By Joe Johnson
Sanchez Elder might have been a little man, but the legacy of his life that recently was tragically ended is huge.
Elder fought a lifelong battle with Achondroplasia, a disorder of bone growth that is characterized by dwarfism and such medical issues as difficulty breathing and eating.
After enduring years of hospitalizations, surgical procedures and therapy, Elder died at age 25, when he was killed by a hit-and-run driver the night of Nov. 23 as he stood on the side of Cherokee Road.
As a newborn that weighed less than two pounds, Sanchez was quickly transferred from the nursery of an Athens hospital to a neonatal intensive care unit in Atlanta.
He underwent numerous surgeries and medical procedures as well as years of therapy.
Carolyn Adams said her son did not begin walking until he was four years old, and even then, he needed more therapy and the assistance of a walker until he was able to get around on his own.
As a child, Adams said that Sanchez required a trach tube to eat and help him breathe.
“I had so much medical equipment that I had to bring around,” she said. “But Sanchez was such a happy boy who brought joy into the lives of everyone he met,” Adams said. “He touched everybody’s heart because he was the first little person they got to see here in Athens.”
Sanchez gained increased independence in recent years, as he was able to walk without assistance, though with bowed legs.
His growth maxed out at four feet, one inch tall.
A graduate of Clarke Central High School, Sanchez participated on a championship Special Olympics team and he belonged to the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.
One of his former JROTC instructors recalled Sanchez’s good humor and determination.
“Sanchez would not let his size stop him from doing any task presented to him -- marching on the football field with the color guard, dancing at our military ball with whoever,” Lorenda Harris said. “Christmas parade was my favorite. ‘Boss’ will be missed, but not forgotten.”
Leighann Elder-Taylor was raised in a small two-bedroom house on Carr Street by her grandmother, Patricia Ann Elder, who was Sanchez’s great-aunt.
Patricia was the babysitter for children of family members who worked and could not afford daycare, according to Leighann. Those kids included Sanchez.
Leighann said she came to know Sanchez when she was in elementary school and he was a newborn. His father was a nephew of Leighann’s grandmother.
“Throughout my childhood he became more like a brother to me and he started calling me his sister and i called him my little brother,” Leighann said.
“My grandmother had moved her mother in our home because she had took sick with Alzheimer's during the same time Sanchez had been born a premature baby,” Leighann said. “So, prior to him being released (from the hospital) his mom had to still work and that’s where my grandmother without a doubt knew that she could care for him and take care of her sick mother.”
She added, “Sanchez was still very ill and had a lot more to go through. He had fought for his life in the hospital as a baby and still being out of the hospital he had a lot more fighting to do.
“I remember him having a (tracheostomy tube) and me also learning to suction it out. He had to have 'round the minutes and hour care. Nurses came to our house to do therapy with him," Leighann said.
Leighann and her grandmother would accompany Sanchez and his mother to the hospital in Atlanta whenever he needed surgery, and they got him out of the house and neighborhood by taking him around town on Athens transit buses.
“I remember the days when he had gotten so strong and mighty, like when the doctors removed his trach and he learned how to walk after his mother was told he would never walk,” Leighann said. “Sanchez made a big impact in my life because he taught me how to care and love people for who they are. He was a part of my very own family that I created and became more like a son to me as an adult, but he still called me sis and I called him bro.”
Sanchez overcame his disability to the point he landed his first job, at Pilgrim’s Pride, just two weeks before he was killed.
“Getting that job gave him so much joy,” recalled Sanchez’s friend, Jarvis Durham.
Leighann said when Sanchez died it was like losing an immediate family member.
“My husband and our children love and miss him so much,” she said. “I’ve cried every day and I can’t sleep at night knowing that Sanchez fought a good fight and the person who did this to him is still out there. He was a son, brother, cousin and a true friend.
“People need to understand that the decisions they make do affect people and to lose him right before Thanksgiving when he was all about family hurts really bad,” Leighann said. “His birthday is coming up on December 30 and it’s heartbreaking that I won’t be picking him up like we talked about. But I find some peace in knowing that he’s in heaven protected and being taken care of by my grandmother. I know she wrapped her arms around him and told him he's ok. I shall see him again one day until then I'll never forget him and that mighty fight he fought. He was a true soldier and I will raise my children with dignity with all that I do.”
Durham knew Sanchez his entire life, growing up in the same Spring Valley neighborhood in east Athens. He is also best friends with Sanchez’s older brother Sanderrious.
He said Sanchez earned the nickname “Cheese” because “he would always be smiling, just happy no matter what.”
Durham said, “Sanchez fought 21 years of his life with a medical condition but with God’s healing hands he made it through. Sanchez smiled extra hard no matter if he was feeling down or what. Everybody loved Sanchez around Athens. Cheese could turn your day from a bad day to a good day with that big Cheese on his face and jokes that would have you forgetting you was going through anything even if he was feeling down.”
The love people had for Sanchez was evident at his funeral Sunday at Walnut Grove Baptist Church in Watkinsville, according to Durham.
“Cheese was taken away from us, but the community showed so much love to his family at his homegoing service,” Durham said. “The service was amazing. It was so packed, with some people staying out and some sitting inside their cars when there was no more room inside the church. That's how much everybody had loved Cheese.”
Durham recalled working with his younger friend at a Project Start summer camp for disabled children when he was a freshman at Clarke Central.
“Man, Sanchez was my pride and joy,” he said. “I seen a God-fearing Gladiator. He was a fighter, a warrior, and he was a hero in my eyes.”
Durham added, “The most important thing, he was saved & a child of God because he beat the odds many don't beat. Man, I am proud to call and know Sanchez as my brother. Blood couldn’t make us any closer.”
Sanchez spent his last moments alive at a friend’s house on Cherokee Road where he and others gathered the night of Nov. 23 to watch the Georgia-Texas A&M football game on TV.
According to police, he was standing outside the house shortly after 8 p.m. when a southbound vehicle left the roadway and struck him before speeding away south on Cherokee Road.
Police said that a witness saw the driver stop the car after the collision.
“After hitting Sanchez, the driver briefly exited the (car) and quickly returned to the vehicle before fleeing the scene,” police Public Information Officer Geof Gilland said.
Sanchez was pronounced dead at the scene.
Police said that officers collected pieces of evidence from the suspect’s vehicle, including a black grille from a Nissan.
Witnesses described the vehicle as a silver 2004-06 Nissan Altima that was being driven by a white male, according to police.
If seen, the car may have significant front-end damage, and Gilland said investigators have looked for the car by checking with area body repair shops as they continued to actively investigate the incident.
Police asked that any body shops or citizens with information about the incident or have knowledge of the suspect’s car to contact Lt. Jonathan McIlvaine at (762) 400-7089.
Crime Stoppers is offering a reward of up to $1,000 for information that leads to an arrest.
Anonymous calls can be made to the Crime Stoppers confidential tip line at (706) 705-4775.
Carolyn Adams said she forgave the motorist who killed her son but urged him to turn himself in to face the consequences of his actions.
“If it was a mistake I forgive you, I have a forgiving heart, but God is the one who will ultimately judge you,” Adams said.