FORT VALLEY -- When Vernard Hodges heard about the shooting death of 8-year-old Jai’mel Anderson it first broke his heart, and then he got angry.
Hodges, a Houston County veterinarian, grew up in poverty in Fort Valley. After the shooting, he wanted to have some way to show young people today that there is hope. He called a few friends, rounded up some donors, and Saturday held the Rally in the Valley at the apartment complex where Jai’mel was killed early Tuesday morning.
They offered free barbecue chicken and soft drinks to more than 200 people who came together to mourn the death and talk about how to stop the violence.
“We’ve got to do something,” Hodges said as the rally was starting up. “We can’t continue this way. Every day we wake up in Middle Georgia, there is a shooting. It just can’t be the new normal.”
Peach County Sheriff Terry Deese and Fort Valley Public Safety Director Lawrence Spurgeon attended the event, and both said Jai’mel’s death has touched a nerve in the community unlike anything they have seen.
Jai’mel was staying at the apartment of his mother’s boyfriend Tuesday, and was watching TV at about 1:40 a.m. when someone shot through the front door and killed him. Five men have been charged with murder in connection with the case.
Deese and Spurgeon both said they are glad to see the concern in the community.
“It’s an innocent child who hasn’t bothered anybody,” Deese said. “Most people have children or grandchildren or both, and the thought that it could have been them, it strikes everybody’s nerve.”
Spurgeon said the investigation is ongoing and urged anyone with information to come forward.
“Anybody who had any involvement in this needs to come on and turn themselves in, because we are going to hunt them high and low to get anybody who had anything to do with it,” Spurgeon said.
A separate vigil was also held downtown Saturday evening. Deese said he believes the community coming together to talk about the issue is a good step.
“I think this is a way to take this country back,” he said. “You’ve got to do it one community at a time. We can’t fix Detroit’s problem or New York’s problem, but on a local level we can make a difference with our problem.”
Hodges said Saturday’s event was just a start. He wants it to spark an ongoing movement against violence across Middle Georgia.
“It shows the children in town that somebody cares and we are here to protect them,” he said.
The event began with a prayer held under a large tent. Jai’mel’s mother, Takia Williams, wept as it began and left a short time later.
Michele Story and Connie Smith both grew up in the apartment complex and came to the rally together. Jai’mel was a cousin of Story’s husband. Both said they believe low-income apartment complexes need to do more screening of residents keep out people with a criminal past.
They said there was no trouble in the complex when they were growing up. They believe people are too quick to settle disputes with guns these days.
“Back in the day, we could fight and the next day we could be friends,” Story said. “We didn’t think about guns or nothing like that.”
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.