Regis senior uses billboards to bring awareness to gun violence prevention in Denver neighborhood

Last year, it was an image of a teddy bear and a gun on a coffin. This year, it’s an image of a gun with the message “Hugs Not Guns” in both English and Spanish.

For the past two summers, Regis senior Sayuri Toribio has been part of a youth-led effort to create billboards in Denver’s Westwood neighborhood that are designed to combat gun violence. Westwood and other neighborhoods in southwest Denver have some of the city’s highest rates of gun violence.

Toribio, who studies business administration at Regis with a specialization in marketing and minor in French, said the billboards are the result of collaboration between the young people in her neighborhood who created the Denver nonprofit Southwest Vida. The billboard, funded with a grant from the Office of Gun Violence Prevention with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, was created with help from the Denver Police Department and Denver City Council President Jamie Torres.

“It's youth-led, it's youth-driven. All of our input is in there,” Toribio said. “I tell people, ‘When you drive past 8th (Avenue) and Federal, that's our billboard that we worked on.’”

Toribio’s efforts were highlighted on 9News and on Fox31, where Toribio and her younger brother, Mario, shared their struggle with gun violence in their neighborhood. "It affects everywhere we go, whether it’s in our own home, our own street, our own school,” Toribio told 9News.

The billboards are just a part of her community activism.

In 2020, Toribio helped start the Southwest Vida newsletter, written by youth in both English and Spanish. The newsletter covers topics from mental health to gun violence to immigration and includes recipes, and the youth leaders once hosted a bike giveaway. Toribio said the newsletter’s goal is to keep the southwest Denver community informed. Fifteen young writers contribute each month to the newsletter, which has grown from six pages in its first year to 16 in its latest issue.

In addition, Toribio has been an intern with Torres, the Denver City Council president, for the past three summers, assisting with community engagement, social media and marketing.

Soon, this summer’s billboard will move to another location near Abraham Lincoln High School in southwest Denver, giving the group an opportunity to reach more young people with their message. It has already received attention. Toribio said the billboard has been tagged — a sign that people are at least reading the message.

Now, Toribio said, the challenge is to figure out how to progress from getting attention to sparking change. “They're reading the message,” Toribio said. “What are we going to do about it? How are we going to do more? How are we going to interact with those people who don't take the message as well?”

Southwest Vida also recently conducted a youth survey, covering topics including youth safety, bullying and mental health.

“This was really cool because around the time we were wrapping up our data, I was in my marketing class, and we were talking about survey collection and survey analysis,” she said. “So, it was really cool to see the words behind what I was already doing.”

Toribio, who will graduate from Regis next spring, said she hopes to focus on social justice in the nonprofit or business worlds.

Toribio said she chose Regis because of the business and leadership scholarships she received from the University — as well as its commitment to Jesuit values, which she felt connected with even before she enrolled.

As a senior, Toribio said those values have become even more important to her. “And it's like I was already practicing them. I just didn't know what to call them or what they were, or I had never meditated on the before.”