Photo by Brian Giandelone
SNELLVILLE -- When Chris Merritt thinks of Friday nights in Snellville, South Gwinnett football comes to mind.
"It's family and friends night," she said, "and that's the way we want to keep it. ... We want South Gwinnett to be a community school. It is a community school, and we want everyone to feel welcome."
Merritt, her husband and a handful of other volunteers joined together Friday night to serve as a team of ambassadors for the school. Their mission: Act as hosts while also keeping an eye out for any activity that may need the attention of school administrators or the police.
"We thought that starting this would be a great way to get the community involved and keep the environment friendly and fun," said Merritt, who helped organize the volunteer effort.
Three weeks ago, a scrimmage game that took place on what Merritt said was a beautiful night ended on a decidedly unhappy note.
After the scrimmage ended, 16-year-old Donya Dorch was shot in the chest on a grassy lawn in front of Britt Elementary School, which sits across the street from South's football stadium. Dorch survived.
The alleged shooter is also a 16-year-old boy, and Snellville police were exploring the possibility the altercation could have been gang-related. While both boys had attended South in the past, neither are currently enrolled at the school.
Merritt said she was standing in the parking lot at South when the shooting happened.
"Did that really just happen?" she said she thought.
Merritt is the co-vice president of South Gwinnett's PTSA. Her husband, Sherman, is the president of the Parent-Teacher-Student Association. Their son, who played football, graduated in 2009, and their daughter is a senior. They've been attending football games and volunteering at the school for five years.
While incidents like the Aug. 13 shooting affect the community, Chris Merritt said she doesn't believe they define the school.
"We want the community to understand they can come out and curtail some of that just by being present," she said.
Sherman Merritt agreed that being active in a community helps make it better.
"We all live in the community, and we want to keep it nice," he said. "The only way to do that is to be a part of it."
School officials said the ambassadors initiative wasn't created because of the shooting. Rather, it's an example of a school system initiative called "Be There," South Gwinnett principal Clay Hunter said.
"'Be There' is an idea that to the degree that parents are involved in their students' success, the student will be successful," Hunter said. "What I see here is an opportunity to show the Snellville community as well as the larger community how we can be there."
Wayne Rikard, the chief of Gwinnett County Schools Police, told parents the ambassador team is an initiative he'd like to see implemented at other schools. Football games are large gatherings, and at such events, disturbances can happen.
"This is a great chance to be ambassadors for South Gwinnett High School," Rikard said. "I'd like for more parents to get involved ... and show some of the spirit of high school athletics."