members on Roberta's side.
The community is tired of the violence that’s going on. -- Dionell Hill
Elkhart, he says, has has been good for him.
But life on Elkhart’s south side in recent years worries Hill.
In the past two years, crime in Elkhart has touched Hill and his family.
When shots rang out at Saleh’s Market last year, Hill said he knew the former owners of the store, one of the victims and the trigger man.
On top of that, Hill said he’s troubled by the frightened looks he sees on the faces of children at Tolson Center, where he works as a monitor and a mentor.
He said he has seen the fear in some children's eyes when they tell him they were told to stay inside the night before because of talk there could be a shooting.
Sending a message
It was those concerns that led Hill to sit through a city council meeting Monday night waiting for a chance to speak.
“It is my concern, and I feel I am obligated to speak for these children because, actually, the community is tired of the violence that’s going on. We’re tired of our kids dying in the streets. We’re wondering if there is some help that we can get here on the south side from the common council or whoever …” Hill told council members.
More specifically, Hill told the council he learned that a police patrol at Washington Gardens apartments had been discontinued.
The apartments have more children than adults, and a police presence is needed, he said.
Word of the canceled patrol agreement seemed to catch council members off guard and several thanked Hill after his talk.
Kim Sindle, director of the Elkhart Housing Authority, confirmed an arrangement ended in January after his office learned certain federal funds could no longer be used to pay for off-duty patrols.
Mayor Dick Moore, when asked later, said Washington Gardens is being covered like all other parts of the city. Additional patrols, he said, would be up to the housing authority.
Hill said he believes there's been a spike in patrols since he spoke Monday and believes it's needed to put a dent in gun violence.
“It’s not just Washington Gardens. You got the old Roosevelt. You got the whole south side that needs that type of protection,” Hill said.
“For this to be a small city in a small community, there should be no reason why they are just able to freely shoot guns and be violent the way they are,” he said.
Hill works with youth at Agape Missionary Baptist Church, and his minister, The Rev. Dannell Brown, said he believes two things have shaped Hill’s desire to work for and defend children.
Brown has spent time with Hill over the past five years and said he believes the lack of parental guidance Hill had growing up has shaped a determination to be a better influence on his own children.
The other thing are the funerals.
Brown estimates that many – possibly two thirds of all of Elkhart’s murder victims — ultimately end up at Agape for funeral services.
“When you see that up close and you see the sentiment of the family and the senselessness of these situations over and over again, I don’t think you can help but to come out the way he is right now and do the things he’s trying to do,” Brown said.
In 2013, the city of Elkhart recorded seven homicides. Hill said he worries that the same kind of thing can repeat itself in 2014.
He scoffs at the comparisons in crime between his old home and his new home. And as bad as he perceives crime in Elkhart, he said he thinks another city to the west has much bigger problems.
“South Bend is a lot worse than this,” Hill said.
Ironically, Hill said, he’s heard numerous times that people from Chicago continue to move to Elkhart.
“It’s not becoming Chicago, but you have Chicagoland people here and that can change the city … When you get a lot of people with a mentality and enough of them come, you can change an environment. It contaminates it,” Hill said.
“So you have to strategize — what do you do? How do you teach these people away from what they already believe?”