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The Recovery Agent — by Janet Evanovich

Literary Loop

Lost something? Gabriela Rose knows how to get it back. As a recovery agent, she’s hired by individuals and companies seeking lost treasures, stolen heirlooms or missing assets of any kind. She’s reliable, cool under pressure and well trained in weapons of all types.

But her latest job isn’t for some bamboozled billionaire. It’s for her own family, whose home is going to be wiped off the map if they can’t come up with a lot of money fast.

Inspired by an old family legend, Gabriela sets off for the jungles of Peru in pursuit of the Ring of Solomon and the lost treasure of Lima.

But this particular job comes with a huge problem attached to it — Gabriela’s ex-husband, Rafer. It’s Rafer who has the map that possibly points the way to the treasure, and he’s not about to let Gabriela find it without him.

Rafer is as relaxed as Gabriela is driven, and he has a lifetime’s experience getting under his ex-wife’s skin. But when they aren’t bickering about old times the two make a formidable team, and it’s going to take a team to defeat the vicious drug lord who has also been searching for the fabled ring. A drug lord who doesn’t mind leaving a large body count behind him to get it.

Recipes for Success


Three local food producers – including the grand prize winner – got a taste of victory at this year’s Hart Dairy Grand PrizeFlavor of Georgia contest.

The local area earned considerable bragging rights at this year’s Flavor of Georgia, an annual food product contest for established or market-ready foods and beverages made in the state.

Hart Dairy in Waynesboro won the dairy products category with its chocolate whole milk – and the overall grand prize – in its first year as a contest participant.

“We’re proud to be the only national brand to sell milk that comes from cows that are pasture-raised and grass-fed 365 days a year – and it all starts right here in Georgia,” says Mandy Schulz, marketing manager. “We wanted to compete and meet other companies that are also thriving.”

Another Waynesboro agribusiness, Byne Blueberry Farms, collaborated with Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge to take first place in the beverages category with their blueberry cider. The blueberry farm became the first six-time winner in contest history this year.

“I like the competition because you’re up against the best marketers in the state. These are the most progressive, competitive people in Georgia,” says Dick Byne, owner of the blueberry farm. “Every time I go, I learn something. It makes you a better business person.”

In addition, Cassava Breads, based in Evans, was a finalist in the snack foods category for its garlic and herb cheese bread.

“It’s a great contest. It puts a spotlight on Georgia brands, value-added producers and entrepreneurs,” says Chef and CEO Solomon Cohen. “It helps put us on the map. It helps bring exposure to our brand.”

During the first round of judging, 32 finalists were chosen from 148 entries in 11 categories, and the Flavor of Georgia finals were held in Athens in April.

Hart DairyNatural Choice
For Hart Dairy, entering the farm’s chocolate whole milk in the contest was a natural choice.

“It’s delicious. People rave about it,” Schulz says. “Also, we want to bring awareness to doing dairy the right way. We know – because it’s how we operate – that farming can be done responsibly by treating animals humanely, providing highly nutritious food, and working with the earth – not against it.”

She says Hart Dairy, founded in 2017 by Tim Connell and Richard Watson, is the only national brand to sell milk from cows that are pasture-raised and grass-fed 365 days a year.

“Our cows are never confined. They’re always outside grazing on fresh grass,” Schulz says. “We’re the first grass-fed pasteurized dairy cow milk sold in America that’s certified humane.”

The dairy calls the milk a great post-workout drink, due to its protein and carbohydrate content, as well as a drink that the entire family can enjoy.

Byne Blueberry FarmsWinning Combination
According to Byne, who also teaches marketing at Augusta Tech in Grovetown, 92% of the public likes fresh blueberries. However, he says, “I started going after the 8% that doesn’t like fresh blueberries and put them in another form.”

Byne Blueberry Farms, the oldest organic blueberry farm in the Southeast, and Mercier Orchards, a fourth generation family-owned apple orchard founded in 1943, started collaborating on the cider in 2012. Development of the product really started to gel in August 2020.

“It’s the first time two farms in Georgia have come together to make a product,” says Byne, who started the blueberry farm in 1980. “Apples and blueberries are super fruits, and I don’t know if anybody has ever put two super fruits together. There are a lot of health benefits to it.”

Byne has entered Flavor of Georgia eight times, and in past years, the farm also has won in the barbecue sauces, beverages, condiments and salsas, confections and snack foods categories.

“I’ve always wanted to be creative and continue to come up with new ideas,” says Byne. “You have to come up with something that people will like and keep buying. You can have a great product, but you haven’t done anything if it’s not in a vehicle that’s marketable.”

Cassava BreadsRoot of the Matter
Cassava Breads was another first-time Flavor of Georgia entrant. For the initial round of judging, Cohen submitted all four of his cheese breads – classic, garlic and herb, sweet potato herb and chili lime – and the judges selected the garlic and herb to advance to the finals.

“We made a lot of connections with UGA food scientists,” Cohen says. “It was a great opportunity for exposure.”

The entrepreneur named his company, which he founded in 2017, after cassava, a mineral-rich, ancient root that is a centuries-old sustainable food source. Calling the root the ideal foundation for his artisanal breads, Cohen says the naturally gluten-free, grain-free and vegan cassava flour naturally highlights the flavors of the breads.

He imports cassava starch flour from the Minas region of Brazil and hand-selects aged cheeses to complement his artisan recipes.

“We cater to people that love bread and cheese and to people with dietary criteria for food products,” Cohen says.

Cassava BreadsPrized Products
To evaluate the entries, the Flavor of Georgia judges considered technical aspects of the products such as flavor, texture and ingredient profile. The judges also take into account consumer appeal including packaging, innovation and how well the product represents the state.

Each entry is featured in the Flavor of Georgia print and digital product directory, which is seen by leading food industry buyers. Finalists are granted the right to use the Flavor of Georgia logo on their label and promotional materials, a one-year membership in Georgia Grown and the opportunity to present their product to a panel of food industry experts.

As the grand prize winner, Hart Dairy also was awarded exhibit space at the Georgia Food Industry Association Annual Convention and three consultation sessions from the UGA Food Product Innovation and Commercialization Center.

Since the beginning of Flavor of Georgia in 2007, more than 1,600 products have been entered in the contest.

Paint This Town — Old Crow Medicine Show

Listen To This

Volunteer, Paint This TownTwenty-one years of dust-kickin’-jangle-stomp sing-a-longs have certainly defined and refined the hootenanny troubadours of Old Crow Medicine Show.

The ole’-time root-boogie boys have lit the hills again with their eighth studio release, Paint This Town. The successor to the 2018 barn-burner Volunteer, Paint This Town has the classic Old Crow spitfire with a refined barrel of smooth and smokey flavor.

Even though the OCMS lineup has changed quite a bit over the years, the vibe that founder and band leader Ketch Secor etched into the groove remains as a steady base to explore new territory.

This may be a more mature record with extra attention given to arrangement complexity, but the songwriting is where the jewel of the record is found.

The evidence of the perfect sonic and lyrical storm can be found on “Bombs Away,” a reflection of Secor’s recent divorce, which leaves an avenue for open interpretation and perspective with an autobiographical flavor wrapped up with a raucous foot-stompin’ bow and string.

“Lord Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise” is a celebratory chant-a-long with the allurement of an impromptu line dance. Even the ballad-laden “Painkiller” and “New Mississippi Flag” craft a solid flow of creek to river through the journey of this record.

As the days get hotter and longer, Paint This Town is a great segue way into the summer melt.

– Chris Rucker

Wednesdays, Big Colors, Chris — Ryan Adams

Listen To This

RYAN ADAMSUnless your name is Prince, releasing three albums of solid new material over the course of a year is a feat that is absolutely crazy by most standards. Not only did singer-songwriter Ryan Adams effortlessly deliver, he surpassed the goal by releasing a double album encore.

With an abundance of inspiration and grit, the first album, Wednesdays, is an acoustic-filled retro-introspective of mellow Americana. With heart on sleeve and tank full of experiential soul, the journey of heartache, triumph and the winding roads in between makes Wednesdays the perfect lazy porch swing soundtrack.

The next release, Big Colors, is a 12-track rock ’n’ roll fantasy wrapped in a nostalgic Bruce Springsteen-meets-Rick Springfield vibe with catchy hooks and warm layers of vibrant wild abandon.

The grand finale in the Adams trifecta is the double album, Chris, an ode to Adams’ older brother who passed away a few years ago. Chris harkens back to the early Adams catalog, and for the diehard fans, there is a hint of his prior band, Whiskey Town, in the mix.

Much like the discographies of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and James Brown, two generations from now will truly reap the benefits of Ryan Adams, but until then, enjoy the firehose of tunes and catch him live.

– Chris Rucker

The Tipping Point — Tears for Fears

Listen To This

What does it take for two legendary music geniuses to reunite and drop the same hook-n-play firepower as if time stood still? The same common thread that brought them together in the first place: life’s emotional journeys of good and bad with the saving grace of hope.

Tears for Fears has been an iconic staple in pop/new wave music since the early ’80s with classic songs like “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” and “Shout,” providing a vast catalog of tunes that defined the MTV era and bridged the gap between the British invasion and American pop.

Now, after a complicated road of bogged differences, twisty musical directions and some years well spent apart (the two would not speak for nine years), the unrivaled power duo of Kurt Smith and Roland Orzabal returns to the basic formula that brought them together almost 40 years ago with The Tipping Point, their first studio release in 18 years.

The opening track “No Small Thing” is an organic crescendo of sound and color that sets the rest of the record on fire. Tracks to follow like “Break the Man,” “The Tipping Point” and “Rivers of Mercy” craft a flowing river of inspiration only Tears for Fears can deliver. The promise of a season in bloom is the vibe of spring, and The Tipping Point is the soundtrack.

– Chris Rucker

Cool to be Kind


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


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

Drive, Chip and Putt – At Last

Masters Guide

Photos courtesy of Augusta National Golf Club

Good things come to those who wait as eight champions were crowned at the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship last year.

The 80 boys and girls who qualified for the 2020 Drive, Chip and Putt Championship got to vie for the overall titles in their age divisions at last on the eve of the 2021 Masters Tournament. And with perseverance, determination and consistency, eight worthy champions ended up in first place after a year-long wait to go to Augusta National Club.

The 2020 championship was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the national finalists were invited back to Augusta National to compete in the same age group for which they originally qualified.

The four girls age division champions were Alexis Card of Cambridge, Ontario, Canada (ages 7-9); Elyse Meerdink of Tampa, Florida (ages 10-11); Yana Wilson of Henderson, Nevada (ages 12-13); and Ali Mulhall of Henderson, Nevada (ages 14-15).

The four boys age division winners were Lucas Bernstein of Fresno, California (ages 7-9); Brady Barnum of Dublin, Ohio (ages 10-11); Sam Udovich of Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota. (ages 12-13); and Jaivir Pande of Houston, Texas (ages 14-15).

Girl Power

Card took the first discipline of the day with her 205-yard drive, but placed eighth in chipping. She bounced back to sink the 15-footer on the 18th green, however, to win the putt competition and the overall championship in her age group.

When she saw her name atop the leaderboard, she said her mind went blank for a second. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “It’s just amazing.”

After winning the chipping discipline and finishing third in driving, Meerdink saw her first putt roll long. She steadied herself, resolving to sink her 15-foot putt attempt and take home the overall first-place trophy.

“After the first putt, I was not happy, but I was just like, ‘Please be within the range to where I still have a chance on the next putt to win,’” said Meerdink. “I just stepped over and kind of lined up and just trusted myself, and it went in the hole.”

She immediately set her sights on bigger goals. “Just to play, it’s very inspiring, and it motivates me to work harder so that one day maybe I’ll be able to play in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur,” she said.

In the other two ages groups, two best friends took the titles in their competitions. Wilson said she and Mulhall “play tournaments together and that’s how we push each other. If one of us beats the other one, we’ll definitely work harder the next time.”

Wilson became a two-time Drive, Chip and Putt National champion, having previously won in 2019. After holing her second attempt during the chipping portion, she was in first place heading to the 18th green. She needed to be within 2’ 8” of the hole to hold onto her lead, and she knocked her second putt safely within that distance to secure the win.

“My main goal here was just to have fun. I mean, you know you’re at Augusta National. It can’t get better than this,” said Wilson. “Except winning.”

An accomplished golfer and 2018 national finalist who in 2020 became the first woman to compete in the Nevada Open, Mulhall started the day off strong. After placing first in the driving and chipping competitions, her third-place finish in the putting discipline gave her the victory.

Mulhall said her second trip to Augusta National felt different. “I think the first year I was more in awe of what was happening and where I was at, and this year I kept my nerves more steady,” she said. “I was able to take it in more and just stay even throughout the whole competition.”

Oh, Boy

Bernstein took home the overall title with consistent performances throughout the day. After placing third in driving and second in chipping, he kept up the momentum on the 18th green.

“I was a little anxious,” he said. “I’m pretty sure my dad was a little more anxious than I was. But for the most part, before the competition, I was walking, I was calm and chill. But once you got up, and you were in line and you were next, then your adrenaline gets going.”

Barnum, who placed fifth overall at the 2018 Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals, once thought he wasn’t a strong putter. After lots of practice, however, he now loves to putt – and his hard work paid off. He sunk his first putt from 30 feet, and his second attempt from 15 feet stopped just 7 inches from the hole, securing his title as the 2021 national champion in his age group.

“I put a lot of hard work into this, and it’s a privilege to be here at Augusta,” he said.

In his third Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals appearance, Udovich was a dominant competitor. He won the first discipline with a 270-yard drive and triumphed in the chip competition to take a firm lead to the 18th green. Although he placed ninth in putting, his strong start gave him a comfortable margin to claim first place overall in his age group.

“Since I live in Minnesota, I’m practicing in domes, so it gave me an extra year to work on stuff. I practice on artificial grass for putting, so it’s very fast and that kind of helped me on my putting,” Udovich said. “I was here three times, and I think the third time’s the charm.”

Moving into the putting discipline, Pande had a three-point advantage with second-place finishes in driving and chipping. He lined up his putter, needing his 15-foot attempt to be 4’ 8” or closer to win. Instead, he sank the putt to secure the victory with the largest winning margin of the day.

“I knew I had a little bit of a lead going into the putting, and the 30-footer – I saw it got a little quick at the end, so I was able to get that one close,” said Pande. “It was a great experience to be able to make the putt on 18.”

Pande, who grew up playing golf in Nepal with his grandfather on summer holidays, said, “It’s great for him to be able to watch it in Nepal on TV and just see me here at the greatest stage in golf.”

This year’s Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals will be held at Augusta National on Sunday, April 3. Registration for the 2023 championship is underway at drivechipandputt.com, and local qualifiers begin in May at more than 350 sites nationally – the most in the event’s eight-year history – and will continue throughout the summer.

By Betsy Gilliland

Living With Loss


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

Sharecropper’s Son – Robert Finely

Listen To This

As the world thaws and the lazy ol’ sun lingers a little longer, the warmth of a welcomed season deserves a soundtrack to usher in the good times ahead. Robert Finely, a funky blues soul sensation from the backwoods of Louisiana, is a hot griddle of genuine awesome. At 68, he has made a veteran mark on the blues scene while only being discovered a few years ago.

In true blues fashion, he comes with an unassuming plug of spitfire equipped with a meat ’n’ three buffet of soul and a lifetime of road-weary stories and grit guaranteed to satisfy. Sharecropper’s Son is lightening sauce in a bottle, and with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys behind the console, this album is packed with some mighty fine organic produce.

Layers of horns, harmonicas, thumps, tambourines and harmonies are a feast for the listener – and did I hear spoons for dessert? Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, this 10-track masterpiece is best served on repeat as the goods get sweeter and more flavorful with each pass.

Finely is an instant legend with dues paid forward and backwards and is a living testament to why marching into warmer weather never sounded so good. Let the good times rock and roll.

– Chris Rucker

Take a Hike


If you want to hike the Appalachian Trail with no worries about blisters on your feet, inclement weather or dwindling supplies, then go the distance virtually.

With the app, Walk The Distance, you can walk the entire 2,200-mile trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. The app tracks your steps and measures how far you would have walked on the trail.

Free walks are available in various categories including the Appalachian Trail, marathons, cities and national parks. Other walks can be purchased for $0.99.

Scholarship Offer


The Lauren Cowart Memorial Scholarship committee is seeking applicants for its third annual scholarship award. The $1,000 scholarship is awarded to a student majoring in advertising, marketing, graphic design or public relations in the local area. Entrants must have a GPA of at least 3.0 and write an essay of 300 words or more that explains how they honor Cowart’s legacy in their life. Cowart, a designer at Wier / Stewart, lost her life in a 2019 boating accident that also took the life of her 5-year-old daughter, Blakely.

The deadline to apply is Saturday, February 12. For more information, visit aafaugusta.com/scholarship/.

Brightside — The Lumineers

Listen To This

February historically is our coldest – yet most unpredictable – month. On Monday it may be 70 degrees and by Wednesday a frigid tundra. A sonic pantry of sound, color and comfort are the perfect sundries to warm the soul and usher in the new year, and Brightside, the latest release by The Lumineers, is the perfect log of awesome on the fire.

The duo of Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites have been expanding and searching for a sound that genuinely carves their notch in Americana music, and if this fourth studio release is a glimpse into the master-catalog carving, the Lumineers fanbase, as well as the world, is in for a pleasant surprise.

Brightside is a quick nine-track melodic-layered canvas of wide-stroked, raw and beautiful songs that fill the air with a simmering stock of love gained and lost with a glimmer of hope.

While every track is stellar, some notable standouts are the title track, “Brightside,” a rocker that harkens the spontaneity-vibe of the Beatles’ “I’ve Got a Feeling” with an intimate gig setting, and “AM Radio,” with a nostalgic waltz-swing, simplistic pop-hook appeal. Clocking in at just under 30 minutes, this album is so dynamic that you’ll lose track of how many times it has looped before realizing it.

With every day, no matter the temperature, may you always recognize the bright side.

– Chris Rucker


Best in Nation


Columbia County Convention & Visitors Bureau recently was awarded first place from the U.S. Travel Association for the best integrated marketing and messaging campaign in the nation among destination marketing organizations for its Serene18 Paddle Trail campaign. More than 400 nominations were received.

The CVB worked with Kruhu and Cineloco to develop the humorous promotional videos starring Redford and Benny as two scouts that showcase the fun that kayakers and canoers can have on area waterways.

The videos have been viewed nearly a quarter of a million times, reaching more than 4 million people. As a result, hundreds of people have visited Columbia County to paddle the trails.

Growing Grant

Garden Scene

Augusta Locally Grown has been awarded a $200,000 planning grant by the United States Department of Agriculture Marketing Service as part of the 2021 Local Foods Promotion Program.

The organization, dedicated to growing the sustainable local food community, will use the funds for a feasibility study to determine best practices to increase farmer product support and community access with the availability of a new 35,000-square-foot facility called The HUB.

The implementation plan from the feasibility study will allow ALG to increase point of sale opportunities for producers, business access to healthy food options for vulnerable consumers and food education for consumers.

The study will conclude mid-2022, and implementation will take place later in the year.