ELKHART — Born and raised in Elkhart, Jermaine Sanders fondly remembers sitting at a neighbor's dinner table for a weeknight meal and walking down the street without a care in the world to a friend's house for a Saturday night sleepover.
But at 38 years old, Sanders said the city he loves so passionately is not what it used to be.
“When I grew up in Elkhart, it seemed like one big family,” said Sanders, a pastor at the Ol Rugged Fellowship Church. “There was a greater level of accountability and respect, and that made it safer. Now, there is a greater disconnect between us. Some of us don't really know who our neighbors are. We're losing unity, and with that, we're losing the value that we have in one another. Through prayer, God gave me My Hood Needz Me.”
My Hood Needz Me is a new nonprofit organization that Sanders created after years of watching his hometown succumb to violence, especially among youth. The most recent shooting of a 16-year-old Elkhart boy, Braxton Barhams, spurred Sanders to get the ball rolling on his organization. He also recalled the shooting of 7-year-old Kristyana Jackson a year ago on Aug. 17. Having known Kristyana's mother, Kimi Jackson, since the seventh grade, Sanders was shaken by the girl's death.
“Seeing one of my long-time friends hurting over a random act of violence, it was something that could have been prevented had these people, whoever these shooters are, were living out their value,” Sanders said.
Sanders hopes My Hood Needz Me will help people grasp their self-worth through education and services. The group plans to help children with homework and tutoring and reach out to college students to help navigate mountains of paperwork needed for scholarships and grants. The organization will also extend its efforts to adults through GED programs, finance courses and cooking classes.
My Hood Needz Me launched at the beginning of July and hit the ground running with involvement in community events like Back 2 School Elkhart and a car wash that raised money for 16-year-old Braxton Barham's family. The group will be part of the Minority Health Coalition's annual health fair Saturday, Aug. 3, at the Tolson Center and a celebration this weekend with Agape Missionary Baptist Church.
Sanders said My Hood Needz Me provides a platform for people from all walks of life to get involved, whether that means joining as a volunteer, donating money or receiving assistance. The group is offering memberships for $50, which covers the rest of this year and supports the organization's programs.
“There's a place for everybody,” Sanders said. “If you believe you were put on this earth for a reason, My Hood Needz Me has a place for you.”
Sanders said partnerships with local organizations will be important to My Hood Needz Me's success.
“We want to become a hub in the community to work with other agencies and area churches,” he explained. “We want to connect with them and partner with them, so if we can't provide something, we can definitely send people in the right direction of these agencies.”
Jason Moreno, a community organizer for LaCasa, said he hopes My Hood Needz Me can become a blueprint to reduce violence in other cities like Fort Wayne, Gary, Kokomo and Indianapolis.
“All I deal with in my line of work are groups and individuals who are trying to improve the community, and every once in a while, you get one that really makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, and this is one of them,” Moreno said. “The programs seem very solid and very thought out.”
Talisha Sanders, Jermaine's wife and cofounder of My Hood Needz Me, wants the organization's efforts to eventually reach beyond the city of Elkhart.
“We want this to go national, overseas if possible,” she said. “It's not just about the hood and being lower-income. It's neighborhood, anybody, the suburbs, wherever you live, trying to get that unity back and respect for yourselves and other people, their property and their lives.”
Jermaine Sanders has been leading informational meetings on Thursday evenings at the Tolson Center south of downtown Elkhart to spread the word about My Hood Needz Me, and on Wednesday, July 31, he signed a deal for a building at 1333 Lusher Ave. that will serve as the organization's home base.
Sanders said the need to curb violence in Elkhart is evident, adding that the response from residents and community leaders has been overwhelmingly positive.
“This is our city, and if it's in our city, it's our problem,” he said. “We can come at this together. Let's not wait until we have to bury one of our own personal loved ones to feel like now is the time to do something. I'm not waiting for that. We want to celebrate our youth instead of having vigils for them. We want to celebrate life and what our kids are doing in the community. We can put them on display while they're alive as opposed to lighting candles for them when they're gone.”