Lee LIVE ISSUE 10 / MARCH-APRIL 2022
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MACKENZIE DARDEN PERFORMING DURING THE MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. DAY CELEBRATION AT OPELIKA HIGH SCHOOL. TURN TO PAGE 71.
PHOTO BY ROBERT NOLES
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Ann Cipperly Kendyl Hollingsworth Shawn Kirkpatrick Tucker Massey Kara Mautz Lindy Oller Stacey Patton-Wallace Natalie Salvatore
Michelle Key, Publisher Originally from Albertville, Alabama, Michelle Key and her family moved to the Opelika-Auburn area in 2011 after her husband’s retirement from the U.S. Navy. She is a graduate of Troy University, and she joined the Observer in 2014 as an office administrator before assuming ownership of the newspaper in January 2018.
Rita Smith Harrison Tarr
DESIGN LAYOUT Hannah Lester Michelle Key
MARKETING Woody Ross Rena Smith
Hannah Lester, LIVE Lee Editor Hannah Lester is an Auburn University 2019 journalism graduate who is originally from Birmingham. She started with The Observer in July 2020 and began as the Associate Editor for the LIVE Lee Magazine. She assigns, writes and edits pieces for the magazine, as well as helps to design the pages. She was named editor of LIVE Lee in July 2021.
PHOTOGRAPHY Hannah Lester Robert Noles Mike Wallace
CONTACT US Key Media, LLC
Wil Crews, The Observer Sports Editor Wil Crews is an Auburn University 2020 journalism graduate originally from Prattville, Alabama. He works as The Observer’s sports editor and assists in developing the weekly paper and LIVE Lee Magazine.
223 S. 8th St., Opelika Phone: 334-749-8003 www.LiveLeeMagazine.com firstname.lastname@example.org.
LIVE Lee is a publication created by Key Media, LLC.
Robert Noles, Photographer Robert Noles is an award-winning photojournalist who has been with The Observer for more than 10 years. Originally from Tallassee, he is a graduate of Alabama Christian College and Auburn University.
Table Of Contents A Heart of Compassion .........................................8 Keeping Lee County Beautiful ..............................13 Impacting The Next Generation............................18 Project Uplift: Raising Up Our Children ...............23 For The Love Of A Literacy ...................................28 A ‘Big-O’ Difference ...............................................34 Providing Hope .....................................................38 Bright Eyes: Hope For Animals ..............................41 Committed To Community ..................................45 A Legacy Lives On .................................................49 Where Learning Is Fun ........................................54 Changing, Shaping Lives ......................................60 Reducing Poverty ..................................................63 Birds Of Prey .........................................................65 Following In King’s Footsteps ..............................71 It Takes A Village ..................................................76 The Magic Of Storybook Farm ...........................79
From The Editor
elcome to your guide for our area’s nonprofits. There are many ways to serve, get involved and find help for most needs in Lee County. There are many organizations serving children here — The Dream Day Foundation, East Alabama YFC, Esperanza House and more. Some serve the adults in our area — The Lee County Literacy Coalition, Women’s Hope Medical Clinic and OLLI. Others work with animals, like Bright Eyes Equine Rescue. But the best part? This is only a small fraction of organizations that serve our area. We are blessed to be in a county that serves others. My parents encouraged a servant’s heart from a young age. I found some of my greatest joy and fulfillment volunteering with children. My first experience at Auburn University was a few weeks before classes started, in the Honors Serves program. I encourage you to find an organization to serve with in our area. But, too, if you find yourself in a time of need, you can know your neighbors in Lee County will be there to pick you up and help you back to your feet. The aftermath of the 2019 Beauregard Tornados is just one example of this. We have a community of people who love one another. “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” — Matthew 20:16.
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Serving Lee County since 2006
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A Heart of Compassion Story By Lindy Oller Photos Contributed By Women’s Hope
Staff at Women's Hope assisting a patient
any women who are pregnant for the first time have a list of questions that they often relay to their mother, grandmother, doctor or other members of their support system. But some first-time pregnant women do not have a circle of family and friends they can go to for advice. Women’s Hope Medical Clinic in Auburn provides an outlet for women facing unplanned pregnancies who need support when they find out they are pregnant, according to Daria Monroe, executive director of the clinic since 2017. The clinic has served thousands of patients since its founding in 1983. Monroe said WHMC served more than 800 people in 2021. The clinic has continued to operate even in the middle of a pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, the clinic was ready to adapt to the new changes created by COVID-19. “Under the guidance of our medical director, our administrative staff temporarily worked from home while our medical staff limited hours to serve our most vulnerable
patients,” Monroe said. “We maintained our most essential operations, and we shifted our parenting education program to entirely online classes.” The clinic wanted to hold an event to help those financially impacted by the pandemic, Monroe said. In April 2020, the clinic had a curbside diaper giveaway that served over 200 families. Groceries were also provided through the clinic’s partnership with a local church. The clinic has been able to go back to full operating hours, although the pandemic positively influenced the clinic’s education services. “Our education program has grown exponentially over the last year and a half because of the ability to offer online classes,” Monroe said. “Our hope is to offer both flexible online and in-person programming.” The classes help equip patients with the tools they need to make decisions regarding pregnancy. The clinic provides accurate and helpful information in a compassionate environment, to empower life-affirming choices that change lives, according to its website. The clinic’s website also states that it will not offer or refer patients for pregnancy
terminations or birth control. The mission of the clinic is to “glorify God through sharing the Gospel of Christ while empowering individuals to make healthy, Godly decisions for life,” Monroe said. The clinic understands that people have different views regarding sensitive topics, she said. “While everyone has an opinion, it is important to understand that Women’s Hope is not here to judge or pressure anyone who may differ from what we believe,” Monroe said. “The goal at Women’s Hope is to equip each person with education on the three choices available in pregnancy — parenting, adoption, abortion — and as much as possible, relieve concerns by providing caring support, information and resources when it is needed the most.” The clinic aims to provide a nurturing environment for its patients.
Women’s Hope Medical Staff
Women’s Hope Medical Staff
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Women’s Hope Medical Clinic Executive Director Daria Moore at the 2021 5K event with Aubie.
“All of our medical services are provided by fully licensed staff and volunteers,” she said. “We provide a welcoming space for both women and their partners to come and explore the difficult decisions they are facing.” The clinic’s trained staff can assist in providing services that include pregnancy testing, limited obstetric ultrasounds, prenatal care, parenting education, maternity and infant supplies, medical referrals and counseling. Monroe said some of the clinic’s peer counselors have experienced unplanned pregnancies themselves. The clinic also has a “pregnancy loss counseling program and a memorial garden for families who have experienced loss through miscarriage or abortion,” Monroe said. According to the March of Dimes, about 10 to 15 in 100 pregnancies end in miscarriage for women who know they are pregnant. Some miscarriages can occur before a woman realizes she is pregnant. According to the World Health Organization, there are about 73 million induced abortions that happen worldwide on a yearly basis. The clinic provides resources that are free and confidential for men and women. Fathers, or the women’s partners, can also take part in some of the services the clinic offers. “We help educate both men and women about their pregnancy options,” Monroe said. “We have a parenting education program that allows moms and dads to take parenting and life-skill classes and earn material items for
their babies.” The clinic also added a program for parents called Hope Adoptions. This program guides a birth family through the adoption process and offers long-term support for both birth and adoptive parents, Monroe said. The clinic would not be where it is today without its supporters, including its board of directors. Patricia Moody, a member of the clinic’s board, said she wanted to be involved with the clinic because of her previous experience. “When I lived in Vermont, I volunteered with a small pregnancy care center in nearby New Hampshire,” Moody said. She said she wanted to volunteer at a clinic in Auburn. “After moving back to Auburn, I really felt the Lord telling me to become involved again, but I wasn’t sure how,” Moody said. “Not long after, I was asked to join this center’s board of directors.” Moody said many community members understand the impact the clinic has in Lee County. “Focus on any one service it offers and then imagine our area without it and you can see what a big hole that would leave,” Moody said. The clinic, which receives its funding from members of the community, has impacted multiple generations of families in Lee County. “WHMC does not receive any government funding, and instead relies on donations from people who believe in this effort to serve families and save lives,” Monroe said. “A donor’s support provides a full range of services to these men and women to empower them now and for years to come.” Donors and volunteers are the heartbeat of the clinic. They are the people who keep the clinic in operation. People can send monetary and material donations through the clinic’s website. Donors also have the option to send their donation in honor or in memory of a loved one. The clinic also receives funding from fundraisers. Two fundraising opportunities this year included the Run Like A Mom 5K and the Walk 4 Life 1 Mile Walk. Both events were held on March 19 at the Opelika Sportsplex. “I think it’s essential to have an organization here with employees and volunteers who come alongside young women who find themselves pregnant without the support of their partner or parents,” Moody said. “Many desire to carry their child to term but have no one in their lives offering any encouragement.”
Moody said the clinic has changed many lives over the years. “What I can tell you is that there are so very many children and adults living here and elsewhere who would never have been born were it not for this ministry’s love and care,” she said. “So many young women who just needed a little encouragement, loving support and invaluable perspective.” Monroe said there are moments that remind her that the services the clinic provides to the community are significant. “Every time that I hear of a young woman or man who is stressed or feeling they are unable to parent their baby but then leave Women’s Hope feeling heard, valued and supported, I know that the work done here is worth it,” Monroe said. “When the mother and/or father return to show us their baby, the look on their face of pride and love for their child tells the story.”
The clinic has seen thousands of patients come through their doors. Impacting just one person makes a difference. “Personally, my fulfillment comes in seeing an individual who has been through our programs, become mature, strong and empowered spiritually, emotionally and relationally,” Monroe said. The future of the clinic is to continue to educate and make a difference for its patients in the years to come. “The legacy I desire Women’s Hope to have in Lee County and beyond is one of being a place where individuals and couples in unplanned pregnancies can find the support and information they need,” Monroe said. To set up an appointment or donate to the clinic, visit its website at www.womenshope.org/.
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Keeping Lee County Beautiful
The ABC Planting flowers in downtown Auburn.
KOB Clean Up Day 2021
Story By Tucker Massey and Shawn Kirkpatrick Photos By Robert Noles and Contributed By The Auburn Beautification Council
he Auburn Beautification Council, or ABC, is a non-profit initiative that was established in 1972. The purpose of the ABC is simple: keep Auburn beautiful. Whether this is through planting a local garden or decorating the streets of downtown Auburn, the ABC believes that the beauty of this town is part of its worth. And to make this group even more special, it is completely comprised of volunteers who have the good of Auburn in mind with each project the council takes on.
“The Auburn Beautification Council originally gave the Tidy Tiger Award out to members of the community who contributed to making Auburn a beautiful and clean place,” said ABC Co-President Julie McGowin. The ABC still seeks to highlight the work done by individuals in Auburn with several awards. The council gives beautification awards to both community members and businesses based on the appearance of one’s yard or the aesthetics of a business’s storefront, particularly the landscaping and planting. “ABC strives to raise awareness about beautification,” McGowin said. “One way ABC does this is by recognizing
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KOB Clean Up Day 2021
those who have done so.” McGowin said she believes that the program has remained prosperous since the ‘70s because people are passionate about it. “This is just something the people are passionate about,” she said. “We’re just a group of people who are like-minded and want to see Auburn remain beautiful.” The ABC always has some sort of project in the mix. Each year, the group puts on a floral trail, in partnership with the city and the Tourism Bureau. The trail includes flowers, shrubs and trees that bloom around the city. Two of the group’s gardens include the Rouse-Corley garden and the Nunn-Winston garden. “The benches in these gardens are regularly used by visitors who enjoy the variety of blooming plants,” McGowin said. There are gardens that the ABC has maintained for decades, namely two in Kiesel Park. They have planted installments at several cemeteries. They have done work at the Auburn Public Library. Their work is seen, yet unseen, all throughout Auburn. The ABC also has plant sales throughout the year. The sale consists of seasonal plants and produce. They are used to highlight the contributions that local farmers and gardeners make, as well as raise money for the ABC to expand its outreach. “Not everybody sees or knows that we do a lot of the stuff that we do, but the dedication from this group is unmatched,”
McGowin said. McGowin said she believes that between the ongoing projects of the ABC, coordination with multiple groups and the attention to public recognition, that people will continue to become aware of the work that they do and, hopefully, get involved. The tasks that the ABC take on are all around Auburn, but likely go unnoticed. The hanging baskets that are all over downtown Auburn, some wildflowers that are planted in medians and the original wreaths that covered Auburn during the holidays were all contributed by the ABC. The ABC also has an annual reception where it takes the time to honor those who have done upstanding beautification work and to thank those who have donated to its cause. This, along with many other of their events, shows the love that the ABC has for Auburn and those in it. “We stay busy,” McGowin said. The ABC’s work is an everyday task. There is always some way to make Auburn a more beautiful town, whether that is through planting flowers or picking up litter or decorating the streets of Auburn. The ABC does all these things and exponentially more through the work of its volunteers. And all that it accomplishes are done for the betterment of Auburn and in love for its community. To learn more, visit: www. auburnbeautification.com.
to community service comes from a vivid memory of her grandfather. “I’ll never forget growing up, every Thursday afternoon my grandmother would bake a pecan pie, and every Friday morning my granddad would put a pie on the top of the trash can because it was trash day,” she said. “That is just sealed in my head, the community service part of it and just going that extra step. That’s resonated with me for so many years. He was just doing something to show appreciation for people and their hard work. I think that whole community atmosphere plays into why I love what I do.” KOB is also serves as the Opelika Tree Commission for the city, which it took on eight years ago. “It’s just another way we can beautify Opelika,” she said. “We just did a seven-gallon Oak Tree give away in Mill Village to anyone interested. We also planted a few in Shady Park.” For the 34th year, Opelika has been named a Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation in honor of its commitment to effective urban forest management. In 2021, more than 230 trees were planted by the city and KOB. Miller said the biggest challenge the group faces is litter and educating people on the effects trash can have on the environment. “Sometimes you feel like you’re chasing your tail picking up litter because you are not really solving the problem, you’re just putting a band-aid on it,” she said. “There’s a lot of good things about picking up litter, but if I can prevent it and be proactive on the front end, that’s even better.” Recently Miller worked with local Brownie Scouts on a stormwater project, teaching lessons on litter and erosion. “When that light bulb goes off in a child and they realize that, when I litter, that will run off into a creek and eventually that creek will go into a pond, then I will want to eat fish from that pond,” Miller said. “It’s neat to environmentally educate.” Miller said sometimes people take it for granted that children are watching adults’ actions. “When I talk to schools about litter, every single time I’ll
The ABC planting flowers in downtown Auburn
aking Opelika a beautiful place to live is one of the many passions of Tipi Miller, director of Keep Opelika Beautiful (KOB). Whether at Garden in the Park, heading the Azalea and Dogwood Trail or planting trees, the goal of the non-profit and its director is the same … beautification, litter prevention and recycling. Miller has been the director of KOB for 12 years. The nonprofit was started in 1997 and Miller is only the second director of the organization, following Shirley Flora, founder. “I love it because I can be as creative as I want with the programs,” she said. “I also like that we involve kindergartners to 80-year-olds. There is no limit to who we have work with us or volunteer.” Miller said she grew up in Opelika and her dedication
City Council Member Todd Rauch and former Council Member Robert Lofton at the KOB Clean Up Day 2021.
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have three hands raised and it is, oh my dad litters, my dad threw something out the window on the way to school, and that is set in those kid’s minds,” Miller said. “I’m not judging the parents I’m just saying all of our actions influence someone else. Someone is always watching us. Whether it’s our children, or neighbor or someone driving down the street.” Recycling across Opelika is also a responsibility of KOB. “Right now, the city has about 1,400 curbside subscribers,” Miller said. “We have two recycling centers that are very busy. We’ve also given desk-side containers to all the teachers in Opelika City Schools. When I look back and see where we have come in twelve years, it’s absolutely amazing how much our city has progressed.” While Slam Dunk the Junk, Azalea & Dogwood Trail and Garden in the Park are at the forefront of what KOB does to make Opelika beautiful, Miller said there’s a lot the community doesn’t see. “People don’t realize what we do because we are not in front of people all the time. They may not see the new trees we planted on Geneva Street. But once they bloom in two years, and they’re larger and beautiful, then they’ll be a nice gateway into Opelika. So sometimes what we do is just in the background and people might not recognize it as KOB.” Like her grandfather, Miller said she doesn’t want accolades for serving her community. “There is so much Opelika has to offer and I love being a very, very, small piece of that to make Opelika a better place.”
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Impacting The Next Generation Story By Harrison Tarr Photos Contributed By YFC
1400 N College St, Auburn, AL 36830
hings are always changing in the Lee County area: new businesses, people moving into and out of the area, the recent construction booms, the list goes on. In the midst of what seems to be constant change, East Alabama Youth For Christ continues to expand its reach to help young people establish themselves within the Christian faith. “Simply put, our purpose and passion is to reach youth for Christ,” said Executive Director Tabitha Vasilas. “We want to help raise up lifelong followers of Jesus.” The nonprofit ministers to a broad range of young people.
It has a primary focus of reaching those who have battled through some form of adversity in their young lives. “For those that struggle with their mental health, feel unseen or are at-risk, we want to reach them in the pivotal moments of their life,” Vasilas said. Vasilas began her work with the ministry five years ago while working in local juvenile detention centers. She helped lead Bible studies and other various programs for youth. Her efforts as juvenile justice director earned her the opportunity to step into a more broad role within Youth For Christ. “Two and a half years ago, I was asked to step into the executive director role,” Vasilas said. “Now, I oversee the entire operations and functions of our local chapter here.” When asked about the origins of the nonprofit, Vasilas spoke about the ministry’s creation in 1944 by founder Billy Graham. “It began with Billy Graham as the first full-time employee,” Vasilas said. “He saw a need for the gospel to be presented to youth and began crusades in hopes of seeing a revival of faith in young people.” The organization has grown exponentially since 1944, now spanning not just the United States, but the world. “We’re in 100 countries across the world and over 130 locations throughout the United States,” Vasilas said. “We’ve moved from youth rallies to on-campus ministry in order to reach young people anywhere and everywhere through authentic, Christ-sharing relationships,” East Alabama saw its own chapter formed 38 years after the ministry’s inception. “This local chapter has been here for 40 years,” Vasilas said. “It launched in 1982, so we have a lot of history here. The longevity of that just supports the reputation and the impact that we’ve been able to have.” Youth For Christ has a reach that expands across Chambers, Lee, Macon, Randolph, Russell and Tallapoosa counties. It’s currently active in four of the six counties. Vasilas made sure to communicate that although the organization is present on a national and international stage, reaching the target audience happens at the local level. “The impact happens locally,” Vasilas said. “The value here is that we have boots on the ground that are local. We have adult leaders that are out in the community establishing those relationships with these kids that are hurting and broken.” With the importance of local engagement in mind, Vasilas depicted what Youth For Christ volunteers look like and what the requirements are to become active in the ministry. “You have to be at least 18 years of age and live a life that aligns with our statement of faith and beliefs,” Vasilas said. “We invite those who have a passion and compulsion to reach youth for Christ in our community.” The executive director explained that the ideal volunteers are those who are truly passionate about the organization’s core belief that Jesus is the answer. “Our volunteers come from all over,” Vasilas said. “Even
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though our team comes from many different churches, schools and areas, we can all agree that Jesus alone is our answer and to share that with the younger generation.” The individuals who find their way to involvement with Youth For Christ come from all walks of life. “We have a wide range of ages within our volunteer team,” Vasilas said. “Our team includes college students, pastors, church members, business owners and many others.” As a nonprofit, the organization relies solely upon donor funding and the funds raised in its two annual events. “We’re 100% donor-funded,” Vasilas said. “In order to carry out our ministry efforts, we count on local grants, fundraising events, individual giving and support from churches and businesses.” For those interested in supporting the ministry, Youth For Christ hosts a golf classic, as well as a comedy café annually. “We have two major fundraisers every year that guests thoroughly enjoy,” Vasilas said “Our largest annual fundraiser is our golf classic that will take place in September of this year. We also have an annual family-friendly comedy café that happens later in the fall.” Beyond the parameters of fundraising events, Vasilas also mentioned the importance of church support. “We lean heavily on church support,” Vasilas said. “Some helpful ways that our local churches have contributed include adding us to the monthly church budget, providing food and
resources for our ministry events and sponsoring our fundraising events.” Unsurprisingly, church support extends beyond the realm of financial support. Youth For Christ looks for like-minded volunteers within the local church communities. “For volunteers, naturally we go to local churches,” Vasilas said. “We want like-minded partners — this aligns with our mission statement. We want to work together to seek opportunities to speak and share the mission with our brothers and sisters in Christ at churches.” The organization also looks for volunteers and leadership with young adults at Auburn University. “We find Christian organizations at the university to go speak [to],” Vasilas said “We encourage the students to spread the word and share the ministry’s vision and impact around campus.” Vasilas claims that the organization is in constant search of support for the ministry because of how pressing and time-sensitive the group believes the matter to be. “We live in a different time,” Vasilas said. “Christianity has severely declined in our country. We are currently the least Christian generation to date.” The executive director is concerned by the rising amount of non-religious young individuals, she said. “There are more ‘nones’ — meaning people that are not affiliated with any religion — in this younger generation
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than there are Christians,” Vasilas said. “Less than 4% of the generation have any Biblical foundation, knowledge or world view.” A lack of spiritually engaged individuals weighs heavily on Vasilas’ heart, she said. “To me, that is just very alarming,” Vasilas said. “Without the standard of truth to which we live by, no wonder we’re in the situation we are today where mental health in young people is declining rapidly.” She said she hopes to stop what she fears may be a snowball effect. “We are seeing youth suicide, depression, anxiety and addiction,” Vasilas said. “All these things are heavily impacting our culture and community in a negative way.” It is out of concern that Vasilas believes the organization — and its partners — must act swiftly. “If we don’t intervene or have a sense of urgency to get out there and start making a difference in the lives of these young people, we’re going to regret it,” Vasilas said. “Ultimately, what are we doing to impact these lives for eternity?” Vasilas said she believes that these non-religious or nonbelieving youths are “in search of a relationship with a Godfilled hole in their heart”. “Youth for Christ is a vehicle that has history and longevity. It’s an evangelical movement that has provided our leaders with access to youth in the local schools and youth-serving institutions that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.” Want to help the organization? Youth For Christ offered three ways. “Prayer is foundational to success,” said a statement from YFC. “If intercessory prayer is on your heart, we would love you to join our team of prayers to pray for the youth of this nation, the work of Youth for Christ and all of our missionaries. To receive monthly email prayer updates, please email us at email@example.com.” The organization needs volunteers, too. “Volunteers are essential to the impact of our mission,” the statement said. “Your time and energy are greatly needed.” Finally, giving. “Gifts to the ministry are what help us meet the spiritual needs of the unchurched youth within our community. Your generosity is appreciated. Visit insideyfc.com/donate.” When asked about her organization’s ‘why’, Vasilas left
LIVE Lee with one parting thought. “Titus 3: 4 through 8,” Vasilas said. The excerpt reads: “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.”
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Raising Up Our Children Story And Photos By Hannah Lester
ordan had a whole afternoon to run around the park, play tag, explore the woods and enjoy time with his two friends Hannah Lemel and Braden Laney. Lemel and Laney are Jordan’s mentors for Project Uplift and once a week they take him, and his cousin Bella, out for fun activities — a visit to the Kreher Preserve and Nature Center, the park, learning to cook or any other fun activities. Project Uplift has been serving Lee County children since 1973, said Kelley Wells, program coordinator for Project Uplift. “Project Uplift is a youth-mentoring program that serves the Lee County children between the ages of 5 through 12,” she said. “… The children that we serve are placed on a waitlist to be chosen by mentors. Our mentors work in teams, so the children chosen get two mentors that visit them weekly. “The purpose, initially, is just to uplift the lives of … the children that we serve and also to prevent their contact with the juvenile
court system and we do that by providing them the positive experience of having a mentor.” Children are referred to the program, often by families who have had children already participate in Project Uplift, Wells said. DHR, the Lee County schools, the Lee County Youth Development Center and East Alabama Health also all refer children to Project Uplift. Project Uplift is actually a program of the Lee County Youth Development Center, though its location is on Auburn University’s campus. Mentors are often pairs of students from Auburn University. That is what Lemel and Laney are. However, mentors do not have to be students, Wells said. “The mentors actually go through a pretty intensive process to even become a mentor so that can take about three to six weeks, depending on how fast the mentors get their stuff done,” she said.
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Mentors then have the opportunity to choose the child they will match with. When visits begin, mentors are encouraged to tutor the child, if that’s necessary. “But a lot of the visits will just be them taking them to the park for a couple hours, taking them to do something fun,” Wells said. “We do try to keep everything low cost because it’s not about spending money on the child, but spending your time.” The visits are beneficial for the children. “We’ve seen a lot of improvement in behaviors and academics, which is what we hope to be even from simple visits,” Wells said. There are a few mentees who are second or third-generation mentees. Their grandparents were mentees when the program first started, Wells said. Visits aren’t just uplifting for the children, but the mentors. “Just about every single
mentor that closes out says that they initially started the program to help a child, to gain experience from this, a lot are going into either something in the medical field or education or something they wanted more experience with even working with children, but just about every mentor closes out and says that they gained more from their mentee than they ever thought they would,” Wells said. Lemel agreed. “I can’t even begin to say how much it’s benefitted me,” she said. “I think the best thing that I’ve been able to do with these kids is just to laugh and play again.” Lemel and Laney spend time with Jordan and Bella once a week. “I had heard about Project Uplift throughout my time at Auburn, they do a really good job of advertising across campus,” Lemel said. “And so I started, I guess the second
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semester of my junior year, the spring semester.” She started with the organization in January of 2021 with a partner other than Laney. But in the fall of 2021, she teamed up with Laney, after her first partner couldn’t make the commitment due to scheduling. Laney said he started at Auburn during the pandemic and wanted to find some way to get involved. “I feel like this is a good chance for [Jordan] to get out,” he said. “… getting to see the way that others grow up and are mentored lets me be an example.” “It’s been really fun for me to get to know these kids and see them every week, it really is the highlight of my week I would definitely say,” Lemel said. “We spend a lot of time outside. We come here a lot, they love [The Kreher Preserve and Nature Center] … they love all the trails, they love to just run and hang out.” Jordan said his favorite thing to do with Lemel and Laney is just to play. Lemel and Laney also take Jordan and Bella to the Project Uplift events, like the Valentine’s Day Party or the Fall Festival. “I think that [Project Uplift] just changes your entire outlook on life,” Lemel said. “Number one, just to hang out with kids, like I said, it just makes life so much less serious and so much less stressful. And then also, just to give kids, who might be less fortunate than you are the opportunity to have a friend in you and see how life, even though it might be different for a lot of people, they can still end up wherever they want to be. “And also, for the good youth/Auburn connection. I think
that at the end of the day, you are someone that they look up to tremendously and so you end up inspiring a lot of who they want to be, or what they want to be when they’re older. So I think just any opportunity to kind of invest in the next generation is something that you should look forward to as a college student and beyond.”
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For the Love of
Story By Kendyl Hollingsworth Photos Contributed To LIVE Lee
magine sitting down at a restaurant and opening the menu. You scan the pages for any pictures you can find, glossing over the names and descriptions because they hold no meaning to you. You point to the most appetizing picture before handing the menu back to the waiter. Or you could be enjoying time with a group of friends or coworkers — until the conversation turns to the latest internet trend, a shocking headline from today’s paper or a tantalizing new recipe everyone should try. You might mirror the reactions of your peers, but otherwise, fall silent. Or maybe you want to obtain a driver’s license, but the thought of having to pass a written test seems too monumental a task, so you settle for relying on family members for rides when needed. These experiences may be foreign to most, but for millions of Americans — including several thousand across Lee County — these kinds of experiences are all too familiar. For more than three decades, the Lee County Literacy Coalition has been working to advance adult literacy at the local level. By doing so, the organization aims to help adults improve their quality of life and influence future generations for good.
THE NUMBERS ccording to international nonprofit ProLiteracy, more than 43 million adults across the United States cannot read, write or do basic math above a third-grade level. In Lee County, that number is a little more than 24,000 — about 20% of the area’s adult population, according to the most recent survey from the Program for the International
Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). But it isn’t just adults who are being affected. The consequences of adult illiteracy often fall on children as well. A 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Education found that link to be stronger in the United States than in many other countries, with children of less-educated parents being 10 times more likely to become low-skilled adults themselves. “That’s one of the reasons why we want to invest in adult literacy,” said Patricia Butts, executive director of LCLC. “If you invest in adult literacy, you actually are helping the children.” During the pandemic, many parents faced new challenges as schools shut down, homes became classrooms and children increasingly turned to Mom or Dad for help. That resulted in a bigger gap in performance as more children were left behind. “Think of a parent who is struggling with their literacy, and now they have to help their child with their homework,” Butts said. “Those types of things are important, so we focus on assisting those adults that want to get help to improve their literacy, and then they’ll be more tooled to help their children.” Area advocates Thomas Brawner and Thomas Worden co-founded LCLC, then known as the Lee County Reading Program, in 1989 in the wake of first lady Barbara Bush’s literacy initiative. What began as a small, localized initiative soon grew to become an incorporated nonprofit and United Way of Lee County agency, equipped with a board of directors and several AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers. “They definitely laid a wonderful foundation, but we want to stretch things out,” Butts who was appointed to the board of directors in 2017 and onboarded as executive director in 2019
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said. LCLC has been a United Way award recipient each year since its inception, and with added support from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation and several smaller foundations and individual donors, the nonprofit has expanded its operations over the years. Today, LCLC offers an array of programs, workshops, fundraisers and outreach events to educate the community. It’s not just about reading, though. “It’s also about those other things that we can assist with,” Butts said. These include financial, health and digital literacy, as well as GED and driver’s license test preparation. Its 2021 annual report indicated that the LCLC literacy programs and services benefited 530 people, but this year, the organization hopes to reach even more. ADVOCACY AT WORK
he Lee County Literacy Coalition is most known for its “One to One” tutoring program. Volunteer tutors are trained and paired with a learner with whom they meet on a regular basis to practice and boost skills in a particular area of literacy. Most often, pairs will meet at the LCLC office or at a local public library. However, the pandemic forced most of these meetings online in 2020. “Zoom became the landing space, and so we were able to get our tutors and learners trained and pair some of them on that platform,” Butts said. “Some of them did not graduate to
[Zoom], but they continued to meet on the phone, and some just stopped altogether because of the unknown.” By June 2021, LCLC was able to reopen with a reconfigured office space that was more friendly to social distancing. The team has also spent the new year gearing up for in-person events like Scrabble Scramble and the fifth-annual Reading Between the Wines. Last year’s Reading Between the Wines saw small groups meet at host homes to enjoy the festivities streamed live via Facebook. Of course, navigating these unprecedented changes requires a well-oiled machine of dedicated individuals, and Butts is quick to tout her team as one with a “heart to serve.” Auburn University graduate students Austin Pearson and Natasha Demick are two AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers who were drawn to the literacy cause through LCLC and decided to join. Both are pursuing a master’s degree in public administration with a focus in nonprofits. “One of the main areas of interest for me is improving the quality of public education, so when I was looking for
struggle to read. And for those who might be wondering what a QR code is or how to use one — among other things technological — there’s an LCLC workshop for that. Auburn undergraduate student Ashley Patton has only spent a few weeks interning with LCLC, but she’s already making her mark as a tutor and facilitator of a digital literacy workshop aimed at helping participants learn how to make the most of their smartphones. “[The workshop] ended up being great … and we were able to help out where we could,” she said. One participant even sent a thank-you note and made a donation, Butts said. “That was unexpected but very welcome. We were glad that we could help that part of the community, even though it wasn’t specifically about reading.” Another program, the “Legacy Learning Project,” is a monthly family literacy program held at Covington Recreation Center in Opelika. Families who complete the program will
“It’s completely free to everybody … just something small that we can try and do.” ~Pearson
internship opportunities, I was trying to find places that I could try to learn more about how the education system has or hasn’t worked for people and be able to get some practical experience along those lines,” Pearson said. “When I was looking around, I saw [LCLC], and I just really liked it. It seemed like it would be a great place to learn.” Pearson joined LCLC in June 2021, and upon completing his internship, he onboarded as the learner engagement coordinator. It’s his job to make sure potential learners are aware of LCLC and how it can benefit them. One project he’s eager to implement is a network of popup libraries. LCLC is in the process of building small bookshelves and identifying community partners willing to host one of these tiny libraries. “We’re going to be trying to set them up in different businesses or recreational hotspots,” Pearson said. “It’s completely free to everybody … just something small that we can try and do.” Butts said the shelves will also contain a QR code linked to a video to make the experience more inclusive for those who
receive a donation of a “starter library” in April. For those learning English as a second language, a bimonthly ESL book club offers a safe space for participants to practice and hone their English skills. Demick, LCLC’s volunteer recruitment coordinator, is currently revamping the organization’s website and social media pages. She said the growing response is “really gratifying,” and she’s using that as a tool to attract a new wave of volunteers. “It feels like a very big community engagement, and everyone is really supportive,” she said.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
aising awareness of LCLC and its mission remains the organization’s top priority. “We need people to know who we are,” Butts said. “We can’t help anyone if they don’t know we’re here.” She added that no contribution of time, money or talent is
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too small. Something as simple as interacting with LCLC’s social media pages can make a big impact. “People can like and share and boost our social media and then pass the word because the folks that need us most may not know about us,” she said. Demick is also working to help expand LCLC’s volunteer opportunities. That might include things like teaching a class, helping at an event or doing administrative work at the office. “Some people might be able to give just the hour,” Butts acknowledged. “Maybe they can help us paint a wall, or help us organize some books or help us with an event … We can find a way so that they can add value and be of service.” And for those short on time, Butts suggested looking into
sustainable giving, which could be as little as $10 a month for a year — the equivalent of two or three cups of coffee. LCLC has also erected a junior board this year and is inviting college-aged students and young professionals to join. “We want to make sure this institutional knowledge is shared with that next group of folks that’s going to keep the Lee County Literacy Coalition continuing,” Butts said. “We need to make sure we’ve got those next people ready.” LCLC is located at 1365 Gatewood Dr. #519 in Auburn. It is open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and by appointment Friday and Saturday. Services are free to all. To keep up with LCLC or get in contact, follow its social media or visit www.leecountyliteracy.org.
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A ‘Big-O’ Difference Story By Hannah Lester Photos Contributed By The James Owens Foundation
ames Owens — a man who paved the way for others, who walked a hard path, fought for the rights of those who would come after him — Auburn University’s first Black athlete to receive a football scholarship. James received his scholarship and came to play at the school on The Plains in 1969. “It was a struggle for him, to be going through integration,” said Jamelia Owens, James’ daughter. James, before coming to Auburn, wanted to play for the NFL, but he sustained injuries that killed the dream. He returned home — to Birmingham. “James didn’t want that for other players,” Jamelia said.
“He didn’t want them to do four years and then go back home to nothing, so before he passed away on March 26, 2016, we began to draft a foundation … James knew that he was sick, and so he wanted his legacy to live on but he knew that the only way he could do that was creating something that would be able to help others.” The James Owens Foundation was formed after James’ death — it provides scholarships to students that will allow them to further their educations. In addition to academic and masters’-level scholarships, the organization assists with grants to aid students with non-traditional education costs as well. “There was so much James wanted to do,” she said. “He
was very [involved] with youth, especially in his ministry. He wanted those athletes and all youth to understand that everybody is not going to get picked to go to the next round so ‘what is your plan?’ He wants everybody to have a plan, everybody to have goals, everybody to have dreams and to actually live those dreams.” The scholarships the foundation provides are nontraditional. Yes, they may help cover tuition, but they can be used for other things — like daycare, sports camps or medical expenses. “We play a part in helping those children and those people achieve their goals, that they normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to do,” Jamelia said. “My father was given an opportunity, so that’s what we want to do. We want to make a ‘Big-O’ difference in the lives, and the quality of lives, of others.” Eventually, the foundation hopes to have a ‘James Owens Community Center’ with a library, resource rooms, a computer lab and childcare center. “We want to do so much more for the community, and we know those are plans for the future,” Jamelia said. “But as long as we get those scholarships out and let people know that we are here and we want to make a difference.” To raise money, the foundation has a fundraising breakfast annually. 2022’s scholarship recipients were invited to participate in the program this year, Jamelia said. Additionally, the organization holds a 5K run annually to raise money. This year, the run was held on March 26 at
Sarah Maris raised money for the James Owens’ Foundation on her own.
Southern Union State Community College. The foundation gave out its first scholarship in 2019. Due to COVID-19 in 2020, The Foundation wasn’t able to give any scholarships out. In 2021, The Foundation revamped its board and prepared to give scholarships in 2022. Overall, The foundation has given three scholarships and hopes to give three to five more this year. The winners of this years’ scholarships will be announced in August. The breakfast isn’t the only way the organization raises money. It relies on the community, too. “Our newest board member is Nicole Finley from Auburn Pharmacy,” Jamelia said. “And she and her daughter, Sarah Maris, have been absolutely amazing.” Sarah Maris raised over $500 in January and was made a Junior Ambassador for the James Owens Foundation. “She did it all by herself,” Jamelia said. “She would go into the [The Auburn] Pharmacy and set up her little jar and people would donate … From the beginning, James had a passion for children, so it’s absolutely important for us to know that we’re reaching children, even at a younger age.” One of The James Owens Foundation’s scholarship winners was a student, Skylan Holstick, who was 12 at the time, to pay for a football camp in Mexico.
Sarah Maris, her sister and employees of the James Owens Foundation celebrated the donations Sarah Maris raised.
“It gave me more exposure to a lot of football groups because traveling out of the country to play football is a pretty big thing,” Holstick said. “And you get exposed to different cultures too.” Holstick is now 14, in eighth grade and still playing football. He hopes to play football at the collegiate level and wants to study to be a doctor, he said. The teenager would like to play for either Auburn … or Alabama. But until then, when Holstick reaches high school, he will be playing for Opelika High School. “For him to come from a background of a single parent, and it was something he really wanted to do and so they reached out to us and we were able to help them with expenses to make sure that he made it to Mexico,” Jamelia said. “He did great in the tournament that they had, or the event they had in Mexico, and he’s continuing to do great things.” For more on the James Owens Foundation, or to learn more on the history and legacy of James, visit www. jofoundation43.org. “I don’t think that he would believe that his legacy will live on, his story, his heart,” Jamelia said. “His heart was pure gold. He loved everybody.”
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Story By Kara Mautz Photos Contributed By Esperanza House
n 2015, a woman by the name of Odalys Silvera noticed that there was something missing from the Auburn-Opelika area and hoped to build something to lift her community and help those around her. Shortly after, she founded the Esperanza House, a ministry and foundation built “on the basis of providing hope to Hispanic families in our community,” per the official website. The mission statement included on the website states that, “Esperanza House strives to develop leaders from the students and families in their programs. Leaders that can reach their full potential and lead sustainable communities.” Today, Silvera is the president and executive director of the Esperanza House, with nine other members on the board. Silvera said in a video on the official website that the idea started when she first moved to the area and saw the need for community among the Hispanic families in Auburn. She said the organization started small, by providing families with translators at the schools, helping students with their homework and other minor needs. However, it grew and expanded quickly and now the Esperanza House has grown from five families to serving over 75 families in the community. “Our original vision was to help fuel families as we saw the need, with things such as food and Christmas,” Silvera said. “It expanded and we noticed they needed things like tutoring, and it is not like the parents didn’t want to help but they just didn’t know how to.” Silvera said that she leaned into her faith when starting the foundation, for which she attributes much of the success of Esperanza House. “The Lord has been moving since day one in order to not only bring the families into the program, but also so many friends and sponsors from the community,” Silvera said. “The heart to love for the children and care for the children, and to me that is all the Lord. The Lord is doing that and bringing different people together to love these children and the families.” Silvera said one of her favorite moments since starting Esperanza House is sending 17 students to college and helping them get scholarships to attend their dream schools. “Seeing them grow and the things that they like to do, before they didn’t know they could do those things and now they can,” Silvera said. “Seeing the smiles on their face and that they want to come, that is my favorite memory.” Silvera said that she hopes that even more children and families will come to Esperanza House and experience the love and hope that can grow from it. Not only does Esperanza House provide opportunities for families and members of the community to come together, but they also offer internship and volunteer positions to students at local colleges and universities. Emma Rowher, a previous intern for the foundation, said that while she completed her internship in fall 2021, she loved working with the children so much that she continues
to volunteer every week. “For my major, Global Studies, we have to do a full-time internship for a semester,” Rowher said. “I also have two minors in Spanish and HDFS, and I want to work with refugees and immigrants after I graduate, so Esperanza House seemed like the perfect fit for me.” Rowher said that she spent most of her time as an intern working to start the Esperanza House program in Opelika. “My favorite memories are getting to see these kids experience all of our programs and activities for the first time,” Rowher said. Rowher said that the children involved with the program were always excited to come for tutoring every week, and some would even ride their bikes to get there. “For Halloween, we got them all costumes and took them to a festival where they got candy and played games and they had so much fun,” Rowher said. Shelby Yoder, Esperanza House assistant, said that Esperanza House works collaboratively with Auburn University to find volunteers and interns. Yoder said that she first heard about the program when she was a student at the university and was immediately interested in working with the Esperanza House. “We are so grateful for Auburn University, as they are always so willing to pass along our information to college students, and we have so many amazing Auburn University students who volunteer with us each and every week,” Yoder said. Yoder started as an intern in the spring of 2020 but continued to volunteer and work with the foundation after her internship and said that she has many meaningful memories throughout her time at the foundation. “Some of my favorites would be our Halloween parties, bowling parties and end of the year celebrations,” Yoder said. “I love being able to have parties and events for our students who attend our tutoring program all year, these parties are to honor and celebrate their hard work throughout the school year.” However, Esperanza House doesn’t limit its focus to helping students succeed through grade school, but also works to help give them the opportunity to continue their education after high school. “I was also there when we were able to provide our Auburn High School graduation class of 2021 with brand new MacBooks, that would help them to succeed throughout their years in college,” Yoder said. “This was such an amazing moment, because this was the first group to ever get the opportunity to further their education.” Yoder said that this gesture also helped the younger children in the program to have positive role models and gives them something to work toward. “They want to follow in their footsteps and attend college once they graduate from high school now as well,” she said. “Seeing this ripple effect, is so inspiring and such a blessing.” Yoder said that she was interested in getting involved with
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Esperanza House because of its goals and initiatives to help the Hispanic community in the Auburn-Opelika area. “I have always been interested in faith-based non-profits, and the Esperanza House is the perfect depiction of being the hand and feet of Jesus,” Yoder said. “I felt called to apply as an intern and absolutely fell in love with everything the Esperanza House does for our community.” While a large portion of the program is dedicated
to working with the children to help them succeed academically, the Esperanza House also works to help “find affordable housing for the families and connect them to a network of resources in the community,” per the official website. However, the extent of the program doesn’t stop there. In March 2020, the Esperanza House started a new support effort to help with the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the program has started distributing personal hygiene items, toys, books and providing hot meals once a week through local restaurants in the community. The program has also distributed food boxes to over 175 families and paid for utility bills for families through local church support. Not only was the organization able to provide necessities for families over the course of the pandemic, but they made sure to also add items such as toys and books to help the children cope during the isolation period of the pandemic. The pandemic gave Esperanza House an opportunity to help children not only academically, but physically as well. Currently, there are 90 families in the Auburn-Opelika area that are being served by the Esperanza House, 278 children being tutored and supported by Esperanza House and 125 adults that are participating with their families in the program. As of now, the organization is only serving families within the Lee County area, but as the mission continues to grow and evolve, the location may as well. The word Esperanza translates from Spanish to mean “hope,” which is exactly what the Esperanza House has brought to the Auburn-Opelika area.
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Hope For Animals
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Story By Hannah Lester Photos Contributed By Bright Eyes Equine Rescue
right Eyes Equine Rescue provides a home for horses who have reached the end of their life, a safe place for them to live out the rest of their days. But on the other side of the circle of life, the organization rescues, rehabilitates and adopts out younger horses, as well. “It is our mission to provide a safe and nurturing environment for them to heal, both mentally and physically, and regain the freedom to live life more abundantly,” said Nicki Perryman, one of the co-owners of the organization. Perryman, along with Betsy Page are neighbors who run the organization together. Though their friendship started
on a rocky note — Perryman’s son had a febrile seizure and Page was there to support her — they have worked together to rescue animals together for years now. “With our love of animals we connected and have been great friends ever since,” Perryman said. “Even though we are 30 years apart. The first animal the two rescued together was a horse named Diego. “[I] was in the process of finding a new horse to love,” Perryman said. “A friend had one that was headed for the Roanoke Sale, which has a lot of kill buyers, so [I] was able to have that horse brought to the farm. His name is now
Diego, but we call him D for short. Diego is around 18 years old and is a Paso Fino. He is very happy and healthy.” The two named their rescue ‘Bright Eyes’ because of the hope they’ve seen in animals eyes, Perryman said. “Getting a horse that is malnourished and does not know the proper meaning of love and being cared for, watching them do a complete 360 is just very rewarding,” she said. Because of the background of the some of the horses — abuse and neglect — it can take a while before the horses trust Page and Perryman, sometimes. “We have one that it took literally two years for him to take a treat from us,” Perryman said. The horse would take his food, but no treats, from the coowners, Page said. Sometimes horses come to the organization because the animal is sick or old. Other times it is because the owner is old, sick or can’t take care of the horse anymore. A typical day with the animals begins with an hour-and-ahalf feeding process. “We’ve got 11 [horses] right now, two barns,” Page said. “One barn that has two horses and the other barn has nine. So we’ve got a lot of horses to feed and they’re on specialized diets, I think a lot of people don’t realize that
it’s a lot harder to feed horses, especially if you have older horses in the mix. It’s not like you can just go put down their food, like you can a dog. We have special diets for each horse.” The organization is not to the point where it can support many volunteers right now. “Occasionally, we have volunteers,” Page said. “We don’t advertise for volunteers very much right now because we’re not in the right circumstances, I guess, to be able to direct them as to what to do. But this time of year, horses are shedding profusely and so sometimes we have volunteers out who help to groom the horses.” Volunteers help lead horses on the trails, work them in the round pen or go on errands for hay, etc, all regular activities for Perryman and Page. “We spend the whole day at the barn a lot of times,” Page said. Perryman said that the organization hopes to host a volunteer day in the future where potential volunteers will be invited out to the property. They are preparing the property now, however. “We are in the process of getting our barn completed and
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fencing rebuilt,” Perryman said. “This has been very difficult before being approved for our 501(c)(3).” The funding for Bright Eyes is all out of pocket right now, Perryman said, for the two of them. Funding challenges include, “paying for vet bills, feed and hay, with inflation feed and hay prices are going up,” she said. Bright Eyes does have a donor, Page said, that has provided funding in the past. “We hope that she’ll continue to think that we’re worthy of her giving donations to us but her money has helped us a good bit with hay, and feed and vetting the horses,” Page said. “Because usually, immediately, when we get [the horses] most of them have not recently been vetted so we
have to call the vet out and take care of their major shots and make sure they are not wormy and sick.” The organization is accepting more donations, however. To find Bright Eyes, visit the organization’s gofundme: www. gofundme.com/f/bright-eyes-equine-rescue. When the organization has more funding, through donations and grants, the hope will be to find more horses in need of adoptions and get them into good homes, Perryman said. “The bottom line is, people get to where they can’t take care of their animals anymore,” Perryman said. “Whether it be time, money or they just don’t care, we want to be that safe haven for these animals to land.”
Committed To Community Story By Natalie Salvatore Photos Contributed By CFEA
Responsibility, Connect, Charity
hese words embody what the Community Foundation of East Alabama Inc. (CFEA) is all about. This nonprofit originally focused primarily on building and administering endowments, fostering funding for philanthropy efforts that targeted specific community needs and strengthening nonprofits. Now, CFEA’s mission statement is “to promote philanthropy by connecting people who care with causes that matter in order to serve the charitable purposes of our donors and the charitable needs of our communities.” Barbara Patton serves as the foundation’s president. The CFEA’s updated philosophy still works towards the organization’s overall goal of serving the community as a
local philanthropic center, Patton said. The program all began in 2007 when it was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. The CFEA finds its history in the Envision Opelika Foundation Inc., which works to improve the quality of life of citizens in different communities that it reaches. After assessing the challenges citizens of the East Alabama region faced, the CFEA was born to expand beyond the Envision boundaries. Originally, CFEA focused on Lee County, as Patton and the board felt the connections were the strongest there, but the organization has since grown. CFEA then wanted to spread its success and accomplishments more broadly, so such charitable efforts could reach other regions in need. “Most community foundations begin with big investments,” Patton said. “We began with a committed board, but small investments.”
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CFEA now reaches the counties of Lee, Macon, Russell, Tallapoosa and Chambers in Alabama. Its funding comes from private and publicly donated sources and are both endowed and non-endowed funds that are used for local purposes in solving pertinent issues in different geographic areas and communities. It continues to focus on endowments. This way, the foundation can build for the future and invest in the charitable interests of its current and future donors and families, as well as build legacies to honor those who came before them. The foundation also works closely with corporations, other nonprofits and private foundations, all to help anyone interested in charitable work to achieve their tailored goals. As different communities work towards addressing their own specific issues, the CFEA works to help guide the charitable interests and the non-profits in each and every one of these communities as they make local changes. “For a community foundation to really impact the areas it serves and have the granting dollars to make a difference, we need to grow the endowments,” Patton said. The CFEA has blossomed to host 11 nonprofit endowments, 12 scholarship funds, four field of interest funds, seven donor-advised funds and a general endowment fund. A few of the nonprofit endowments include the Opelika City Schools Endowment, the Storybrook Farm Endowment and the Character Endowment. Some of the scholarship funds include the Wayne Murphy Scholarship Fund, the Nancy Parker Educational Fund and the John & Margaret Melson Scholarship. A couple of field of interest endowments include Economic Development and Disaster Endowment funds.
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The foundation’s purpose of funding students is that every student in East Alabama has a potential opportunity to achieve future growth and success in pursuit of higher education. In 2011, the foundation awarded its first named scholarship. In 2021 the foundation awarded $27,000 worth of scholarship funds to 15 students in the East Alabama area. Students from area high schools were selected. Yearly, these scholarships range from $500 to $1,000 per year for four years. Over the last five years, the CFEA has had a trajectory of growth in its scholarships, grants, endowments and total assets. The foundation strengthens nonprofits by making grants which aid them in conducting their own services and addressing their own needs. Grants to nonprofits serve as a way for this local foundation to pour back into each community it connects with. A body of East Alabama citizens, eager to achieve a prosperous organization, governs the CFEA. This regional foundation is one of over 795 others in the country. Citizens of East Alabama also graciously give to the program. The program’s compounded assets reduce administration fees, allowing more of the money donated to go toward charity causes. “The tornado of March 3, 2019, moved the needle bigtime to help those in the county that were impacted,” Patton said. “Within the past year, we were able to add some board members from Chambers and Macon counties that will enable us to know the needs in those areas, while introducing us to donors there and to their interests.” Working towards providing disaster relief to the counties of Beauregard and Smiths Station, the CFEA began collecting donations and got to work, along with many others, helping to facilitate the cleanup and recovery. The contributions totaled $752,893. Patton shared how a community foundation like this one has so many impactful effects from its important functions. “From a donor perspective, each reason will be different,” she said. “From a community perspective, there are always needs, and nonprofits are the worker bees in those areas.” The CFEA helps maintain funds for nonprofit efforts and other citizenry projects to create a sustainable, perpetual community. “It’s often said that community foundations are the savings accounts for a community, whereas the nonprofits are the checking accounts,” Patton said. “However, there are times when community projects come along that just need a nonprofit to work with for the short term, and the CFEA can be there for those times.”
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A Legacy Lives On Story By Ann Cipperly Photos By Robert Noles And Contributed To LIVE Lee
fter a successful career in the early 1900s, Dr. John Wesley Darden decided rather than making house calls throughout Opelika that he would begin treating patients in his home. Changes were made to his house on Auburn Street in 1944 to accommodate patients. The legacy of Opelika’s first Black physician continues as his home is currently open as the J.W. Darden Wellness Center, offering expert health care, free of charge. Born in 1876 in Wilson, North Carolina, John was the
eldest of 13 children. At 13 years old, John decided to become a medical doctor when he was unable to find a physician for his unconscious sister. Although she survived, John never forgot that day, which made him more determined to become a physician. John’s father was the first Black undertaker in the state of North Carolina and owned a general store that sold fresh produce and his homemade wine. The community held him in such high esteem that the first Black high school was named in his honor, Charles H. Darden High.
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The Dardens were determined to provide an education for their children. When John was 13, his parents sent him to high school in Salisbury, North Carolina, where he worked his way through Livingstone College (now Shaw University) and received a medical internship in Long Island, New York. Since his hometown already had Black medical services, the young doctor began searching for a place where his services were needed. A college friend, who was a physician in Tuskegee, recommended the small town of Opelika. John moved to Opelika in 1903 and became the first Black physician in a 30-mile radius and began working 18hour days. For a short time, he lived in a house on S. 3rd Street, which was also used as an office. John met Maude Jean Logan when his church choir was invited to sing at her church in Montgomery. John, who had a beautiful baritone voice, was the soloist, and Maude, who taught school, was the pianist. John and Maude married in 1905. Maude often rode with John in a horse and buggy along dusty, dirt roads throughout Opelika and throughout Lee County as he made house calls. She would wait in the buggy while he provided medical care to his patients. The young doctor had purchased 9.68 acres of land on Auburn Street in 1904. He hired two Black contractors who attended their church to build their two-story home in 1906. John purchased a building on Jefferson Street (later named Avenue A) in 1912 where he opened a clinic and drugstore. His brother, J.B., who had recently received a degree in pharmacy, became his partner at the drugstore. The drugstore not only dispensed prescriptions but sold homemade ice cream. On Sunday afternoons, many strolled down to John’s drugstore for his homemade ice cream. Vanilla and chocolate were staples, with new flavors frequently offered, including a spicy ice cream fragrant with cinnamon and nutmeg, along with fig and strawberry. After John’s mother died, his youngest brother, Walter “Bud” came to Opelika to live with John and Maude. Bud grew up in Opelika and worked at the soda fountain. After moving his practice, John converted the house on Third Street as an infirmary for Black people and performed surgeries there. John also served as a conscription doctor and treated inmates at Lee County Jail. While his main practice was in Opelika, he also provided medical assistance to rural areas and Auburn. At their home on Auburn Street, Maude was busy cultivating a flower garden, also giving piano lessons. She taught Sunday school at the Thompson Chapel AME Zion Church. Maude became the director of Christian Education, while John was on the Board of Trustees for many years. Maude enjoyed entertaining and having guests in their home on Auburn Street. Guests would stop by for a cup of tea and cookies. She was civic-minded and taught young girls lessons on etiquette and manners.
The Dardens were active in both religious and social life. Prominent visitors to their home included Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver and A.G. Gaston. As John became older, he began treating patients in his home. In 1944, he moved a large part of his practice to the house. Changes were made to accommodate seeing patients, and a section of the porch was enclosed to serve as a waiting room, while a room inside was converted into an examining area. John practiced for two years at his house until his death on Jan. 10, 1949. A new Black high school opened in Opelika in 1951 and was named in his honor. In 1971, J. W. Darden High School merged with Opelika High School. Although the Darden’s did not have children, Maude said later in life that teaching Sunday school for 60 years had given her hundreds of children. She continued living in the house until her death in 1976. Although the house was rented for a couple of years, it soon became vacant and was sold by the Darden heirs in 1980, which later resulted in foreclosure. The house stood vacant for many years. As the house deteriorated, it was scheduled for demolition. In 1999, the J.W. Darden High School Alumni Association was organized and in 2001 formed the J. W. Darden Foundation. The Foundation purchased the property with donations from former Darden High School students. After being restored, the house was listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. The Darden home continues to be the site of healthcare today. The J.W. Darden Wellness Center, located in the former Darden homestead, offers health screening and education every Wednesday from 9 a.m. until noon. A collaborative effort of the J.W. Darden Foundation, Inc., the EAMC Faith Community Nurse Program and the Auburn University School of Nursing, the Center offers expert health information free of charge. Nourish Wellness is a multidisciplinary, communitybased pediatric wellness center that provides holistic care to patients who wish to prevent or treat lifestyle illnesses such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes or hypertension. This service is also a collaboration between The Nourish Foundation, Auburn University, VCOM, the Darden Foundation and East Alabama Health. The collaborative care team includes a pediatrician and VCOM students, community nurses and faculty and students from Auburn University in the areas of pharmacy, dietetics, kinesiology and social work. The team aims to serve underserved children and families by providing them with an individualized nutrition, exercise and mindfulness plan. Patients will be seen on a monthly basis in order to closely monitor progress in the program. Through this program, the team hopes to improve access to care and improve the health of the community. The J.W. Foundation holds an annual Black Tie Legacy
Gala with proceeds providing scholarships and funding for the upkeep of Darden’s historic home at 1323 Auburn St. Many things have changed since John and Maude traveled the streets in a horse and buggy. Darden’s hospital and drugstore have been torn down and replaced with a parking lot. However, the Darden’s legacy and influence have continued at the home of the doctor and his beloved wife who dedicated their lives to improving the lives of others. Sources: “Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine” by Norma Jean and Carole Darden, whose father, Bud Darden, moved from Opelika and became a physician in Newark, N.J.; The Heritage of Lee County, Alabama, the J.W. Darden Foundation and others.
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Where Learning Story By Stacey Patton-Wallace Photos By Mike Wallace
earning for the sheer enjoyment of it. No tests, no projects, no research papers, no grades, no stress. No way, right? However, this happens every day, Monday through Friday at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Auburn University. OLLI’s predecessor, the Auburn University Academy For Lifelong Learners (AUALL) was founded in the early nineties. According to the book, The First Ten Years of AUALL1990-2000, the fee for the first term in Spring 1990 was $50. That first term, AUALL offered four study groups: “Great Decisions: U.S. Foreign Policy,” “Physics: Entropy,” “Comparative World Religions” and “The Ascent of Man.”
Mary Burkhart, who had helped found AUALL, learned about an Osher endowment, wrote a grant and AUALL became OLLI at Auburn in 2010. Today’s OLLI has grown a great deal since those four original study groups in 1990. This past winter term, OLLI offered students over 40 classes from to choose from. During this time, OLLI members enjoyed the following classes: Hiking, Cooking, Memoir Writing, Line Dancing, Tai Chi, Common Law, Rivers of Alabama, Literature, Learning Spanish, Contemporary Architecture, Spacecraft and American Society, England in the Late Middle Ages and many others. Although OLLI was originally designed for adults 50 and older, anyone who is an adult is welcome to take
classes. Besides offering a large range of subjects, OLLI is incredibly affordable. OLLI members pay a yearly membership fee of $50 and just an $80 academic fee per term (fall, winter and spring). Summer programs and fees vary. Also, in the fall, if a member pays for fall, winter and spring terms all at once, $275 will cover membership fees and all academic fees. Members may take as many courses as they wish. OLLI also offers need-based academic scholarships to members who qualify. Recipients only have to pay the annual $50 membership fee, which can be paid in installments. OLLI at Auburn has highly qualified instructors who
volunteer to teach subjects. Since OLLI doesn’t have the resources to provide financial compensation, instructors are offered a free year of membership and may take one free class per each term taught. Dr. Terry C. Ley, professor emeritus from Auburn University and Cathy Buckhalt, an English educator who worked with Opelika City Schools, Auburn University and Southern Union, bring 81 years of combined teaching experience to OLLI. Ley and Buckhalt have been teaching Writing Our Lives (WOL), a memoir writing class, since 2004. Ley taught at Auburn from 1974 to 2001. A former student of his once said, “Dr. Ley could read aloud a telephone book and make it interesting.”
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“I still enjoy teaching,” Ley said. “Cathy and I get to continue doing something we both enjoy doing — teaching congenial, seasoned adults who are anxious to relate their stories.” Buckhalt said that she and her students learn together. “I love Writing Our Lives (WOL) because I still get to be a teacher, though my ‘students’ are all so skilled,” she said. “I get to share my love of storytelling and encourage others to share their stories.” Dr. Joseph Kicklighter, professor emeritus at Auburn University, taught history for 40 years. Since 2015, Kicklighter has taught Medieval England, Medieval Europe and other history courses at OLLI. “Dr. Kicklighter was a rock star at Auburn; now he’s OLLI’s rock star,”
said Scott Bishop, OLLI’s director. Dr. Bill Deutsch, a research fellow, emeritus, worked in the Auburn University School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences for 26 years, retired in 2013. Deutsch teaches Rivers of Alabama, Birding Basics and Ancient Life in Alabama at OLLI. “I teach because I love sharing information I’ve accumulated through hobbies and work that I think others want to know about,” Deutsch said. “We teach and learn in a special community of folks that are there because they want to be. Our mutual learning is good for mind, body and soul.” Kitty Frey, an occupational therapist, has worked in a variety of settings and has her own business, Moving Matters. Frey has taught modified
Tai Chi and several sets of Tai Chi Qigong at OLLI for about six years. “I felt there was a need for community programs that offered some of the best from both traditional holistic practices and updated medical research, that could be used as prevention and reduce fall risk and empower people to take an active role in maintaining or improving their health holistically — stress and pain management, improve mental focus, strength, flexibility and cardiopulmonary functions, to name a few,” Frey said. Wendy Cleveland, who taught middle and high school English for 30 years in Ithaca, New York, teaches poetry at OLLI. Cleveland has also taught with fellow OLLI member Dr. Ken Autrey, professor emeritus at Francis Marion University in Florence,
South Carolina. “Ken is an excellent teacher and mentor,” Cleveland said of Autry, who taught English. “… I enjoy teaching and the joy of nudging folks who want to learn to write poems but fear this mysterious genre.” Dr. Roger D. Launius, who teaches Spacecraft and American Society at OLLI, was chief historian for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In addition, Launius has written or edited numerous articles and books on historical subjects. OLLI’s students are as diverse as the instructors. Betty Corbin, who has been an OLLI member since 2009, has taken many different classes; a few of her favorites include Birding, Yoga, Writing Our Lives and Line Dancing. “I have met lots of nice people and have enjoyed learning about new topics,” Corbin said. “Participating in OLLI classes has added a lot to my life.” Sandy Halperin has taken numerous classes at OLLI for 13 years. “I enjoy the teachers, who are incredibly gifted and love what they are teaching,” Halperin said. She also enjoys her classmates because they’re interesting, diverse and always offer rich perspectives on whatever is being taught, she said. Gail McCullers joined OLLI in 2002. McCullers also served on OLLI’s Executive Board in several leadership positions. “I have been quite varied in my class choices —
history, music, psychology, philosophy, religion, writing, science, etc,” McCullers said. “My favorite class is Writing Our Lives.” Bill Lee, who joined OLLI six years ago, said that he has become a much better writer since he’s been taking a writing class each week. Lee has written over 100 short stories or essays and a 175-page genealogical family history book. “My grandchildren enjoy some of my stories, and they’re some of my best critics,” Lee said. When Bill Wilson moved to Auburn 15 months after his much-loved wife Annie’s passing, a friend suggested that he join OLLI. Since he was an English major, he decided to join Ed Hornig’s class, Short Stories of Appalachia. Besides enjoying the stories, Wilson gained something even more precious from this OLLI class. Her name is Charlotte. A four-member team of dedicated professionals ensures that OLLI runs smoothly, which has been challenging during the pandemic. In March of 2020, just as Scott Bishop became OLLI’s director, COVID shut down everything. Suddenly, instructors had to learn how to use Zoom on a webinar. “Mike Akins, who is the chair of the technology committee, really stepped up,” Bishop said. “He and many IT people trained us.” Bishop said that OLLI’s greatest challenge during the pandemic has been trying to maintain a sense
of community while members are learning virtually instead of face to face. “However, if there’s any silver lining to COVID, it would be that Zoom has allowed us to reach people wherever they are,” he said. Since OLLI is a nonprofit, one of Bishop’s primary duties is fundraising. The revenue generated by OLLI’s classes doesn’t cover the costs of running the program. OLLI has an organized Advisory Council and several other committees, including a curriculum committee, which is made up of volunteers. Bishop said that he works closely with those committees to plan OLLI’s path. OLLI is now conducting free workshops once a month for dues-paying members, Bishop said. The member only pays for the
required materials. Past workshops have included: card making for Valentine’s Day, learning to dye fabrics with indigo and roasting coffee beans at home in a hot air popcorn popper. Barbara Daron, OLLI’s program coordinator, has worked with OLLI for 10 years. Daron works with the curriculum committee to chose and coordinate courses. Daron also coordinates public programming such as the Brown Bag Lunch and Learn, receptions and other events. Daron’s greatest joy is working with instructors and students. “Our teachers love what they do, and our students have a passion for learning,” Daron said. Cheri Lumpkin, who started working with OLLI in August of 2021, is in charge of Instructor Support and is the communications specialist.
Some of her duties include setting up the technology and furniture for classes; helping the instructors and helping run the classes. In addition, she writes and distributes the weekly OLLI Digest online and manages the Facebook page. Danell LaPread, who has worked with OLLI since the beginning, is the registrar and office manager. If anyone has a question about OLLI, LaPread is ready to help at 334-844-3146. OLLI classes are now almost all face-to-face. Classes are conducted at Sunny Slope and its Annex at 1031 S. College St. and Pebble Hill at 101 S. Debardeleben St. in Auburn. With highly qualified instructors, extremely low costs and a broad spectrum of classes with no grading, what’s not to love at OLLI?
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Changing, Shaping Lives Story By Ann Cipperly Photos By InTown Imagery and Contributed by The Johnsons
he Lee County community needed mentoring for young men. Former Auburn Police Officer Gregory Johnson saw the need in 2014 and wanted to do something to help. He organized L.E.A.P.S. (Leadership, Education, Achievement, Partnership and Service), a proactive program that has the ability to curb potential crime, poor academic performance and other negative aspects of bad decision making. “L.E.A.P.S. was formed to have a positive impact on the lives of young men in our community,” Johnson
said. “This mentoring program provides young men with responsibility, respect, discipline, service, achievement and honesty to help them achieve their dreams and develop into leaders.” Along with building character, the program assists young men with knowledge, such as how to dress, interview for a job and treat women with respect. One of the first events planned was an annual mother-son dance. “It teaches young men how to treat the first woman they fall in love with, which is their mother,” Johnson
said. “I felt if they knew how to treat their mother and respect her, then they would be good husbands and fathers once they became adults.” Officer Johnson’s wife, Shonda, helps with the project. They have three sons. After serving as a lieutenant at the Auburn Police Department for 14 years, Johnson recently transferred to the Lee County Sheriff’s Department. He is a resource officer in schools where he mentors and helps students. He mentors students, teaches drug prevention and helps with any problems students present. “Mentoring the youth has been an eye-opening experience and life changing for me because of what has been done to help young men up to the point,” he said. “I get to mentor kids at the school, and I can talk to their parents to get them involved in the program.” Since L.E.A.P.S. began, different events and community service projects have been held. Every year they have a canned food drive to donate to the food bank around Christmas to help families in need. The mother-son date night dance is an important part of the L.E.A.P.S. program, which has in the past been held at the Brown Recreation Center in Auburn. Last year, the Church of the Highlands donated items for the event that was changed to a picnic outdoors instead of a dance because of COVID. Other sponsors included Chick-fil-A, Initial Outfitters, Intown Imagery, DJ EST, Decorations by Nisa, Ballad party rentals, the Opelika
Chamber of Commerce, the 2020 20 under 40 class, Kona Ice, the Auburn Police Department, Butcher Paper BBQ, Jay Jones and the Auburn Parks and Recreation Department. COVID will determine if the event this year is a dance or picnic. It will be open to every mother and son in the community. Information on the event is on the L.E.A.P.S. Facebook page. Volunteers and funding are needed for the event. When the program first started, the Chizik Foundation and the Hudson Family Foundation provided funding to get the program going and helped it through the first few years. With little assistance now, Johnson and his wife have been providing funding. This has been difficult for them to continue with income changes, he said. Johnson has received a great deal of positive feedback about the program and would like to keep it going for as long as he can, he said. “Any support from the community would be greatly appreciated,” Johnson said. As part of the L.E.A.P. S. program, Johnson meets with various organizations to speak on different subjects that young men need to know, he said. He also speaks at the Dream Day Foundation’s event for young men and gives them a positive role model, which is the purpose of the program. Johnson would like to expand the program to other areas in East Alabama, including Russell and Chambers
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counties. He would like to reach other young men with the mentoring program, which has been designed as a proactive approach to combat and break down socioeconomic barriers that drastically affect a youth’s life. “L.E.A.P.S. will help equip, empower, educate and develop young men into leaders of tomorrow who will know how to make a positive impact on society,” Johnson said. “L.E.A.P.S. is in the business of changing and shaping lives. Together we can and will change lives, statistics and families for the many generations to come.” Anyone interested in volunteering or donating to the mother-son event can contact Johnson at leapsmentoring@gmail. com or 334-475-0016.
Reducing Poverty Story By Natalie Salvatore Photos By Robert Noles
too, can have self-sufficiency” is the mindset that Circles Opelika works to establish in its program participants, said Regina Meadows, director of this non-profit organization. Part of the larger, nonprofit foundation of Envision, this program works toward improving the quality of life of Opelika’s residents as it fights poverty. The task force at Circles is composed of social service agencies, community members and local educators, all of whom come together to help people improve their life situations. Nationally, Circles reaches over 70 communities across 20 states throughout the U.S. Locally, Circles brought its relationship-based movement to Opelika in 2019. It works with the motto “to inspire and equip families and communities to resolve poverty and thrive.” Circles is a group for residents to gain knowledge of what goes on in their community, including what poverty looks like and what its barriers are, as well as what resources are available. This program works to provide long-term solutions over short-term fixes to create a sustainable and economicallystable community. The organization hopes the relationships it creates between people and families of all income backgrounds can continue the fight against local impoverishment.
Poverty can come in many shapes and sizes. It encompasses more than those without adequate food and nutrition — it can include those citizens whose jobs do not pay them enough to survive or encompass those living in situations that are just enough to survive. The Cliff Effect proves to be a significant barrier in preventing community members from getting out of poverty when they try. This becomes a problem, with the potential for a financial crisis when assistance programs essentially remove their benefits faster than people can earn enough income to replace them. This occurs in programs such as childcare subsidies and Medicaid. Circles works closely with low-income families to increase participants’ social capital and combat the Cliff Effect. “I like to refer to social capital as people power,” Meadows said. To foster its visions, participants, called Circle Leaders, are each paired with an Ally that walks them through goals that they each personally established during the program’s first three months in a mentor-like fashion. Allies keep the participants enthused as they help them through their questions while becoming friends. The group meets weekly to build on the skills they are
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harvesting, as well as to develop a foundation of support and a sense of community among participants who wish to take the next steps toward self-sufficiency. The program’s different classes, workshops and training sessions provide tools to its members as they transition into a more positive mindset and attitude. Members are exposed to resources, such as budgeting tips, and are connected to other resource outlets that may have been unknown to them previously. Exposing its Circle Leaders to parenting concepts and to the various tools listed above allows families to grow and prosper. Besides the families who have chosen to be a part of the program, Circles also benefits other people with its approaches and advocacy efforts, such as its financial focus. “We talk about dollars and cents, but we also talk about how your health is your wealth — the costs associated with being unhealthy physically and mentally,” Meadows said. As families in the program learn, so do others in the community, as citizens gain a better understanding of the issue and what it is like for those living in poverty. “The community benefits by having a more informed citizenry, and ultimately more disposable income for our families when they reach their financial targets, therefore affecting the economy positively,” Meadows said. As the director of Circles, Meadows works closely with its members and the community in any way she can. “My role involves me being an advocate for the population we serve, being a liaison between service providers and those needing the services, and making connections,” she said. For example, Meadows makes and provides meals to promote part of the program’s services. She also manages cases and follows up with families with additional needs for services or resources, encourages current families to stay on track, as well as motivates the volunteer Allies to keep everyone engaged. “Circles means a lot to me,” she said. “As the first and only director of a Circles Location in the entire state, I am extremely proud of the work we are doing.” She added that the training and preparation work the organization does for families changes lives and promotes overall well-being. Circles’ efforts also teach children, so they will know the importance of poverty prevention. Meadows explained how those who have gone through this program have made progress. It is an encouraging learning experience where members can develop their confidence and self-esteem as they can learn better ways of doing things they already are doing. She said she believes that as Circles continues to
grow towards its full potential, it can really make an impactful difference on Opelika as a whole. “The work has long-term implications because it addresses behaviors and exposes families to a different way of doing things with tangible results,” she said. “This is very necessary work, and I’m so happy to be a part of it.” Meadows said that the financial impact from the pandemic was not as devastating to the program’s members. “Due to the financial literacy that we’d begun, our families were not as shaken by the losses of COVID,” she said. “We’d already established the need and know-how for budgeting, so they were able to truly implement the things they’d learned in Circles’ trainings and workshops.” Circles welcomes new volunteers who wish to join its mission of making the issues of marginalized populations known, as this program is always recruiting. “We need volunteers to assist us in all program facets,” Meadows said. “Allies assist families that have committed to making a change by walking with them as they establish a friendship along the way.” Volunteers can help with anything from providing the meals to helping with their childcare services. Circles is always accepting new families to the program and is thankful for any advocates that wish to support its efforts. Even for those that feel financially stable, there is still a place for them within Circles, Meadows said. No matter the reason for joining, Circles’ resources, training and networking opportunities are available to everybody interested. Meadows explained how the more people that become involved, and the more that know what poverty truly is, the better Opelika can be. Circles is positioned to be a source of hope to those seeking help and support in this community, she said. The weekly meetings are held at the Southside Center for the Arts, located at 1103 Glenn St. For more information about Circles Opelika, fill out a contact form at www.circlesopelika. org/contact.php or email Meadows at rmeadows@ circlesopelika.org.
Story By Tucker Massey Photos Contributed By The Southeastern Raptor Center
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ar Eagle” is a common expression around Auburn University, and the school is known for the rounds that an eagle takes before each home football game. But what many people do not take into consideration is the extraordinary work that a certain group of people puts in for our beloved War Eagle. Raptors are birds of prey with features that distinguish them from normal birds. All raptors have hooked beaks, sharp talons, keen eyesight and are carnivorous. So, who would volunteer to train, take care of and rehabilitate these feared creatures? The Southeastern Raptor Center’s staff has no issue dealing with these birds. The SRC is a gated facility just off Shug Jordan Parkway. At the SRC, you will find two main components: an education center and a rehabilitation facility. Both of these branches are crucial to the purpose that the SRC serves. “The Raptor Center has two main parts. We are a part of the College of Veterinary Medicine, so we have our rehabilitation section that takes in about 300 sick, injured or orphaned raptors each year,” said Assistant Director of Raptor Training and Education Andrew Hopkins. “Then we also have our education side, which has a collection of 22 educational ambassadors that are used in presentations throughout the state and Southeast.” These are not the average education ambassadors that are going to these presentations; these are the in-house raptors from the SRC. The SRC does approximately 300 educational presentations each year. This makes up most of what the educational side of the Raptor Center does. However, training their raptors for these shows is important to what these educators do. From time to time, the SRC holds public showings, such as its Wing Fling events in the spring. “We have a couple of presentations in the spring, they’re called Wing Flings,” Hopkins said. “They’re basically like our Football Fans and Feathers event that we hold during the fall.” At Wing Fling, eagles, hawks and other raptors fly around the Edgar B. Carter Educational Amphitheater. All proceeds from
ticket sales help fund the work of the SRC. Hopkins said it is a year-round task to train these raptors for shows, as well as actually carrying out the shows for which they are training for. The raptors that inhabit the SRC are non-releasable. This is due to both injury and human imprinting. Since these raptors rely on precision to live in the wild, even the smallest injuries can leave them at a major disadvantage. However, some of these raptors were taken in and intended to be released but could not be due to a variety of reasons. These are the raptors that are trained for the SRC’s educational shows. At the SRC, there are 24 mews in which the raptors live. Among these raptors are various hawks, vultures, falcons, kites and eagles. Most of the eagles at the SRC have flown at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and two continue to do so. The SRC is home to Nova, who first flew in 2004 and last flew in 2016; Spirit, who flew from 2002 to 2021; Aurea, who has flown since 2018 and Independence, who just began flying this last season. Tiger, or War Eagle VI, was previously housed at the SRC. Tiger began the tradition of flying in the stadium in 2000 and did so until 2006. The eagle passed in 2014. Golden Eagles Nova and Aurea are War Eagle VII and War Eagle VIII, respectively, while bald eagles Spirit and Independence were not designated with official War Eagles titles. However, Spirit was named an Honorary War Eagle upon her retirement from stadium flight in 2021 by the Auburn University Board of Trustees because of her 20 years of service to the Auburn family, according to the SRC. Hopkins said he believes that educating the public on raptor species is an important task. “A lot of the public doesn’t get to see these raptors up close,” he said. “And really, we think that by allowing the public to see these raptors up close, they can form a deeper appreciation for them. These raptors are topof-the-line, apex predators, and since they’re at the top of the food chain, they can often notify us about problems in the food chain and environment.” Hopkins provided a great deal of insight on how the SRC educates the public on raptors, why the public needs to be educated on raptors and on raptors, themselves. The ultimate goal of the educational unit of the
SRC is to inform the public on a key part of an ecosystem and allow those who are interested in them to get a more personal learning experience. Aside from the work done in education, the SRC, being part of the College of Veterinary Medicine, focuses largely on rehabilitating raptors from the wild, too. “Our first goal is to rehabilitate injured, ill or orphaned native raptor species in the southeast,” said Raptor Rehab Specialist Stephanie Kadletz. “We also strive to release these raptors back into the wild whenever possible.” Along with many graduated professionals at the SRC, Kadletz said that the SRC also works with fourth-year clinical veterinary students. “They get to come out here to the Raptor Center on clinical
any birds that are not birds of prey, as they only specialize in raptor medicine. “Anything we can do to mitigate these raptors’ injuries because maybe they got hit by a car or they got into a humanreleased toxin, contributes to the success of the species,” Kadletz said. The mix of educational and rehabilitation experience at the Raptor Center is why it is effective in its mission. When the educational team goes from school to school or hosts local events, new groups of people are introduced to raptors and their natural contributions. “A lot of your raptor populations are in decline, and so anything that we can do to help that in our rehabilitation efforts is going to positively impact raptors in the wild,”
rotations and learn about raptor medicine,” Kadletz said. Kadletz gave answers to why the Raptor Center does what they do. She said that since humans have so much impact on the environment, they need to work to ensure that their effect on the environment is good, which includes working with these raptors to see them flourish in the wild. According to the SRC’s website, raptors can be brought into the rehabilitation clinic by the general public, other raptor facilities and government agencies. The SRC typically only accepts raptors from the southeast and will not take
Kadletz said. By allowing the public to see these raptors in action, informing them on the importance of their survival and letting people know about the useful services that the Raptor Center provides, the SRC is working tirelessly to spread awareness about important parts of our ecosystems. The SRC has mews for the birds to live in comfortably, and has the tools it needs to aid an injured or ill raptor. Each day, the raptors are fed a diet similar to their natural diets. The educational raptors are trained in a secure
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environment where their human imprinting or injury is not a problem for their survival, and for those in rehabilitation, they can gain the proper strength to go back into the wild. The SRC is renowned for its work. Since its founding in 1972, the SRC has treated thousands of raptors and has cared for or released many back into the wild. And according to its website, the educational program is not bound by state lines. Raptor presentations have been done all throughout the southeast. Shows have been taken to Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee and, of course, Alabama. The SRC allows for private tours of its facility, and even puts on private shows at its on-site amphitheater. There are private shows at the SRC, but it can also be booked elsewhere. All money collected from these programs goes right back to the raptors. Overall, the SRC achieves its mission of providing care to these beautiful
creatures. It has made great strides in educating the general public on a group of animals that many may not be familiar with. Raptors are much more than just birds and beasts. They help balance an ecosystem, and the SRC said it believes
it is vital that their population does not decline. “People need the opportunity to see these animals up close, and when they do, they can have a greater appreciation for them,” Hopkins said.
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Following In King’s Footsteps Story By Natalie Salvatore Photos By Robert Noles And Contributed By The Dream Day Foundation Martin Luther King Jr "Lift Every Voice” event 2021.
he Dream Day Foundation embodies the dreams of children, and helping them reach their goals. “This foundation was established for the people and with the people,” said Marion Sankey, founder and executive director of the Dream Day Foundation. Using Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision as inspiration, this non-profit organization was founded in 2009, embodying the motto, “Inspiring Our Youth of Today to Become Dream Achievers of Tomorrow.” In her role, Sankey strives to carry out Dream Day’s mission with integrity as she oversees the foundation’s everyday functions. She is honored by the foundation’s Advisory Board members’ contributions to Dream Day’s success.
“The foundation was created as an avenue to encourage youth, especially youth of color, to seek and carry out their dreams,” Sankey said. “We strive to be a beacon of light in the Lee County community and surrounding areas, with a purpose of cultivating the next generation of innovators, leaders and change-makers through arts and service.” The program centers around the community’s young citizens to guide them as they embark on their future endeavors and grow into adulthood, with a focus on talent, scholarship, service and cultural awareness. The organization is looking to alter this youth-focused motto to include the entire community. “We realize that there is so much to be done and including everyone to benefit from the organization is important to us and the community,” she said.
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In 2000, Sankey and others began an event to honor King and showcase the young citizens as well. Held at Greater Peace Missionary Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, this celebratory event hosted a large crowd with its firstever theme, “Lighting the Path for the New Millennium.” She said each year, with the growing participation of youth and community members in the event, the organization intentionally and mindfully chooses a new theme to coincide with that year’s celebration. In 2009, Dream Day moved the event to Opelika High School. “This event allows our young people to remember the struggles that many went through for them to be where they are today,” Sankey said. “It reminds them of the blood, sweat and tears that King and other civil rights leaders endured just to move to the front of the bus.” Hence, Sankey strives for young citizens to honor the past while celebrating the future through this program. “I remember listening very early to a speech that King gave at DePaw University in 1960, where he said, ‘God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race and the creation of a society where all men will live together as brothers, and all men will respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality,’” she said. “This speech still resonates with me today, as we are still hopeful that this event is helping people to honor these words of King.” Along with this annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Celebration, the organization also created and hosts an annual summit for Black boys in fifth grade through college. “We are proud of creating the first and only Black Male Summit in Lee County in June 2018,” Sankey said. “It was designed to address critical issues that these young men face, such as ethics, decision-making, mental and physical health, relationships, self-esteem, cooperation, conflict and many more.” The summit hosts different keynote speakers that deliver motivational messages, like world-renown speakers and professional football players, as well as hosts small breakout sessions for topic discussions and question-and-answer sessions for parents. “The goal is for these young men to come away with a greater sense of purpose, of accountability and with dreams of what their futures hold for them as responsible adult men,” Sankey said. “It has been very beneficial in giving these young men, especially those that have been identified as highly at-risk, the tools they need to navigate successfully in their home, school and other environments.” The foundation also serves the community through providing scholarships and Dream Acts. Lee County citizens, as well as the foundation’s sponsors and partners, generously donate to make dreams become realities. The acts help anyone from families affected by disasters or medical expenses to students wishing to attend further schooling. The
first Dream Act helped a family who had been displaced from Hurricane Katrina return to their home in New Orleans and reunite with family and friends they had left behind. One of the foundation’s long-term members, Mikayla Jackson, has been a part of Dream Day her entire life. She received a scholarship from the foundation and said she appreciates the organization’s example of excellence it shows for children as they recognize citizens that came before them who have made an impactful difference. “Every year, I learn something new about my history as I am pushed to become the best version of myself and always strive for, and exemplify, greatness,” Jackson said. “The foundation has taught me how important it is to stand up for what is right, whatever the cause may be.” Another individual tremendously impacted by the foundation is Steven Harvey, who sings with the foundation. Harvey said he is proud to sing in the MLK event each year as they honor the freedom and equality in today’s world, thanks to King. “My role has had a significant impact on me because I believe my voice and talent have an impact on the lives of people who are passionate about King,” he said. “It means a lot to me to honor different people within this program, not only because they have done so much to make this a successful one, but also because some have either witnessed or been a part of such tragedy.” In yet another avenue, this nonprofit honors its community by selecting members to be recognized as Dream Achievers. “The Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. Dream Achiever Award was established in 2004 honoring an outstanding community servant or group that has exemplified the character, dedication and goals of King during their lifelong work and commitment to the Lee County community,” Sankey said. Over the years, there have been many Dream Achievers selected from its large pool of candidates, including the Rev. Clifford Jones, former Mayor Barbara Patton, the late former Councilman Clarence Harris Jr., Representative Jeremy Gray, the late Auburn resident, George Echols, Jane Walker and
more. Last year, the annual celebration occurred virtually for the first time due to COVID-19. Its “URMYHERO” event was filmed via YouTube and released on Martin Luther King Jr. Day as planned. Despite fewer participants involved, the virtual platform offered a positive advantage in that more than 2,500 people had a chance to “attend” the event. “In speaking with the young men, they have expressed how beneficial it is to them, as they appreciate the information they are given and how they have been able to apply it to their everyday lives,” she said. “We are very fortunate to have the community offer a lot of support in sponsorship and volunteering in whatever areas are needed.” Another positive that came from the pandemic was the start of the initiative “Planted Together.” This project created a safe environment of serenity and peace for local seniors who were isolated because of quarantining and social distancing restrictions. Local churches, businesses and organizations came together to help sponsor and deliver over 300 plants to porches of senior communities in the AuburnOpelika area. McDonald’s of Auburn, Opelika, Tuskegee and Marion Sankey Shorter was the largest contributor for the Planted Together Project, together along with Kroger, Harris Funeral Home and the Opelika City Council. The initiative not only gave seniors a safe way to interact with each other while caring for their plants, but it also provided a service opportunity for the youth to give back to the elderly while learning of the importance of caring for their needs. In its activities, Dream Day prepares the youth of AuburnOpelika to be leaders in their future lives. “When our young people are successful or win, then the entire community benefits and wins,” Sankey said. “The citizens of Lee County have benefited from this organization, as we are intentional about serving all races of people in many of the activities and events we have offered in the past
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and will continue to offer.” Sankey believes that participants who became doctors, attorneys, educators, business owners and more in their adult lives owe part of their successes to their involvement with Dream Day. “I am impacted the most when I see the lives of young people changing in so many positive ways,” Sankey said. “As our young people grow and mature, they are giving back to the community with many now whose own children are participating in some of the same events that they did.” Sankey also said that many of the volunteers who started out with Dream Day are still involved today, such as Larry Sankey, Thomas Sherfield and more. Dream Day will soon reach its 25th year of the King Celebration as the community continues to show its love for this organization’s involvement in Lee County. “We look forward to continuing to serve the Lee County community with the purpose in helping to make this the best community to live in,” she said.
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It Takes A Village Story By Wil Crews Photos Contributed By Village Foster Care and Adoptive Ministry
es and Meg Roberts’ first foster care assignment saw the young couple meet a social worker outside the steps of the Lee County Courthouse to pick up a 6-month-
old baby girl who possessed hardly anything but the clothes on her back. Already having two biological sons of their own, the Roberts quickly realized they were ill-prepared to support
the needs of a baby girl. “When we got our daughter, all we were handed was a diaper bag with maybe two sleepers in it and one bottle,” Meg said. Thankfully, the Roberts had the resources to immediately go to the local Target and purchase everything that was needed. And, within the first week, the Roberts had received donations and overwhelming help from their church family at Golden Acres Baptist Church in Phenix City. Sadly, for many new foster families, the support the Roberts received is far from a reality. In fact, the circumstances of foster care can oftentimes be so difficult that, according to fostermore.com, 30 to 50% of foster families quit within their first year. “It kind of occurred to us, ‘how do people do this without having a support system and stuff?’” Meg said. “There is such a need for good foster homes, and we thought ‘what can we do to help them?’” About a month into their first placement, Meg was praying one evening and thanked God for her “village” — family, friends and her church, which had helped her build a family along the way. Familiar with the work of the foster-centered Big House Foundation in Opelika, and realizing the lack of a similar organizations closer to Russell and Muskogee County, it finally hit the Roberts. “[Wes] was like, ‘that’s it,’” Meg said. “’Why don’t we start something, getting these families to say yes to foster care. We are called to be the village for other people. We need to be the village for this community and foster care families.”’ That’s when Village Foster Care and Adoptive Ministry came about. A place where adoptive families can come and shop for clothes, shoes, underwear and other essential items for both their adoptive and biological children, it’s been serving Lee, Russell, Muskogee and Harris County since May 2018. With the financial backing of Golden Acres Church, it is run completely by volunteers, and everything in the store is donated by community members, business
or other churches. Foster families can visit the store once a month to pick out 15 items for each child and receive them for free. “We have had kids come in the village before and they don’t even have shoes on their feet,” Meg said. “Some of these kids don’t even have the basic essentials to get through everyday life.” Village Foster Care and Adoptive Care Ministry is always accepting donations, volunteers or financial support. It needs underwear and socks, and gently used clothes for new borns to adult sizes. “If you’re going to donate, please make sure its gently used or your best,” Meg said. It also accepts diapers, wipes, toiletries, baby formula, shoes, cribs and other baby gear. In particular, older boy clothing is a primary need. “The boys either totally destroy it or run through it, but once they get older, guys just don’t swap their clothes out all the time like girls,” Meg said. “So we get a lot of girl’s stuff but not as much boys.” Aside from opening the store to local families, Village Foster Care and Adoptive Ministry also offers a number of special-occasion services. For example, during the summer, it works with area social workers to do a backpack drive, where children in need are identified and gifted a backpack full of supplies to return to school with. There is also the Village Angel Tree Shop that comes around at Christmas time. “We have several days set up where families can come and shop for brand new toys,” Meg said. “It’s really something neat to watch them come in and pick out toys, just their thankfulness.” In the case that a social worker calls Meg or Wes late at night with a need, one of the two or a volunteer will pack an emergency care bag to be delivered to the foster parents to help get the couple through the first few days. Overall, Village Foster Care and Adoptive Ministry serves about 100 children a month.
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“When they come and shop, we are open just like a normal children’s store would be,” Meg said. “I keep it set up like a really nice children’s boutique. I don’t want families and children to feel like they have to dig through leftovers. Everything is organized by size and gender. Everything is freshly laundered. I just want to restore some dignity to the child because they just had so much loss. It’s amazing what a new dress and little hair bow can do for a little girl. They need to feel like they are special. “Everything else has been ripped out from under them but they still have a little sense of belonging. These kids want to be just like every other kid at school. They want whatever comes out. I only give them the best ... They come in so down, and when you give them that freedom to shop and pick out whatever, there whole personality kind of changes by the time they leave the store.” Village Foster Care and Adoptive Ministry officially became a class 501(c)(3) nonprofit last summer, and is located at 9209 Lee Road 246, Unit D. The store is open on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern time. For appointments, call: 334-3920166. It can also be reached via Facebook at TheVillageFosterCareandAdoptiveMinistry.
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The Magic of Storybook Farm Column By Rita Smith Photos By Robert Noles
n a beautiful spring afternoon, I was given the opportunity to visit Storybook Farm and discover why everyone calls this place “magical”. Immediately upon driving through the gates, there was a sense of tranquility. Friendly faces and signs with characters’ names out of books gave the impression that I had stepped into a very special place. My tour began at the “Papa Bear” Horse Center where I met Sara Medley, the chief operations officer. Sara taught me so many things about this magical place. She has been working with Storybook Farm since 2007 and without having to ask, it is extremely apparent that she loves working here. While working at Storybook, Sara also gets to share stories about the children who are served here. In 2021, 2,177 children were served between the ages of
2 to 16 along with their siblings and families. The staff at Storybook Farm anticipate serving over 3,000 children in 2022. Children who come to Storybook Farm have over 130 different diagnoses. Storybook Farm does not currently have a physician on staff, but they do offer therapeutic services that connect children with animals and nature. The results from these therapies are nothing short of life-changing. All services are provided at zero cost to families. The inspiration for Storybook Farm came from Founder Dena Little. Dena knew from her own personal experience that connecting with animals had the potential to be therapeutic. Companionship and coping skills are essential when dealing with trauma, loss of a family member or illness.
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Both skills are provided with the animals and scenic views at Storybook Farm. She knew the healing that would happen when animals and children connected. Being an English major, Dena loves books and envisioned animals and buildings being named after characters from her favorite stories. Beautiful horses with names like “Corduroy” and “Prince Charming” were nestled in their cozy stables and were approachable and extremely friendly. The animals on the property all have names from fictional places in childhood stories, according to Dena. The dream began in 2004 with four horses and five children on a piece of property in Auburn, Alabama. Within
Horseback, Storybook Tails, Short Stories, Horse Sense, Flat Stanley’s Discovery Trail and The Secret Garden. While they do have a full-time staff of three employees, they also rely on 125 Auburn University students who volunteer weekly. Funding is provided by grants, fundraisers and donors. This year, Storybook Farms will host the 14th Annual Kentucky Derby Day slated for Saturday, May 7, 2022. Eight-hundred-plus people will participate in this event with a “live” and silent auction. This is a large fundraiser held each year and there is still time to reserve a table for you and your friends. To register, visit: www.one. bidpal.net/derbyday2022/welcome for more information.
two short years, Storybook Farm relocated to a gorgeous fifty-plus acre location. The property was not only more spacious, but it held the vast potential for more children to receive these therapeutic services. The clientele has continued to grow with children who have a wide range of diagnoses, all of whom are receiving excellent care, the kind of care that only fresh air, cuddly animals and nurturing can bring. While the primary focus is children, Storybook Farm also welcomes siblings and family members with open arms. This allows the entire family to connect and heal together. Six programs are currently being offered: Hope on
Additionally, there are other opportunities to make a difference in the lives of those who receive services at Storybook Farm: single or monthly contributions or corporate donations. To receive more information on how to make those donations please visit the website: www. hopeonhorsebackorg/ or call 334-444-5966 Monday through Friday 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. I urge you to take the time to check this unique place out and consider opening your hearts and wallets to the health and future of our children.
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re-elect richard lagrand sr. district 5 commissioner Keep Progress Moving Lee County YOUR Vote is Important! Make Your Voice HEARD!
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