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A Most Special Commencement

May 12, 2011

These determined students

taught the professors

about life’s challenges.

And not being defined by them. 

Kelsey Bizzell and Christopher Hunnicutt sing the national anthem as KSU's commencement begins.

©2011 Robin Nelson All Rights Reserved

Kennesaw, Georgia

It was a commencement like hundreds across the nation on a warm May Tuesday morning. A few thousand capped and gowned college students, fresh-faced and eager to move on the next chapter in their lives, walked into the arena to the familiar “Pomp and Circumstance” by the brass ensemble.

A blend of perfumes, after-shave lotions and bouquets from hundreds of flowers filled the muggy, southern air.

The day would be consumed with relatives, hugs, kisses, snapshots, goodbyes and countless open houses. Coming weeks would bring job searches, resumes and– hopefully  — interviews.  The scene could have been from anywhere in middle America.

But there was something very different on this day, in this graduation ceremony.

Two students who had graced the campus for the last two years as part of Kennesaw State University’s pilot Academy for Inclusive Learning were asked to stand for special recognition. They held leather-clad certificates in their hands that looked much like the other students’ diplomas. They stood proudly as the university president shared a bit about who they were and what they had accomplished.  Applause, full and authentic, filled the hall.  Kelsey Bizzell and Christopher Hunnicutt weren’t the valedictorian and salutatorian.  They were special in a much larger sense. And they were pioneers.

Tears welled up in Christopher Hunnicutt’s eyes as the gowned president spoke. His classmate Kelsey stood in awe as the two were affirmed and encouraged. It was a dream that had finally come true. And the spotlight was on them for helping to break new ground in higher education.

The arena was filled with proud parents, but there were two sets of parents who beamed even brighter than the rest.

Christopher and Kelsey have developmental disabilities. In other communities, opportunities for a college experience would have likely remained an unfulfilled dream for students with Downs syndrome or similar challenges. But at KSU’s College of Health and Human Services, a handful of students who otherwise would not have been admitted to college had the opportunity to attend lecture classes, hang out with fellow students, study in the library and do pretty much what college students do for four semesters, modified, of course, to their abilities.

“We started with three students for the first year,” explains Jill Sloan, who administers the two-year program. “The second year we added six more. Hopefully we can add more every year as we get funds and staff.” A former special education teacher in the public schools, Jill’s heart glows with pride at how her students adapted to campus life.  She is determined and optimistic that the program she has shaped will be replicated in several other Georgia universities. And maybe beyond. 

“Mom, I’m really a college graduate now,” Kelsey gushed later to her mother Kimberly as she held out a yellow “KSU Alumni” T-shirt from a table where the bookstore had set up shop. “Yes, you are,” Kimberly said. “Yes, you are.”  

“These students would have had little opportunity for anything like this five years ago. Once their secondary education time was up, usually by age 22, that would have been the end of it,” explained Ms. Sloan. The project now has the university’s full support.

Christopher and Kelsey dearly wanted to be just  typical students. (See the earlier post from 2010)  Closely supervised and mentored by both staff and student volunteers, their classes and activities gave them significantly more maturity and confidence to deal with a world that typically doesn’t understand what it means to have a developmental disability. It is a world that is sometimes rude and unkind.

His special diploma in hand, Chris Hunnicutt thanks Sheryl Arno, an advocate for persons with disabilities who helped get the program initiated.

While not a true college diploma, the program gives these students a larger perspective than those of their peers who only had the sheltered special education offered in high school. College changes people, even if the certificate isn’t exactly a college diploma. 

“Whatever Chris and Kelsey learned in their two years on campus, I think the professors and the thousands of regular students who got to know them learned even more. Those two taught everyone they met not to be afraid of someone with a disability just because they might be a little different,”  said one of Christopher’s classmates. “I think Chris and Kelsey broke down a lot of barriers. They might have come to have the college experience, but they ended up teaching the rest of us. They should be very proud of what they’ve accomplished.”

A Passionate Man

May 9, 2011

Story and Photographs by Robin Nelson

© 2011 All Rights Reserved

Driving home through rural Tennessee after a five-day story on nuclear power, I opted for the back roads once again. It always brings me back to the reason I do what I do.

I remembered seeing hand-painted signs near a worn, junk-strewn barn a few days earlier. I found the place again and  I just had to stop. The dogs beyond the fence barked a lot but didn’t really look hungry. Nevertheless I yelled out, “Is anyone home?” rather than climb over the gate to go knocking on the front door of the house.

I noticed a old pickup truck in the gravel driveway. It had a metal, hand-painted sign mounted to the top. I knew I had to meet the man who put it there.

I yelled once more. A few minutes passed and the door opened. An elderly woman came out with a big smile on her face. She seemed genuinely pleased that some stranger came to visit. 

I asked about the dogs. She ‘shooed’ them away and opened the gate. Then David walked outside. A tall fellow in his later years,  he seemed eager to talk. He proudly showed me his metal signs  and explained that he was a street evangelist. I asked to make his picture and he happily complied. “But only if you get me with my signs,” he said.

His name is David Decker. Perhaps you’ve seen him on various street corners in cities throughout the South. He makes a little money from  selling scrap metal, but it all goes to support his passion for sharing the Gospel to anyone who might be walking by. 

Perhaps you ignored him, writing him off as just another ‘religious nut’ with a sign on a street corner. It doesn’t phase him. A lot of people look past him. “If one person stops to listen out of thousands who might pass by, and that person learns something about who Jesus is, it’s worth it,” he said.

I made a few pictures of David with his signs. Then Susan joined him. “She’s my girlfriend,” David explained. “My wife died a few years ago. Susan and I will probably get married one of these days,” he said.

We talked for a bit before I headed back to the car. “Have a blessed day,” he said. “See you in Heaven.”

David likely won’t make the cover of Christianity Today. His pictures likely won’t go beyond this blog. But none of that matters, either to David or myself.  I had an opportunity to meet an interesting person who is a colorful thread in the fabric of the South.  I made a picture that makes me smile. 

May it brighten your day as well.

A Mother’s Love

April 26, 2011

A single mother struggles to keep her profoundly challenged son out of nursing homes

© 2011 Robin Nelson All Rights Reserved

Essie Evans gets her son Cornelius settled into his wheelchair for the morning

Donalsonville, Georgia

“He’s in there, I know it,” Essie Evans said, gently stroking her son’s cheek. Tears welled up in her eyes for a moment before she took a breath and pulled herself together. Feeling sorry for herself or her profoundly disabled 16-year-old son, Cornelius, would accomplish nothing. 

She leaned over and kissed his forehead.  “He knows my voice.  He knows I’m here and he knows he’s loved,” she said. “I made a promise to take care of my ‘Fudge’ as long as I’m breathing. I couldn’t bring myself to put him in a nursing home. They wouldn’t know him. He wouldn’t get the care he needs. He needs to be with people who love him. No, I couldn’t do that.”  

Cornelius lay in a recliner chair wedged between the living and dining rooms of Essie’s cramped  mobile home.  Unable to speak or move, his eyes seemed to stare at something far in the distance.  One day is much like another here, except for the weather. A tired air conditioner clunked and hummed from a kitchen window. Birds chirped from trees outside. A dusty pickup truck rumbled down the red dirt road that separates Essie’s home from a vacant farm field. Essie’s handful of neighbors along the dirt road keep pretty much to their own business.

With help from a friend, Essie lifts her son from his hospital-style bed.

Essie busied herself changing the sheets on the hospital bed that nearly filled her son’s tiny bedroom at the end of the hall. It was just Essie and Cornelius for a few hours more until her older son Morris would come by after his day job.  Morris would help Essie move Cornelius to his room for the night. He would also stay to keep watch on his brother so that Essie could sleep for a few hours.

“I knew something wasn’t right three weeks after he was born,” Essie reflected. “Fudge was my third child.  He didn’t really cry like my first babies, it was more of a high-pitched whine. He just lay there and didn’t move. My friends said I was lucky to have such a good baby, but I knew something was wrong.”

Like many small towns in south Georgia, Donalsonville has several family practice physicians who provide routine medical care, but trauma and serious illness care is sparse. Specialists are few and far between, often hours away.

A doctor’s visit in Atlanta, four hours from home

“By the time he was three months old, he’d shake and quiver.  His lips would turn black. He couldn’t tolerate milk and he started passing blood. I took him to a big hospital in Florida but the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong, They said I was being overprotective and overconcerned. They told me, ‘There’s nothing wrong with this child.’  But I knew different,” she said.

On their way back from Florida, Essie watched as Cornelius had several grand mal seizures. When they finally returned home, her local doctor suggested  she take Cornelius to see specialists in Atlanta.

After a week of tests in an Atlanta children’s hospital, doctors diagnosed him with mitochondrial myopathy, a genetic disorder that affects the whole body.  “They sent us home and said, ‘just leave him be,’ as there wasn’t much they could do,” she explained.  “They said he would eventually go blind and deaf and develop heart problems. They said his organs would eventually shut down.”

In time, Cornelius learned to crawl and roll over. By age three, he was sitting up and trying to walk. Though he couldn’t speak words, he made sounds as he tried to express himself.

“He would get all excited when he was in his feeder seat. He would clap his hands and say, “ah-yah-yah-yah” and bang his spoon on the tray when he heard the blender going. He knew that meant it was time to eat, and he could used that spoon to eat,” she said. 

“Cornelius played with balls and a teddy bear. He flapped his arms and laughed. He was content and happy. He was alive,” Essie said.  She enrolled him in a pre-K nursery school, hopeful that maybe the doctors were mistaken.

As Cornelius turned five, however, doctors were certain that he suffered from a form of   mitochondrial encephalomyopathy. “They said it was like he had dozens of little strokes all the time. He was never going to get better. He would never talk or be able to care for himself.”

Essie cleans her son’s teeth with a gentle sponge and suction

 By the time Cornelius was twelve, his father had filed for divorce and moved away. Essie and her two older children were left to care for Cornelius. “He couldn’t deal with Fudge’s disability. It embarrassed him. He doesn’t have anything to do with his son. He really hasn’t been in Cornelius’ life for a long time,” she said.

Two years ago, in an surgical attempt to repair Cornelius’ spine problems, Cornelius was given a bone graft and a metal rod in his back that unexpectedly caused a massive infection beneath the stitches. “He had a temperature of 105. We almost lost him,”she said. Whether it was damage from the resulting high fever or the progressive nature of the disease, Cornelius’ condition soon deteriorated. 

The claps and “yah-yahs” disappeared. He can no longer hold his head up.  He laughter has been replaced by heavy breathing and grunts, except for an occasional grin when Essie hugs or tickles him.

Cornelius is now on an electric pump that regularly forces liquid nutrients through a tube directly into his stomach.  He requires round-the-clock care to turn him every few hours, administer his medications,  change his diapers and bathe his limp, 101-pound body. When he needs to see his doctor, Essie and Cornelius make the four-hour trip with the help of a state-supplied van and driver. After the visit, they load Cornelius back into the van for the long drive back to southwest Georgia. 

I had him in a nursing home for a little while. Then I saw the bruises and scratches on his body that could only have come from someone being rough while moving him. I decided then and there that he needed to be home with me. He needed to be with people who love him.”

Now on disability herself, Essie somehow manages to keep the bills paid. She has asked state Medicaid officials for help in caring for her son at home, but it is a continuing, uphill battle.

Reading in the shade on a gentle spring afternoon

“There’s Medicaid funds available to pay for someone to come in and help me, except there’s nobody who’s willing to do it where we are. I can’t find anyone to help care for him. The local providers say they don’t have the staff. They paid Morris for a while, then they said they couldn’t continue to pay family members to care for Cornelius. But if he were in a 24/7 facility it would cost a lot more than what I’m asking.

“So I do it. Every morning I feed him breakfast through his tube, change his diaper, drain his urine bag, give him a sponge bath, brush his teeth and suction his mouth. A few times a week I manage to lift him into his seat in the tub and give him a real bath, but that’s hard to do. Then I’ll get him in clean clothes and clean his room. 

“It’s a struggle to get him in and out of his wheelchair — sometimes I have help and sometimes I don’t. I take him outside if it’s nice weather. We’ll sit under the tree and I’ll read to him. I talk to him throughout the day. I rub his hands and try to stimulate his senses. Sometimes I’ll sing to him.

“When my daughter or older son comes over they’ll watch him so I can take a nap. But not for too long. Cornelius is my responsibility. It’s not their responsibility to take care of him. I want them to have a life. 

 “If he was in a nursing home I know he wouldn’t get the care he needs. He would just be another person who can’t speak up for himself, stuck in a warehouse and left alone to lie in his feces for hours. No stimulation, no words of love or kindness. I’ve seen it. I know. 

“Fudge could live to be fifty, I don’t know what to expect. I just take it one day at a time. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. There are times I’ve asked God to take him so he’s not in pain.

“It gets lonely here. My sister helps when she can and my other kids help here too. We took Cornelius to church with us until he was maybe 11. Our church was mostly older folks, maybe there’s a hundred members.

“Sometimes people would call and offer to help so I could go have some time for myself. But when I’d call  to take them up on their offer it was usually, ‘I’ve got something to do, or today’s not a good day, or I got this or I got that.’ I lost faith in people. There have been times when Cornelius was so sick and I really needed someone to talk to, but there wasn’t anybody. It wasn’t that they didn’t care, they just had their lives going on. I can’t take it to heart. I can’t hate. 

“But you know, God knows my Cornelius. I know God loves him even more than I do. I put God first and He gives me strength to take care of my son. He could be sleeping and when I come into his room he’ll look up at me. I’ll take his hand and hold it tight. I know he’s in there and he lets me know he hears me. My Fudge brings me joy. It’s a feeling ain’t nobody can pay me enough to give up.”

‘My Fudge brings me joy every day.’ — Essie Evans

Taking Hope on the Road

December 14, 2010

Story and Photographs © Robin Nelson

All Rights Reserved

Cumming, GA – The volunteers report for their packing ‘shift’ full of laughs and smiles at the 6,000 square-foot warehouse, getting right to their task of filling hundreds of boxes with canned and non-perishable food for hungry people they will never meet.

They work with the efficiency of a well-oiled machine. They’re all members of the First Redeemer church a few miles away, and part of a 120-member There’s Hope for the Hungry ministry force that shares Christ-like love with the food to hundreds of scared and hungry people in 28 small towns throughout North Georgia.

“Our desire was to be more than just another food pantry where people to come to for a bag of groceries.  Our mission is to go where the needs are. We meet them in their own community and we’re able to share the gospel with them in the process of meeting their needs,” explains Scott Phillips, who coordinates the ministry’s daily operations.

While ‘There’s Hope’ is totally separate from First Redeemer Church and funded independently from the church, it was Dr. Richard Lee, the church’s pastor who had the vision and birthed the ministry.

“He had this idea to take food to these smaller towns that were seeing devastating increases in the numbers of carpet and textile mill shutdowns,” recalls Phillips, who took a position as the church’s evangelism outreach ministry after a logistics career in the Air Force.

“We aimed for those smaller towns, most of them far beyond the local range of our church, if we were just a place to come to for groceries. We wanted to take the ‘food pantry’ approach to a new level. It really hadn’t been done before. We didn’t have any preconceived ideas. We just knew someone had to do it, because those towns’ families were hurting and desperate.  Whole communities were reeling with huge increases in unemployment, and no relief in sight.”

There were many who scoffed in the beginning. “I didn’t find that it had been done anywhere in the country. I shared our idea to pastors and other food pantry ministries in dozens of communities to get their thoughts and suggestions. I was surprised at the number of pastors who said our project would never work. I remember one pastor who said people wouldn’t stick around to hear what we had to say. He said nobody would give us the time, they just want to receive something — just get their free food and go home.”

Seven years and thousands of food boxes later, “We’ve had a tremendous response. There are many more towns in north Georgia we’d like to reach,” he said. “We could if we had more trucks, volunteers and money to purchase the food,” he said.  There’s Hope operates on less than $500,000 a year, all of it from outside gifts. The non-perishable food is purchased in bulk from area food banks.

There’s Hope drivers and volunteers ease into each town once every month, parking one of two 40-foot trailers in a partnering church lot. Four days a week they set out orange cones to guide the traffic and meet with local church volunteers to pray before things get going. Some days there are two trucks and volunteer teams that head to different towns. On Fridays, the trucks return to the warehouse to reload for the next week’s destinations.

“We can’t do it alone, we need to partner with local churches. We want other churches to see the value in what we’re doing, put ‘denominations’ aside and meet the need. We have a record of every person who comes through here, and all their contact information. Once a person comes to the church where we’re parked, they register and meet with a volunteer counselor. We’re often dealing with a wide range of issues, ages and circumstances but mostly it is that there’s little money to put food on the table. Our counselors meet privately with each one, with the bigger purpose of sharing the gospel with them and encourage them to become part of a local church family. We’ve seen hundreds of decisions made and lives changed,” he said.

Each visitor receives a box of the ‘Hope Food,’ as well as bags of groceries collected by the local churches. At least one partnering church rallies its members to cook up enough casseroles, pasta, salads and drinks to serve scores of local residents in the cramped church basement as they wait for their turn to meet with a counselor upstairs.  A local hairstylist at that same church  donates her time and talent to provide free haircuts in a makeshift ‘salon’ in a nearby classroom. Other volunteers sort piles of donated clothing that that fill ten large tables outside the church, free to anyone who needs it.  The event is known as “Hope Day” in the small town.

“It’s all done with the utmost in dignity,” said Phillips. Each partnering church is responsible for the follow-up visits at home, he said. “It’s all very upbeat and positive and encouraging.”

“It’s tough when you’re a 54-year-old man with a 10th-grade education and diabetes, a wife and kids, and 400 people in town lose their job because the mill shuts down and the jobs go overseas. He’s worked hard and raised his kids the best he could, but what’s he going to do now? Unemployment checks run out eventually. He’s made carpet or textiles his whole life. He’s got no other skills. That man is scared to death.”

“We’re a ministry, not a social program. We’re not the Red Cross, United Way or the county social services,” Phillips stressed. “Our mission is simple — to bless folks who have lost hope and show them how they can have hope again,” he said.

Phillips would like to see these towns provided with a bus or truck with computers on board, along with an instructor to teach computer literacy and new job skills. He also envisions racks of clothes on board as well for those who need them, perhaps for job interviews. “If we had Bill Gates’ money, that’s what we would do with it,” he said.

“Ministry isn’t four walls, and it’s not just on Sunday.  These folks are tired of playing games. They need love and they’ve got to eat. We’re helping them right where they live,” Phillips said.

Keith Fitzhugh: A Breath of Fresh Air

December 10, 2010

Every now and then I have a photo assignment that ends up blessing me much more than just a good picture and a paycheck. The story on Keith Fitzhugh warmed my heart.

Keith is the young man from Hampton, Georgia who turned down a “once in a lifetime” offer to rejoin the New York Jets, opting instead to remain on his three-month-old job as a conductor for the Norfolk and Southern Railroad.

Keith loves trains and he loves football, but he loves his family more. They’re the real reason he said ‘no thanks’ to the Jets’ offer, though he would still love to play football with them some day. He played football for Mississippi State and signed on with Jets  as an undrafted free agent, but was released by the Jets earlier this year. They called Tuesday and invited him back.

“Life is short, and you never know what will happen. I was unemployed for a while and my family was there for me. My dad is disabled now and can’t work. I need to stay close to family and help care for them. Now I have a job I love with good benefits. I haven’t won a Super Bowl, and yeah, it would be great to do that — a ‘once in a lifetime’ chance. But you only get one mom and dad. I’d rather be there for them.”

He now has a steady job, though it pays less than an NFL paycheck. A lot less. “Money isn’t everything, and family counts for a lot more than money and fame,” he said. The NFL job might only have been for a brief while.  Keith didn’t want to give up a job he loved just for a few weeks in the spotlight.

No ego. Lots of humility, the real kind. He jokes around with his pastor and is the kind of young man I think many people hope other young men would try to emulate.

There were comments made — from a jaded sportswriter, I’m sure — that this was just a ploy to squeeze the Jets for more money and a better contract.

To the sportswriter, I would say this: You’re flat wrong about Keith.  I was there. I watched him interact with people in the midst of a media frenzy. There’s no ploy, no tactics. Keith is just who he is: a young man who loves God, loves his family, and has his priorities in the right place.

And he loves trains.

Unlocked: The Lois Curtis Story

November 27, 2010

A determined Georgia woman and her lawyer changed the landscape for thousands of institutionalized persons with developmental disabilities who yearn to live in their communities.

©Robin Nelson All rights reserved


Decatur, GA — Lois Curtis blew the chalk dust from her finished portrait and handed it to her young visitor. “That’s you!” beamed the 43 year-old self-taught artist. “I like to do pictures,” she exclaimed. Lois began sketching another face, of no one in particular, while humming a favorite tune to herself.

She might sketch a dozen pictures in an afternoon, or be content to write letters to friends, acquaintances, anyone for whom she might have an address. “Give me your address so I can write to you,” she said to her visitor as she reached for her ever-present cigarettes. “I like to write letters, too.”

Lois fills her days at the Peer Center in Decatur, a peer-run alternative to traditional mental health day programs. She visits the center nearly every day, often arriving before the doors open at 11 a.m. The center is filled with music, group activities and laughter, with an easy-going, self-directed air about it. It is a place anyone with disabilities is welcomed, where marginalized individuals can feel safe, respected and among friends who understand them.

Lois can usually be found outside at a picnic table, sketching another portrait she hopes will one day be framed and displayed on someone’s wall.

“Her paintings and sketches are amazing. They have this ‘folk art’ quality to them that is enchanting,” explains Lee Sanders, a career consultant who assists Lois several times each week with her self-employed art business. “She is so humble, yet she is really coming into her own as an artist now. Everyone in the disability community knows her name.”

Even the justices on the United States Supreme Court know of Lois. She was known as “L.C.,” in what is now referred to as the Olmstead Decision. Ten years ago, her story help clarify federal law for thousands of developmentally disabled individuals across the country.

“Lois was born to a family that was unable to adequately care for her, given the behavioral supports that she needed and the fears that her mother had for her safety,” explains Susan Jamieson, director of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, who first met Lois in 1989.

“Lois struggled with school even though she loved being in school, due largely to behavior issues. At home, her mother was constantly calling 911 because Lois would wander off. She was extremely fearful for her daughter’s safety. Their neighborhood was not a safe place for a young girl to be out wandering around. When the police responded, Lois ended up either in jail or the mental hospital. She was in and out of the Georgia Regional Hospital’s child and adolescent unit from the time she was eleven.”

“Her story is typical of those who are developmentally disabled and also have behavior issues. They are often served through the mental health system by staff members who are only trained to deal with mentally ill patients, and who typically lack understanding of the particular needs of someone with a developmental disability. They treat people like Lois as though they have psychiatric problems. That was true twenty years ago, and it is still true today,” Ms. Jamieson said.

As a patient in the hospital, Lois was treated with psychotropic drugs, which kept her sedated and lethargic. “She sat around and didn’t do much of anything productive. The drugs sapped her energy. Occasionally she would go on day trips with patients who had mental illnesses, but mostly she sat around and smoked to kill time. It was an empty existence for her,” recalls Ms. Jamieson. “It was a scary place, especially for someone who didn’t belong there. Lois was basically warehoused in a hospital for psychiatric patients, not the developmentally disabled.”

Diane Cobb was a nurse at Georgia Regional Hospital in the 1980s. She clearly remembers Lois as a teenage patient: “Lackluster and isolated. She did what many of the patients did – walk about the hospital grounds unkempt and uncared for. Her hygiene was horrible. Lois was sullen and depressed. She was withdrawn into herself and rarely smiled. That’s how she survived that environment. She didn’t look forward to something she couldn’t keep, like a friendship with someone or a rapport with a staff person. There wasn’t any nurturing within the psychiatric unit, only more meds and endless monotony.”

By the time Lois was 19, Lois was desperately unhappy and wanted out. “She wanted what she knew others enjoyed – a life free from locked doors, fences, guards and restrictions of state mental hospitals. She wanted to live in her community, not behind steel doors,” Ms. Jamieson said. “She missed living in the home she remembered as a child, even though her home had not been very successful for her in the past.”

At one point in the early 1990’s, Lois was placed into a personal care home, but it lacked any of the necessary supports. “The home had no trained staff. It was completely inappropriate,” Ms. Jamieson explained.  “Her mother was pressured to take her back in. We fought to get her the support services she needed, but state officials refused to provide them. Lois was returned to Georgia Regional because there was no other place to go.”

Lois Curtis with Susan Jamieson, Legal Aid Atlanta attorney

“The doctors admitted that Lois and Elaine no longer met the state’s requirements for involuntary confinement, but they refused to release them to live within community-based programs. They said they could keep them in the hospital and provide whatever they needed there,” Ms. Jamieson said.

“They said the women were not eligible to be placed on the Medicaid waiver waiting list because they weren’t currently in hospitals that were primarily centered on mental retardation. Lois and Elaine had been in the wrong institution. It wasn’t their fault. They should never have been in that hospital in the first place. We wanted to get them into an alternative to the hospital environment, some place where they could thrive.”

Even when their names were eventually added to the waiver waiting list, officials warned there was little likelihood they would receive services any time soon.  “The state’s position was, if they could serve the women in an institution, that was all the obligation the state had. They weren’t required to serve them in any other setting. They said the women had no legal rights to more than what they what already had.”

In 1995, with the Legal Aid Society’s help, the two women sued the State of Georgia under a claim with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ms. Jamieson, with co-counsel Stephen Sylvia Caley and Charles Bliss, all legal aid attorneys, maintained that individuals with a mental or physical disability could not be forced to remain in an institutional environment if they could be served in a more integrated, community-based setting.

A Federal District Court judge in Atlanta agreed. The state appealed, citing a lack of funds, only to be told that failure to provide integrated community services for the two women violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Undaunted, the state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking to reverse that ruling.

The Supreme Court ruled that ‘unnecessary institutionalization’ amounted to discrimination and unjustified segregation, thus violating the women’s civil rights. “Institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuate unwarranted assumptions that person so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life,” the decision read, in part.

“It became known as the ‘Olmstead Decision’ because that’s who we first filed suit against, Tommy Olmstead, Commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Human Resources,” explained Ms. Jamieson. The ruling was seen as a mandate to free tens of thousands of people with disabilities from undue restraint in institutional living, those who met the qualifications and had the desire to leave,” she said.

The landmark decision challenges state and local governments to develop more opportunities for disabled individuals through cost-effective community-based services. It interpreted ADA regulations as requiring states to administer services, programs and activities “ the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities.”

After Elaine Wilson secured her freedom and state-funded community services, she moved into a private home with a friend and care-provider. She became an advocate for persons with disabilities and enjoyed an active life until her death in 2004.

Lois, however, bounced from one personal care home to another. “She lived in a succession of group homes and host homes in the years following the Supreme Court’s ruling,” recalls Jessica Long, who began working as a job coach for Lois in 2004. “The year I met Lois, she was relocated at least ten times that I can remember, for a variety of reasons. Some of the reasons were very arbitrary.”

“The common factor was that no one knew exactly what was needed. The system didn’t work because not enough people in the state government cared to make it work right for people like Lois,” said Ms. Long.

Today, Lois enjoys her days at the Peer Center and working on her art. She relaxes in her ‘host home’ with crayons and coloring books as she snuggles on a sofa in a brightly furnished sunroom. Lois sleeps in an antique oak bed in a private room on the ground floor.  She washes her own clothes. Hollis Baugh, her care provider, makes sure Lois eats well-balanced meals and gets to where she needs to be. She takes weekly art classes at a nearby hobby shop.

“She’s happy with herself and loves what she does now,” notes Ms. Long, who helped Lois uncover her artistic talents. “When she was in the hospital, people would say ‘yeah, she draws pictures, it keeps her busy.’ In the time that I’ve known Lois, her art has blossomed. She refers to herself as an artist now, and she knows people really like her work. Her eyes light up when people pay for her paintings and note cards. She knows when she’s finished a good one. She’s always asking people if she can draw their portrait for three dollars.”

Smartly matted and framed ‘Lois Curtis’ originals are proudly displayed along the walls at Kilpatrick Stockton, a prominent Atlanta law firm.  A ten-member ‘micro board’ meets regularly to discuss Lois’ needs and goals, and has organized several gallery shows of her work.

“Lois serves as the president of her own board and loves to call the meetings to order,” notes Patty Cassidy, a micro board member who is also a community and employment consultant for persons with disabilities. “She’s told her board she wants to have a home of her own someday, to have her own money and make her own decisions. Purchasing a home of her own is not out of the question. It will take some creativity, but it can happen. Then Lois can have her services in her own home and live with more independence.

“She receives numerous invitations to be a guest speaker at conferences across the country,” notes Ms. Sanders, who often accompanies Lois on the out-of-town speaking engagements. Her artwork is often sold during a conference from a small table in the lobby. “Some pieces sell for hundreds of dollars. People are thrill to meet her and take home some of her artwork. They are so impressed with this woman who helped change the landscape for thousands of people with disabilities.

“Selling her pictures really gets her excited. She loves the attention and caring she senses from others.” Proceeds from the sale of her artwork are reinvested into her business for paint, pastel chalks, sketch pads, mats and frames, she added.

“Lois Curtis is a success story. She has come a long way from her years at the regional hospital. But there are thousands more like her who could thrive in community living programs if they were more available,” notes. Ms. Jamieson.

“Back then, people didn’t have the time or patience with someone who acted different, if you weren’t what society said was normal you were deviant,” observed Ms. Cobb, who has since retired from a 35-year career in mental health.

“Years ago, when people had a mental retardation diagnosis they didn’t act the way we wanted them to act. They didn’t fit into our network, so we gave them a label. Society seemed to say, ‘we can hear about you, but as a society we don’t want to see you. If there’s a place that will take you, that’s where we’ll put you.’ Some people did it because they had no choice; others did it to get the family member out of their hair. And there were the ones whose condition had taken a toll on the family as well as the individual, so for the well being of both, they went into the hospital.

“Warehousing them in a hospital isn’t good. Getting them into the community is better, as long as it’s with people who know what they’re doing and the individuals get the services they need.”

Despite long waiting lists for support services in many states, things are looking better, says Ira Burnim, Director for the Judge Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C.

“The good news is, community integration has become a prime concern now across the country. The Olmstead case makes it very clear that compliance with the ADA is a priority. Olmstead is now a household word, and the decision makes it very clear what our national policy is,” he said.

“The bad news is that there hasn’t been as much change on the ground by this time as we had hoped. The federal government has dealt with this very gingerly. Enforcement has been weak, perhaps because the Health and Human Services agency doesn’t have a civil rights agenda.

“The Department of Justice is charged with ensuring that the ADA is implemented. It hasn’t really taken the leadership role that it should, but I believe this administration is committed to changing that.

“If the DOJ picks up the mantle of Olmstead and really tries to secure states’ understanding of what compliance requires, it will dramatically change the landscape in the country. I’ve heard from this Justice Department that they plan to make Olmstead a high priority. We are now at the stage of seeing how this plays out.

“There are ‘pockets of brilliance’ in communities across the country where people with developmental disabilities are integrated into the community, but it’s not consistent. There are also people in terrible situations – at home with no support, or stuck in awful institutions for no other reason than governmental ineptitude or public meanness.

Funding is not the issue, Mr. Burnim insists. “It shouldn’t cost much more than what it costs now, because you shift the money. What makes the difference is whether the leadership of the public systems are progressive and effective, and whether they really believe in community integration.

“There’s a lot of money in the disability service systems that is badly spent on segregating people in institutions and dead-end day programs. If you redirect all that money and effectively promoted community integration, it might require a little more money at first, but most of the steps we need to take can be done with existing dollars. The problem is, there’s a lot of vested interests in maintaining the current system. Some providers just don’t want to change what they’re doing.”

In Mr. Burnim’s opinion, progress requires a different mindset.

“It’s really the question: Do you think people with disabilities can live somewhat independently, with support that turns out to be a relatively cheap proposition, and do you think it’s a priority?

“Most of the time people think, on some level, that the mentally disabled are impaired, they don’t understand what’s going on, so what difference does all this make? Even if they were persuaded that it was important to give folks with a disability a real shot at an existence like the rest of us, as much as possible anyway, they think it’s a nice idea – but there are so many problems in the world, and so many people who are not impaired that we should worry about. It’s a question of understanding and priorities.

“Institutions severely limit people’s ability to enjoy what makes life meaningful — the everyday joys of family, friends, work and leisure. When you’re institutionalized, you’re cut off from all that. What people value most in life, institutionalization takes away.

“When you put people in institutions it is a very powerful social message. People who are institutionalized tend to be devalued due to the fact that they are institutionalized. The message is, ‘there must be something really wrong with them, they’re incapable, so unfortunately we need to write them off.”

“I was actually proud that the Supreme Court got it so right,” said Mr. Burnim. “People need to see disabilities as a civil rights issue.”

Lois Curtis will hopefully be in her own home one day. Her friends and supporters will celebrate just how far she has come. And Lois will be dancing in the middle of them, smiling for the entire world to see.

It’s a Scottish Thing

October 20, 2010

©2010 by Robin Nelson All Rights Reserved

Stone Mountain, GA — For 38 years on the third weekend of October, the clans have been gathering at the base of a very large rock east of Atlanta. Non-Scots come as well, often by the tens of thousands. But even if they didn’t, the Scots would come together  from throughout the Southeast to dance on swords, make music that’s often hard of the ears but rips at the heart , and eat food the rest of the world might easily shun. Why? Because that’s what their ancestors did in the craggy rock and mist-covered Highlands and the simple farms of the lowlands in the most beautiful place on earth.

Now these Americans with Scottish blood continue the traditions with unrelenting passion. And the non-Scots enjoy those traditions nearly as much as those who came from Scotland, even if they don’t totally understand them.

There are Highland games someplace in the U.S. nearly every weekend of the year because there are nearly 6 million Scot-American citizens spread out across the country. As many Scots  originally settled from Pennsylvania through Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee and Georgia, their descendants still living in those regions  fill the telephone books with MacCrae, MacCrimmon, Bruce, Colquhoun, Stewart, Campbell and MacDonald, among hundreds more. And they keep the games and pipe band contests going, rain or shine.

At nearly every Highland games one can usually find a tent with helpful genealogy experts standing by to research surnames for that thread of a connection to Scotland. At the games, it seems, everyone wants to be Scottish. Perhaps it provides a good reason to try that haggis for sale at the food vendor tents.

I must confess my notes here might not be totally objective: my ancestors left Scotland for America in the 1740s to begin a new life. I am so blessed that they made that journey, and proud to be an American. But my heart is filled with joy on my trips to where they came from. There’s something in the air, or maybe it’s the water. A Scot — even one who is six generations down the line — will just know he’s home.

‘Just a Typical Student’

October 4, 2010

Chris Hunnicutt is defined neither by diagnosis nor disability as he makes his mark on the college campus.

Story and Photographs ©2010 Robin Nelson

All Rights Reserved

Kennesaw, Georgia — Christopher Hunnicutt slowly made his way across the Kennesaw State University campus from his music appreciation class to the student center, waving and smiling to everyone he encountered.

“Hey, I’m Chris,” he said with a raspy voice and big grin to a taller but younger student also going his way. Christopher extended his hand for a solid handshake. “Glad to know you, Chris,” the other student replied. They chatted along the way as Chris exchanged more waves and smiles to dozens of students walking past.

Some engaged the stocky young man in pleasant conversation: “Hey man, how’re ya doin’? How’re your classes?” Others simply responded with an encouraging smile. Students or staff, it made no difference. Christopher wanted to meet everyone as he basked in his college experience. He was beyond ecstatic just to be on campus; thrilled to be, in his words, ‘just a typical student.’

It’s impossible not to smile when meeting Christopher Hunnicutt. The other students might not know who he is unless they shared a class, but they know at first glance that there’s something different about him.

Chris and Marti Hunnicutt remember the doctor’s office visit nearly 23 years ago when they learned the news: their unborn son had Down Syndrome, a genetic condition that causes delays in physical and intellectual development.

“We were in the first trimester of our fourth pregnancy. We had a healthy daughter six years earlier, but then we struggled through a stillbirth and then a miscarriage as we tried for another child,” recalled Chris. The couple was very aware of the potential risks, but remained hopeful.

“I was 37. The doctors had done tests that indicated the possibility of Spina Bifida in our child, so we agreed to an amniocentesis,” Marti explained. Those results showed the Spina Bifida concerns were unfounded. The test was conclusive for an extra 21st chromosome in the baby’s DNA, however. It was a unmistakable indicator that their child would likely have some cognitive delays as well as possible congenital heart, hearing and thyroid problems.

“It was a shock. I was overwhelmed with sadness. We were relieved that our baby didn’t have Spina Bifida, but we weren’t expecting what the doctor had to say,” Marti recalled. “I lost my mother and dad between the miscarriage and stillbirth a few years before. I was emotionally drained. With this news, I felt like my heart had been pounded.”

Their obstetrician was matter-of-fact about the results. He had seen his share of babies born with a myriad of birth conditions, Down Syndrome among them.  The condition affects nearly one in 300 babies born to women over 36.  The chances increase to one in 12 by age 49. Nearly 90 per cent of pregnancies that involve an early diagnosis of Down Syndrome are terminated, according to the National Down Syndrome Congress Center in Atlanta, GA.

“Our doctor referred us to a genetic counselor. We met with him a few days later,” Marti continued. “He was very negative. He said we probably ought to consider terminating the pregnancy, or placing him in an institution and getting on with our lives.”

The counselor’s words bounced off the Hunnicutts. “My head was spinning. I didn’t know what it would all mean. We didn’t know how having a child with Down Syndrome would impact our lives,” Marti recalled. “What I knew in my heart was that terminating the pregnancy was not on the table.”

Chris tried to contain his anger at the counselor’s advice. “I thought, ‘how can he determine the value of this child?’ I was outraged.”

In the days that followed, Chris and Marti shared their diagnosis with other family members. “We talked to those who loved us. Several relatives indicated that terminating the pregnancy would be an acceptable option, yet their words rang hollow to me,” said Chris.

Their obstetrician had also provided Chris and Marti with the name and number of another couple with a Down Syndrome child — one he had delivered several years earlier. He suggested that they meet.

“We visited the family and were immediately embraced and encouraged. Cory, their son, was nearly five years old. In the hour we spent with him, he was more typical than different. They were a typical family. How could I make a judgment on the value of this boy’s life? Or my unborn son’s life?  I couldn’t. It became a non-decision. It was a ‘get your act together and move forward’ kind of thing,” Chris recalled.

“It was our choice to continue. We realized having a child with Down Syndrome was a part of what our lives were going to be about. We needed to learn what to do and how to do in order to support our child.”

Chris began networking, identifying resources and making contacts over the next six months. “I was doing everything I could to be ready for this young man. We hit the ground running.”

By the time Christopher was four, the Hunnicutts enrolled him in an early intervention program at a public school that included both Head Start and developmentally delayed children.

“The principal asked what my vision was for my son. I said I wanted him in a typical classroom with typical students,” Chris said.  “I wanted Christopher to have as typical a life as possible. It was all about inclusion.  I didn’t want my son segregated. If he was to have a normal life, he would need to learn with other students in an inclusive setting.”

That strategy worked well in the grade school, but far less so in the middle and high schools. Chris was constantly pushing for his son to learn in a regular classroom rather than one specifically designated for special education but was continually met with resistance from school officials.

“I felt Christopher would be better served learning in a contextural setting rather than a hypothetical one. It’s just my opinion —  and I allow that every parent needs to decide how their own child is best served — but I believe too many parents think their child will receive better services in a segregated setting. That’s not necessarily so. They don’t take real life into consideration.”

Such segregated special education classrooms are appropriate for some students with developmental disabilities, but too many schools use them as the easier path, he said.

“It takes a dedicated teacher to accept a developmentally challenged student in a regular classroom, even with assistance. If a teacher’s heart is not in it, it doesn’t work. The schools also have a financial incentive to push special needs students toward the segregated classrooms. The schools are generally paid more for them, often three times more per student than if the he were in a typical classroom.”

Christopher graduated from his high school when he was 18, along with his peers. He continued on in a charter school for three more years, taking classes in his areas of interest: photography, art, computers, video production and piano.

As Christopher’s twenty-second birthday approached — the date at which his high school school career would, by law, come to an end — he still wanted more. A regular university, even a community college, seemed out of reach. Even schools with provisions for the disabled were beyond what he could pursue.

Meanwhile, for nearly seven years, Sheryl Arno, a Decatur, Georgia advocate for the developmentally disabled, had been shaping and sharing her dream for a post-secondary university program for intellectually-challenged young people who yearned for the college experience.

“I talked it up with friends, colleagues, friends of friends who worked in academia – basically anyone who would listen,” she recalled. “I tried to sell the idea to four major universities in Georgia. I told them that just because someone turns twenty-two and gets a Special Education diploma from high school doesn’t mean they’re ready to stop learning. They needed more and the schools needed to provide it. Society would benefit from it.”

“I got a lot of pats on the head and praise for the concept, but no one wanted to actually do anything. They always had a reason why it couldn’t work. I never gave up hope, though,” she said.

Finally, in 2008, Dr. Harry Stern, the director of Kennesaw State University’s Global Center for Social Change, agreed to take a second look at Sheryl Arno’s proposal.

“Kennesaw University had a reputation as being innovative and open to new ideas. They think out of the box. The Global Center is all about ‘diversity.’ A few weeks after we talked, he called me and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ It took another year to get everything and everybody lined up,” she said. The program, KSU Academy for Inclusive Adult Education, began the 2009 Fall semester with three students. Christopher Hunnicutt was proudly among them.

“Students take two classes each semester, with support from staff and student mentors,” explains Jill Sloan, who joined the University as program coordinator after a long career with the county’s special education department.  “It’s our mission is to offer students who have developmental disabilities a two-year college experience and encourage the social growth that a university campus can provide. We can offer experiences they otherwise might never enjoy,” she explained.

The Academy chooses the students’ first year classes, “those we feel can help the students be better prepared for employment, as well as academics,” she added.  Students choose their own classes for the second year, she said. Tuition for each semester is $3,300, exclusive of books and meals. There is no on-campus housing yet for the Academy students, but Ms. Sloan hopes to change that in the coming academic year.  Until then, the students travel to and from campus by public transportation or by rides from their family members.

Kennesaw University’s program has accepted six new students for the 2010 -2011 academic year, bringing the total to nine when classes resume in August.

“Our goal is 25 students by 2012,” notes Ms. Arno, who, like Ms. Sloan and others who share their vision, hope to see the program replicated in all 35 colleges and universities in Georgia’s high education system. And as one of only seven states who offer such a program, other states’ universities are taking notice of KSU’s innovation.

“It’s interesting that the big universities who essentially found all sorts of reasons to not do it six years ago are now coming on board,” Ms. Arno observed. “They finally acknowledged the merit in what we’re doing.” “I’ve always believed that the higher you raise the bar, the higher these students will achieve,” says Ms. Arno.

“This year, KSU taught three students who have a developmental disability. But those three students taught 22,000 other students on campus what it means to have a developmental disability. They also taught the staff, the faculty, the cafeteria workers, everyone they come into contact with, about diversity and inclusion. These three students’ lives have been forever enriched. And the 22,000, They’ll never look at a person with a disability the same way they once did. It’s a win-win all around.”

Christopher Hunnicutt huddled with his mentor at a table in the student center, his ever-present Coca-Cola nearby, as he worked to finish a homework assignment for his music class. Other students hustled by on their way to and from classes, but the rush was not much of a distraction.

Focused and intent on finishing, he pushed on through the assignment with his mentor’s help. When he was finished, he sighed in relief and closed his laptop computer. He was off to lunch at the university’s dining center before his afternoon study time in the resource center.

This perhaps not-so-typical student was savoring every moment.

The Old Preacher Man on Route 61

September 20, 2010

©2010 Story and Photographs by Robin Nelson

Vicksburg, MS – His hearing was poor and he shuffled about with the aid of a walker, but 93-year-old H.D. Dennis could still preach to anyone who happened by the one-time grocery store that became a church.

It was a most unusual church of no particular denomination, faded and worn, with 400 feet of hand-painted scripture of plywood signs and cement block towers – with a weatherworn school bus-turned-sanctuary that had been parked in the garden for years. That particular day I was this preacher’s flock.

I’d been headed to downtown Vicksburg, Mississippi, taking the back roads because I had nothing but time on my hands. A scheduled photo shoot an hour away had been postponed, so I took a different route back to the hotel. Highway 61 is a down-at-the heels stretch of industrial zoned property near the edge of town that had seen better days.

I wasn’t expecting Margaret’s Grocery and Market, Home of the Double-Headed Eagle, but that’s the best thing about back roads: stumbling across the unexpected. I couldn’t keep myself from pulling over.

I knocked on the screen door, ignoring the ‘closed’ sign. Margaret answered but said her husband wasn’t feeling too well that afternoon. I said I’d come back another time. “Could I just make a few pictures?” I asked. She smiled and said, “That’d be just fine.”

I marveled at the folk art that surrounded the place. I promised myself to return before driving back to the delta farmland where I hoped to be shooting the next morning.

As I walked back to my car, I heard the screen door open. The Reverend Dennis slowly made his way outside. He had dressed in tattered but freshly ironed shirt, I guessed because his wife told him a fellow with a camera was outside and he wanted to look presentable. We talked for a while. I sat right beside him on the porch and spoke in my best ‘hard-of-hearing’ voice, but I’m not sure he heard me.

No matter. Pastor Dennis seized the opportunity to open his well worn Bible and share from the Book of Matthew. His eyes, though glazed with age and cataracts, still sparkled with the prospect of preaching to a ‘young fellow.’

Then H.D. escorted me around to show his handiwork that had taken him nearly thirty years to complete, though I doubted it he would ever consider it finished.

“Every one of those bricks I put there myself, and it was perfectly laid,” he said proudly. “Did you ever see any bricks so perfect?” he asked. No, I hadn’t, I said. He would’ve showed every brick, block and hand-painted signs if he’d had the stamina.

We strolled through his Scripture Garden, walking among the signs that motorists driving past simply can’t ignore. He unlocked the pink and yellow bus that was a permanent fixture in his garden. It had taken years of scavenging for the beads, golf balls, trinkets and stuff of garage sales and dollar stores that the preacher used to decorate the inside of the bus. The entire inside of the bus had been lined with thousands of colorful odds and ends glued into a mosaic that words simply couldn’t describe.

H.D. stood at the pulpit just behind the driver’s seat and continued to preach. It was a hot, stuffy, old bus, but it was also God’s House, a place of worship. So I sat down on a dusty, worn bus seat and listened. One thing I’ve come to know: there’ no such thing as a ‘retired’ preacher. Once God calls someone to preaching, no opportunity is missed. H.D. preached as though his church were standing room only, though I was the only one to hear him.

Margaret joined us a bit later that afternoon as we picked up where we left off on the front porch. She doted on her husband of 30 years, making sure he was doing ok. She hugged him and left us to talk.

H.D. married her in 1979. He was a retired preacher. She was the ‘Widow Rogers’ back then, and ran Margaret’s Grocery. H.D. promised he would transform her humble shop into a church that would glorify God  — if she would marry him. She agreed, and for the next 29 years H.D. would slowly build his church to preach to whomever came by.

He used whatever materials he could find – cement blocks, bricks, sheets of corrugated steel, gravel, donated plywood and dozens of cans of red and white paint, more glass beads and baubles, cement, pieces of broken pottery and colored glass, even busted mirrors – nothing was too humble or useless to get folded into his shrine. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as they say. It was all used to invite Jews and Christians, blacks and whites alike to worship there. “God have no white church and he don’t have no black church,’ says one sign. “Please Go to Church,” encourages another.

The sun was setting, and it was time to go. I felt privileged to meet the preacher and his wife, and document a part of the south that would likely soon vanish. I pressed my dinner money into H.D.’s weathered hands and then we prayed together.

I left Vicksburg the next day after my original assignment was finished. I promised myself to visit H.D. and his lovely wife again if I was ever back that way.

Sadly, Margaret went home to be with her Lord a few months back. I heard that H.D., unable to live alone, was now in a nursing home. Though a local church had been given the responsibility to care for the property, I would be surprised if it was still standing on my next trip to Vicksburg. Perhaps a new business park or a strip mall would be in its place soon. Progress and all.

I have pictures and the memories.  They’ve not been published until now. They reaffirm my passion for the back roads of the South  — to see what lies over the next hill.

An Oasis of Love in a Season of Hurt

August 17, 2010

©2010 Robin Nelson

Rockmart, Georgia — It is humbling to watch as they line up outside the Helping Hands ministry in this town’s small business district. Men, women, some with their children, waiting to meet with Miss Betty and get registered for enough food to feed their families for a while.

Betty Cornwell and her husband Clynt launched Helping Hands nine years ago. “We’d been abundantly blessed in our lives,” explained Miss Betty, who helps her husband with a tool sharpening business nearby. “We wanted to help families struggling with too many bills, too many mouths to feed — and not enough work to go around. Somebody needed to do it, so we said, why not us?”

Helping Hands sells  donated clothing and household items for a fraction of what they might cost in retail store.  The funds from those items are used to purchase food from the Atlanta Food Bank for 17 cents a  pound, and supplemented by food donations from local grocers. All the food is freely given to any resident of Polk County who is having a tough time financially. The ’employees’ are all volunteers. The local churches help out as they can, but the recession has hit this county hard, and the hard times are getting harder. “There are months when we don’t know how we’re going to pay our rent or electric bill. But God always comes through,” Miss Betty said.

“It’s bad and  getting worse every month, it seems,” says Betty. “The poor and the homeless will always be among us, but now we’re seeing people who used to have jobs but now they don’t. And there are few prospects of work. People are scared of what’s ahead. But mostly they try to get by for today.” Betty and her volunteers open every day at noon, usually to a line of Rockmart citizens  waiting for the doors to be unlocked. They distribute bags of groceries three days a week to families on a once-per-month basis, with quantity determined by the number of family members.

“We’re seeing whole families moving in with relatives just to have a place to live, and not be forced to live in their cars.  It’s so hard for someone who used to be able to support his family and now he can’t. They are embarrassed and depressed. I tell them there are lots of others in the same situation, and we let them know how much they’re loved. They can still have hope and keep looking for work. These times won’t last forever. We’re all praying it won’t last much longer,” she said.

That this scene is replicated in thousands of towns across the country is sobering. Social services can only do so much, says Miss Betty. It is up to the ministries and charities in towns just like Rockmart to step up and help fill the need.  Miss Betty can’t spend too much time dwelling on statistics or the national picture. It can become overwhelming and numbing. She has her hands full, just taking care of those in her own back yard.

Betty Cornwell (right) checks with food pantry coordinator Linda Gibson on the day's needs

Betty Cornwell helps a young mother with a load of free groceries from the food pantry.

Helping Hands ministry volunteer Denise Peace hugs a returning visitor to the thrift shop