AVON PARK — A handful of faithful, who want an end to gun violence in Highlands County, prayed under candlelight Friday night for that.
Plenty had stopped by all day, starting at noon, said Earl Wilson while grilling ribs and chicken to feed whomever came to visit the Castle on Delaney restaurant, on the corner of East Hal McRae Boulevard and South Delaney Avenue.
“More than I could count on my hands,” Earl Wilson said. “I might be under-counting.”
Plans were to have a vigil shortly after sunset, but a crowd failed to materialize, despite promotion and a number of people coming for barbecue.
“LilJazzy,” a DJ for Kiss 107.5 WFHT FM stopped by, using a remote connection to run her show and continue to promote the event.
She got dinner for her 3-year-old, Ja-Kaiya, who loved holding a candle during the vigil.
In her innocence, Ja-Kaiya asked if it was Christmas, or someone’s birthday.
Her mother didn’t say, at least not for now, that the candles commemorated five people killed in gun violence in Sebring on Jan. 23, or the numerous others dead in shootings in Sebring, Avon Park and Lake Placid over the years.
Arnold Wilson, of Beachfront Community Outreach Inc., noted the long history of violence and retaliations between the black communities in Avon Park and Sebring.
Before the event, he said gun violence alone had eroded the business fabric in their community, with most businesses affected by shots fired in one community followed by retaliation in another community.
Arnold Wilson, Earl’s uncle, said his father’s club in Beachfront became the site and victim of gun violence in 1995 at the hands of patrons.
He and other local activists got together with the Highlands County Homeless Coalition and found grants to improve the neighborhood. The main crossroad of Southside now has ADA compliant sidewalks and crossings, as well as historic downtown-style lamp posts.
Still, gun violence has moved from the Southside out to businesses on U.S. 27, Main Street and State Road 64 in Avon Park and to Sebring with the five women who were killed two weeks ago at SunTrust bank.
Although the SunTrust shooting did not have any direct connection to community-based violence, Arnold Wilson said the greater Highlands County community needs to take a stand against such violence.
Arnold Wilson also wants to see economic improvement in Southside Avon Park, whether that be through a reworking of codes to give leeway for restaurants to serve alcohol within a closer radius to churches on every corner, or just hard work by Terrell Jackson, owner of Castle on Delaney restaurant, or by Jackson’s son, Javionne, who often has his mobile car wash business parked by the curb across Hal McRae Boulevard from the Castle.
Southside Avon Park, with code adjustments, he said, could have more such success stories, providing employment, income and a path away from violence formany young men and women in the community.
“We can’t let it get us down,” Terrell Jackson said.
“LilJazzy,” who would only give her street name, “Tasha,” for this story, said she and friends got involved with Kiss 107.5 when they started doing interviews of local individuals for a YouTube channel, “$Quad Boi TV.”
She continues that work for the on-air and internet radio presence, with a mission to give voice to people wanting to do something with their lives.
“People are trying to better themselves,” she said.
Beachfront Community Outreach Inc. has hosted two round table events in the past, which led to many positive things such as the COPS Grant that added four minority deputies who were assigned to Avon Park.
“The COPS Grant that Highlands County received has made a deterrent in the violence in our Southside area, but now it has moved out,” Arnold Wilson said.
Community leaders and representatives from the NAACP were at the vigil, including Aljoe Hinson.
Arnold’s brother and Earl’s father, Pastor Eric Wilson of Faith Pentecostal House of God, gave the prayer during the vigil, which had almost a dozen people just before 8 p.m.
“People will see what we do,” Javionne Jackson said, adding that he looks forward to seeing more people next time.
Highlands News-Sun staff writer Marc Valero contributed to this report.