<![CDATA[Connected to Athens - 2014]]>Sat, 16 Jan 2016 22:13:46 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[Ovita Thornton gets Athens locals excited about improving our community]]>Thu, 22 May 2014 17:43:58 GMThttp://www.connectedtoathens.com/2014/-ovita-thornton-gets-athens-locals-excited-about-improving-our-communityBy Shelly Wallace Picture
Most would say that getting hundreds of elementary school students excited about taking a test is a pretty big feat, but not Ovita Thornton.  When she was asked to open up an assembly designed to get Fowler Drive Elementary School’s students ready for the CRCT (Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests), Thornton had the students on their feet cheering about eating a good breakfast and getting a good night’s sleep.

Everyone at Fowler Drive Elementary School seems to know and love Thornton, who was the Clarke County Board of Education representative at the assembly. When she stood to give her welcoming speech, everyone there, including Principal Annisa Johnson, had all the confidence in the world that Thornton would deliver.

Passionate is the best word to describe Thorton. She is the director of the Georgia Clients Council, a nonprofit started by Georgia Legal Services that seeks to provide the information, training and support necessary for low-income people to advocate for

themselves but that’s not all she does. Thornton is involved in everything, from politics, to education to public housing. She says she’s never known any different. She’s always been involved.

Ovita Thornton was born in Philadelphia, and went to college at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla.   Although she wasn’t born in Athens, or even Georgia, Thornton has become a staple in the Athens community since she moved here in the early 80s.

Thornton’s main focus in Athens is Bethel Midtown Village, a section 8 housing complex off of Hawthorne Avenue. Bethel homes is known for its above-average crime rate, and many Athens locals want the public housing moved further away from Downtown Athens.

Thornton believes that Bethel shouldn’t be moved. She says, “Nobody has convinced me that demolishing Bethel Homes so it will fit with the scheme of downtown will be the best thing for all the mothers and kids that live there.”

She believes that Bethel can be brought back to life, and with a little help, be a beneficial part of the Athens community. To get this help, the Georgia Clients Council is working with UGA Professor Pratt Cassity and his environmental design class to improve the urban planning of Bethel Midtown Village and increase its aesthetic to help the homes fit in with the rest of downtown.

According to the Athens Banner Herald’s website, some of the plans professor Cassity’s students came up with include increases in security, improvements in landscaping and the addition of playground equipment. They hope these changes will improve the quality of life for the residents while also making Bethel homes more visually appealing.

Although Thornton is very much in favor of saving Bethel Homes, she doesn’t believe it should be a permanent residence.

“I don’t think anybody should be a lifelong [resident] in Section 8 housing unless they’re elderly, unless they have a physical or mental ailment,” she said.

Georgia Client’s Council wants to give people in the community the skills necessary to be employed. Since 2009, Thornton has been working to help the people of Bethel Homes earn GEDs and college degrees so that they can be more employable.

As a strong believer in education, Thornton is also a member of the Clarke County School Board. She wants to use her place on the board to educate school employees about how state and federal decisions will affect schools and teachers on the local level.

Thornton is so involved in the Athens community that she has little time for hobbies. She says she doesn’t mind. She prefers spending her down time with her friends and family, chatting and enjoying their company, but when she does have time to spare, she likes to eat Sunday brunch at Porterhouse Grill.  

Whether she’s getting elementary school students excited to take a test or inspiring college students to improve the community, Ovita Thorton is always striving to make positive contributions. Thornton doesn’t quit when a project is finished. She believes there’s always more to be done.

“Every time we have a success I say the same thing, we’re just turning the corner.”

<![CDATA[Athens local involved with Prevent Child Abuse Athens ]]>Thu, 22 May 2014 17:37:29 GMThttp://www.connectedtoathens.com/2014/athens-local-involved-with-prevent-child-abuse-athensBy Walker Picture
In a small hometown office, Athens local Kirrena Gallagher contributes to the city through her work with Prevent Child Abuse Athens in more ways than one. Caseloads add up, but she still keeps a smile on her face because of her love of helping others.

Gallagher, 29, became pregnant with her first child, Malachi, when she was 19 years old. It was then in 2003 that she became involved as a participant with Prevent Child Abuse Athens. She had her second child, Caleb, three years later. Healthy Families, a program of PCAA, assisted Gallagher for about four years, giving her support and information about skill building and parenting.

PCAA is an umbrella organization consisting of free programs to assist families. The programs are: Healthy Families, which deals with home visiting; First Steps, involving hospital visits to new mothers; and Parenting, free to the community.

Having children at a young age did not stop Gallagher from living her life. She attended Athens Technical College on and off for a few years, until she decided to pursue different endeavors. In 2009, PCAA contacted her about being a volunteer with the First Steps program. In 2012, she was hired under a research grant to help family support workers to promote retention. Currently, she is a family support worker to moms, providing a service that was once given to her.

As a family support worker, Gallagher sets up weekly visits with participants despite their hectic schedules. Her caseload maximum is 15 people, and she is close to reaching her limit. She enjoys sharing her past experiences and supporting other moms trying to reach their own goals.

“The best things about working with moms and families as a support worker is providing a listening ear, and allowing them to share what they know as the expert on their child or children,” said Gallagher.

A participant when she had her first child, Gallagher believes that this gives her an upper hand and better insight when working with families. She is able to connect with them, and the mothers in particular, because she was once in their shoes. She uses her life experiences to show fellow mothers that they can continue on with life and enjoy it no matter what the circumstances may be.

“As a graduate of the program, she can connect with other moms and help them to see the benefit of participating,” said Mary Hood, executive director of PCAA.

Being involved in the community and having polished interpersonal skills are vital for the area that Gallagher works in. She has a determined spirit, ambitious goals and a wonderful personality. She enjoys talking with people and utilizing her resources when working with different families. Gallagher brings joy and warmth to conversations, making anyone feel relaxed and like an old friend.

“She is very relatable and puts people at ease quickly,” said co-worker, Grace Arthur. “She has great ideas and is very enthusiastic. Kirrena's strengths are in the areas of community resources and resource building.”

Gallagher loves community and advocating for others. She enjoys seeing change over time, empowering people and giving them a voice. Volunteering at food distributions, organizing events and challenging and advocating for others are just a few of her many great qualities.

Engaging in a number of community efforts to give back, she strives to see the biggest change and a greater difference. As a parent, Gallagher delights in her time and involvement with her children. The changes she loves and hopes to make in the community directly affect her own kids.

“I think they are the reason I want to support the change in this community,” Gallagher sad. “They have to grow up in it. I might as well get it started now so they can take over and be the leaders for tomorrow.”

<![CDATA[ Taste of Athens Co-Founder, 25-Year Athens Philanthropist ]]>Thu, 22 May 2014 17:36:01 GMThttp://www.connectedtoathens.com/2014/-taste-of-athens-co-founder-25-year-athens-philanthropistBy Olivia Veazey Picture
Sally Coenen, Taste of Athens co-founder and Nancy Travis Childcare Project Board member, has served on community service boards to benefit the Athens Community for 25 years.  

Coenen founded Taste of Athens with 21 years ago. They “borrowed” the idea after Downs went to Taste of Atlanta with her husband. The first event was on a Sunday, a slow day for restaurants, and in February when there weren’t many fundraising events happening at that time. Downs says now that she is “in total awe of all the hard work and the community dedication it has taken to make it into the fun and delicious event that it is.”

Coenen’s current volunteer efforts are with her board position on the Nancy Travis Childcare Project. The goal of NTCP is to increase access to quality childcare for young children in the Athens-Clarke County area. Coenen was on this board when it started in the early 1990s but left to pursue other projects. She said she recently rejoined because, “The first few years of life are so critical, it’s important to create opportunities for children to develop in the most positive way.”

Coenen learned the value of helping the community at a young age and credits her parents as a major inspiration for her current level of involvement. Growing up, she watched Greenville, S.C. be transformed and revitalized through her parents’ generous financial donations and volunteer efforts. Her father was a conservationist and lawyer. In the 1970s, he helped develop Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area to protect 10,000 acres of beautiful, threatened properties. He also formed Natural Land Trust, an organization that Coenen currently serves as a board member.

She pursues conservation efforts locally as a member of the Oconee River Land Trust Board. The board exists to uphold easements in 10 counties, primarily protecting land in the Upper Oconee River Watershed. Coenen’s love for this land is evident. The exterior facing walls of her living room are large panels of windows, overlooking the North Oconee River. She and her husband spend many hours on their porch overlooking the river.

Coenen’s father inspired her to be a conservationist and a musician as well. He played piano regularly and music was always in her home. Coenen says taking piano lessons as a child was expected and she began playing piano and composing music in primary school. She majored in music at Sanford University and has continued to play throughout her life. Continuing her creative learning, she picked up oil painting 15 years ago and enjoys painting outdoor scenes.

Her love for the arts has also translated to her community service life. She currently serves on the board for Canopy Studio, a flying aerial dance trapeze studio. She also previously served a two-year stint with the Athens-Clarke County Arts Commission.

Coenen is currently writing a piano duet with her son titled “Walking the Blue Ridge.” They will perform at “Upcountry Muse,” a fundraising event in Greenville on April 24. The event will benefit Upstate Forever, an organization founded by her brother Brad Wynche. Upstate Forever is an environmentalist group aimed at promoting sensible growth and protecting special places. Wynche also was impacted by their father, by following in his footsteps to become a lawyer specializing in the environmental field and serving on many boards. Similar to their father, he describes watching the changes in South Carolina “with pride and dread,” as South Carolina has flourished economically but at the cost of natural areas and historic sites.

For Coenen and Wynche, serving the communities and environments of the Southeast is a family tradition. Despite her lifetime of service and accomplishment, Downs describes Coenen as “one of those people that never ever cares about being recognized for all of her hard work, but shows up every time to ‘get the job done.’”

<![CDATA[ Barbara Barnett ]]>Thu, 22 May 2014 17:34:31 GMThttp://www.connectedtoathens.com/2014/-barbara-barnettBy Elizabeth Trent Picture
The school bus refused to stop for her. On rare occasions when it did, she was greeted inside by hard shoves into the cold, metal siding. In class, white students launched paper balls and writing utensils her way. Administration constantly pegged her darker skin as the source of the ruckus. But through the hardships, Barbara Barnett knew her greater purpose.

 Every morning on her way to her full-time job at the Athens-Clarke County Courthouse, Barnett passes by her old stomping grounds, Clarke Central High School, reminiscing on the days when she roamed the halls. Back then it was simply known as Athens High School and integration was just beginning.

In her lifetime, the 63-year-old Athens native has witnessed many changes to the community that go far beyond the renaming of her old high school. Barnett was one of the first African-Americans to attend Athens High and takes great pride in knowing she helped pave the way for future generations.  

Barnett’s role in breaking down racial barriers was only the beginning of her involvement in the community. Monday morning through Friday afternoon she works full time as a victim advocate in the District Attorney’s Office, where she serves as a liaison between victims and the court. Friday evening through Monday morning Barnett can be found at her part-time job as a women’s shelter monitor for the Salvation Army.

In her spare time, Barnett has volunteered for Project Safe, battered women’s shelters, the Athens Area Homeless Shelter, and Service for America.

“That’s where my gift comes from,” Barnett explains. “Helping people in crisis. That’s the gift I was blessed with and that’s what I enjoy doing.”

Barnett enjoys utilizing her talent for others and also recognizes the talents of others a in her life.

For 19 years Barnett served as program director of Rites of Passage, an organization founded by her and Holley that targets at-risk black teens in the Athens area and guides them through life’s milestones while educating them on their black heritage.

Towanna Nash, a Rites of Passage alumni and proud mother of two said, “I owe all I am to this program. I could have been a statistic, but Rites of Passage saved me.”

At any given time, Rites of Passage has 12 to 20 participants who undergo an extensive mentorship program. The students are subject to unannounced school visits to monitor their academic progress as well as having to complete extra lessons in teen pregnancy prevention, drug prevention and school dropout prevention. The students also are encouraged to explore the arts through dance, stepping, and African drumming.

Barnett helped organize educational field trips where the teens of Rights of Passage traveled to historic African-American sites such as the 16th Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. Barnett sees her work as following the work of her mother, a prominent civil rights activist in Athens. Barnett is passionate about the guiding principle of Rites of Passage. She firmly believes that children cannot know where they are going if they do not know where they have been.

Barnett’s daughter, Sakina Barnett went through the program as well as her two children. “Through Rites of Passage my children not only learned about their heritage, but they’ve also learned about conflict resolution, teamwork, and preparing for adulthood,” Sakina Barnett said. Sakina Barnett remains involved with Rites of Passage as a volunteer, mentor, and big sister.

Barbara Barnett recently stepped down from her position of program director but still continues to offer a helping hand to those in need.

Her plate may seem full, but for Barnett it is both work and leisure. Meeting unique people with different talents and gifts is Barnett’s greatest pleasure.

Even at an early age Barnett understood that every missed bus, every shove and crumpled piece of paper served a deeper purpose. She now dedicates her life to helping others find theirs. 

<![CDATA[ Laura Whitaker, an extra special person ]]>Thu, 22 May 2014 17:31:48 GMThttp://www.connectedtoathens.com/2014/-laura-whitaker-an-extra-special-personBy Tourial Picture
Nestled in a quiet neighborhood next to the Watkinsville, Ga. City Hall is where one can find the office for Extra Special People. This once community center served as a haven for Watkinsville natives and still serves as a haven, but one with a twist.

Laura Whitaker first heard about ESP through a friend while she was a student at the University of Georgia in 2003. Eleven years later, Whitaker is now on the front lines of leading the organization that serves children with developmental disabilities in northeast Georgia, serving as executive director.

“I volunteered a lot through my church, and worked on immunization projects at a very young age,” Whitaker said. “Growing up, giving back to my community was always very much a part of my life and a part of my family’s life.”

Growing up in a philanthropic household in Atlanta, Whitaker always found it easy to give back to her community.

With pictures of the children that she serves around her office, Whitaker is constantly reminded of the people who she works for, and the lives that she impacts.

An army of volunteers  is at her disposal, as children pile into the old gym as they wait for a day’s activities. Arts and crafts and dog grooming are some of the activities that kids partake in after school.

 “We are not just a service; ESP is a way of life for the individuals that we serve,” Whitaker said. Whether on a big stage or small, Whitaker and her staff create memorable programs for the kids in either one of their 10 enrichment programs after school, the outdoor education program, their year-round Special Olympics swim team and many others opportunities.

“There is no typical day at ESP,” Whitaker said.

Arts and crafts might be a typical activity for anyone, but grooming and washing dogs is not an everyday activity, especially for the children without a pet.

After a wet day for the dogs, the staff, and the kids, the smiles that appear on many of the kids faces  are worth more than any word that can be spoken or written.

While playing with dogs can be fun, the lesson of caring for another life is a skill that is invaluable. ESP always wants to be sure that each daily activity is fun and also informative.

Renee Harris, a volunteer and also a worker for the ESP 360 staff is one of many who serve at the organization.

“She just does so much behind the scenes that people don’t realize that she is doing all the time.” Harris said.

Whitaker, with the help of her staff brainstorm the larger picture, like major events such as the Big Heart Pageant.  Former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray received the “Wyllie Big Heart Award” at the banquet in February. The award is named for Martha Wyllie, the founder and director of ESP before her passing in 2004.

Other events like the Jump Fly Festival, where some graduates of ESP, family, volunteers and also Whitaker skydive to raise funds for the organization. This year’s jump is on April 26. Last year, 40 participants made the dive raising $42,000 which benefited E.S.P. and its summer camp.

One participant in this year’s jump is Kyle Page, a volunteer who has been a part of the program for over two years and has known Whitaker since he first started volunteering.

“She’s been a great person to look up to and to mentor as far as the organization she runs. What she does is very inspiring,” Page said.

Eli Hill, the assistant director of programs and the camp based out of Camp Twin Lakes in Rutledge, Ga., credits Whitaker with being the backbone of the organization. He describes that Whitaker’s role has changed over the years, and is a key figure in the kid’s and her staff’s lives.

“If it weren’t for Laura reaching out to me personally I wouldn’t have found ESP.” Hill said. “Because of her personal outreach to me, it’s given me opportunity.” 

Whitaker describes her experience at ESP as humbling to work with the kids and families that she serves.

 “Everybody has one of three things to give, if not all of them: time, talent or treasure,” Whitaker said.

It’s obvious that Whitaker has given all of these and will continue to give in her community and with Extra Special People.

<![CDATA[ Tyler Dewey becomes first executive director of BikeAthens ]]>Thu, 22 May 2014 17:29:39 GMThttp://www.connectedtoathens.com/2014/-tyler-dewey-becomes-first-executive-director-of-bikeathensBy Szekalski Picture
It is 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, and the executive director of BikeAthens has just arrived at the shop on his day off. Surrounded by recycled bicycle parts, Tyler Dewey makes his appearance wearing a red and white polka dot hat, a lavender collared shirt and a gray heathered blazer with blue jeans.

 “My family jokes that I was raised on a bicycle,” Dewey said with a smile, as he sits down on a refurbished bicycle seat.

Dewey was named the first executive director of BikeAthens on Nov. 15, 2012. The position opened up after the organization received a grant from the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety to expand its education program. The funds gave the organization enough salary to hire full-time staff members.

Dewey’s distinctive background gave him an advantage for the position during the application process. He has a lot of experience with cycling, teaching and the law.

Cycling has always been his passion from an early age. Growing up, Dewey and his sisters used bicycling as recreation and for getting exercise.  He even celebrated his first birthday by going on a bicycle camping trip with his family.

Dewey is from Illinois and a graduate of Northern Illinois University and Michigan State University College of Law. After graduating law school, he spent two years working for the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan where he taught an English class. He lived without a car, which forced him to get around by bus, taxi and minivan.

“[Living without a car] exposed me to how easy alternative transportation is even in a remote country,” Dewey said.

Upon leaving for the Peace Corps, Dewey’s father moved to Athens for work, which is where Dewey made his return.

He immediately began volunteering with the Bike Recycling Program and from that program he was offered a full-time position at BikeAthens.

“I thought that he was an extremely qualified person in terms of his education and life experiences - organized and driven but with a sense of humility and purpose,” said Elliott Caldwell, the previous BikeAthens president.

Dewey was drawn to BikeAthens after learning about the organization’s history and its contribution to the community.

“He’s a lawyer by training, but seems inspired by something perhaps a bit different - something larger than legal work,” board member, Richard Shoemaker said.

BikeAthens is a growing nonprofit organization that has been around for over 20 years. The organization provides Athenians with public transportation, so they have a safe and efficient way of getting around town. In 2011, BikeAthens’ BRP program repaired and donated around 150 bikes to adults and kids throughout Athens.

It wasn’t until he got hired and began researching the job when Dewey realized how much work actually goes into it. There is a huge responsibility that comes with being one of the four full-time executive directors for bike advocacy organizations throughout Georgia.

“It’s a rare position, and I didn’t quite realize it,” Dewey said.

There is no typical workday as executive director for BikeAthens differs each day. Some days Dewey works in front of a computer doing advocacy work for bike facilities around town. Other days he could be going to meetings or working hands-on with people in his bike safety classes.

“Tyler rises to challenges, which is necessary in an executive director,” Caldwell said. “If there is something he needs to get better at, he works at it. He doesn't shrink away from something because it is difficult or outside of his experience.”

One thing Dewey enjoys most about BikeAthens is the variety of the job - he enjoys getting the opportunity to meet all segments of Athens and seeing the town in a whole new way. Some nights he’s meeting with commissioners and other times he’s working in the shop with recipients who have received the bikes.

“It’s just exciting to sort of see all of Athens in one place and see how bikes can really tie everything together,” Dewey said.

<![CDATA[An Athenian’s Mission to Heal Hundreds of Hearts]]>Thu, 22 May 2014 17:27:48 GMThttp://www.connectedtoathens.com/2014/-an-athenians-mission-to-heal-hundreds-of-heartsBy Stimson Picture
Twelve years ago, a courageous and kind-hearted woman saw the need for local Mexican immigrants to feel welcomed, loved, and appreciated. Since that time, Sister Margarita Martin has been shaping and influencing the hearts of Athens’ Latino community.

Martin, handmaid of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, incorporates this need of the Mexican community in the mission statement for Oasis Católico Santa Rafaela, the ministry and after-school program she started in September 2002.

As a community leader and role model, Sister Margarita and sisters Marietta Jansen and Angela Cordero, started and still operate Oasis. The program, not only provides ministries to the people of the Pinewood Estates North community and surrounding areas, but additional community services as well. Sister Margarita nicknamed herself and the other sisters “Three Musketeers” because to overcome the obstacles faced as immigrants, formed friendships with one another and set off with intentions to heal and comfort others.  For Sister Margarita, the work never stops as she lives up the street in the community she helps and loves.

When the program started, there was no formal agenda as the three women simply wanted to create a place of retreat for the Latino community. However, another need became apparent when children did not have anywhere to go after school. The Spanish-speaking children with non-English speaking parents needed extra help on homework and encouragement be successful in school. Martin recognized this need and established Oasis’ tutoring program.

“Sister Margarita has truly brought her community together and made it stronger,” said Leanna Ross, an Oasis tutor. By creating a place of comfort in which children can receive help from English-speaking tutors, mainly University of Georgia students, Sister Margarita provides these children with an equal learning experience.

Since establishment in 2002, attendance at Oasis has grown from about 20 students to 107. The children range in age from three-year-old munchkins to 3rd graders. Volunteers are required to tutor once a week for 12 weeks in order to be involved with the tutoring program.

“It is important for the children to have the same tutor every Monday and form a relationship with that tutor,” said Martin. “The tutoring process is just as educational for the children as it is for the tutors.”

This two-way educational relationship is revealed at the end of the semester during the tutors’ personal evaluations of their time with Oasis. Tutors have the opportunity to provide Martin with feedback on Oasis and their experiences with the children.

Kathleen Ward, a kindergarten tutor, experienced the effects of Martin’s tutoring program firsthand during her time with Oasis.

“She helped me understand how much of a role model I became,” said Ward. While we teach the children, they are teaching us valuable life lessons in return… definitely a give-and- take relationship.”

With 200 tutors, Oasis continues to expand as the need continues to grow. Sixty tutors need to be scheduled daily for the program to work best with two students per tutor. Despite the large amount of tutors, Oasis is “always hungry for more tutors,” said Martin.

Sister Margarita Martin is determined to continue the success that Oasis has seen integrating and caring for the Latino community in Athens. With fierce compassion and dedication, she plans to touch the lives of as many Latinos as possible with Oasis.

“She is one of the most passionate women I have ever met and even when it seems like the program won’t succeed, she fights harder to make sure it does,” said Ward.  “Sister Margarita is known for her love for these students and that is something you don’t see as often anymore.”

<![CDATA[Grady College alumni organizes Athens Area Black History Bowl]]>Thu, 22 May 2014 17:25:29 GMThttp://www.connectedtoathens.com/2014/-grady-college-alumni-organizes-athens-area-black-history-bowlBy Smith Picture
Ryan Seacrest. Bubba Watson. Kim Bassinger. These are just a few people who have used the University of Georgia as a steppingstone to achieve successful careers. But few people have had half the impact on Athens-Clarke County as Grady alumni Fred Smith.

The Athens native attended Clarke Central High School before attending Paine College in Augusta, Ga. After receiving his bachelor’s degree (and meeting his wife Lee), Smith returned to Athens and attained a master’s degree in journalism at the Grady College at the University of Georgia. He would later start the defunct Athens Voice newspaper, work nearly two decades for the Georgia Department of Labor and serve as the president of the local chapter of the NAACP.

Smith’s latest project, the Athens Area Black History Bowl, is just one more example of the legacy he is leaving behind.

“Fred has always been an advocate when it comes to young people,” Clarke County Sheriff Ira Edwards said. “He is invested in our youth. He was basically the brainchild, he and his wife Lee, when it comes to the Black History Bowl. As a result of that it has just mushroomed into something very impactful.”

The Black History Bowl has proven to be a positive influence in the community, specifically for the younger generation, who Smith believes may not be properly learning its heritage.

“One of the things that we believe is that today’s youth doesn’t have a sense of connection to the past,” Smith said. “I think the cause of that often times is that they don’t think deeply. They are kind of caught in today’s news. They don’t understand the struggle and sacrifice that was overcome. Our legacy is one of overcoming.”

In the second year of the Black History Bowl, Smith saw improvements across the board, specifically in the quiz bowl itself. “Destined” took home the first place prize (including a trophy and $700) and the “Sheriff Ira Explorers” finished second (earning a trophy and $300).

“It was more competitive in terms of the teams having to prepare. Last year we had a couple of the teams that were way above the others, but this year it was more level,” Smith said. “I’m so glad that those couple of teams last year that were way above the crowd kind of shocked everybody. It made the other teams realize that if they were going to play this game, they would have to up their game.”

Support from the community also rose in the second year of the quiz bowl.

”The community support increased this year too, in terms of contributions that we use to give out the prize money and do the leaflets and posters,” Smith said. “The biggest difference was that teams were more prepared and the community support has grown.”

Sheriff Edwards is a supporter of events like the Black History Bowl, which he believes indirectly helps him to do his job. He has coached a team in the competition both years.

“I look at it like this: if we don’t know our history, we’re going to repeat our past,” Edwards said. “As sheriff of Clarke County, I see it every day where we have an overcrowded jail population. My philosophy is burning the candle from both ends, prevention and rehabilitation. The kids are very excited about it, and on my end it prevents our jail population from increasing.”

Smith has plans for the event to continue for years to come. While next year’s date has yet to be announced, parents and committee members have already begun planning for future AABH Bowls.

“This is an awesome event, and it is because of a dream that Fred Smith and his wife Lee Smith came up with,” said committee member and announcer Barbara Sims. “The impact that it has had will continue to be a legacy of Athens-Clarke County.”

<![CDATA[ Harvesting a community rooted in education  ]]>Thu, 22 May 2014 17:23:53 GMThttp://www.connectedtoathens.com/2014/-harvesting-a-community-rooted-in-educationBy Alexsis Skeen 
Satisfied with her hard work, Christina Hylton gently ran her fingers against the smooth, cool glass jars filled with homegrown fruits and vegetables. As she began wrapping each jar, she smiled to herself, imagining the reaction her family would have on Christmas morning.

As a child, Hylton and her family would pick, can and preserve fruits and vegetables from their home garden. The process became a Christmas tradition for their family, including the picking, canning, labeling and decorating of the jars. Ultimately, this tradition would stem into a career for Hylton.         

“I never felt like it was so much work,” Hylton said. “It was a feeling of excitement.”

Today, Hylton serves as the community agriculture program director for Athens Land Trust, a nonprofit focused on affordable housing, land conservation, community agriculture and neighborhood revitalization serving Athens and 10 neighboring counties.

Her responsibilities include overseeing nine programs that address economic, educational, community development and sustainable agriculture.

Hylton’s main goals are to encourage economic stimulation for farmers and entrepreneurs and to inform consumers about the food they eat. She fulfills these goals through vendor development courses, community education seminars, youth development programs and more.

The West Broad Farmer’s Market Garden serves as one of her largest projects, providing a market for local farmers and vendors to sell goods and an outlet for the Athens community to purchase certified naturally grown, organic food at subsidized rates.

 “Christina is the reason that I’m still selling,” said William Mulholland, one of the vendors in the farmer’s market. “She helped me to rekindle passion for what I do.”

When it comes to the affordability of purchasing organic foods, Hylton believes her market offers the perfect solution.

The market accepts government assistance programs including EBT, SNAP, and WIC as forms of payment, and the Land Trust also promotes a “double dollars” incentive for EBT users, which equates to purchasing an item for half of the original price. Additionally, Hylton travels to the East Athens Clinic to host presentations and supply vouchers for the farmer’s market to women who are pregnant or have children.

Christina and her husband, Decton Hylton, came to Athens after urban living left them yearning for a farm and apiary like they once had in Jamaica.

“I really missed living off the land and Jamaica afforded that opportunity,” she said.

After studying urban planning at Rutgers University and working on the campus organic farm, Hylton moved to a five-acre farm in St. Mary’s, Jamaica, with her husband and 500 colonies of bees.

Both Hylton and her husband worked for the International School of Jamaica and stayed on the island for 13 years. Together they promoted education and preservation of the natural environment through a youth empowerment program, computer proficiency courses, health programs and the re-opening of a community center.

After Jamaica, Hylton resided in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she taught high school students about urban agriculture advocacy and scientific research. Later, she served as the science department head for her school.

Hylton has a passion for benefitting the community through education and awareness. This passion is amplified in her workplace and it’s even more apparent to coworkers who see her as a visionary.

“[Christina] connects people with the common ground of food and nutrition,” said ALT Garden Assistant Stephanie Bergamo.

Bergamo also described her as a “real people person and a real plant/farm person.”

The two share a special bond through their admiration for the beauty of nature.

“Christina and I can be in the garden together and say ‘Aren’t they incredible?’ I can’t do that with other people,” said Bergamo.

In Athens, Hylton enjoys working on her farm and maintaining her apiary with her family.

She looks forward to this year’s opening of the West Broad Market Garden scheduled for May 3 and encourages members of the community to buy organic goods and produce from the market.

If you’re not able to attend the West Broad Farmer’s Market, Hylton still has advice on healthy shopping.

 “Hit the fresh isles,” she said, “It’s not necessarily changing your lifestyle completely, but maybe adding small steps to behavior change.”

<![CDATA[ Bettering the Latino Community One Program at a Time   ]]>Thu, 22 May 2014 17:21:55 GMThttp://www.connectedtoathens.com/2014/-bettering-the-latino-community-one-program-at-a-timeBy Silvertorne Picture
Every night, Alex Borges sits at his paper-covered desk at the Casa de Amistad building. Between assessing community needs and locating funding for future programs, his work is cut out for him as he dedicates his time and energy to bettering the Latino community in Athens.

Since moving to Athens in 2009, Borges sought out different ways to help the Latino community, such as helping students in school, creating programs, and making sure everyone gets help who needs it.

“I heard Athens was a really progressive town, and there were a lot of programs in the community. That’s kind of what made me move here,” Borges said.

Borges got a job at the Clarke County School District as a migrant education specialist to help families who move frequently and to provide services for migrant students whose education is interrupted. In 2012, Borges became the executive director of Casa de Amistad, a nonprofit that identifies and address’s the needs of the under served Latino community.

Casa de Amistad started in 2000 as a way to help Latino families find housing and other resources when people were being forced to relocate due to apartments being built on the land. In 2004, it officially became Casa de Amistad and began providing classes and programs. In 2010, it got 501(c)(3) status as a nonprofit.

As executive director of Casa de Amistad, Borges is constantly looking to identify and resolve the needs of the Latino population in Athens.

“I look at what the needs are, and I create programs depending on what those needs are,” Borges said.

Currently, Casa de Amistad has multiple programs, such as English and Spanish classes, guitar lessons, computer and outreach classes, child after-school programs with tutors and a food distribution program.

Recognizing a major need for a food distribution program, Borges set out to establish a program of its type.

 “I think it’s one of the most popular programs that we have right now,” Borges said.

“As executive director of a nonprofit, he doesn’t always have to be directly involved, but in any of the ventures of Casa de Amistad, he’s always involved. He’s very hands-on and doesn’t delegate. Even in distributing the food, he’s out there with a clipboard distributing the food. That’s a good indication of a good leader,” said Paul Duncan, a board member for Casa de Amistad.

Under Borges’ leadership, Casa de Amistad has grown to serving 540 families in 2013. To accommodate so many families, Casa de Amistad enlists the help of around 120 volunteers, including college students and Athens residents.

“Alex is really good at going out into the community and bringing people in for services that they may need whether it be the English classes, financial lessons, or computer classes,” said Thomas Stukes, Casa de Amistad English teacher and volunteer. He kind of lets us do our own thing with teaching, and that is why we’re doing a good job.”

When he isn’t at the Casa de Amistad building on Commerce Road, he spends time at his day job as a migrant education specialist. For this job, Borges prepares lesson plans and visits schools around Athens. He communicates with middle and high school students, as well as out-of-school youth and dropouts. He helps them find jobs, learn English, find scholarships, and connect them with any resources they might need.

Borges is a member of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Institute (LACSI) advisory board at the University of Georgia.

He also serves as the resident manager at the Taylor-Grady House. Located on Prince Avenue, this historic house is rented out for different events, and Borges’ job is to make sure the events run smoothly. Borges resides in the Taylor-Grady House with his three dogs and partner.

Originally from Puerto Rico, Borges moved to Rome, Ga in 2004. While there, he got his psychology degree and a minor in French from Shorter College and worked as a hospital interpreter.

“He doesn’t do the job because it’s just a job. He’s passionate about the Latino community. He enjoys helping and serving people, and it’s reflected in his work,” Duncan said.

1.     Alex Borges, athensamistad@gmail.com, 706-206-2087
2.     Paul Duncan, 706-583-0619
3.     Thomas Stukes, athensamistad@gmail.com

<![CDATA[ Bill Holley: More Than What Meets the Eye]]>Thu, 22 May 2014 17:20:28 GMThttp://www.connectedtoathens.com/2014/-bill-holley-more-than-what-meets-the-eyeBy Connor Siegel Picture
There are few names Bill Holley has not been called. At first they were negative, but he has transformed his outlook into something people can only admire as a “champion” and a “fighter.”

Fortunately, Holley, the executive director of Multiple Choices, redefines himself every day and has created a self-made person who many now call a success, innovator, and most importantly, “differently abled.”

Holley has endured 70 years of racial, health and governmental hardships, but persevered as a shining light by creating innovative solutions for people with disabilities.

From the start of his career training, Holley knew that he wanted to serve the disabled community, which the rest of the world seemed to neglect.  His position as diversity coordinator in the family and consumer sciences department at the University of Georgia was the first place Holley worked with people who have disabilities.

“I have a passion for people who are underestimated,” said Holley.  “It’s about people with a lot of potential but (who) don’t have the opportunities because of what people think disabled people can and cannot do.”

Holley’s faith in humanity was restored because of the young minorities recruited by UGA who had the objectives and heart to work with people who suffered from disabilities.  

This position allowed Holley to develop numerous friendships with people who have significant disabilities; which led to his position with the National Family for the Advancement of Minorities with Disabilities.

“Mr. Holley has changed my life,” Charles Schrauth Multiple Choices board member said. “I have an adult child with disabilities and Mr. Holley has shown me how to better understand my son and to better meet his needs.”

Holley’s health deteriorated along with vision loss, which led him to overcoming new challenges.

“I refer to people like me as differently abled,” said Holley. “My becoming blind did not stop me from doing those things, but I do them better because I have a sense of consciousness.”           

Instead of living his life in shambles and questioning why God served him a dish that was hard to digest, Holley became a self-advocate. He underwent training at Louisiana Tech School for the Blind. In training he was sought out by Multiple Choices in Athens to serve as the nonprofit’s executive director.

“All the work I did nationally cannot compete with all the things that I have done here in Athens,” said Holley.        

With memories of his past experiences as a Georgia resident, Holley hesitantly accepted the position.

“I originally didn’t want to work this position,” said Holley. “I didn’t want to return to Georgia because it’s the worst in the country for helping people with disabilities.”

Together, Holley and Multiple Choices focus on rehabilitating people who endure life with disabilities by providing them with necessary tools to live a successful life independently from a nursing home.

“His most valuable attribute is his persistence,” a co-worker who wished to remain anonymous said. “He does not allow the word ‘no’ to deter him from his goal.”

Holley believes that if given opportunities anyone can accomplish anything. He served as the first black and blind district governor in Georgia and president of the Georgia Council of the Blind.

Holley spoke of how the government restricts the capabilities of those who are differently abled. He worked hard in the late 1970s to pass the Rehabilitation Act, which governs all disabilities and removes numerous restrictions.

With the body of a 70-year-old, but heart and soul of a 21-year-old college student. Holley does not plan on retiring until the organization has enough resources to ensure that everyone who wants help can get it.

Holley’s selflessness exhibits that he is not an executive director of a nonprofit to collect a check. He came across many higher paying opportunities while serving as the executive director, but remains humble by returning his paycheck to better the center and to help more people.

“I would rather give it away than keep it, the more you give, the more you get,” said Holley.