Crime & Courts

On Columbia’s most violent block, Uncle James’ van brings new hope

Church rallies to help Uncle James help others

James Sanders, known as Uncle James by most, helps people in his neighborhood. Members of The Valley Church rallied to help Uncle James repair the community van that is used to help transport children to football games and dance competitions.
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James Sanders, known as Uncle James by most, helps people in his neighborhood. Members of The Valley Church rallied to help Uncle James repair the community van that is used to help transport children to football games and dance competitions.

A broken down van once hauled children living on Columbia’s most violent block to youth sporting events all over the Southeast.

Uncle James and his brother, Grey Eyes, bought the van about eight years ago as an outlet for the neighborhood kids. It transported scores of children to places like Florida and Tennessee to compete in dance, football and basketball.

For them, it became an opportunity to escape the violence — to build the foundation of a better life.

But the van, with a blown engine gasket, hasn’t served its purpose in months. That’s about to change.

After the two brothers and their van were featured in The State’s story about Columbia’s most violent block, a group of strangers spent about $10,000 repairing the van to benefit the children of Ripplemeyer Avenue, where robbery, shootings, beatings and stabbings have become a way of life.

Members of Village Church in Blythewood set up a fund that covered the cost of a new engine, brakes, seating and air-conditioning. They also filled the 2000 Ford Club Wagon with 620 gift bags — mostly home goods such as paper towels, toilet paper and cleaning supplies — to pass out to families in the community.

“That’s amazing,” said Uncle James, 61, who struggled to find the words when presented with the windfall during a gathering at the church last week. “It’s going to touch a lot of people in this neighborhood.”

James Sanders, who is know widely as Uncle James, admires the van that is used by his neighborhood to help children. Village Church in Blythewood facilitated and funded the repair of the van. Tracy Glantz

Football and basketball seasons have already started, and Uncle James said he plans to get the van back on the road as soon as possible.

It all started with The State’s coverage of violence in North Pointe Estates, also known as The Bedroc, which is a low-income apartment complex in north Columbia. The story explored the community’s gang culture as well as featured people working to make the situation better.

“(Kids) are growing up in the violence out there. What they see, they’ll do,” 56-year-old Grey Eyes said. “If the kids don’t see anything positive, they won’t do anything positive.”

That’s where Uncle James and Grey Eyes come in. Their real names are James Sanders (known as ‘Uncle’ because generations of kids have looked up to him) and Anthony Sanders (known as ‘Grey Eyes’ thanks to his piercing green eyes that almost look grey at a distance), and they have spent decades giving back to people in this community and steering kids in the right direction.

Goats, hens and a 30-pound turkey roam the property of Grey Eyes and Uncle James, two brothers working to make North Pointe Estates a better place for the children. Gavin McIntyre The State

“When I read this article, I thought this is exactly what (Pastor Erik Estep) has been preaching about,” said Chris, who reached out to The State to get Uncle James’ contact information.

Chris asked that his last name not be used. He doesn’t want to detract from where the focus should be — the children of this neighborhood, he said.

He got together with the men’s group of Village Church, known as The Huddle, and encouraged its members to practice what the church’s pastor had been preaching. The group of about 40 men then called Uncle James, put him on speaker phone and offered to repair or replace the van.

Ricky, another member of The Huddle who also asked that his last name not be used, owns a mechanic shop close to The Bedroc.

“This is something I know how to do,” Ricky said. “God gave me the strength.”

Ricky’s wife, Rhonda, and the other members of church’s women’s group, assembled the 620 gift bags.

“I think it’s kind of meant to be for us to do this,” Chris said during a recent group meeting.

But members of the church didn’t take what Uncle James said on face value. They vetted him first.

A few weeks ago, Uncle James stood at the front of the room in a meeting with The Huddle and fielded one question after another.

“What is it inside you — your heart — that has driven you to help?” one man asked.

“It started long before me,” Uncle James responded. “My mother raised 10 to 12 other children, who didn’t have a place to go.”

His mother raised him to be the man he is today, he said. He now tries to guide children in the same way, by being a presence in their lives and acting as a moral compass.

“James has the true heart of Christ,” one man said after a series of questions. “It’s something we all aspire to be.”

But there’s more work to be done, Uncle James said. A woman named Ms. Hamlin needs help fixing up her house — he only needs the materials — and there are many more residents just like her.

The meeting ended with prayer and a pledge to build a lasting relationship with residents of The Bedroc.

James Sanders, left, who is know widely as Uncle James, and Ryan Paolucci, the leader of The Huddle, a men’s group at Village Church, pray together after the two met at a meeting at the church. The group funded and facilitated the repair of a van used by Sanders and others in North Pointe Estates. Tracy Glantz

“If we’re going to get involved, let’s make a long-term commitment,” Chris said to the group. “Politicians and churches — they come for one week and leave. We don’t want to be like that in this neighborhood.”

Cody Dulaney: 803-771-8313, reach out on Twitter @dulaneycd
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