Gastonia group uses first day of school to build connections in community rocked by violence

GASTONIA, N.C. — A welcome-back-to-school message from a few local men is the first step to curbing gun violence in a Gastonia community recovering from a deadly summer.

Calls of “Good morning” met each student who returned to their classrooms in the Highland neighborhood.

This summer, their community was rocked by four murders in just two months.

The greetings on the first day of school are part of a mentorship program working to connect with children before trouble finds them.

Eight guys from a group called 101 Black Men were at Woodhill Elementary before sunrise on Wednesday, lined up and eager for the first students to arrive.

“Be visible,” George Fullwood, a member of the group, told Channel 9′s Gaston County reporter Ken Lemon. “Let them know that we care about their well-being.”

Behind the smiles and fist bumps from these volunteers is pain.

The male volunteers say they knew many of the suspects and victims from the deadly violence in the Highland Community.

Many of the people involved in the murders were high school age or younger.

These men say they all started out just like these kids.

“Those were good kids,” said Finland Fair, a member of 101 Black Men. “It’s just sometimes we take a wrong turn.”

Now, 101 Black Men is rallying at the elementary school in hopes of helping more kids in the community before they reach that turning point.

“Right now, Highland needs us,” Fair said.

The men plan to become lunch and reading buddies to spend time with students on campus twice a week. They want to keep a strong relationship with these kids.

“We start young and just build them up,” Fullwood said.

Parents told us this first step was impressive.

“This is fantastic man, you know,” said Dwanye Sparks, a dad whose student goes to Woodhill Elementary.

Sparks said students aren’t used to seeing so many Black men at school.

Organizers with 101 Black Men hope the excitement about their presence helps to make them a resource for change.

“We are a group of men that are concerned about our community, and we want to see our community grow,” Fair said.

Members of 101 Black Men told Channel 9′s Ken Lemon that the group is already working on adding these same efforts at other Gaston County schools.

For the time being, the group will invest its attention on the Highland Community.

This weekend, the men plan to lead a march through the neighborhood, hoping to signal that help has arrived.

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