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Samiyah “Mimy” Yellardy remembered for her kindness and infectious joy

People hold balloons
Those attending a vigil honoring Samiyah “Mimy” Yellardy released balloons at the end of the memorial. (Photo: Scott Elmquist/Style Weekly)

Seventeen-year-old Samiyah “Mimy” Yellardy had multiple best friends and was always full of smiles, laughter and joy, according to family, friends and teachers.

Yellardy, a student at George Wythe High School, was shot and killed in her own home early Sunday morning, and her death is being investigated as a homicide, according to the Richmond Police Department.

Another Richmond teenager, a student at John Marshall High School, was shot and killed over the weekend, according to RPS, and DaShawn “DaDa” Cox, a student at Richmond’s Armstrong High School, was killed in a firearm homicide in February.

Yellardy’s friend 16-year-old Nakiya says Samiyah was like a big sister to her. She says they talked about walking across the graduation stage together.

“She never went a day without smiling and making TikToks and dancing,” Nakiya said in an interview before the vigil. “Everybody loved her for being who she was.”

Nakiya brought a big silver balloon in the shape of the letter “M” to the vigil. The balloon was released along with other purple and silver balloons in remembrance of “Mimy” at the end of the vigil.

Nakiya says her favorite memory of Yellardy comes from some of the last moments they spent together at a party the night of the shooting.

“It wasn’t nothing but laughing and joy,” Nakiya said. “She always was laughing, she was always smiling, she was always happy. She never had a dull moment. Anytime something bad was happening, she was always making someone’s day.”

That rings true for another friend, Arrielle, who says Yellardy was the only person there for her when Arrielle’s grandma passed away.

“She was the only person there who let me know everything's gonna be OK,” Arrielle said during the vigil. “Like, even if you cry today, you’re gonna be OK tomorrow.” 

Yellardy’s mother, Akeyia Pernell, said Samiyah had big dreams: she wanted to be a model and go to college to become a pediatrician while also owning her own eyelash business.

Pernell, who wanted the vigil to focus on happy memories, ended the memorial on a note of optimism.

“Yes, I’m broken and sad. But there is nothing in life that I go through that I can’t get through, and I’m gonna say that for the rest of my life,” Pernell said. “The magic word is through. I’m gonna make it through this. So I appreciate y’all. We ain’t gonna let my baby’s name go in vain.”

Youth firearm homicide deaths in Virginia have increased dramatically during the pandemic, according to data VPM News requested from Virginia’s medical examiner’s office.

In 2020, 52 Virginians 18 or younger died in gun-related homicides, up from 38 in 2019. That represents a 37% jump.

At least 66 more Virginians 18 or younger died by gun-related homicide in 2021, a further increase of 27% from 2020. Data for 2021 is still incomplete.

The same trend is true when looking at gun-related deaths in those aged 25 and under. There were 182 deaths in 2020 compared to 133 deaths in 2019 – representing a 37% jump. So far in 2021, there’ve been 186 firearm homicide deaths in this age range.

Kathrin “Rosie” Hobron, a forensic epidemiologist with Virginia’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, says this problem isn’t unique to Virginia. She pointed to a recent FBI report that showed a nearly 30% increase in people killed in gun-related homicides nationally between 2019 and 2020.

“And that was the largest single-year increase ever seen since they started capturing those statistics,” Hobron said.

Hobron points out that the growth in firearm-related homicides over the last few years has been concentrated in urban areas, with almost no change in rural areas.

“And if you look at some of the ethnic groups, unfortunately, Black males have the highest number and the highest rate of gun-related homicides,” Hobron said.

While youth firearm homicide deaths in Virginia have been steadily on the rise over the past decade – increasing 55% from 2010 to 2019 – the big jump in deaths during the pandemic is particularly troubling to experts like Hobron and Lori Haas, advocacy manager for the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

While many families have faced significant financial and emotional stressors during the pandemic, Haas says gun manufacturers have been reporting record sales with a notable increase in firearm ownership among first-time buyers.

“There is no data that shows having a firearm keeps you safer,” Haas said. “As a matter of fact, it increases the risk of death or injury.”

A recent Stanford University study found that Californians who didn’t own handguns but lived with gun owners were more than twice as likely to die by homicide compared with those living in gun-free homes. The study also found that having a gun in the home increased seven-fold the likelihood of a spouse or intimate partner being shot or killed. Despite that, a 2017 poll from the Pew Research center showed that 75% of gun owners and 50% of non-gun owners who live in houses where guns are present believe guns make their homes safer.

“When you walk into a house or a party, ask if there are guns present. If there are, leave,” Haas said. “Just don't go. The risk is too great.”

Research has also found that individuals possessing a gun are more than four times as likely to be shot in an assault than those not in possession of a firearm. The same study found that on average, guns did not protect the gun owners.

On top of that, firearms are the leading cause of death for American children and teenagers. Yet, Haas points out that Virginia lawmakers did not sign off on legislation that would’ve required guns to be securely locked in the home if minors are present earlier this year.

“It's just very, very sad that as a society, we just continue to ignore the risk to our children that guns present and choose to do nothing about it,” Haas said.

“Can you imagine that as a society, we have a tool that we can do something about… we can lock it up, we can put it away, we can not have it in the home, we can limit access,” Haas said. “We have the brains to do something about it. But do we have the political willpower?”

George Wythe English teacher Lisette Kimbrough is tired of seeing so many bright young people lose their lives to gun violence.

“At some point this is gonna have to stop,” Kimbrough said. “We're losing too many children. Too many good children, sweet children.”

Yellardy’s business education teacher, Raquel Lundy, made her desk and chair into a memorial, covering her desk with pink construction paper and memories of Yellardy and tying purple balloons to her chair.

“I've had the pleasure of being in the presence of her big smile, her big voice that we discussed would change the world. She was very confident in herself. She always spoke about her family,” Lundy said. “She was a hard worker, she always maintained a good spirit. And I'm just so grateful to have been able to have had her as my student. And she will be missed.”

Yellardy’s middle-school bus driver, Gail Garrison, shared a rap she wrote in Samiyah’s memory because of the lasting positive impression Samiyah made on her.

“You got some kids that get on the bus rowdy…she was not like that,” Garrison said. “You know how you got that one girl in school that everybody would just follow behind? I think she was that one.”

A homegoing celebration for Samiyah Yellardy will take place Wednesday, April 20, at 11 a.m. at Richmond’s United Nations Church.

Richmond Public Schools raises money through its Honoring the Memory fund to help cover costs faced by RPS families following the loss of a child. Services to grieving families can also be donated in lieu of money.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.