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Child loses mother, grandmother, sister in fire: Family friend rallies online community to help

'I’m grieving with him,' Zac Hendrix says about his friend, Taeden Johnson, 12. Zac is working miracles to support Taeden and his family through grief that few face.

ATLANTA — It is a friendship for the ages between two young people in Athens who, they like to say, have been helping each other through the years.

And now, one is working miracles, to support the other through loss and grief that few ever face. 

They know that theirs is an unlikely pairing. But it is one that has bridged differences of age, race, and background-- bonding them as friends who are as true as blood brothers.

Zac Hendrix speaks of how, four years ago, when he was an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, he and Taeden Johnson were matched in the Clarke County Mentor Program, which pairs UGA students with elementary and secondary public school students.

Taeden was eight.

Zac was 20.

“He was in the third grade, I was magically paired with him, and I’ve had a best friend ever since,” Zac said.

He said Taeden, the mentee, has helped him, the mentor, grow and learn as much as the other way around. 

At first, Zac would go to Taeden’s elementary school a couple of days a week and have lunch with him there, or they would spend time together during recess, “throwing a football, shooting hoops” or even “helping him with homework if he needed that.”

After a year, Zac went through another round of background checks and qualified to participate with Taeden in activities away from school, under the supervision of the mentor program and Taeden’s family.

“We would go to University of Georgia basketball games, we would go shopping at the mall, we would just hang out with my buddies at my college house. Every week I was taking him to my church. Ultimately he became a best friend to me, and also in reverse to him. I was always there for the whole family, we’re all best friends, we’re all in this together.”

They’ve never valued their friendship--with each other and with each other’s families--more than they do now.

Early Wednesday morning, a fire destroyed Taeden’s home in Athens, inside-out. The cause was ruled accidental. Taeden survived. But firefighters were not able to save Taeden’s mother, grandmother, and little sister.

Credit: Provided by Zac Hendrix
Fire destroyed home of Taeden Johnson, claiming the life of his mother, grandmother and little sister

Zac said that Taeden, living now with his other grandmother, is enduring unimaginable grief and shock.

“I’m grieving with him, we’ve cried this whole week with his family," he said. "Each day that I’ve been with him, the past two or three days since the tragedy, he is like, ‘Zac, can I just talk to you about what happened,’ like he is just wanting to release it.”

Zac had an idea, thinking ahead to Taeden's future.

He appealed to the world, asking for support for his 12-year-old friend, telling Taeden’s story on a GoFundMe page, aiming for a big goal but thinking the effort might end up helping, at least, a little.

“I was expecting to raise $5,000 or $10,000 to help get him back on his feet, and help him with quick emergencies," Zac said.

Immediately, donations began pouring in -- nearly $160,000 as of Friday night. Thousands of donors are leaving messages of encouragement -- support not just for Taeden but also for his half-sister who lives with other relatives.

Credit: Provided by Zac Hendrix
Taeden Johnson

People are donating clothes, cash, and everything else the children might need-- now and for their future.

“An eight-year-old called me and said, ‘Hey, Zac, I received enough money from Christmas, I just saved up to buy my first pair of Jordans. I want to give these and buy these for Taeden.’ And I said, ‘No, no, no, these shoes are for you.’ And he goes, ‘No, I want to do this for Taeden.’ And it brought tears to my eyes.”

Zac said he is thanking God, and the multitudes of donors. 

“The community of Athens, Georgia, what a special place, it’s really touched my heart,” Zac said Friday. “You know, our backgrounds, what we believe in, our skin color, all that goes away. I mean, we’re here to love each other. And I think America needs to do a better job of just loving each other, being a friend, being supportive ... simply giving a text or calling to say, 'Hey, look, you okay?'”

An unlikely pairing? It was all meant to be, Zac has no doubt -- two friends who are as true as blood brothers, for life.

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