A Space to Heal

Mural depicts a boy shooting a basketball and two figures holding hands.

School of Divinity alumna creates safe spaces for victims of gun violence.

Ryane B. Nickens with helps her students write something.

For most of her life, Ryane B. Nickens (M.Div. ’17), founder and president of D.C.-based The TraRon Center—a place for gun violence survivors to receive therapy and learn safe coping mechanisms—has been plagued by gun violence. First in 1989, she lost her uncle in a case of mistaken identity.

Only three years later, her pregnant sister was shot and killed during an altercation with their next-door neighbor; the neighbor then shot her mother, brother, and another sister. Her mother then jumped in front of the shooter, they wrestled for the gun, and once she got the gun away from him she shot and killed him.

Two years later, during her senior year of high school, she lost another brother to gun violence.

Growing up, she had dreams of attending Howard University; however, after the murder of her brother, her only goal was to move as far away from the city as possible. She decided on North Carolina Central University and graduated with a degree in broadcast journalism and aspirations of becoming a sports journalist. Life had other plans.

As a woman of faith, God led her back to D.C. to attend Howard University’s School of Divinity and it was here that the vision and mission of The TraRon Center began to take shape.

“I sold myself this grand Cinderella story that I’d work my way up in sports reporting in a way similar to Oprah Winfrey, but God was leading me in another direction and that direction led me to Howard University’s School of Divinity,” said Nickens. She says there was always going to be a TraRon Center, but it was at Howard where the vision and mission came into focus.

A Vision Comes to Life

Nickens birthed the idea of The TraRon Center, named in homage to her sister Tracey and brother Ronnie, during her undergraduate studies. Originally, the center was supposed to help young girls go to college. However, her studies at the School of Divinity awakened her activist spirit.

One of the courses that challenged her thinking was Christian Ethics with Cheryl Sanders, Th.D. In the course, Dr. Sanders hammered home the biblical scripture Micah 6:8 “loving mercy, seeking justice and walking humbly with God”—with this scripture looking her in the face, she was forced to ask herself what were her long-term goals. Realizing the issue of gun violence was always on her mind, she shifted her focus, turning The TraRon Center into a space that would treat adults with their trauma related to gun violence.

Six months after receiving her Master of Divinity, she opened The TraRon Center. “Even though gun violence was a sore spot for me, I knew I had a calling on my life. There are thousands of families, including members of my own family, who needed safe and sacred spaces to heal,” Nickens said.

Serving adult residents of Ward 8 in southeast D.C., Nickens soon noticed that elementary and middle school students also needed a space to cope with their trauma.

“Our young people are seeing their uncles, brothers, fathers and cousins murdered ... who is taking care of them? Where is their safe and sacred space?” She notes that “in the Black community kids are often told to be seen and not heard ... they are not stressed because they don’t pay bills ... but they are stressed out and they are scared.” The center now offers services to adults and children.

The Gift of Hope

Ryane B. Nickens sits at a desk and talks to a student.

With no dedicated space in the city for kids impacted by gun violence to talk about their trauma, The TraRon Center became their safe and sacred space.
The center, which holds space in the community centers where her students live, operates in one of the city’s most impoverished and disadvantaged wards that also has a high rate of gun violence. A poll done by The Washington Post in 2019 found that 46 percent of residents in Wards 7 and 8 say they experienced or know someone who experienced gun violence, compared to 34 percent for D.C. residents overall. The goal is to give victims easy access to therapy services.

Students who attend the program are from four to 13 years old, and when tested upon entering the center in 2018, many scored at the highest level of trauma. “What we try to do with our children [at The TraRon Center] is teach them conflict resolution, anger management and provide them with individual and group therapy,” Nickens said. But the center is so much more than dealing with trauma—it’s also a place that inspires and breeds hope.

Nickens uses her time with the students to expose them to Black culture through books and cultural experiences. She even welcomes volunteers from Howard University on an almost daily basis. There’s a student in her program who wants to be a doctor; when one of the medical students from Howard University visits the center to volunteer, it gives her young student a sense of hope— it makes her see her dream as a possibility.

“If we can teach our kids that they have something to live for then we can change the course for another generation,” said Nickens. She also incorporates creative arts into her sessions—everything from painting to dance therapy— in an effort for them to learn healthy ways to share their feelings. Creative arts also serve another purpose. When students depict things like suicide through their art, it helps to facilitate conversations and get them the help they need.

Nickens knows that it’s important to be the source of hope for her students in much the same way many people were for her growing up. She used to subscribe to the thinking that anyone can pull themselves up by their boot straps, but God intervened and showed her that she was fortunate to have her parents, mentors, teachers and family.

“I had people who got me the boots, helped me put them on and at each stage of my life helped me lace them up. I want to be what Wilhelmina Rolark [former Ward 8 council member] and so many others were to me to the children I get to spend time with. [I want to] help them put on their boots and help them lace them up; help them become the doctors and paramedics they want to be.”

Signs of Impact

With financial support from churches and other local organizations, The TraRon Center is making an impact. By August 2019, the students who showed high signs of trauma in 2018 were now showing only moderate levels, some saw as much as a nine-point drop; other students had one-point and three-point drops.

Adults in the survivor to survivor program—the center’s counseling sessions for adults—are also seeing results: two are pursuing their GED, one is going to nursing school and another is taking classes online to get her associate’s degree. One woman who entered a drug treatment program is now in remission and has steady employment.

These people had renewed hope through The TraRon Center. “This is why I live east of the river and work with these children and families. You can change the trajectory of a family when there’s a positive investment made,” Nickens said.

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