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Bi-annual Conasauga Drug Court Talent Show allows people recovering from addiction to demonstrate their talents to the community – and themselves.


Donnie Ensley chops wood in half with his bare hand. (Photo by Mitch Talley).

Life hasn’t always given them a lot of reasons to smile.

But there they were, the participants in the bi-annual Conasauga Drug Court Talent Show, smiling, laughing, clapping, and jumping to their feet.

Drug Court Judge Jim Wilbanks believes the show – held April 14 before a packed house at Whitfield County Administration Building No. 2 – will provide yet another stepping stone in the recovery of the 92 people in the program.

“The goal of the show,” he said, “was to pull these folks further outside of their comfort zones because to successfully get into recovery and stay in recovery, you’ve got to be outside of your comfort zone. Their comfort zone is addiction.”

The show featured a wide range of talents, ranging from soulful singers to accomplished artists, from a board-breaking kung-fu exhibition to craftsmen able to turn wood into beautiful signs and cabinets.

“I don’t see these folks except in court on Thursdays,” Wilbanks said, “and I saw them in a whole new light today. I saw people singing who I didn’t have any idea could sing. I met some artists today. I even got mentioned in a country music song. That is the first time that has ever happened! So it’s amazing. It’s a spiritual event. I mean, God was mentioned several times today, and participants know that spirituality is the foundation of their recovery.”

Emily Hixon sings (left), then beams with pride (above) as the audience voices approval. (Photo by Mitch Talley).

It is easy for others to try to tear down those in addiction, the judge said, “but that is the last thing in the world that they need. They need to be built up. They need to know that they are loved and that the community cares for them. That is what this program does.”

Indeed, loud applause and enthusiastic cheers rang out through the auditorium after each performance. Just look at some of the photos accompanying this story. You’ll see folks showing an outpouring of honest emotional support for their comrades and family members.

Wilbanks has seen the hard road these folks are traveling.

Many Drug Court participants hit rock bottom in their addiction. “They lost their homes. They lost their jobs. They lost their families. Their parents put them aside. Their brothers and sisters put them aside. Their children were taken away from them. They had absolutely nothing, so they come literally from the ground up,” the judge said. He hopes the talent show gives participants a way to show others, and themselves, that they are still valuable members of society.

“This is just another way to show them – Look, you are somebody. Look, you have talent. Look, you have ability. Look, you can kick the addiction and stay in recovery,” Wilbanks says. “This is all about reinforcing who they are as individuals because a lot of these folks don’t have any self-confidence at all. They’ve been told they’re bad… Trauma is so prevalent among those in addiction. They were sexually abused or physically abused or emotionally abused. Really, addiction is about people self-medicating because their reality is so bad. They do not have the tools to deal with it.”

Kristy Millsaps delivers some heart-felt soulful singing. (Photo by Mitch Talley).

But the Drug Court program aims to give people in addiction the tools necessary to turn their lives around.

“It’s about supporting Drug Court participants, NOT doing it for them,” Wilbanks emphasized. “I want to make sure everybody understands that. We don’t do anything FOR them, but we will give them the tools and resources to get in recovery and stay in recovery IF they want it.”

While most of a judge’s duties involve reacting to problems in people’s lives such as divorce, lawsuits, and crimes, Wilbanks says he enjoys the proactive nature of Drug Court.

“I’d rather be proactive,” he says. “I’d rather prevent the lawsuit. I’d rather keep families together. I’d rather prevent addiction – that’s what I’m about.”

Drug Court helps reunify families. The Judge – who has been leading Drug Court since January 2016, but has been involved since retired Judge Jack Partain started the program in February 2002 – says it still amazes him to witness mothers whose children were placed in foster homes or with family members who now are regaining custody of their children due to their successful recovery efforts. People work to get apartments, cars, and driver’s licenses. Judge Wilbanks sees Drug Court as a lifelong way to help people get into – and stay – in recovery.

“Once participants leave the program, they know they’re always welcome to come back here,” he said. “Our doors never close to them. We have an alumni program that is very successful. This is all about building the recovery community, and in building the recovery community, we are being a very positive influence on the whole community.”

Addiction affects men and women from every background and socio-economic status. Almost everyone knows someone who is affected by substance abuse and addiction. “Addiction is killing our community. It’s killing our families,” the judge says. “The Drug Court program is about being proactive and helping people get their lives back.”

Olivia McDonald shows her painting of a lion. (Photo by Mitch Talley).

To support efforts to help people proactively overcome their addiction, Wilbanks says it is important that someone on the Drug Court staff be available 24/7 to counsel participants in the program. All Drug Court participants take part in additional community-based support programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Celebrate Recovery, and local churches. Many participants find their spirituality and build connections to a church family during their recovery journey.

Events like the talent show are an integral part of the recovery process, he says.

“It takes a lot of guts to be in this show,” Wilbanks said. “Before they went up front they were all saying they were scared to death and nervous. It’s just butterflies, and I’m sure they all felt them. They were really outside of their comfort zones. But they did it! They did it, and everybody applauded and supported them and yipped and yelled and said ‘That’s great.””

Now the next time a Drug Court participant is faced with a difficult circumstance, whether it be performing again or walking down the street and seeing somebody from their past who is horrible for them, they’ve been empowered. They are strong enough now to keep walking and not respond to that person who was a negative influence in their life. They can just wave them off and keep walking.

“That,” the judge says, “is what it ultimately is all about.”




As Judge Jim Wilbanks stood outside Whitfield County Administrative Building No. 2 on a sunny spring morning last month, talking about the Drug Court program, he paused for a moment to greet one of its participants walking past.

Jose was on his way to his car with a sketch he had just shown in the annual Drug Court Talent Show.

“Jose, that is amazing,” the judge said.

A few seconds later, Wilbanks explained that Jose is beating his addiction and now works at a local restaurant – on his way up the management ladder after starting out as a dishwasher.

“He is well on his way to doing whatever God’s plan is for him,” the judge said.

The same could be said for hundreds of local people who have successfully turned their lives around in the Conasauga Drug Court program started by Judge Jack Partain in 2002 and now led by Wilbanks.

Here, in his own words, Judge Wilbanks explains how Drug Court works:

First, people get charged with a felony. Either the charge is possession of drugs or another felony related to their drug addiction. Many burglary charges in our circuit stem from addiction because people steal things in order to sell them to support their addiction. Those people – either through themselves, their families, or their defense attorney – make a request to join Drug Court through the District Attorney’s office (Susan Beck is our assistant DA who serves with our team).

Each person who requests to join Drug Court must meet certain eligibility criteria in order for the District Attorney’s office to recommend them for entry into the program. Once deemed eligible, candidates go through assessments with treatment staff to evaluate drug dependency and readiness for an intensive out-patient program.

Entry into the Drug Court program is completely voluntary. No one is forced to join. If the team determines that a person is eligible for entry into Drug Court and the person wants to join, that individual will be discussed at one of our weekly Drug Court staffing meetings. This meeting consists of representatives from probation, law enforcement, the District Attorney’s office, Public Defender’s office, Drug Court staff, and myself. Sometimes a detective or probation officer will say, “This is a bad dude. This is somebody who is actually involved in trafficking. He doesn’t just use them, and I don’t think he needs to be in the program.” I listen, and after having a discussion, I make a decision – either this person is not coming into the Drug Court program or this person is coming in. If he is not coming in, the conversation is over. If he comes into the program, he is placed on my docket.

The Conasauga Drug Court is a post-conviction program. That means that part of a participant’s sentence is that they are going to be on probation, and they are going to comply with the Drug Court contract that is a special condition of their probation. If they violate the Drug Court contract, then the balance of their sentence could be revoked and they could go to prison.

Once a person is in the program, we help determine where they are going to live and who they can and cannot have contact with. If they have contact with someone on the “no contact list” and we find out about it, they will be sanctioned. Sometimes a participant will come to me during a Drug Court meeting and say, “Judge, I need to add my sister to the list because I thought she was in recovery but she’s not and I need to stay away from her.” I’ll order her to stay away from her sister. I tell participants that I am happy to be the bad guy. This gives participants an out and a way to walk away from people who are bad influences.

I tell participants that the Drug Court staff will be involved in every aspect of their lives – where they live, who they live with, everything. We have several folks who stay at Providence Ministries because their home is full of people in addiction who are not seeking recovery. You cannot build recovery if somebody is living in a home that has addiction in it. So we get that individual moved into Providence. While they are there, we find them stable, clean, and sober housing. Once a participant moves into proper housing, then we’re off to the races.

The Conasauga Drug Court is a 24-month program. A lot of people are in it for longer than 24 months because of sanctions that set them back. Sometimes they get sent to PDC (Probation Detention Center). Sometimes we send folks who need more intensive residential treatment to Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT) programs that are run by the Department of Corrections. RSAT is a nine-month program operated inside of prison where participants are monitored 24/7.

Our Drug Court is an outpatient program. Participants regularly report to the program directors and go home. We do not monitor them 24/7.  However, I do have three community-based law enforcement officers and probation officers who check on participants 24/7. Before participants enter the Drug Court program, I tell them “we’re all in your business. If you don’t like that, don’t come in the program. But we’re all in your business.” I mean that!

This program changes lives. A lot of participants have never had any structure in their lives. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to stay straight. Somebody might call them on the phone and say, “Hey, I got a bag – let’s go use.” If they say yes, they are done. I had a participant who had been clean for 10 years! She told me her kids are 9, 11, 14 years old. She got a call from a friend who invited her to do meth. Sometimes people who are in recovery think, “I can handle this. I can do it one time and it’s not going to affect me.” You cannot do that with meth. I hear repeatedly that people can be addicted to meth after one use! This participant used meth for the first time in 10 years and she went off the cliff. Now she has lost her kids, her home, her relationship, and her job. She bottomed out again, and I had her in court yesterday. She’s coming into the Drug Court program.

I often ask participants how long they have been in addiction. They usually respond that they started using alcohol, marijuana, or their parents’ pain pills when they were 12, 13, or 14 years old. Then they tried meth, then somebody offered them some pills, and then they try cocaine or heroin. It’s just … 12, 13, 14 years old. It is astounding.

People can overcome their addiction and live full lives in recovery. The Conasauga Drug Court can help.

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As a result, property owners should see major reduction in their homeowner’s insurance bills


Property owners in Whitfield County can look forward to a big savings soon on their homeowner’s insurance bills, thanks to an upcoming change in the county’s ISO rating.

County Commission Chairman Lynn Laughter received word Friday from the Insurance Services Office, which said a recent analysis of the county’s fire suppression delivery system has been completed and Whitfield County’s ISO rating has dropped to a Class 3 from a Class 5.

“That’s huge,” said Whitfield County Fire Chief Ed O’Brien. “We had hoped to drop to a Class 4, so we are very excited to hear that we actually are going down to a Class 3.”

The new rating takes effect on Sept. 1.

“ISO’s Public Protection Classification Program plays an important role in the underwriting process at insurance companies,” said Alex Shubert, manager, National Processing Center, ISO. “In fact, most U.S. insurers – including the largest ones – use PPC information as part of their decision-making when deciding what business to write, coverages to offer, or prices to charge for personal or commercial property insurance.”

O’Brien said the new rating – which will place the county in the top 11 percent nationwide – should lead to lower insurance rates for homeowners and commercial property owners, by as much as 20 to 25 percent, and he urged residents to contact their insurance companies after Sept. 1 to be sure the change is reflected in their premiums.

“Earning a better ISO rating takes years of work,” O’Brien explained. “The department started as a full volunteer service back in the early ’70s, then it became a county department where one person was duty  at each station Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the rest of the time it was still volunteer. Then we moved to a 24-hour shift with one man on every truck, and now we’ve progressed to two men on every truck. It’s been a long, slow process.”

But one that has been well worth the effort, he said.

The chief  praised residents for being willing to fund an increase in staffing levels (to 25 firefighters from 14 per 24-hour shift) through the special fire tax, as well as approving the 2015 SPLOST that is paying for new radio communications equipment and two new ladder trucks, as well as new turnout gear and other badly needed equipment for firefighters.

“It’s not just, hey, let’s drop a lot of money in the fire department because we want a good one,” O’Brien said. “You actually get a reward if you have a good fire department – you pay less on your homeowner’s insurance.

“You can have a class 5 department and be okay with it and give the money to the large insurance companies,” he said, “or you can pay the money right here in your community and have a better class 3 department. That way you’ve got more people working, you’ve got the protection when these storms come through, and you have us running medical calls. I mean, there’s so much more than just fighting fire that we do.”

The new rating will affect a large portion of the county, though O’Brien did point out that four areas will remain at a higher ISO for now. “If a structure is more than five miles from a fire station, it’ll remain Class 10,” he said.

Two of those areas – Cohutta and Riverbend – should see lower ISO ratings when two new fire stations open in 2018, and homeowners along the Whitfield-Catoosa line could drop to a Class 5 rating if an automatic aid agreement with Catoosa is worked out.

“When you spend money on a fire department to improve your ISO rating,” the chief said, “you’re gonna see the result. Yeah, you may be paying the government more, but you’re saving in a different account in your home budget. And that’s what I think is just great about whoever built this ISO system.”



Last year, Whitfield County Fire Chief Ed O’Brien gathered the following data about potential insurance premium savings for the median home value here.

Class 5 department with frame construction, $150,000 value – premium is $843

Class 4 department with frame construction, $150,000 value – premium is $677

Savings of $166, or 24.5 percent reduction


Class 5 department with masonry veneer, $150,000 value – premium is $775

Class 4 department with masonry veneer, $150,000 value – premium is $625

Savings of $150, or 24 percent reduction



Insurance companies use ISO ratings to help establish fair premiums for fire insurance – generally offering lower premiums in communities with better protection. By offering economic benefits for communities that invest in their firefighting services, the ISO program provides an additional incentive for improving and maintaining public fire protection. Under the ISO program, called the Fire Suppression Rating Schedule, communities can score between 1 and 10, with Class 1 being the most exemplary and Class 10 being the least. Historically, residential communities with the worst ISO ratings have had fire losses that were more than twice the amount of losses in communities with the best ratings, according to studies conducted by ISO. Here’s how ISO comes up with the rating.

Fire Department (50 points) – Focus is on a community’s fire suppression capabilities based on the fire department’s first-alarm response and initial attack to minimize potential loss.

Water Supply (40 points) – ISO evaluates the community’s water supply system to determine the adequacy for fire suppression purposes. Also considered are hydrant size, type, and installation, as well as the frequency and completeness of hydrant inspection and flow-testing programs.

Emergency Communications System  (10 points) – A review of the emergency communications system focuses on the community’s facilities and support for handling and dispatching alarms for structure fires.

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Dalton Summer Concert Series returns on June 2nd

For the second year in a row the Downtown Dalton Summer Music Series returns to the Courtyard at Crescent City. The Series began last year and was a huge success. “We are hoping to exceed the success we had last year.” Said Anthony Luke, the Marketing Manager for the Dalton CVB. “There are several other organizations involved this year, and their help and input has been tremendous.”

The Summer Music Series is a collaborative effort between the Dalton Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Creative Arts Guild, Dalton-Whitfield Community Foundation, and the Downtown Dalton Development Authority. The Series starts on Friday, June 2nd and takes place every Friday night through September 1st. There will be a variety of music genres from Southern Rock, to Mariachi, and much more. Specifics on each band can be found on

The Series will be held at The Courtyard at Crescent City (formally Peacock Alley), and begins each Friday night at 7:30 PM. For information go to or call 706-270-9960.

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DPD Arrests Four In Christian Heritage School Burglary, Vandalism

By Bruce Frazier:

Four suspects in an early-morning burglary and vandalism at Christian Heritage School left a trail of footprints and discarded fire extinguishers for officers to follow direct to their doorstep on Monday. All four individuals were charged with felony criminal trespassing in the incident, which left hallways in the high school building covered in fire extinguisher foam.

Dalton firefighters were dispatched to the high school building at 1600 Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard at approximately 3:20 am Monday morning after smoke alarms went off in the building. When firefighters arrived, they found the smoke alarms had been set off by fire extinguishers being set off inside of the building. Firefighters then called police to investigate.  Responding officers found that multiple hallways sprayed with fire extinguisher foam. Basketball jerseys and sweatpants were stolen from the gym and food had apparently been stolen from the concession stand area.

Officers found multiples sets of footprints left in the foam leading out of a back door. Outside, officers followed tracks to one of the stolen fire extinguishers laying on the ground near the woodline. Officers were able to follow a trail of footprints, discarded fire extinguishers, and areas where fire extinguishers had been sprayed to the area of Beechland Circle. There, officers found a trail of footprints left in the fresh dew on the grass to the back of a vacant apartment unit at 1600 Underwood Street, a rare example of southern humidity being helpful.

After entering the vacant apartment, officers searched the unit and found four men hiding inside a closet. Officers determined that all four individuals were involved with the burglary and placed all four under arrest. The four arrestees were:

  • Lakwon Marquise Fleming, 20, 1801 Beechland Place
  • Bryson Hunter Gallman, 20, 120 Jeanette Drive
  • Kaylub Kuhn, 18, 1612 Beechland Place
  • Joshua Ryan Brower, 17, 1633 Ken Drive, Rocky Face

All four were charged with felony criminal trespass. Stolen items such as the basketball jerseys and sweatpants were recovered and returned to the school. The investigation into this incident is continuing and additional charges are possible.

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WDNN Schedule for local high school graduations

Phoenix –  WDNN replay Sunday 1pm.  Click HERE to watch streamed version online.

NW Whitfield –   WDNN replay Sunday 2:15pm.  Click HERE to watch streamed version online.

Dalton –  WDNN replay Sunday 4pm.  Click HERE to watch streamed version online.

Coahulla Creek –  WDNN replay Monday 3pm.  Click HERE to watch streamed version online.

SE Whitfield –  WDNN replay Monday 4:15pm.  Click HERE to watch streamed online.

For DVD copies of graduations:  Dalton – Melanie Patrick ;  for DSC, NW, SE, CC, & Phoenix – Brandon Brown

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Gabriel Benjamin of Tunnel Hill Elementary prompts emotional response from audience with his first-place DARE essay at 12th annual recognition program sponsored by Whitfield Sheriff’s Office, Kiwanis Club of Dalton


Gabriel Benjamin brought the audience to its feet – and a tear to the eyes of his listeners – after reading his award-winning essay at the 12th annual DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) recognition program held May 15 at the Dalton Trade Center.

Gabriel Benjamin of Tunnel Hill Elementary receives a standing ovation after reading his first-place DARE essay during the annual recognition program. (Photo by Mitch Talley).

“I will never do drugs because of all I have lost, and I hope you won’t either,” the Tunnel Hill Elementary fifth-grader wrote in his essay. “I am lucky to have a father who chose me over drugs, but I know there are some children who are put into foster homes with strangers and will never see their real family ever again because of drugs, either because they can’t quit or they’re in jail for a very long time.”

Benjamin’s essay was  honored as the best out of the hundreds written by this year’s DARE graduates from 13 elementary schools in the county.

“Can you imagine the courage that it takes to write an essay like this when you’re 10 years old?” emcee Terry Phelps asked the audience after listening to Benjamin  read his essay. “Wow! Great job!”

Benjamin (who has since turned 11 in February) and the other school-level winners were recognized and treated to a buffet lunch by the Kiwanis Club of Dalton and the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office.

As first-place winner for the county, Benjamin received a wooden plaque and a $100 cash prize. Arianna

The Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office and the Kiwanis Club of Dalton honored these fifth graders for writing the top DARE essays in their schools during the 12th annual DARE recognition program May 15 at the Dalton Trade Center. Pictured are (from left, front row) Rylie Pinson, Pleasant Grove Elementary; Octavia Woodward, Valley Point; Tina Quintanilla, Cedar Ridge, third place; Sandra Ramirez, Varnell; Rachel Mason, Cohutta; Tristyn Sutton, New Hope; Gabriel Benjamin, Tunnel Hill, first place; Abby Stanley, Antioch; Danahi Reza, Dug Gap; Litzy Reyes, Dawnville; Shea Poe, Beaverdale; and Amaya Cruz, Eastside; (back row) DARE leader Lt. Wayne Mathis, Deputies Nathan Center and Ron Kirby, Sgt. Tammy Silvers, Sheriff Scott Chitwood, and Sgt. Darlene Crider. (Photo by Mitch Talley).

Garcia of Westside, second-place winner and recipient of a plaque and $50 cash, was not able to attend the program because she has transferred to a school in another county. Tina Quintanilla of Cedar Ridge received a plaque and $20 cash for her third-place essay.

Other school-level winners who were recognized during the program – with family, school officials, and Kiwanians looking on – included:

  • Rylie Pinson, Pleasant Grove
  • Octavia Woodward, Valley Point
  • Sandra Ramirez, Varnell
  • Rachel Mason, Cohutta
  • Tristyn Sutton, New Hope
  • Abby Stanley, Antioch
  • Danahi Reza, Dug Gap
  • Litzy Reyes, Dawnville
  • Shea Poe, Beaverdale
  • Amaya Cruz, Eastside

E’lan Watson, who won the DARE essay contest in 2010 while at Varnell Elementary, returned to talk about how DARE has continued to influence her life, even as she is slated to graduate from The Baylor School in June and head to Auburn University in the fall where she plans a double major in Spanish and Business Analytics.

“This time seven years ago I was sitting in this room about to read my DARE essay for the county competition,” Watson recalled. “When I won I was of course overwhelmed with feelings of pride and joy and excitement because I accomplished something that was so important to me. I wanted to win primarily because my older sister won two years before me.

E’lan Watson, who wrote the first-place DARE essay as a fifth grader from Varnell Elementary School in 2010 , returned to talk at this year’s recognition program about how DARE has continued to influence her life. She is slated to graduate in June from The Baylor School. (Photo by Mitch Talley).

“But now I realize that my DARE experience was much more than a contest,” she said. “DARE has been an extremely important part of my life. It’s more than a program about substance abuse; it teaches important life skills like decision-making. It has completely altered the way I make decisions and approach situations.”

Watson said she even used DARE to write her college essay.

“The essay question was similar for all applications: tell a story of an event that has changed your life and turned you into the person that you are today. I immediately thought of the DARE program. I remember making a promise to Officer Silvers and myself to remain completely drug and alcohol free, and I have no intentions of ever breaking my vital promise. I think the most important thing I’ve learned from this entire experience is that knowledge is power. There’s a quote that I love by Anton Chekhov that reads: ‘Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.’

“I think that’s important to keep in mind, especially for the fifth graders that are about to start this really exciting journey into middle school,” Watson said. “Remember what you learned and don’t be afraid to teach others the value of the DARE program. Also don’t be afraid to say no.”

Jarrod Wright, a student at Southeast Whitfield High School, spoke about his role as a state representative for the youth advisory board for the DARE program and offered words of encouragement to the fifth graders.

E’lan Watson, who wrote the first-place DARE essay as a fifth grader from Varnell Elementary School in 2010 (shown reading that essay seven years ago), returned to talk at this year’s recognition program about how DARE has continued to influence her life. She is slated to graduate in June from The Baylor School. (Photo by Mitch Talley).

“As you go through your life, things will get tough and you’ve got to make sure that just because you wrote an essay doesn’t mean that you’re automatically drug free,” Wright said. “You have to make that promise to yourself and keep going with it all the way through your whole life, really.”

Sheriff Scott Chitwood said that over the past 26 years, the DARE program has reached more than 26,000 youngsters. “As I said at graduation, are we making a difference? I think so because if we save one life, that was worth it,” he said.

The sheriff thanked County School Superintendent Dr. Judy Gilreath and the schools for allowing the DARE instructors to come onto their campuses and teach the DARE program. He praised the school-level winners, saying “these are products of the Whitfield County School System. These are outstanding young men and women, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

DARE instructor Sgt. Tammy Silvers said the program “is all about the kids, and them putting forth that effort and making that commitment to us that they’re going to stay drug free and they’re going to make good choices in their lives. That’s going to lead to a good track in life.

“If you want to be successful in life,” she said, “you have to follow through and think about the things you are doing in making good choices, choosing your friends wisely. That’s what this is all about is laying that foundation for these kids to make good choices in life.”

She called the essay winners “the cream of the crop,” but pointed out that their victory is just the beginning of their journey. “This is where you take your knowledge and you use it for the rest of your life,” she said, “and you start making those good choices and it’s an everyday thing. You have to do it for the rest of your life.”

Fellow instructor Sgt. Darlene Crider called the essay winners “the leaders” of their schools.

“You see where all these adults are sitting today?” she said. “You may be sitting in one of these places one day or even something else that is your dream. You follow your dreams, but in order to get there, you have to make good decisions and we said that over and over and over in class. You can make one bad decision in your life and it’ll follow you the rest of your life. We don’t want that to happen, so start here.

“You’re going to middle school and on to high school and college,” Crider said, “and do whatever it is that you want to do in life. So you have to start somewhere – you just started, you made a great decision, you wrote a good essay, and  you’ve promised everyone that was sitting in your classroom, your teachers, your principals, your officers, and  your friends, most of all yourself.

“I say this to my students: who is going to be with you for the rest of your lives? Not us. We will be supporting you, and we’ll be there if you need us. But you will be everywhere you are for the rest of your life, so it has to be your decision and if you make a bad one, you’ll stand accountable for that decision. So make good ones.”





Whitfield County Director of Communications

Participants in the annual Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office Special Olympics Torch Run gathered on the steps of the new facility at the Training Center on Old Prater’s Mill Road. Runners from the Sheriff’s Office, Fire Department, and Department of Juvenile Justice took part in the fundraiser for State Special Olympics on May 10, including (from left, front row) Amber Hayes, Isabelle Beltran, and Allen Gallman; (second row) Brittany Martin, Susan Edgeworth, Jason Phillips, and Amy Phillips; (third row) Jewell Jackson, Sheila Caldwell, Ambur Gibson, and Tammy Silvers; (back row) Wayne Mathis, Lisa Hughey, John Jancewicz, Marcia Pfister, Chris West, Darlene Crider, Nathan Center, Albert Hill, and Ron Kirby. (Photo by Mitch Talley).

The annual Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office Special Olympics Torch Run on May 10 featured some new twists this year, but the end goal remained the same.

“It’s all about the kids,” said Lt. Wayne Mathis, who is the only person in Georgia to have run in all 30 Torch Runs and even took part three times before that in a Special Olympics event sponsored by Sam’s Club in which senior citizens drove campers.

This year, Mathis joined 17 other men and women from the Sheriff’s Office, Whitfield County Fire Department, and Department of Juvenile Justice (District 1) in the Torch Run.

After departing from the old jail downtown for years, this time the runners left from the Whitfield County Training Center on Old Prater’s Mill Road, just outside the new building that was having sod and bushes installed on the morning of the run.

The new nine-mile route led the runners west on Old Prater’s Mill Road onto Cleveland Highway and then Ga. 2, where they made a left turn into Varnell Elementary School. Hundreds of youngsters and teachers lined both sides of the driveway into the school, exchanging cheers and high fives with the runners, who took a water break before heading back onto Ga. 2 on their way to more cheers at Beaverdale Elementary and ending the day at the Murray County line.

The mission of Special Olympics Georgia is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy, and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills, and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes, and the community.

Special Olympics Georgia hosted its annual State Summer Games for almost 3,000 athletes, coaches, and unified partners on May 19-21 at Emory University. Athletes will compete in aquatics, athletics, flag football, gymnastics, soccer, table tennis, tennis, and volleyball, with medals awarded throughout the weekend.

Students and teachers cheer for the Special Olympics Torch Run participants as they pass through the driveway at Varnell Elementary School. (Photos by Mitch Talley).

Leading up to the games, law enforcement officers from agencies all over Georgia teamed up with SOGA in a 1,000-mile torch relay across the state. The “Flame of Hope” lit the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony to signify the opening of the games.

The Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics, the largest grassroots fundraising program for the cause, began in 1981 when Wichita, Kan., Police Chief Richard LaMunyon saw an urgent need to raise funds for and increase awareness of Special Olympics.

The idea for the Torch Run was to provide local law enforcement officers with an opportunity to

volunteer with Special Olympics in the communities where the officers lived and worked. After three years of successful runs in Kansas, Chief LaMunyon presented his idea to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which endorsed Special Olympics as its official charity through the Torch Run. Today, all 50 states and more than 40 countries have their own versions of the Torch Run.

The Law Enforcement Torch Run is the largest annual fundraising event benefiting Special Olympics Georgia. This signature event plays a significant role in Special Olympics Georgia’s annual budget.

The Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office continues to offer Special Olympics Torch Run T-shirts and caps for sale. If you’d like to make a contribution or a purchase, contact Sgt. Tammy Silvers at the Sheriff’s Office at 706-279-1879.

Jewell Jackson of the Department of Juvenile Justice is all smiles as she runs past students at Varnell Elementary School during the Special Olympics Torch Run. (Photo by Mitch Talley).

Lt. Wayne Mathis of the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office (second from right) marked his 30th Special Olympics Torch Run this year, still the only person in Georgia to have participated in all 30. (Photo by Mitch Talley).




Whitfield County Director of Communications

Soon to be retired Juvenile Court Judge Connie Blaylock (left) looks over a file with deputy clerk Tina Curtis. The judge’s last day before retirement will be May 31. (Photo by Mitch Talley).

Nearly 21 years of serving as the only full-time juvenile court judge ever for Whitfield and Murray counties will come to a close for Judge Connie Blaylock on May 31.

Blaylock announced recently she will be retiring at the end of this month from the post to which she was appointed by Superior Court judges in 1996.

“I started part-time in July 1996 and went full-time in January 1997,” she said, sitting in her office on the lower floor of the Whitfield County Courthouse, “and I’ve been here ever since.”

Blaylock originally earned a master’s degree and worked as a sales rep for Phillip Morris for about 6½ years before deciding to go back to the University of Georgia to earn a law degree. After practicing as an attorney for another 6½ years doing real estate, domestic, and juvenile court-appointed work, she was named part-time associate juvenile court judge, which quickly morphed into a full-time job.

“What had been happening was that the Superior Court judges were taking a week a month and in addition to doing their Superior Court work, they were also covering Juvenile Court,” Blaylock explained. “But the caseload had gotten to the point by 1996 that it just wasn’t feasible for them to do that anymore.”

The caseload has grown so much that Blaylock says she now holds court four days a week every week, three days in Whitfield and one day in Murray.

She says that part of the duty for the local Juvenile Court  – which has a staff of 13 employees in Whitfield County and three in Murray County – is hearing all of the cases for anybody under age 17 accused of breaking the law, in what are known as delinquent cases.

“We also hear all of the cases for anybody under 18 who is now what we call a child in need of services,” Blaylock said. “They may be truant from school or they’re having problems out in the community that wouldn’t bring you or I before the court because of our age but they’re having some sort of school issue or parent authority issue or they need some sort of court intervention, typically for truancy. We also hear all of the traffic violation cases for anybody under 18.”

Ironically, the cases that make up the smallest percentage of the court’s workload take up most of the judge’s time – those involving abuse or neglect to children.

Blaylock described her work as juvenile court judge over the past 21 years as “very frustrating” yet “very rewarding” at times.

“It’s meaningful – I mean you feel like you’re making a difference,” she said. “You hear some really bad things, and it’s very frustrating because there are never enough resources. But it also can be very rewarding. I had an email today from a young lady I’d had before my court, and she told me she’s been in the military, married, got kids, out of the military now, getting her college degree.

“Those kind of stories,” Blaylock says, “are few and far between, unfortunately. We don’t always take people from A to Z; sometimes we’re happy getting them from point A to point F or G. You have to take your successes where you can get them. Sometimes not going to prison is a success. I ran into a young man outside the courthouse a few weeks ago, and he told me he wanted to thank me because I saved his life. I said, I don’t know about that but I’m glad we were able to help. He said he works for one of the mills here and has kept and maintained a steady job and has not been to prison, so that’s a success.”

How to gauge success is a point she stresses when she helps train volunteers with the CASA program (advocates for children) or the citizen’s panel (which reviews foster care cases).

“I always tell the volunteers you have to take your successes where they come,” she said. “You know, everybody’s not going to automatically straighten up and fly right just because they walk through our doors and everybody’s not going to live how we as middle-class Americans would prefer that they live.”

She doesn’t enjoy having to remove children from their homes because of abuse or neglect by their parents but says there is “a basic minimum” standard that society expects all parents to meet, with drug or alcohol abuse usually the culprit for parents failing to meet that minimum.

Those hearings related to parental neglect or abuse are now open to the public by virtue of a 2014 law, and Blaylock says that that public access allows other family members sometimes in the dark to get a more accurate picture of what has gone on to cause their children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or others to be involved with the court and a more accurate picture of what Mom and Dad are – or are not – doing to get them back.

With retirement now just days away, Blaylock will soon be turning her caseload over to a new judge, who will be selected by the local Superior Court judges. Applicants must be a licensed attorney with at least six years of practicing law, a resident of the state, and live in the circuit once appointed.

Blaylock will be honored for her service to area children during a retirement party in the vending area on the main floor of the Whitfield County Courthouse on May 31 from 1 to 4 p.m. The public is invited.

While the judge says she is “excited” and “looking forward” to her retirement, she adds “I’ll miss it and I’ll miss the people, but I don’t think I’ll miss the stress.”


The Whitfield County Juvenile Court is an independent juvenile court organized under Chapter 11 of Title 15 of the Official Code of Georgia. The Court is dedicated to serving the residents of Whitfield County and Murray County by hearing all cases involving allegations of dependency, unruly conduct and traffic violations of children under the age of 18 years, delinquency matters or concerning children under the age of 17 found within its jurisdiction. If, after adjudication, a child is found to be in need of treatment, rehabilitation or supervision to safely remain in the community, the court will provide access to appropriate treatment programs whenever feasible.


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