When bullets rip through Richmond neighborhoods, Felicia Grady’s cellphone often lights up with the names of students she taught in second grade.
The most recent time was Tuesday night, when gunfire at The Belt Atlantic apartments struck two girls Grady used to see every day. One is a 15-year-old student at George Wythe High School, and the other is an 11-year-old at Westover Hills Elementary, where Grady has worked for more than 10 years.
Sharnez Hill, 30, and her 3-month-old daughter, Neziah, were killed. Another woman, 29, also was wounded in the shooting.
“This can’t be happening,” Grady remembers thinking.
Not again. She knows all too well how gun violence causes ripples of grief through Richmond’s schools — how for students, it’s either them, their family, their classmates or their neighbors.
When virtual school started the next day for Westover Hills Elementary, Grady did her best to assure her students — her “kids” — that it was OK to take a step back after hearing the news.
“If you feel you need to turn off your cameras, that’s fine, you know? To really regroup,” she recalled telling them. “I even might decide to turn off my camera, too.”
Although teachers are doing the best they can to offer support, it’s difficult, Grady said. They can’t wrap their arms around the students like they used to.
So on Saturday afternoon, Grady showed up to George Wythe’s football field with other Richmond Public Schools teachers and dozens of community members in search of a solution to stop the city’s gun violence.
Organized by Cruz Sherman, a Richmond radio host, the “Men in Action” event was meant to mobilize men to fight alongside the women he often sees on the front lines advocating for change.
Kids in Richmond deserve to have a childhood instead of being afraid to come out and play, he said.
“When people at 6 o’clock in the evening, people on the playing field, can get sprayed with almost 50 rounds with assault rifles and Glocks and knives, we ... have ... a ... problem,” Sherman said.
Standing behind him was a line of area public officials, politicians and ministers. They promised change, to join forces to end the violence and find a path forward.
Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith, who was among the first on the scene Tuesday, urged people to be mentors and role models who connect with the kids.
“We start defining ‘normal’ by saying that our children, our babies, will not be gunned down in the street,” Smith said. “Guns will not have found [their] way into the hands of our youth and that youth will not find guns as a way to their solutions.”
In the past year, 40 RPS students have been shot, Superintendent Jason Kamras said.
One of the kids killed in April’s violence was 15-year-old Jaywan Riley, a freshman at George Wythe High School. Vinshaun Johnson, 18, was fatally shot in Richmond’s North Side the day before. He went to Varina High School in Henrico County.
“We turned the world upside down to fight COVID, but more of our kids are dying from guns,” Kamras said. “We have to do the same for gun violence.”
RPS offers a 24/7 mental health hotline at (804) 305-2420, as well as options to speak with counselors, social workers and psychologists.
But when experiencing loss, especially of a young person, the grief can be overwhelming, said Bob Nickles, a licensed clinical worker at ChildSavers who specializes in school-based mental health services.
The impact deepens when the loss is tied to a chronic problem.
Neziah Hill, the 3-month-old slain Tuesday, was the fifth child to be killed this year in Richmond. In 2020, the city had a total of nine homicide victims younger than 18.
“Once is already too much, but we’ve lost more young people this year than I have kept track of, and when that is happening, there’s a special need to talk about it and to connect,” Nickles said. “Because it’s also very easy to say, ‘No one is paying attention to this. No one cares.’”
Many of Nickles’ patients, most of whom are Black students in Richmond’s schools, report a sense of fear and vigilance.
They’re familiar with funerals and anniversaries of deaths before the age of 10. Most have shirts with pictures of loved ones who have died. Some have lost five or more people in their family, which can shape a person’s academics and mental and physical health, Nickles said.
He advises parents to continue a child’s regular routine and empower them to communicate when they’re ready, so they don’t feel the pressure. Validating kids’ feelings is critical to the healing process, Nickles says.
Sharnez Hill’s cousin, the Rev. Donte McCutchen, addressed the crowd at Wythe on Saturday, noting how there were kids playing when Tuesday’s gunfire began at the apartments across the street.
He thanked Richmond police for being there for his family — within 24 hours, three suspects were arrested — and then turned to prayer, calling on God to provide strength and watch over the father who had lost his 3-month-old.
“We just buried our little cousin a couple of months ago,” said McCutchen, adding that his cousin was 15 years old and killed in Jackson Ward. “Then we come over here, and this happens. It just keeps on happening.”
Minutes later, the mother of a girl who was shot Tuesday was being counseled by Sherman, Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin, Richmond’s police chief and others. Kamras checked in with kids who live at the apartments.
A shrine of pink and white flowers — Sharnez’s favorite colors — and a single bottle of Hennessy left in tribute lay beside them.