UGA, ‘Ant Man’ Anthony Edwards answer a young boy’s call for help

Credit: WSBTV Videos

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Community raises $200K for 12-year-old who lost 3 family members in Athens fire

Credit: WSBTV Videos

Graduate Zac Hendrix of Thomaston leads relief effort

ATHENS — After serving the internship of a lifetime at Augusta National Golf Club, Zac Hendrix wasn’t sure where he was headed next. Turns out, it was back to Athens to answer a call for help no one ever wants to receive.

While attending UGA as a student, Hendrix became a mentor for a young boy named Taeden Johnson through the Clarke County Mentor Program.

“He was in third grade, and I was still an undergrad at the University of Georgia,” Hendrix said of his relationship with Taeden. “I had a friend that recommended the program for me and had to go through some background checks and this and that. They eventually paired me with Taeden, and we’ve been in each other’s lives ever since.”

On Jan. 27, the boy’s family home in Athens caught fire. Taeden, now 12, was the only survivor. His mother, Penyada Fields, his grandmother Penny Fields, and 9-year-old sister Mariah Fields died in the blaze.

Taeden also was injured, but not seriously. He managed to escape and fled to a neighbor’s house, where emergency responders were called in. As of Tuesday, the cause of the fire remains unknown.

Zac Hendrix (R), a UGA graduate who has mentored Taeden Johnson since he was a third-grader, has come to Johnson's aid after he lost his family and most of his possessions in a fatal house fire in Athens on Jan. 27. (Photo by Zac Hendrix)
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Zac Hendrix (R), a UGA graduate who has mentored Taeden Johnson since he was a third-grader, has come to Johnson's aid after he lost his family and most of his possessions in a fatal house fire in Athens on Jan. 27. (Photo by Zac Hendrix)

But thanks to Hendrix, help for Taeden is on the way.

After being informed about what happened, Hendrix immediately left his parents’ home in Thomaston to come to the family’s aid. One of the first things he did was establish a GoFundMe page to help provide some financial relief. As of Tuesday, more than $200,000 had been raised on that page.

Even greater has been the growing response to Taeden’s situation since those initial solicitations reached social media. Among those to learn of Taeden’s plight was former Georgia basketball player Anthony “Ant Man” Edwards, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.

“To make a long story short, the information just started snowballing on social media,” said Hendrix, 24. “Tye Fagan and I went to high school together, though I’m a couple of years older than him. Anyway, he saw it, the Georgia basketball team saw it, coaches saw it, you name it, they saw it. Then somebody reached out to Anthony Edwards about it.

“It was awesome,” Hendrix said. “They talked for about 15 minutes after his walk-through. He said to Taeden, ‘Hey, man, I lost my mama and I also lost my grandmama at a young age, and look at me.’ He said, ‘So keep pursuing your dreams, give 110 percent in everything you do. Don’t let this be an excuse. You’re going to make it because you’ve got a lot of people behind you.’ ”

Edwards’ mother, Yvette, and grandmother, Shirley, died of cancer within a year of each other when Edwards was an eighth-grader growing up in Atlanta. He later signed with UGA in 2019.

Hendrix said Edwards told Taeden to save his contact info and to call him any time, but he definitely wanted to hear from him at least once a week. He also told Taeden to keep an eye out for something coming in the mail.

Support for Taeden and his family has only intensified from there. Hendrix said Georgia football coach Kirby Smart reached out and wants to have him over for a visit. Several other coaches and UGA players have as well.

“They have to abide by NCAA rules and can only do certain stuff, but so many people and teams over at UGA have been reaching out and trying to do what they can,” said Hendrix, who worked for a while under golf coach Chris Haack while at Georgia.

Taeden Johnson of Athens poses in front of the remains of the home he shared with his mother, grandmother and 9-year-old sister. He was the only survivor from a fire that destroyed the mobile home in Athens on Jan. 27. (Photo by Zac Hendrix)
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Taeden Johnson of Athens poses in front of the remains of the home he shared with his mother, grandmother and 9-year-old sister. He was the only survivor from a fire that destroyed the mobile home in Athens on Jan. 27. (Photo by Zac Hendrix)

Credit: Photo by Zac Hendrix

Credit: Photo by Zac Hendrix

At present, Taeden is living with his paternal grandmother in Athens. Hendrix took Taeden by to see the remains of his former home for the first time Monday.

As for Hendrix, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from UGA, he’s not sure what’s next for him. He knows only that he is where he ought to be at the moment, keeping an eye on Taeden and helping them manage what will be the difficult next steps in his journey.

For now, that has been hiring attorneys and opening bank accounts to help manage the many blessings that have come pouring in from a bunch of Bulldogs and a lot more people who Taeden and Hendrix don’t even know.

“The crazy thing is, last week I was attending my church back home and our pastor asked if we’d been praying big prayers or little prayers,” said Hendrix, who attends Athens Church when he’s in town. “I said, ‘Small prayers: Bless this food, help my friends out, things like that.’ He said, ‘I want y’all to be praying big prayers. Ask for a bigger platform to spread your message.’ I certainly didn’t want this to happen, but I was contacted about it and now I’m here, and I want to share God’s grace and strength.

“Taeden even made the comment: He said, ‘God brought us to this. Do you think he’s going to bring us through this?’ I said, ‘He will, 100 percent. Just keep trusting because we’re going to have God with us.’ ”