A snapshot of a smiling, teenage boy was displayed in a gold picture frame in Cross Creek High School’s auditorium Thursday evening.
Annettea Mills walked past the picture of her nephew, James Gillette Jr., to the stage to talk about all that has happened in the year since he was killed.
After forming CSRA Saving our Students Inc., she and her group have reached out to schools and families to stop bullying from guns and hurtful words.
“Out of that life being taken, I turned a tragedy into a positive,” Mills said. “Here we are a year later and things are happening. People are behind us, people believe us.”
To celebrate one year of success, SOS held a rally at Cross Creek on Thursday to talk about how to do away with violence and bullying among young people for good. Speakers talked to the audience of roughly 50 people about the progress they’ve made so far and how much work they still have to do.
The group ate birthday cake and talked about plans to touch more lives than ever before.
Mills considered the rally a fellowship, and the small crowd was intimate and energetic. Student volunteers escorted attendees to their seats, and politicians were called by their first names.
“I’m so excited, I don’t know what to do,” Mills said. “It’s Mr. John’s turn,” she said as she called Rep. John Barrow to the stage. “He told me to call him John.”
Barrow was one of several speakers who shared a personal story about bullying.
Barrow said he was constantly teased by classmates but recognized the problem has gotten worse today with new tools such as texting and computers.
“If you’re experiencing any kind of bullying, let me tell you something,” Barrow said. “You’re in good company. I was bullied … I was such a nerd even the nerds would pick on me.”
Richmond County Career Technical High School freshman James Park said he was able to start fresh when he entered ninth grade this year. In middle school, classmates mimicked his stutter, held their noses when he walked by and made oinking noises at him as if he were a pig.
“I was bullied a lot because I didn’t really take care of myself,” Park said. “It was something that I really didn’t tell anybody about.”
Devon Harris, the founder of Full Circle Refuge, which works with at-risk youth, tried to offer insight into why kids might bully others. Most don’t know who they are and often have deep insecurities, he said.
But as he encouraged the audience to act positively toward one another, he knew he was preaching to the choir.
Because the people who really needed the intervention were not the ones in the audience, he encouraged people to stand up to bullies and help stop the cycle of negative behavior, crime, violence and teens in jail.
“You don’t want to be the outcast, the one that goes against the grain … but you’ll benefit in the long run,” he said. “You’ll be more of a man, more of a woman if you go against the grain.”
Mills said this one-year anniversary rally is the start of more outreach in the community.
She said her group plans to visit one school every two weeks to talk about violence and how to stop bullying.
It’s all in the memory of Gillette, who was shot and killed while working at the Belair Conference Center in March 2011 during the 16th birthday party for a grandchild of James Brown.
Mills said all the outreach that has come out of Gillette’s death has been rewarding but challenging. They had to fight for their organization to get incorporated and earn credibility among the schools.
But they did it, and the best is yet to come, she said.
“A lot of people said we wasn’t going to last, but here we are,” Mills said.