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The shooting deaths of her two brothers spurred Aaliyah Stewart to provide Northwest Indiana kids avenues for learning and playing.

Now she wants to give them a place to hang out.

The Merrillville teen is hosting a fundraiser this week to build a youth center in her native Gary.

"I feel like in the city of Gary we are lacking opportunity, especially for kids from the age of 8 to 18," she said. "The environment is not clean, and it's not motivating. This will be a safe haven for kids in Gary."

The Project Peace Youth Gala will be Friday at Gary's Majestic Star Casino & Hotel and feature presentations from Northwest Indiana youth who, Stewart said, have "exceeded expectations and excelled in their communities."

Four years ago, she started the ASW Foundation in honor of her late brothers, Anthony White Jr. and James Anderson, who were shot to death in Gary at ages 16 and 20, respectively.

The nonprofit provides scholarships to college-bound Merrillville High School students, to give them the opportunity her brothers never had.

She also has participated in anti-violence events in the Region, and held free toy giveaways in Gary the last two Christmases.

But the 18-year-old believes Gary needs more positive outlets kids can turn to for recreation, for direction. She says such a place might have prevented the slaying of her brother Anthony outside a Gary gas station in 2007. His shooter, Keon Moten, was only 15.

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"For the young man who killed my brother, I think a center like that could have saved him. Because of his lack of guidance, positivity, influence," Stewart said.

"He needed someone to tell him that they cared about him. He needed somebody to yell at him and let him know what was right and what was wrong. He killed my brother for his friend. His friend told him shoot and he shot. It was a lack of self-confidence. He just wanted to fit in with the in-crowd." (Moten was tried as an adult and sentenced to 30 years in prison; he is currently at a reentry facility in South Bend and will eligible for early release next year.)

She said she doesn't hate the man who took her brother's life when she was only 7 years old.

"I appreciate him for what he did because he made me the person I am," she said. "It allows me to reach other people and help them not make the same mistake."

Stewart has met with city officials and is currently looking for a site for the planned center.

"We applaud Aaliyah’s efforts around violence prevention," Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said.

"We gladly support her vision for the youth center. It would be a complement to the work done through the Gary Youth Services Bureau, the YWCA and the Boys and Girls Club."

Stewart said the youth center will provide not only practical skills like, say, typing or DJing, but also a safe, stable place for children who might not have one, who might not have steady role models.

"It's all about, for some kids, making sure that you're there," she said. "Because so many people stand them up, they're not there, they don't pull through. It's all about you being there."

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.