Right off, Zak Woolheater told the crowd in the Riverside neighborhood park — not far from where his grandson lived and was rushed to a hospital this past spring — that this was not a normal birthday gathering.
“None of us are happy to be here,” Woolheater said Monday evening to a crowd of about 150 people.
If his grandson, Tony Bunn, had not been beaten to death, according to an autopsy, this past May, the boy would have turned 3 on Monday, July 23. Tony’s mother and her boyfriend are in jail, charged with murdering him.
Woolheater reminded the crowd: You can’t forget a child’s birthday. So there were cupcakes and balloons on folding tables set up in the shady park, where the crowd cried and smiled at the same time, with all the local news media recording it. Woolheater welcomed the coverage, because he thinks awareness will help save other children’s lives.
Near the end of the gathering, a little boy led the crowd in the singing of “Happy Birthday, Dear Tony.” To the children there, it seemed fitting that Tony should have people sing for his birthday, Woolheater said. But there was a somber tone to it, of course.
Woolheater urged the gathering to “have some good thoughts of him. Remember Tony as he was.”
People lighted candles as the sun dimmed. Woolheater led a moment of silence “so Tony can look down and see all the candles lit.”
But the most important reason to gather in the park on Tony’s birthday, Woolheater said, was to remind the community of what he called the nation’s epidemic of child abuse. Tony’s face — printed on his grandparents’ T-shirts Monday night — has to been seen as part of the awareness needed to prevent child abuse, Woolheater said.
In less than a year, Wichita has seen too many young children die, he and other speakers said. Not only Tony, but Evan Brewer and Lucas Hernandez. And there are others.
Tony was born into a musical family. He loved to beat the drums. He loved “Hey Jude.” A young woman sang the Beatles song in a soothing, perfect pitch as the crowd respectfully listened.
The speakers, some representing other children who have died, said child abuse needs to be recognized and reported because some children need people to step up and protect them from danger in their own homes.
“If you see something, say something” is their slogan.
Tony’s “life cannot be in vain,” his grandfather pleaded.