ANDERSON — "When we come out here, we get to put a name to a face."
About 200 people came to Shadyside Park on Saturday. Some came from as far as Georgia. Others came from right down the road. But they all had one thing in common: they grew up in Anderson. And they returned home to get in touch with the community that shaped them.
If You Grew Up in Anderson, a group on Facebook dedicated to preserving the memories of the city's natives, hosted its marquee event for a second consecutive year. The gathering, started by group founder Brenda Von Thomas, attracted food vendors, an Anderson Parks Department tent and Mayor Kevin Smith. It allowed old friends to reconnect and new friends only known through social media to be met.
But more than anything, the planners of the event wanted to put a positive spin on an area that has struggled in recent decades.
"So many people right now are putting Anderson down, so it's important we continue to do positive things like this," said longtime resident Maria Turner. "Something like this allows us to connect with people we've known all our lives and lets us remember the good times. People tend to move away and lose contact, so we have this to bring people back."
Turner is one of four who made up a planning committee for the meet and greet, and the Facebook page itself has more than 6,600 members. Though the vast majority didn't show up for the event, the few that did greatly appreciated the opportunity. Mike Pierce, now a resident of Nashville, Tenn., said some of the people he met from the group have become like his family.
"I've met some really special people on there, and I get to meet them now. We'll share these pictures and memories online," Pierce said.
Perhaps the most famous person in attendance was Madison County sports legend Bobby Wilkerson, a member of the 1976 Indiana University national championship team. Wilkerson was a senior starter for that team, which went 32-0 and is the last NCAA men's basketball team to finish a season undefeated.
Wilkerson, who now lives in Alpharetta, Ga., signed autographs, took pictures with fans and talked with anyone who wanted to reminisce about the '76 team. He said the city has changed drastically from his childhood, but he has so much family in the area that it still feels like home.
"I've been back and forth so much, and a lot of people here were fans, so I still feel like I belong," Wilkerson said.
One of the other reasons Wilkerson attended was to raise awareness for education in the area through his foundation, 32and0. He said one of the major reasons for the struggles in the area is a lack of mentors and good role models for students.
"We have to focus on the kids," said the former basketball star. "At some point, we have to realize that it's an issue that impacts us all, so we all have to step up to make a difference."
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