Monthly Archives: March 2022

Cool to be Kind

People

Busby’s Heating & Air has launched The Busby’s Cares Community Contribution, an initiative in which the company makes a $1,000 donation to a small local nonprofit organization each month. The inaugural recipient of the funds was Garden City Rescue Mission in February.

“With small local charities, $1,000 can be significant,” says Rick Busby, owner of Busby’s.

The company also conducted a food drive for Garden City Rescue Mission, the largest men’s homeless shelter in the CSRA, and Busby’s delivered the food contributions at the same time that it presented the financial donation to the rescue mission.

“A lot of folks have helped me in my life one way or another. I just feel like the world would be a better place if more people helped each other,” Busby says. “We’ve always given back. That’s just part of our culture. That’s how I was raised.”

Restoring the Warrior

People

Photos courtesy of Operation Double Eagle

Operation Double Eagle prepares veterans and transitioning active duty military personnel to work in the golf industry.

U.S. Army veteran and Grovetown resident Matt Weber, who medically retired from the military in 2009 after five years of service, had fallen on hard times.

He lived in his car with his service dog, a Dutch Shepherd named Max, for a while. He moved in with a friend, but that situation ended up causing more harm than good. Then Weber spent the little money he had left on a hotel room. In November 2020 his hours were cut before he ultimately lost his job during the pandemic. He struggled with alcohol abuse and addiction to his medications.

“I was in a dark place for the better part of four years,” the 36-year-old Weber says.

Last fall, however, his circumstances started to change. In October 2021, he met Jeremy Tindell, program manager for Operation Double Eagle, through a local veterans service organization.

Operation Double Eagle is a nine-week skills development program at Augusta Technical College that connects veterans and transitioning active duty service members to a network of employers seeking “job-ready” veterans for nationwide career opportunities.

The program, a workforce initiative of the Atlanta-based Warrior Alliance, actively recruits veterans with barriers to employment through its network of partners, transitioning active duty military personnel and government agencies.

Tindell, who lives in Evans and served in the Army for 20 years, talked to Weber about Operation Double Eagle. Although a session had started a week before their conversation, Tindell squeezed the veteran into the program.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go,” Weber says. “I kind of bounced around for a couple of years. I was making an attempt to figure out what I wanted to do. Operation Double Eagle had resources for me to make something of myself.”

Weber finished the program on December 17, 2021, and three days later he started working as an equipment operator for Landscapes Unlimited, one of the largest golf course contractors in the country.

“The first thing I told my boss was that in two-and-a-half years or less, I plan on taking his job,” says Weber.

And that wasn’t the last time he put his director supervisor, Brett Ambrose, on notice that he’s coming after his position. Ambrose, a Landscapes Unlimited project superintendent, appreciates the ambition.

“I want to have people that want to move up and have goals. If he’s a go-getter, let’s do it,” he says. “I said, ‘Dude, come and get it. Let’s see it happen.”

Landscapes Unlimited also hired one of Weber’s classmates, and Ambrose hopes to hire many more people from the program. “I like where they’re going with it. It has a lot of promise and gets people in different careers in golf,” he says.

Optimum Exposure

Operation Double Eagle is the brainchild of Scott Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the Warrior Alliance. During his 20-plus years as a corporate executive, he worked with wounded warriors and saw a contingent of the veteran population that was unemployed or bouncing from job to job.

“I wanted to try to help veterans find a way to be trained like they are in the military. This is the kind of work they want to be doing, and it was a chance to try something that hadn’t been tried before with veterans. We want to restore the warrior that is inside of each individual,” Johnson says. “On the flip side, it solves a huge problem for the golf industry where there is a high demand for skilled labor.”

With local assets such as Fort Gordon, a rich military tradition, the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center and Augusta National Golf Club, Johnson says this area has been the ideal place to build the program.

“Logistically, Augusta made sense,” he adds. “Why not take the mecca of golf and do something unique for it?”

Nine-week cohorts are scheduled four times a year, and up to 15 selected “warriors” per session receive a monthly stipend for housing and meals to attend the free educational program. Participants are not required to use their GI Bill benefits, and graduates receive Augusta Tech’s Golf Turf and Landscape Specialist certificate. In addition, the students earn 14 college credit hours.

The first cohort was launched in February 2020, but Operation Double Eagle went on hiatus from March 17, 2020 until June 2020 because of covid.

The program is structured so that students receive classroom instruction from 8 a.m. until noon Monday through Friday at Augusta Tech. Topics include golf course maintenance, horticulture science, irrigation, construction, turf management, mechanical and equipment operation, golf operations, landscaping and pest control.

“We tell people on the second day, ‘You’ll learn a dozen different things in nine weeks. Get passionate about one of them, and you’ll find a career,’” says Johnson.

In the afternoon the students go to the Performance Center, a par-3 hole that was built in 2019 at Augusta Municipal Golf Course, for hands-on learning opportunities.

At the Performance Center, the students practice golf course design, construction, renovation and maintenance skills. Veterans, as individuals and teams, tackle clearly defined projects to solve real-time challenges.

“We have everything that a larger golf course operation would have,” says Evans resident O’Neil Crouch, a former golf course superintendent and Operation Double Eagle program director. “They get to learn real-world problems. If we have to, we create problems.”

The students also take field trips to local golf courses such as Champions Retreat and Forest Hills Golf Club as well as Belle Meade Country Club in Thomson. They also have helped prepare the course at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta for the Tour Championship.

“Veterans love to be outside. They love working in tough nature conditions. They love working in teams,” Johnson says.

In addition, the program covers golf course etiquette and what to expect when working on a golf course and introduces students to industry sales representatives.

“We try to expose them to everything possible so they can make a decision,” says Crouch. “We’ve had a few graduates that have started their own business or more veterans support programs.”

The Right Fit

Warriors have to go through a three-tiered application review and assessment before they are accepted into Operation Double Eagle. “You have to educate veterans and find people that are right for the program,” says Johnson.

As part of his responsibilities, Tindell recruits students and vets the military applicants. He conducts an overall evaluation of the soldiers to assess each individual’s attitude, aptitude, academics and achievement.

Operation Double Eagle finds recruits through the Department of Labor, social services organizations, veterans services organizations, career centers, grassroots efforts, word-of-mouth, social media and by visiting military installations.

“When potential students fill out a questionnaire and application online, they self-identify their barriers to employment,” Tindell says. “I contact them and build a personal relationship with them before they join the program.”

Johnson has found that warriors often have difficulty transitioning to civilian life because they lose their network when they leave the military or realize that the work they have been doing does not translate to other employment opportunities. Weber agrees.

“You’re losing that ‘suited and booted’ mentality,” he says. “You knew that what you were doing was important. When you have to stop wearing that uniform for whatever reason, you feel like it’s been taken away from you. There’s a lot of camaraderie in the military that you rarely get in civilian life.”

Veterans lose the team mentality that the military fosters as well. However, Crouch says golf course superintendents sometimes model their maintenance staffs on military groups to build camaraderie.

“The golf course maintenance staff has always been a very tight-knit group,” he says. “They work outside in all kinds of weather and situations. Rarely do you do a job by yourself.”

Tindell says that employment in the golf industry offers structure and uniformity. In addition, he says, “There’s a therapeutic aspect of working outside and working with your hands.”

With Tindell’s military connections and Crouch’s ties to the golf industry, they make a good team as well.

“He can find veterans that need training and employment,” says Crouch. “I know superintendents all over the country that need quality employees. The labor pool is very small. There’s a great demand for quality labor.”

Crouch also oversees fundraising for the program. He says fundraising tournaments are coming up locally, in Atlanta and in North Carolina, and people can get involved by making donations on a monthly or yearly basis. They also can help make connections with potential employers, sponsors for the program, military resources and industry players.

“We are seeing a tremendous amount of support from the community,” Crouch says.

‘Purpose, Direction and Motivation’

Tindell keeps track of everyone who completes the program for 24 months post-graduation. “I try to instill a sense of purpose, direction and motivation in everyone who comes through the course,” he says.

About 50 people have gone through the program so far, but Johnson hopes that close to 100 will complete the certification this year. Students have ranged in age from 25 to 64 years old, and 30% to 40% of them have been female. While the program has drawn students from across the country, 60% to 70% of them live in the local area.

The participants agree that they will start working or continue their education after they finish the program. Johnson says 90% of the people who have gone through the program have “made it.” He hopes Operation Double Eagle, which also is building partnerships nationwide, can be a solution for a lot of people, like it was for Weber.

In January Weber moved into a house, and he is continuing his education by pursuing a degree in Golf Course Turfgrass Management at Augusta Tech. He also hopes to mentor the students in the next Operation Double Eagle class.

“Because of what they’ve done for me, I want to give back as well. I want to give them direction like Jeremy did for me,” he says. “I’m immensely blessed because of the program. I’m more than grateful for everything they’ve done. Every aspect of it from that first conversation with Jeremy allowed me to have what I have right now. I went from having nothing to having everything.”

By Betsy Gilliland

Photos courtesy of Operation Double Eagle

Easter Egg Nests

Appetizers and Snacks
  • 6 carrot slices
  • 6 eggs, hard boiled
  • 12 cloves or peppercorns
  • 6 diced pieces red bell pepper
  • Lettuce

Using a paring knife, shape carrot slices into top combs. Cut a small slice off bottom (wider end) of each egg so it stands upright. Make a half-inch slit in top of egg and insert carrot slice for comb. Add cloves or peppercorns for eyes. Cut a small hole with tip of paring knife for beak and insert diced red bell pepper. Layer bowl with lettuce and top with egg “chicken.” Makes 6.

Coming Up Roses

Garden Scene

 

Photos courtesy of Sacred Heart Cultural CenterThe Garden City Festival is back in full bloom with familiar – and new – activities.

Springtime in Augusta is synonymous with the Masters Tournament. However, the Garden City Festival at Sacred Heart is another spring celebration with strong roots in the area.

“The festival has been a tradition since 1992,” says Kim Overstreet of Sacred Heart Cultural Center. “It started as a small flower show, but it has grown through the years as new features have been added.”

Although the event was cancelled in 2020 and a modified version was held in 2021, this year’s festival will have something for everyone from to novice to experienced gardeners.

The Garden Festival Preview Party, which begins at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 21, will kick off the festivities.

The evening will feature fine cuisine, musical entertainment and the first viewing of the gardens and floral exhibits created by local garden professionals. Guests also will have the first opportunity to shop for plants and garden accessories in the Garden Market. Tickets are $75 per person.

The festival itself will run from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Friday, April 22 and Saturday, April 23 at Sacred Heart. Festival-goers can see landscape and floral exhibits, shop in the Garden Market, enjoy Seedling Saturday and the Butterfly Habitat and Garden Tour, and hear educational speakers during festival hours.

The Speakers Series will offer how-to demonstrations and tips that people can use to enhance their gardens. As a new addition this year, vendors will teach 30-minute Wandering Workshops on topics such as “How to Create a Container Garden” and “Cooking with Herbs From Your Backyard.”

“The workshops will cover simple things that people can take home and do,” Overstreet says.

Food trucks and vendors also will be available from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Advance tickets for the festival and garden tours are $25 for both days until April 21. Tickets will be sold at the door for $30. Tickets for the festival only are $10 in advance and $15 at the door.

The private garden tours are scheduled for noon until 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Featured gardens include three in Augusta and three in Walnut Hill in Evans off of Gibbs Road.

The festival also is collaborating with Pop-Up Augusta! for its first ever Friday party – an exclusive dining and concert experience from 6 p.m. – 9 p.m. The location will be revealed 48 hours prior to the event to ticketholders only. Register at popupaugusta.com to receive an exclusive ticket invitation.

The festivities will conclude at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 24 with the Blanton Garden Tea at Blanton Farm. This event will include fare from recipes featuring organic produce grown on the farm as well as afternoon tea. The gardens will open at 4 p.m., and seating, which is limited, will follow at 5 p.m. for a talk and tea. A separate ticket is required. Call (706) 826-4700 for reservations.

“We want people to experience good gardening ideas, be inspired and learn something about eco-friendly living at the festival,” Overstreet says. “Whether someone lives in a small space like an apartment or on a large landscape, they should be able to take away something.”

Tickets are available online at sacredheartgardencityfestival.com, by phone at (706) 826-4700 or at various locations including Sacred Heart.

Country Charm

In The Home

Photography by Sally Kolar

This DIY couple loves to refurbish and redecorate, but they never stray far from their roots in their Harlem home.

For Crystal and Rodney Hall of Harlem, everything old is new again. Many of the furnishings and décor in their farmhouse home are treasured family heirlooms. Otherwise, Crystal says, “Almost everything in this house is from a thrift store. I love decorating and changing things, so I don’t want to spend a lot.”

The condition of the furniture when they get it doesn’t matter. Crystal has a knack for refinishing and painting furniture, so the pieces in the house, where they have lived since 2018, look brand new – or have the perfect vintage look.

Crystal, who was raised on a North Carolina farm, comes by her thriftiness honestly.

“Growing up in the country, my mother never got new things. She just got a can of spray paint and painted everything,” she says.

And she still hasn’t left country living behind. The Halls’ house is tucked back in the woods on a 10-acre piece of land where they raise chickens with names like Buttercup and Chick-fil-A and enjoy their pond – which was a must-have when they were looking for property to build their forever home.

“My mom says I’m reliving my childhood,” says Crystal. “This is the third house we’ve built, and I said, ‘This is it.’”

Sitting Pretty

The Halls, who have been married for almost 31 years after meeting on a blind date, wanted to build a one-story home, and Crystal found the house plans on Pinterest. In fact, she found so many things she liked on Pinterest that the builder eventually told her to stay off the site.

“We were going to downsize, but we ended up with the same square footage because we expanded the rooms,” says Rodney.

They have filled their space with plenty of country charm, but Crystal redecorates every three years or so. When she’s ready for new look, she sells their furnishings on Facebook Marketplace. However, she still gravitates to farmhouse décor, an affinity that begins with the welcoming front porch that invites people to sit awhile and enjoy the back-to-nature setting.

The front porch features a beadboard ceiling, stamped concrete flooring, a floating faucet water fountain, hanging baskets overflowing with ferns, more plants with colorful blooms, a black distressed chest, a front porch swing and two black rockers.

“The rocking chairs are my pride and joy,” says Crystal. “They belonged to my grandparents.”

Overlooking their pond, the back porch is just as relaxing. This covered porch features a beadboard ceiling, stamped concrete floor, a ceiling fan, recessed lighting and a fountain made out of driftwood. They have wicker furniture on the porch, and a tic-tac-toe board on the table is always ready for a game.

“Every morning I have coffee on the porch and watch the deer and listen to the hummingbirds,” says Crystal. “This is my spot.”

They also see and hear wildlife such as a red fox, red-headed woodpeckers, possums, hawks, owls and frogs in the pond.

One sign on the wall says, “Life is good in the woods,” while another reads, “Welcome to the patio, where memories are made and worries are few.” A small plaque that says “Farm Sweet Farm” is nestled in a cotton ball wreath on the wall.

“We love our covered porches. No matter what the weather is, we can use them,” says Rodney.

He isn’t one for slowing down often, however. “I’m in the woods all the time doing something. Or I’m mowing grass, spraying weeds or fixing what’s broken,” he says.

He also likes to tinker with his 1967 Chevelle show car, which has its own enclosed bay in the three-car garage.

“The car stays in its own museum. We dated in that car. We had our first kiss on the bumper,” Crystal says. “When we were building, I told Rodney he could have his three-car garage as long as I got my back porch.”

Slices of Nostalgia

While the porches are the perfect places to sit outside and enjoy the surroundings, the Halls have plenty of mementoes inside to blend their family histories with the life they have built together.

In the front hallway, a vintage Singer sewing machine cabinet, which belonged to Rodney’s great-grandmother, lines one wall. Made of wood and cast iron, the cabinet still has the sewing machine in it.

A diamond-shaped wreath hangs from the top rung of a tobacco ladder in the corner. Engineered hardwood flooring, which runs through most of the house, leads from the hallway into the family room.

The brick fireplace in the family room features a raised hearth and a mantel that was made from an 1850 farmhouse in the North Carolina mountains.

Crystal found the coffee table and end tables at a thrift store. “The coffee table was from the ’70s,” says Rodney. “You know how ugly everything was in the ’70s. I sanded it down and repainted it.”

Black and white buffalo-checked pillows and blankets add a decorative touch to the family room furnishings. A black and white buffalo-checked runner tops a chest as well.

The lamp on a distressed demilune table, which Crystal found at an online yard sale, belonged to her great-great aunt. A strand of decorative beads lies on the tabletop, and a cotton wreath hangs from the drawer hardware.

Slices of nostalgia in the room include a tobacco basket atop a curio and a gumball machine on a stand.

The family room also features a coffered ceiling and two sets of double doors that open onto the back porch.

“I wanted the whole wall to be made up of doors or glass, but it was too expensive,” says Crystal. “We just wanted a pretty view so we could see the pond.”

A wooden sign with the coordinates of the house hangs on the wall by the back doors.

Even though it doesn’t work, a guitar that belonged to Rodney’s great-grandfather is on display in the family room as well. He keeps another functioning guitar in his office.

“I just piddle on the guitar,” he says. “I decided at age 45 I wanted to learn to play.”

Mix and Match

The adjoining kitchen includes a granite countertop on the island and leatherette granite on the perimeter countertops, a corner pantry, a farmhouse sink and a coffee bar that overlooks the front porch.

A sign that says, “Fresh Eggs,” leans against the brick backsplash above the cooktop, and a wire basket full of fresh eggs sits on the island.

“We have lots and lots of fresh eggs. Anything you can do with eggs, I can do,” says Crystal.

Her favorite egg dish is quiche, and Rodney’s is “my breakfast.”

Every morning during his commute to Aiken he has a ham and egg tortilla wrap. “Coffee and a wrap, and I hit the road,” Rodney says.

A pair of antique red roosters on top of the kitchen cabinets were a gift to Crystal from her mom, and her 100-year-old grandmother gave her the rooster on the floor by the hutch in the eating area.

They took the glass out of the hutch, which is filled with knick-knacks ranging from china and more decorative chickens to blue eggs in a bird’s nest and a vase filled with greenery.

“All the little things in the hutch are mix and match. I’ve picked them up here and there,” says Crystal.

The Halls have framed photos of all four houses where they have lived, complete with their addresses and dates of residence, on a wall in the eating area.

Blinds cover the eating area windows that overlook the backyard and the pond, but they never close them. “We have no curtains in the entire house,” Crystal says.

They wash their eggs in the laundry room sink, and the shiny tile floor offers an optical illusion. “We thought the floor would be slick, but it’s the opposite,” says Rodney.

They bought the washer and dryer with their second house, where they lived from 2004 until 2009, and Rodney has completely rebuilt the washing machine.

“There’s nothing Rodney can’t fix, so I don’t get anything new,” Crystal says.

Animal Farm

Well, almost nothing is new.

They bought their master bedroom furniture at a good price from a serviceman who had never used it. “It was brand new,” says Crystal. “It still had the tags on it.”

The rocking chair in the corner of the room belonged to Crystal’s mother. “She rocked both of my children in it,” says Crystal. A large vase on the floor is full of peacock feathers that came from birds raised by her late father.

Draped with a strand of decorative beads, a full-length oval cheval mirror occupies another corner of the room. Crystal refinished the desk in front of the windows, and a birdcage full of slender branches sits on top of the chest.

The adjoining master bath features tile flooring, granite countertops, double sinks, a separate vanity and a tile shower. A butterfly, which Crystal’s great-great-great grandmother crocheted, hangs in a frame above the garden tub.

The guest bath features a leatherette granite countertop and tile flooring. “We wanted the old farmhouse look, so we picked the black and white tile,” says Rodney.

In the guest room, a quilt stand holds a quilt that Crystal’s grandmother made for her.

“If this house ever burns down, that’s the first thing I would grab,” Crystal says of the quilt. “She put all of my farm animals on it. That quilt was on my twin bed when I was little.”

In addition to their collection of 32 chickens, which includes five roosters, and their Maltipoo, Sophie, the Halls’ menagerie of real animals features a rabbit, Ollie; one Tom Turkey and his girlfriend, Butterball. They also are adding pasture for four baby goats.

Their chicken population is made up of silkies (“They’re my favorites. They’re docile and sweet,” says Crystal.), Laced Wyandottes, a Blue Andalusian and four Golden Comets. “I call them my Golden Girls,” Crystal says.

She says caring for chickens is easy. “Water every day, feed and collect the eggs,” she says. “They all have different personalities.”

Rodney built the chicken coop, which features a tin roof on the henhouse, and the egg boxes. A sign on the coop states, “Pampered Chickens Live Here.”

To pamper themselves, the Halls have a hammock by the pond, where they keep their mini pontoon paddle boat at the dock. Two red Adirondack chairs by the pond flank a table that Rodney made by bolting a wood tabletop to a stump in the ground. The tabletop came from a pine tree that he cut down in the front yard.

“There’s nothing like country life,” Crystal says. “When we commute from work, we feel like we’re never going to get home, but once we do, it’s like, ‘ahh.’ It’s worth it.”

By Betsy Gilliland

Marinated Chicken Tacos with Homemade Salsa

Entrees

Salsa:

  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • 4 medium tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, chopped
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Chicken:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Juice from 2 limes
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 12 small corn tortillas
  • 2 avocados, peeled and sliced

Place chopped red onion in a large bowl and drizzle with lime juice; let sit 10 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, jalapeno, cilantro, garlic and salt until well combined. Let sit for an hour (room temperature or chilled) for flavors to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings, if needed, before serving. (If too hot, add more chopped tomato.) Makes 4 cups.

While salsa is resting, make marinade for chicken by combining 2 tablespoons olive oil, lime juice, garlic, honey, chili powder, cumin, salt and pepper in a large resealable bag. Add chicken breasts, seal bag well and pound chicken to an even thickness. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes and up to 8 hours.

Heat indoor or outdoor grill to medium high, about 375-450 degrees. Grill chicken (discard marinade) 5-8 minutes a side, until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. Remove to plate and loosely cover with foil. Let rest for 5 minutes before slicing. Serve in corn tortillas with salsa and avocado slices. Makes 6 servings.

Living With Loss

People

Illustration of Wilkes by Abigail Burke

To some people, teen suicide is a collection of statistics. To the family and friends of Wilkes Cooper, along with other Columbia County adolescents, it’s much more personal.

For Greenbrier High School senior Mabry Cooper, her favorite memory of her cousin, Wilkes Cooper, occurred on a family Fourth of July trip when they were about 10 years old. The grownups wouldn’t let him light fireworks, which she says, was “probably in his top five all-time favorite things ever.”

“So he went inside, packed his bags and walked out to the road,” Mabry recalls. “His sister took off after him, and he only agreed to come home if ice cream was involved.”

Lakeside High School senior Sydney Wilson says her favorite memory of her boyfriend happened on February 14, 2021, when he picked her up at 5 a.m. for a road trip to Cleveland, South Carolina to do another one of his favorite things – watch the sun rise over the mountains.

Photos courtesy of High Cotton Photography, Jacob Reeves and Sydney Wilson

“I was able to experience the most surreal moment with the person who meant the world to me,” Sydney says. “This memory will forever live in my heart.”

Less than a month after sharing that early morning sunrise with Sydney, Wilkes took his life on March 5 at age 17 after battling adolescent depression. He would have been a senior at Harlem High School this year.

To mark the first anniversary of one of the most painful days of their lives and to celebrate and honor Wilkes’ life, Sydney and Mabry have put together a walk and a concert to raise funds for the Win It For Wilkes Foundation, which they created for their joint senior project.

“His mother wanted to do it on that day, and we also wanted the chance to make a bad day, a good one,” Sydney says.

The event will feature live music, food vendors and the sale of merchandise. Wilkes’ brother, country music artist Pat Cooper, will perform as well.

“We decided to do a concert as the main event because music was a very big part of Wilkes’ life, and attending his brother’s concerts was one of his favorite things,” says Sydney.

Pat, who grew up in Thomson and now lives in Nashville, will perform a song that he wrote to honor Wilkes.

“Initially, I had no intentions of releasing it. I just wanted to write something that my family could cherish. Upon showing it to them, we felt it was important to make it public,” he says. “Music is something everyone can turn to for any feeling they are having or mood that they’re in. It touches all of our lives in a variety of different ways. Few things make us feel and touch our hearts in the way music can.”

He wrote the song with Ray Fulcher, originally from Harlem, and Aiken native James McNair, singers/songwriters who knew Wilkes well and also live in Nashville now. “I cannot stress enough how important their contributions were to bringing the song to life,” says Pat.

His friends weren’t the only ones who helped him through the process. “The room was very heavy and emotional, but I felt God’s presence,” he says. “There was an overwhelming peace about it that He provided.”

All proceeds from the concert will go to Win It For Wilkes to help young people find mental health resources, and the foundation will continue to hold fundraisers throughout the year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, national suicide rates increased 33% between 1999 and 2019, with a small decline in 2019. Youth and young adults ages 10–24 accounted for 14% of all suicides with 10.2 per 100,000 people. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, but it is the second leading cause of death for young people.

“Everyone struggles with their mental health at one point in their life. Just because you don’t struggle with your mental health now, doesn’t mean in 10 years you won’t either. But by becoming aware of the signs of mental health issues, you’ll have a more likely chance of being able to tell why you feel and act the way you do,” Sydney says.

Through the foundation, the girls also hope to dispel any stereotypes about depression and, Sydney says, “to spread awareness that nothing is wrong with not being OK.”

Wilkes’ friends and family remember him as someone with a giving heart who lit up a room and cared deeply about other people.

“Wilkes was the outgoing, fun-hearted, life-of-the-party friend that everyone needed in their life,” Sydney says. “You could always count on him no matter the circumstance. He was a true friend.”

To cope with the loss of Wilkes, Mabry says, “Talk therapy allowed me to learn a lot of different coping mechanisms.”

His friends also leaned on each other for support.

“The first couple months were really hard. There was about a group of eight of us who couldn’t go a day without each other,” Sydney says. “But as the months went on and life went on as well, we chose to strive for our dreams with all we had and be the best people we could to make Wilkes proud.”

Pat hopes people come away from the concert with a greater understanding of the significance of mental health.

“It is just as important as any other aspect of our lives,” he says. “Love one another because we all have our struggles. Being kind has no downside.”

If You Go:

What: Win It For Wilkes Foundation walk and concert

When: Walk begins at 5 p.m.; concert 7 p.m. – 10 p.m. Saturday, March 5

Where: Lady A Amphitheater, Evans Towne Center Park

How Much: $12 general admission; $40 VIP

More Info: (706) 414-0134 or mabrycooper47@gmail.com; (706) 550-3887, sydwil03@gmail.com; Win It For Wilkes Foundation Facebook page

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

If you are thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one or need emotional support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or use its online crisis chat at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

The Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. Beginning July 16, callers also can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 9-8-8.

By Leigh Howard