WOODLAWN — After a shooting severely wounded a local bike mechanic and father, people from all over the world are raising money for his long road to recovery.
Jermell “Mello” Akins, 25, was shot at about 7 p.m. Nov. 30 while walking from his car to his mother’s house in Woodlawn. He’d just run into a friend on the sidewalk when he was shot three times in the neck, stomach and left knee, police said.
Officers arrived to the 1000 block of East 62nd Street and found Akins lying on the front lawn and applied pressure to his neck until paramedics arrived, police said. He was then taken to the University of Chicago Medical Center but suffered a stroke and was placed into a medically induced coma because of all the blood he lost.
Kevin Applewhite, Akins’ brother, said the gunshot wound to the neck hit his artery and stopped his heart — but paramedics in the ambulance brought him back to life. He then went into immediate surgery, Applewhite said. For almost two days, friends and family weren’t sure Akins was going to survive.
“We were sitting in our cars at the hospital because we could not go in, waiting to hear news if he had made it through surgery,” Applewhite said. “That was the longest 18 hours of our lives.”
Akins is now awake and on the mend, but the right side of his body is still recovering and he is unable to walk or speak in full sentences. His family says he faces a year of recovery and needs physical therapy to learn how to walk again once his knee is healed.
He started speech therapy this week, but with mounting medical, housing and therapy bills, Applewhite and the local cycling community launched a GoFundMe Dec. 12 to help Akins get back on his feet. It’s received thousands of donations from all over the country and had raised more than $56,000 as of Friday.
‘We Have Support Of A Whole Nation’
Akins, a lifelong cyclist who currently works as a bike mechanic for the city’s shared bike program Divvy, grew up in the Blackstone Bicycle Works community in Woodlawn.
He started out in the youth program when he was 13 years old and learned how to build and fix bikes, job readiness skills and participated in bike competitions. This helped Akins create a vast network of mentors and peers extending to New York, Oregon, California, New Mexico and even the United Kingdom — all of whom donated and shared Akins’ recovery efforts.
Applewhite, the lead mechanic at Blackstone, said it’s not a surprise the cycling community has come out in droves for Akins because it shows the strength of the tight-knit family and how many lives his brother has touched.
“The cycling community is really awesome and it’s heartbreaking to see this happen to one of our own but it’s also a blessing that we are not alone in this because we have the support of a whole nation,” Applewhite said. “That’s how I feel the cycling community is, it’s a nation in its own.”
Chris Willard, owner of Small Shop Cycles in Bronzeville, also helped organize the fundraiser. He views Akins as his little brother and has known him for 12 years since he was a youth at Blackstone, where Willard was the co-manager for four years. When he heard about the shooting, he knew he had to help Akins’ family and show them support and hope.
“It’s easy when something like that happens to look and see potential danger everywhere, but [the fundraiser] shows that there is more love out there than the violence that is so dominant in our city,” Willard said.
He said he did not expect the level of support the fundraiser has received, but the donations keep coming in. It shows how amazing the network is of people who care for Akins, who had just recently moved into his own apartment in Woodlawn and was ready for a fresh start, he said.
The fundraiser’s goal is currently set to $65,000, but Willard said there is no exact goal because it’s too soon to say how many expenses Akins will have, especially considering he won’t be able to return to work anytime soon. Each donation “makes a world of difference” and will help him get back on his feet, he said.
“I’m so happy we are not fundraising for his funeral …. It could be so much worse,” he said. “This response affirms how important he is.”
Charlie Rifenburg, another friend, said in an email everyone wants to see Akins recover and he is grateful his friend is slowly regaining his physical strength.
“I know Mello would do everything he could to help his family and the people he loves and cares for,” Rifenburg said. “Mello has always been outspoken and willing to help others; we want to do the same for him.”
Due to coronavirus restrictions, Applewhite said his mother Tracy Oliver is the only family member able to visit Akins in the hospital. While he said it’s been difficult not to see his brother, his mother has been video chatting with friends and family to show Akins’ progress and boost his spirit.
Applewhite spoke to him earlier this week and said he still cannot sit up on his own or fully speak because of the stroke but he is healing quicker than expected. He tries to keep the mood light and remind Akins he’s not alone in that hospital bed.
“He’s smiling but he’s fighting for words,” he said. “He is able to say some stuff like ‘Bro,’ and ‘Ma.’ He told me the other day, ‘I love you,’ and it made me cry. We have to keep reassuring him it’s going to be okay, we are going to make it through this.”
Akins’ mother did not want to speak to Block Club for this story, but Applewhite said she wants to extend her gratitude to the thousands of people who have shown up for her son, sent her messages and donated.
“You don’t know how much this has really meant for her to see our world come behind her son at a time like this,” Applewhite said. “She really appreciates every single one of you. Thank you from the bottom of her heart.”
To donate to Akins’ recovery efforts, click here.