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Toronto man’s brush with death inspired him to dedicate his life to stopping gun violence

Toronto man’s brush with death inspired him to dedicate his life to stopping gun violence
WATCH ABOVE: At 21, Leo Barbe was shot twice and left for dead in a Montreal alleyway. He knows first-hand the destruction that gun violence creates for the person, the family and the community. Eleven years later, Barbe is the founder of Think Don't Shoot and is speaking out about the effects of gun violence while giving hope to youth who have lost their way. Susan Hay has the story

Leo Barbe took a trip to Montreal with his friends to celebrate the end of school and the start of his career but things went terribly wrong.

“I took an alleyway as a quick shortcut. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Barbe, survivor, motivator and founder of Think Don’t Shoot.

Barbe’s decision to take that shortcut in 2007 changed his life forever. He was only 21 years old.

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“(The) kid asked me for a cigarette almost like from a movie,” recalled Barbe.

“I said, ‘Sorry man, I don’t smoke.’ Guy puts the gun in my face and said, ‘Give me all your money.'”

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Barbe said he quickly reacted by grabbing the gun and trying to knock the man out.

“We both kind of trip. I fall with the gun and as I’m falling, he rips the gun out of my hand. Boom, he shoots me, first time (the bullet) hits me in the stomach.”

And that wouldn’t be the last shot.

“I don’t remember that first bullet, but I remember every inch of that second bullet — ripping through my back (and) missing my heart,” he said.

Two gunshots all for $10 from Barbe’s wallet and his cellphone.

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“You know you see on the news, somebody got shot, survived, we go, ‘Thank goodness,’ and we forget,” he said.

“We don’t realize what happens afterwards … I had five major surgeries over five months, lost 75 pounds, had to learn how to walk again.”

READ MORE: How Toronto gun violence in 2018 compares with past years

Once his body had time to heal, reality set in and so did PTSD.

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“It just became too much and by the time I was 22, I tried to kill myself twice. (It) landed me in the mental hospital in the psychiatric ward,” said Barbe.

In April 2009, exactly a year after Barbe attempted suicide, he heard the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech — words that would change the course of his life.

“I’ve been to a mountain top, and we as people will get to the promise land. I may not get there with you, but we as people will get to the promise land,” he recalled

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Barbe took the time to let those words sink in and soon after Think Don’t Shoot was created. The organization teaches youth about emotional intelligence and provides life skills that build character at home, school, and in their community. Working in partnership with the Toronto District School Board and Peel RegionalPolice. Barbe’s workshops focus on mental health, leadership, communication and relationship skills.

“The kid who shot me, he wasn’t born to shoot me. He wasn’t born to be a shooter. What happened in his life that brought him to that alleyway with a gun and he thought it was his only option?” said Barbe.

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“That’s really where my work now comes into play. How do we educate youth to take control of their emotions, understand their mental health so that if a gun is placed in front of them or if gang life is presented to them, they have the strength to know to make the right choice.”

Barbe recalled how he felt the night he heard about the Danforth shootings for the first time.

“I felt angry, I felt lost, I felt confused,” said Barbe.

“I felt like all my work that I’m doing is going on deaf ears. Shootings in Toronto they’re effecting so many more people than the ones that are hit. The family, the community, we don’t talk about community PTSD.”

When asked if walking into any alleyway now brings back negative memories, Barbe keeps thinking to what happened in 2007.

“I put myself back into that position and seeing that kid with the gun shaking in his hand about to shoot me,” he said.

“I want to go back to that moment and help that kid.”