Winston Hencely : Soldier and Survivor

Story By Kathryn Vandenhouten     Photos By Nelson
LaPorte

Winston Hencely doesn’t consider himself a hero. He says he was just doing his job. He never imagined a confrontation with a suicide bomber would leave him struggling to survive. He’s still on the road to recovery, but the Effingham soldier is defying expectations at every turn.

     In November of 2016, the ECHS graduate was an army specialist soon to be promoted to sergeant when he was nearly killed. He recalls knowing instinctively that something was wrong that day. Unlike most Afghan Nationals, the man looked mean and out of place, so Hencely approached him.

     “If I see something, I’m going to say something,” he says. When the man ignored Hencely after questioning him, he grabbed the man’s shoulders from behind, and that’s when he felt the vest. “He blew up right next to me.”

     The explosion killed five people and injured sixteen. Four died onsite and another succumbed to injuries later. Hencely suffered a penetrating traumatic brain injury and multiple shrapnel wounds. “Shrapnel went in the front of my forehead and lodged eight bone fragments in the frontal lobe, and the shrapnel is still back between the occipital lobes,” he says.

     He then lifts his shirt to show a large scar across his chest where he was cut open to remove even more shrapnel from his body. Immediately after the incident, a large piece of his skull was removed due to brain swelling.

     Most people celebrate their twenty-first birthdays by going out on the town; Hencely spent his 21st birthday getting a metal plate in his head.

     His mother, Vicki Hencely, says she remembers the day of the bombing like it was yesterday.” I was sitting here, and I was watching the news, and ticker tape went across the screen and it said ‘Suicide bomber on Bagram in Afghanistan kills 4 and injures 17,’” she recalls.

     When she couldn’t reach her son by phone, friends tried to assure her that she would have gotten a call if something had happened to Winston. Twelve hours later, she got a call from Fort Hood, Texas that confirmed her fears. “I just had that gut feeling. Just that uneasiness. That feeling that something wasn’t right,” she says.

     When her son arrived to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., doctors had to prepare her for what she was about to see. “It was hard to walk in and see him on life support and the machines breathing for him, and he’s just shaking because the part of the brain that controls body temperature was damaged so they couldn’t control his body temp,” she says. “It was horrible.”

     Miraculously, Hencely woke up from his coma and never looked back. Doctors said he would be paralyzed on his left side, likely never to walk again. Hencely had other plans. “I made a decision early on,” he explains. “I could’ve easily given up and just be in the bed the rest of my life. Have somebody feed me, change me-I could’ve, but what quality of life is that?”

     So he did what any soldier would do; he fought. After months in the hospital and multiple surgeries, he never stopped fighting, and his hard work has paid off. “They told me that I wouldn’t walk. Six months later I was walking. They told me that I wouldn’t run-what next?” says Hencely.

     If there’s one thing he loves, it’s proving people wrong when they say he can’t do something. “I use a lot of that as motivation,” he explains. “Sometimes you just get dealt a really bad hand. Whining about it doesn’t make your situation any better.”

     It is that determination that has gotten him this far. He still has a long way to go on his road to recovery, but after multiple surgeries, months of hospitalization, and ongoing therapy, he is proud of how far he’s come.

     “I’ll never be the same as I was, and I’ve accepted that,” he says. His mental scars will last as long as his physical ones. Since the explosion, Hencely has suffered from post traumatic stress and anxiety. The constant fear of danger is never far from his mind.

     Fortunately, a service dog, Loki, was donated to Hencely to ease his anxiety, and the two are now inseparable. “It’s just nice to have something you can talk to that doesn’t talk back but still shows some sort of love for you,” he says.

     The love and support from the community has been overwhelming as well. Hencely and his family were amazed at the homecoming he received in Rincon when he came back. Hundreds of people lined the streets to welcome him home. There are still yellow ribbons lining the road to his home, put up by friends and neighbors to honor him.

     “I’ve never seen so many people come together,” he says. “I want to thank everyone for their support and prayers and everything they’ve done for me.”  The homecoming parade, get well cards, and thousands of well-wishes on social media shows the overwhelming support he’s received from family, friends, and the entire community.

     “Americans don’t know how good they have it, that’s for sure,” say Hencely. “It’s nice being back in America.” If there is one thing he has learned from his brush with death, it is gratitude. In fact, he says the whole experience has made him a better person.

     “It took all this happening to me to realize I don’t deserve anything,” says Hencely. “I’m really more open minded now. I value my life a lot more.”

     He wears a memorial bracelet with the names of those who died that day. It reminds him how lucky he is to be alive, and he vows to do something great with his second chance at life. “I have that with me because they didn’t get the chance to live and I did,” he says. “It’s really hard. Every day is a struggle for sure. My body’s getting better, but I have a lot that I need to work on to mentally overcome.”

     He still struggles with survivor’s guilt, but he is more focused on the future than the past. “There’s a lot I want to do,” Hencely says. “I want to focus on something in neurology or neuroscience. I have a lot of interest in that and I’ve learned a lot.”

     Along with his many coins, awards, and his Purple Heart, he has an exact replica of his skull with a hole in it the size of a fist. To see it is to truly realize how lucky he is to be alive.

     Hencely’s motto is “make the rest of your life the best of your life.” No matter how cliche it may sound, he believes he is here for a reason and he plans to live life to the fullest.

     “There’s a lot more in store. I have big plans. Be patient with me. I love the support and I plan on giving back,” he says. One of the causes that have become even more dear to the Hencely’s is the Adopt A US Soldier program, which connects supportive civilians to deployed soldiers.

     Hencely himself spent months in the hospital, and his mother and grandmother never left his side. Other soldiers are not so lucky. “Walter Reed took a part of my soul away,” says Vicki Hencely. “You can’t visit a facility like that and walk away whole.”

     She says the image of sick and injured soldiers with no family was heartbreaking, which is why the Adopt A US Soldier program is so important. “It’s our young kids missing two arms, missing both their legs and don’t have anybody. Their mom’s not there. Their dad’s not there. Their family’s not there,” she adds.

     Luckily, Winston had strong family and community support throughout his entire ordeal. In fact, he says that waking up to see his family there gave him the encouragement he needed to get well. “That was key to my recovery,” he adds. “Waking up and having my family there.”

     In addition to supportive family and friends, he also gives credit to the staff at Effingham County Hospital, where he continues physical therapy. Little by little, he is regaining strength and mobility.

     Winston Hencely will never be the same person he was before he was injured, but maybe he wasn’t meant to be. And though he doesn’t like being called a hero, this soldier’s battle to recover has made one thing certain: he is a fighter.

The Josh Reddick Foundation Lending A Hand In Effingham County

story by Tessa DeMeyer     photos by Nelson LaPorte

For most of the year, Josh Reddick is 954 miles from home, but due to an organization he created that strives to give back to the county, Effingham residents feel like the hometown hero never left. Since its inception in 2014, the Josh Reddick Foundation has been on a mission to advocate for the youth of Effingham County with a focus on supporting students, preserving recreational parks and helping those in need. These efforts are spearheaded by Josh and the foundation’s president, Trey Saxon. With the help of a knowledgeable board of directors and countless volunteers, the two organize multiple events every year that improve various aspects of the county.

“We try to do all the events here in Effingham, and all the money raised is given back to the county,” Trey said. Portions of all proceeds acquired go toward the rec departments as well as “the fire department, K9 Units, the animal shelter, the Manna House and the Treutlen House.” The foundation is a “platinum level corporate sponsor” for Effingham County High School and South Effingham High School with future plans to make $250 donations to the physical education programs of every elementary and middle school in the Effingham County School District.

Perhaps the most well-known of all the foundation’s functions is the charity concert held annually at Freedom Park. The family-friendly mini country music festival, which has featured food vendors, face painting and inflatable attractions in the past, will return for a fourth year in late January or early February 2018, and the foundation plans to continue its tradition of working collaboratively with other nonprofit organizations in order to disperse the profits around the community.

In addition to the highly-anticipated concert, the foundation hosts a home run derby which directly benefits Effingham. The derby will remain at Sandhill Ballpark for the seventh consecutive year, and though the event always welcomes anyone who wants to step up to the plate, Josh hopes to see some new faces at the seventh installment of the competition. “Girls can participate in the derby! It’s always [been open to] boys and girls, but we never have girls show up. We would love to have females in it as well.” In the past, an annual charity golf tournament was held at local courses, most recently Lost Plantation Golf Club, but will not return in favor of more inclusive events.

In late July, the foundation began accepting nominations for their “Athlete of the Month” contest with the first winner being recognized in August. Open to Effingham athletes in the sixth grade and older, the winner will be presented with a certificate and a gift card from one of the organization’s local sponsors. Another new event set to make its debut later this year is a 5K.

“Run the Town with Reddick,” coined by Trey, will be held in November, and competitors will race through Springfield in pursuit of prizes awarded at the finish line.

Athletics aren’t Josh’s only concern, nor are they the sole focus of his foundation. Each year, the organization encourages students to pursue higher education by awarding four graduating seniors, one male and one female from both high schools, who displayed academic excellence with a $1,000 college scholarship. Josh also emphasizes the importance of reading by visiting local elementary schools for storytime. Most recently, he stopped by South Effingham Elementary and Springfield Elementary to share a story with fifth graders.

In June, Josh brought smiles to more children when he and Trey visited patients at Memorial University Medical Center, and the foundation later supported Zach Norton, a young man with a rare form of cancer, during his Celebration of Life Event. Earlier in the year, the foundation sponsored Zach and three other boys battling cancer by donating $1,000 as well as additional items to their families to help cover medical expenses.

With the MLB season in full swing, the foundation consistently works to sustain the connection between their namesake and the county they serve. Though plans have not yet been finalized, Josh revealed that he “wants to work in another [charity] event during the season” to maintain involvement despite being in Houston. Dedicated board members like Vice President Brian Coulter, Treasurer Jan Landing and Secretary Donna Shepard along with the help of the two newest additions, Productions Coordinator Donald Oliver and Media Specialist Julie Hales, ensure that the Josh Reddick Foundation and its positive impact on Effingham will continue to grow.

The future of the organization looks promising, and Trey has confidence that it will continue to expand and improve with time. “Considering the age of the foundation, I think it’s off to a great start. Great things are definitely in store for us.”

To keep up with all upcoming events and developments, like the Josh Reddick Foundation page on Facebook or check out http://www.joshreddickfoundation.org.

Chandler Fritts Young Gun, Old Ways

Story By: David Pena

Photography By: Shelia Scott

Local country crooner Chandler Fritts would rather stick to his roots than follow the current musical crowd.

 

Musician Chandler Fritts has always been something of an anomaly. The recent Georgia Southern graduate says he doesn’t really listen to the radio much, preferring instead to listen to more “traditional” country music like Merle Haggard and George Jones. And with his easy, self-deprecating manner, he is quick to downplay his own abilities, opting to let his music speak for itself. Ah, if that attitude could only be bottled and sold to today’s artists. And although Fritts is not a huge fan of any of today’s country crooners, he feels that all artists should have the same basic goal in mind: to convey a genuine emotion to the listener. “Music has always been about ‘feel’ to me. A musician should try to convey to the audience exactly how they feel, while at the same time trying to evoke the same feelings in them,” says Fritts. “All the songs I play are true to who I am; that’s why I picked them to begin with. The first time I heard (each song), they had an immediate impact on me. That’s what I’m about, and that’s what I want my audience to experience with me.”

Aside from attending GSU in Statesboro, the twenty-three-year-old musician has always called Rincon his home and remembers getting bitten by the musical bug quite early in life. “As long as I can remember, I’ve always been musically inclined,” Fritts recalls. “I started out playing percussion in my middle school band and just went on to a full drum set from there. I practiced every chance I could at home.” Being more of an athlete, however, Fritts soon abandoned the drums for the grid iron. “After about the eighth grade, I really didn’t have too much time to play (drums) since I started playing a lot of sports in high school. Once he graduated, however, Fritts had something of a musical epiphany. “After I finished high school, I pretty much decided out of nowhere that I wanted to learn to play the guitar,” he says with a laugh. So he bought his first guitar before leaving Rincon to attend the University of North Georgia in Athens.

Despite the new and exciting change of scenery, the move to Athens actually helped Fritts as a musician. “There wasn’t much to do there, so I ended up playing a lot of guitar on my own. I’ve never needed any kind of music lessons because once I figured out the chords, I picked the guitar up pretty quickly. In fact, I started playing complete songs about three or four months after starting to play, and it just progressed from there.”

After playing guitar for only about six months, Fritts started to also develop his voice, so it was only a matter of time before he could play and sing songs well enough to perform for others. When he started developing his repertoire, Fritts didn’t have to look far to find musical selections that reflected both his taste and style; all he really had to do was break out the family record collection. “My parents and my grandparents really influenced me in terms of the music I listen to, especially my Papa. I know it’s kind of strange, but I really don’t listen to the radio. That’s because I grew up loving traditional country music with folks like Hank Williams Jr. and Waylon Jennings,” he explains. “But at my gigs I’ll throw in the occasional Alan Jackson song for good measure.”

After changing his major from agriculture to business, Fritts decided to attend Georgia Southern University, which was also closer to home. It was actually upon moving back that he started taking his music a bit more seriously.  “At first I did a few open mics before opening for local groups around Statesboro. I really just wanted to get my name out there. But beginning in my sophomore year (2013), I started playing professionally at venues like Retrievers Sports Bar, where I played my first real gig.” Despite having the butterflies that night, the young singer quickly knew he had found a calling once his first song was underway. “I got up there in front of my friends, which made it a bit easier. However, once I started playing the first song, I just felt a giant release of all my nerves. That’s when I knew that I was meant to do this. Soon I moved on to places like the Millhouse and RumRunner’s, where the audience response was amazing.”

About a year into his musical career, Fritts got involved with William Bridwell of Airbound Entertainment. That’s when he says his number of bookings increased dramatically. “I was playing three or four shows a week. After a while, it was a bit much, and I actually had to turn down gigs.” Although the number of gigs might have decreased, Fritts found himself playing to bigger audiences in more upscale venues. This culminated with an opening slot for national recording artist Corey Smith at South City Tavern in Statesboro. Around that time Fritts joined forces with guitarist Riley Lowery, who’d just returned from Nashville where he had been working steadily as a lead guitarist. “He’s such a fantastic musician and has become a really good friend. I was really lucky to get him,” Fritts says.

The pair played as a duo for few months until they picked up a drummer, then finally hired a bassist to round out their sound. The band played its first show during the opening week of school in 2016 to rave reviews. And although Fritts says he prefers performing with a band, there’s a new kind of pressure that accompanies making music with others. “It’s kind of unsettling because there’s so many moving parts within a band. Plus the band is named after me, so I want it to go well. I feel I’m responsible for anything that goes wrong, but it doesn’t help that I’m probably the weakest musician in the band by far,” he says with a laugh. Despite all the “moving parts,” he loves the reaction from the audience that only a band can evoke. “The crowds are usually more into the music, and you actually don’t work quite as hard being part of a band as opposed to being a soloist. You do a lot less singing and with all the camaraderie, it’s definitely way more fun playing with the guys.”

Lately, however, it’s not been all about picking and grinning for Fritts. The recent college grad will soon be working for Colonial Fuel and Lubricant Services in their management training program. “Even during my last semester of school, I had to pull back on the reins a bit. I didn’t really play nearly as many shows as I had in previous years. At this point, I’ll probably stick to weekend gigs and staying closer to home doing shows primarily in Statesboro and Savannah. I just do it for fun now,” he says. But although he now considers himself to be a part-time musician, Fritts is quick to point out that his passion for music has not subsided; he just prefers to be a realist about his music. “The biggest thing I’ve realized sadly is that the kind of music that I play doesn’t make the radio anymore, and I’m not really willing to change in order to be commercially successful. I’d rather stick to my roots and play music I love for people than become part of the (music industry) machine.”

With that said, Fritts is quick to point out that even though his musical schedule is a bit more limited at the moment, he’s not ruling anything out. He has the familial and financial support to take it to the next level. “My family has been super supportive of my music. They helped me get all my guitars, so they’ve been fundamental in everything. I couldn’t have done it without them.” In fact, when Fritts was thinking about going to Nashville, he said his folks were surprisingly positive about the move. “They said if it was something that I wanted to do, and my hang up was money, then they would do what they had to do to make that happen.”

Whether he’s playing a show at the Millhouse in Statesboro or the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Fritts is grounded in the fact that his purpose will remain true. “As an artist, I’m trying to evoke some really strong emotions from the audience. I love the fact that people can go to a concert and just forget about anything that’s negative in their lives, even if it’s just a couple of hours. They can feel good about life or themselves for that brief amount of time. The best songs are either going to make you smile, make you laugh, or make you cry. If you’re not doing that (as an artist), then you’re not really experiencing what music is all about.”

Adam Heidt: Taking Archery To The Olympic Level

story by susan lee

photos by tonya chester perry

Adam Heidt has a strong sense of focus. Whether he has his eye on an archery target during a national championship or he’s contemplating the steps in his Olympic journey, his focus is unwavering.

What started out as a hobby has turned into Olympic hopes for the teen. At the moment, he’s getting settled in as a Resident Athlete at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California.

The Effingham teen, who just turned 17, became interested in archery when he was in elementary school. “I was always into hunting and fishing,” said Adam. “My dad was into bowhunting and I would always be outside with him when he was practicing. He never did it competitively but he enjoyed it and that’s how I was introduced to it. Then, of course, the Hunger Games came out and it got me really interested.”

It wasn’t long before Adam got a simple recurve bow and started shooting in the backyard. “I was addicted from the start,” he said. “Then, on TV, I saw the U.S. archery team competing in the 2012 Olympics. I didn’t even know archery was an Olympic sport, but from then on I was really into it.

When it was time to move up to the next level of bow, Adam and his dad, Chris, headed out to The Range, an archery shop in Statesboro. That store happened to be owned by Carl Greene, a U.S. Archery Level 5 coach (the highest level). “It was their first meeting, but Carl talked to Adam for two hours about archery and competitive shooting,” recalled Chris. “He could tell right away how interested Adam was.”

Greene also happened to be the coach of the 4H archery team in Statesboro, and he invited the young archer out to practice. He also set up Adam with a new bow, this time an Olympic style recurve bow.

Since Effingham at the time didn’t have a 4H archery team, he became a permanent member of the Statesboro team. He joined the 4H team in Statesboro, also coached by Tim Cooper and Tim Wall, and started shooting in state tournaments. It wasn’t long before Adam started earning recognition. “I got invited to the national championships, which were held in Ohio at the time,” he said. “Even though I was only 13, I competed in next age group, the 15-to-17-year-old division. It was my first national competition and I ended up getting 16th in the country. After that, I really started training harder.”

Next, Adam set his sights on the Olympics. “I knew it could have just been a dream, because I know lots of kids dream of going to the Olympics,” he explained. “But then I thought that I might be able to do it if I really work hard.”

Since that first meeting at the archery shop, Carl Greene has been Adam’s coach and is now his primary archery coach.

In 2015, Adam tried out for the 2016 Olympics, competing in the adult division at the age of 15. He almost made the first cut. “I was in the 11th position, but then this huge storm came through and the wind was horrible, tents were flying everywhere,” he said. “I got completely messed up and bumped to 30th. I still had a quarter of the competition to go and I did end up climbing back up to 20th, but I just couldn’t recover.”

Although he didn’t make the Olympic cut at that tournament, Adam did make the national team for his age group, the Cadet Division for 15 to 17 year olds. He earned the 5th spot on the 5-person team.  This past year, he finished in first place and became the team captain for the division.

Since then, Adam spent the year competing in a variety of national tournaments throughout the country. In 2016, he won two gold and four silver medals.

In November of last year, Adam took a major step toward Olympic competition when he tried out for the Resident Athlete Program. “The Olympic team is almost always comprised of resident athletes, which are the athletes who train at the Olympic Training Center in California,” he explained. “I knew that if I really wanted to get into the program I had to move out there so I went out there in November for the two-month trial process. I ended up doing really well.”

After a Christmas break, Adam went back to finish trials at the center in January and then returned home to Effingham. A few weeks later, he got the call that he had made it and was invited back to train permanently at the center. Now he’s on a direct path to making the Olympic archery team.

Adam’s life at the Olympic Training Center is a dramatic change from his home, where he lives out on the farm with his dad, mom Annika and 12-year-old brother Alex. “I was really excited at first about going out to California and being on my own,” he said. “Then I got out there and it was all a bit overwhelming and I just wanted to go home.”

Adam said he has since gotten more comfortable at the center, but his parents understandably are still anxious about him living so far from home. “I worry about him all the time and text him a lot,” admitted Annika. “He’s so far away, it’s not like you can be there in a couple of hours. But I think he’s grown up a lot and the experience has made him more responsible. I also feel like he appreciates things a lot more when he’s home.”

“We’re very excited for him, but nervous at the same time,” added Chris. “But all we can do is put our faith in God, in Adam and all the people watching over him out there at the center.”

At the facility, Adam’s week consists of full days of archery practice as well as intense workouts. “A lot of people think we mostly just use our arms in archery but most of it is our back, shoulders and core,” explained Adam. “So we do a lot of core workouts, targeting our abs, obliques and lats. We also do cardio, because tournaments can be really long and tiring, so you need to have pretty good stamina.”

Adam said physical fitness is also important because the archers at the Olympic Training Center use the National Training System, a technique that no other country in the world uses. “It’s a biomechanically efficient method of shooting a bow, so you really have to know the muscles you’re using,” he said. His coach at the center is USA Archery head coach Kisik Lee.

The athletes, who range in age from 16 to 22, are off on Sundays and Adam spends his free time hanging out in the dorms, sightseeing in San Diego or working on homework. He’s been attending school online this school year because his frequent competitions made it impossible for him to continue at Effingham County High School. “The school worked with me as much as possible, but I knew I was going to be shooting in even more tournaments than normal this school year so it just wouldn’t work,” he said.

While at the training center, Adam will still have a full calendar of national competitions. He has hopes of making the team for the world championships in Mexico City this year.

As for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Adam said he has a lot more work to do before the tryouts in 2019. “There are only spots for three men and three women, but everyone here says they’re going to be on the team, so it’s really competitive,” he said. “We’re all planning to go all the way.”

And Effingham County will be cheering for him.

John David “JD” Fulcher: You’re Not Strong Unless You’re JD Strong

story by katrice williams   photos by tonya chester perry

“Sometimes real superheroes live in the hearts of small children fighting big battles.” ~ Anonymous

The late Christopher Reeves said that “a hero is an extraordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” It is obvious that those heroes come in all sizes. John David Fulcher, JD, is a bright-eyed 10-year-old boy with a boatload of courage that easily complements his warm, witty and straightforward personality. JD has lived in Effingham all of his life, along with his dad Shane, mom Melodie, big sister Anna and big brother Wesley.

JD was diagnosed with B-Cell All, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia last June. It is the most common type of cancer in children; it usually progresses rapidly. It happens when the bone marrow and blood contain too many immature white blood cells, or b-cells (lymphoblasts).

Melodie still counts her blessings, stating, “This is a cancer with a fairly good prognosis.”

Prior to his diagnosis, JD appeared to have stomach virus symptoms. He would also run an occasional low fever. Doctors felt this all to be very common viral symptoms, especially in a healthy child with no known medical problems. JD began to experience leg cramps that became increasingly painful over time. Various tests were done by medical professionals, yet no problems were found. Shane and Melodie tried to do all they could to ease the cramps at home, whether keeping JD plenty of potassium rich foods like bananas or even making sure that he took nice, warm baths for their therapeutic nature. After seeing that their little athlete even occasionally struggled to move around during some of his baseball games, their concern heightened.      .

Melodie mentions, “He started really struggling through ball games. It had gotten to the point where he couldn’t put any weight on his legs.” Thereafter, JD was hospitalized for three days, while his medical staff tried urgently to figure out what was going on.

“They knew his white blood count was fighting something, but they couldn’t find anything in the blood work to indicate it,” Melodie notes.

Additional tests were run, specifically those tracking white blood cells; consequently, a large amount of lymphoblastic b-cells were found.

Since his diagnosis, JD has withstood several procedures and is currently on chemotherapy treatment. The objective of the chemotherapy is to destroy all leukemic cells and to prevent the bone marrow from making other ones. During his current phase of treatment, JD receives a variety of about eight different chemotherapy drugs at any given time. The oncologist keeps a check on his cell count and spinal fluid regularly. Melodie is very thankful that JD’s body has been “handling treatments well.”

Interestingly enough, JD just recently lost his hair, which didn’t get the trooper down much, especially since he had been asking his parents for years for a shaved head. He is looking forward to getting his bald head painted by the well-known and talented local artist Morgan Webb, who has a huge heart for children battling cancer; she does tons of beautiful artwork to benefit the cause.

All in all, JD is just a fun-loving, precious kid. He does not leave his house much, due to a low immune system. He does miss getting out. Whether playing baseball, having fun with his pets outside, riding his dune buggy and four-wheeler or fishing, JD has always been an active guy. He still makes the most of his time indoors and really “likes family time.”

For some time now, JD has been receiving Homebound Instruction a few hours each week from his teacher Ms. Karen Seckinger, who diligently works with him “to help keep him from falling so far behind” academically.

“I like science; it’s my favorite, but my specialty is math. I want to be an RC mechanic,” JD affirms. He would like to do work with an elaborate company like Traxxas, a radio control model manufacturer. JD is intrigued that Traxxas remote control cars are the “fastest in the world,” some being able to reach 60 miles per hour.

Further, JD would love to attend his parents’ alma mater, Georgia Southern University (GSU). Shane is an Eagle at heart; it is obvious that Melodie is as well when seeing all of her GSU memorabilia.

While pointing out his mom’s numerous collectibles, JD jokes, “If you can’t tell, my mama went there too.” JD is also fond of the University of Georgia (UGA)—those Dawgs. He recalls a very generous deed done by the Uga Breeder.

JD states, “About a month ago, the person who breeds the Ugas gave me a picture of an Uga with a stand which said: To my friend JD, from Uga #10.” In fact, JD was visited by the entire UGA Hockey Team while at the clinic receiving treatment. They actually visited all the kids there.

Additionally, JD is very proud of a special Certificate of Courage given to him by the U.S. Army.

The family is incredibly thankful for the abundance of compassion and support shown to JD by various warm-hearted individuals.

Shane later comments, “A lot of special people have come to visit him. He’s gotten a lot of neat little gifts.”

Some renowned individuals include Statesboro-bred country singing sensation Erin Alvy. Even Effingham’s very own professional baseball icon Josh Reddick surprised him with a visit. JD, who had made one of Effingham’s Little League All-Star Teams prior to his diagnosis, was thrilled by the visit and still gets excited just talking about it. Speaking of baseball, JD’s all-star baseball team took a picture for him flexing their muscles after his diagnosis, coining the slogan “JD Strong” for him.

JD’s family is whole-heartedly appreciative for all the care and attention shown by his medical team.

“We’ve been just amazed by how the doctors, nurses, childcare specialists and the social workers just kind of walk this journey with you,” Melodie remarks.

JD does not take any of that for granted. He is a grateful little boy and values all the love shown to him.

JD says that one of his biggest inspirations is his dad. Shane is Superman to him right now. He completely shares in his son’s care, not out of sheer duty or obligation, but because he can see it no other way. He is looking forward to his son’s full recovery.

In his own words of encouragement to other children fighting such battles, JD asserts, “Stay strong…stay JD strong.” Sometimes really big courage can come in small packages.

Ashia Miller Glitz, Glamour and Giving Back

story by katie vendenhouten   photos by tonya chester perry

Effingham County native, Ashia Miller, is the ultimate combination of beauty and brains. She is the reigning Miss Georgia, and she is thrilled to have represented her home state in the Miss United States Pageant this summer in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Most people don’t know that we have a Miss Georgia right here in Effingham County, but Miller says she is working hard to get out in the community to motivate children and to encourage anyone who thinks big dreams can’t come true in a small town.

She began competing in pageants much later than most contestants.  She was 23 when she first started. Now, at 26, she has already won honors such as Best in Interview at the Miss Georgia South USA 2014 and 2016 pageants, fourth runner up at Miss Savannah St. Patrick’s Day 2014, as well as fourth runner up in the 2015 Miss Georgia South USA pageant.

Even though she was late getting involved in pageants, she certainly has a knack for it. Her most prestigious title, of course, came this year when she was crowned Miss Georgia United States.

Her involvement in pageants was always about more than physical beauty. Pageants have fed her competitive nature while also giving her a platform to make a difference and give something back to her community.

“I competed on French horn for so long that I wanted to feed that competitive streak,” she says. “I love beauty and glamour and hair and makeup, but I also like volunteering and so beauty pageants encompass that as well.”

She has always wanted to speak at schools and motivate young people. “I think the reason a lot of girls get involved in it is because of the opportunities and the platform it gives you to talk about your personal causes and to be able to be a role model,” she says.

One of her favorite causes to promote is music education. Miller was a success in her own right as a musician before she became Miss Georgia. She graduated from SEHS with the prestigious John Philip Sousa Band Award and  earned a full out-of-state tuition waiver to attend the Florida State College of Music.

She graduated from  Florida State with a degree in Classical Music with a concentration in French Horn, and claims that music education has benefited her tremendously. “Taking music lessons and learning an instrument improve cognitive processes,” she explains.

“There have been many studies done that show that musicians’ brains are different, and only two years of learning an instrument has positive effects on the brain, and  I certainly have my training in music to thank for my unwavering work ethic,” Miller adds.

She put that work ethic to use when she started competing in pageants. She works full time at The University of Phoenix as a Campus Operations Coordinator, and while she’s preparing for a pageant, she dedicates one to two hours a day to training.

For Miller, it’s all about balance. Managing her job, pageant preparation and various speaking engagements and personal appearances has been a juggling act, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

She says her Miss Georgia title has afforded her many opportunities, but the greatest of these is getting out in the community and promoting causes like Meals on Wheels and being a motivational speaker at schools and other venues.

“I’ve always wanted to go into schools and talk to kids,” Miller says. “But being able to do it now is extraordinary because you get to see the kind of impact you can make just from having a crown and sash on.”

“I always ask the children about their dreams and their goals, and they always have interesting answers, but just seeing someone like me that comes from the small town of Meldrim that no one’s ever heard of in Effingham County, that means a lot to kids who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds,” she explains.

Believe it or not, Miller has had her fair share of obstacles in life. She wants children to know that they, like herself, can overcome anything. She is proof of that.

She has been the victim of bullying and physical abuse, but she refuses to let those negative experiences define her. “Inevitably, there are kids who have experienced the same things,” Miller explains. “Being able to speak to them in that way on their level and encourage them, I think that it means a lot to me, but I know it means a lot to them as well.”

Oddly enough, Miller says her looks were never really an advantage for her when she was growing up. “I wasn’t popular in high school. I wasn’t even what many people would consider attractive,” she says. “I think I’m like a swan. I just kind of aged well.”

Miller recalls her difficult experiences with cliques in high school and in college: “I know what it’s like to be bullied, I know what it’s like to be on the outside looking in.” She talks about the struggles in her life in hopes of helping others overcome similar situations.

She’d like to be known not for her beauty, but her compassion for others. She loves to volunteer and give back to her community in any way she can.

Volunteering for Meals on Wheels is especially important to her. When she was growing up, both sets of her grandparents were recipients of Meals on Wheels. Miller has seen the impact the program had on her family and she speaks highly of the program that feeds so many people nationwide.

“It’s always been very close to me because I saw the volunteers indirectly when I was younger,” she says of the charity. “And I said, ‘this is something I want to be involved with’ because of the respect I had for my grandparents.”

In fact, one of her biggest supporters is her paternal grandfather. Miller says it meant the world to her for him to be there when she won the Miss Georgia United States pageant.

“He’s always been so supportive,” she says of her grandfather. “It was the first pageant he ever attended, and he was there and I won it, and my onstage question was about Meals on Wheels and my grandparents.” It all seemed to come full circle at that moment.

Her family is extremely close. She lovingly refers to her mother as the “momager” who custom makes her evening gowns, and it was her brother, Jarrod, who inspired her to start playing the French horn.

Ironically, her brother says his little sister has inspired him just as much as he has inspired her. “She’s driven to succeed, and volunteers her time every holiday season since she was 16 years old to homeless shelters,” he says. “I’m very proud of the woman she has become, and I know she can inspire the youth during her reign as Miss Georgia.”

Miller certainly is an inspiration to the youth of Effingham County. Shortly after winning her title,  her picture was mounted in the halls of SEHS with a banner along with other prominent community figures. She will forever be a face that other students of her alma mater can look up to.

Her attitude is one of positivity and grace. Even though she may not have won the title of Miss United States, she maintains an optimistic outlook. “I felt like I did my best, but one of the things you learn from being in pageants is that only one person is going to get the sparkly hat, and that may or may not be you,” she says with a laugh.

Her ultimate goal is to get into broadcasting, and she has her sights on an anchorwoman position with CNN or Entertainment Tonight. She loves public speaking, and she thinks it would be the perfect career.

For now, she continues to make the most of her sash and crown by judging beauty pageants, volunteering, and speaking at schools and other community events. She says people may not remember what you say, but they’ll always remember how you make them feel, and so she does everything in her power to make people feel good.

Miller prides herself on her southern charm and hospitality. “I like to say that I’m a glass of sweet tea with a little something special in there,” she says with a smile. “I’m very southern, very. I prefer simplicity over anything.”

Ashia Miller is a beautiful person, inside and out. In her own words: “Beauty is something that is moreso internal than anything.”  This year’s Miss Georgia United States has shown that true beauty is not just glitz and glamour, but giving back.

To schedule speaking engagements or appearances with Ashia, contact her at ashia.k.miller@gmail.com.

Josh Reddick Keeping The Dream Alive

story by julie hales    photos provided by Jon Soo Hoo ©Los Angeles Dodgers, LLC 2016

South Effingham High School standout, Josh Reddick, was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 17th round of the Major League Baseball Draft in 2006.

Fast forward 10 years.

Josh Reddick is playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who just clenched the National League West, and are hopefully heading to the 2016 World Series.

Wow!  And then, there’s all that in between.

Josh’s first stint in the Majors was with Boston.  Reminiscing of those days, Josh says, “Boston was everything I had hoped for.  I was treated like royalty there.”

In 2011, Josh was traded to the Oakland A’s.  It is with Oakland that Josh played his first full year as a Major Leaguer.

Being traded to Oakland was a big change for Josh…a much different experience.  He said, “It was a different team, different dynamics, very different from Minor League and High school baseball.”

But, Josh adapted very well.  In 2012, he won the Golden Glove Award.  This was the first time an Oakland outfielder had received this prestigious award in 27 years.

Earlier this year, Josh was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. With this trade, Josh finds himself on a team headed to the playoffs.

Josh says, “I am having a blast.  I am very excited and happy to be back in the playoffs.”

When asked how he felt about his trade to the Dodgers, Josh said, “You stay somewhere for so long and you get used to being there.  It’s a level of comfort. And, you become a pretty good fan favorite. But, at the same time, it’s better for me and for that team to move on.  And, it’s been what I wanted.”

Moving to Los Angeles has been an adjustment for Josh.  “As much as I don’t like the city of LA, not the people, the people are great, but the city is just so fast-paced, tons of buildings, so many people.  It’s just different for me.  Coming from where I come from, people can understand you just want your space. I do love playing in LA and having a guy like Vin Scully call a game for me is incredible. It has a lot of ups,” he said.

Josh Reddick was traded to the Dodgers organization for two pretty big prospects.  When he first came to LA, he wasn’t producing right away. This was a very frustrating time for Josh.  He recounts, “When you first come to a new team, you want to help that team. I didn’t do that right at the beginning. But the team was good enough without me and the guys made the transition easy…and this past month has been a big turn for me.”

A turn it has been.  Josh has been on fire!  If you were fortunate enough to see his grand slam on Saturday night, September 24th against the Rockies, you can see the difference.  Josh recalls, “It felt amazing! One, to have a guy like Scully call it, and two…I haven’t hit a lot of home runs since I’ve been here.  So, it felt great to be able to help my team drive runs in.”

Playing for the Dodgers is a much different excitement level for Josh than when he played in Oakland.  The Dodgers stadium boasts over 40,000 fans per game. The last two games called by Scully, the weekend of Josh’s grand slam, the Dodgers attracted 50,000 fans. In Oakland, the average game brought in 8,000 to 12,000 fans.  That is a huge difference.

Back home in Effingham, Josh Reddick has many fans.  He still calls Effingham home and resides here in the off season.

He is also still working strong on the Josh Reddick Foundation, an organization founded by him in 2014 to give back to his community.  In 2016, the Josh Reddick Foundation has given approximately $20,000 to public safety, the Treutlan House, Effingham County Animal Shelter and Effingham Parks and Recreation.

There are definitely hopes of raising more money in 2017.  There is an upcoming golf tournament planned, along with a concert coming in January and the annual Home Run Derby coming in February. Be on the lookout for dates and times.

In closing, Josh adds, “I want to thank the people of Effingham for your continued support over my last 10 years in professional baseball. It is a big honor to be recognized in this county.  In return, I try to do as much as I can to help out and make our county even better.”

“I also want to thank Julie and Effingham Magazine.  To have been on the cover of the  premier issue when I was drafted by Boston was an honor.  Now, 10 years later, it is a greater honor to be a part of their 10 Year Anniversary,” he stated.

The Hills are Alive With the Sound of Learning

The Ebenezer Alive! Educational Program provides a hands-on approach to learning that brings education to life in vivid and memorable ways.

story by david pena    photos by tonya chester perry

When she retired in 1999 from the University of Georgia Extension Service, Beth Epling was looking forward to living a quiet life of leisure. Days filled with shopping, visits to historical sites and home improvement projects awaited her after 28 years in a successful career with the service. However, that all came to an abrupt end when, in the fall of that year, she received a call from the New Ebenezer Retreat Center. “They wanted to begin a new educational program on weekdays. While they had a good deal of summertime and weekend business, they were usually wide open during the school year, so they wanted to bring in more visitors during that time,” Epling recalls.

Originally from Athens, Beth  and her husband Jerry, who are both University of Georgia graduates, have been residents of Effingham County for 41 years. Since the center already had wonderful facilities in place, along with comfortable cottages for guests, they simply needed someone with Epling’s experience to spearhead the new program. “They knew a little about my background as head of the 4-H program along with other things I’ve been involved in,” she says. “Plus I lived in the area and was very familiar with it, so I seemed like a good fit. I also just love people, and I love putting programs together.”

Coming on board in January of 2000 as the Educational Coordinator, Beth claims that, at the outset, the resources available to her were a bit scarce, to put it mildly.  “When I started, I had a room, one chair, a stapler and a phone,” she laughs. And while the idea of starting an overnight program for school-aged children was up and running,  the actual curriculum for the program had yet to be decided; in fact, it didn’t even have a name. “I wanted to bring things ‘alive’ around here, like the history of the region, and we wanted to have lots of activities, so we ended up naming it the Ebenezer ALIVE! Educational Program.” The program was ultimately designed to be an extension of the classroom, while providing a customized, “hands-on” learning experience for students. Epling explains, “Students learn best by doing, by getting their hands dirty. So, I wanted a program that would encourage teachers and students to think outside of the box and experience things that they couldn’t necessarily experience inside of a classroom setting.” The curriculum that was ultimately decided upon had three main components to it: the History and Heritage of Georgia, Character Education, and Nature/Environmental Sciences.

Instead of learning about the three core components from a textbook or traditional lecture, students and teachers can actually experience the sights, sounds and smells of each with daily trips and activities designed to engage their minds while stirring their senses. Lessons about American Revolution come “alive” through costumed storytellers, archaeological digs, artifacts’ education, Indian lore and a troop encampment. In addition, there are trips to Old Fort Jackson, Wormsloe Plantation and historic Savannah to supplement the activities. The Environmental Sciences program teaches students to develop a deeper appreciation for the Earth while strolling through a forest, exploring farmland and wetlands, measuring water quality, fishing in a pond, and becoming more acquainted with Georgia wildlife. Additionally, there are off-site visits to such places as Sapelo Island, Tybee’s Marine Science Center as well as Jekyll Island. Students can even look forward to a “Puddle Shuttle” on the Ebenezer Creek in an eighteen passenger boat! However, as a former Home Economics major, the Character Development portion of the program is near and dear to Epling’s heart. “Character education was a big topic during my time as a Home Ec/Family Consumer major, so I feel that instilling respect for one’s self as well as others should be a key component to the Ebenezer Alive! Program.” From citizenship and proper manners to family values and The Creator, the character educational component of the program is designed to help students become better citizens and individuals by modeling effective, positive traits that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives. Other activities such as carriage tours, hay rides, folk dances, campfire storytellers and movies serve to round out the programs as well.

Epling is the only full-time instructional facilitator, but she has enlisted the help of two former teachers, Susan Zoller and Angie Murphey. “I really wanted to pick instructors who have a passion for what they do, and I’m very lucky to have my staff, which also includes Pat Kennedy, as part of our instructional team. We all love what we do,” she says. “Plus we have the dedication and support of the NERC Board of Directors, instructors, and all of our volunteers who have helped New Ebenezer Retreat Center become the amazing place that it is.” The program’s success is a testament to the passion and effectiveness of Epling and her staff. For the past fifteen years, the Ebenezer Alive! Educational Program has welcomed school groups from Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and North and South Carolina. Each visiting school group is provided with a customized program which is designed to provide many opportunities both on-site and around the region, while still centering around the three key components. The cost per person includes lodging, meals, instruction and educational packet, while trips off-site from the retreat pose additional costs. Each visiting group is required to provide transportation to off-center sites, which include Tybee, Sapelo, Jekyll Island and historic Savannah. “Most of the groups opt for a 3 day/2 nights stay, we’ve had some stay for a week or longer, and most of the groups love it so much that they return the next school year,” Epling says with pride. “We serve students from around 30 schools ranging from 4th to 8th grades and even older, and everything is customized to their needs. The teachers are provided with a check sheet, and we construct each program based on what they’ve chosen.” Epling says that while her staff and program facilitators are responsible for teaching and guiding the students through tours and instruction, they always encourage supervision and participation from teachers and parents. “We want everyone who comes to become involved in the program,” Epling says. “Plus, it’s always inspiring to witness the students getting to see their teacher outside of the classroom as a real person, and it really helps to break down barriers. The administrators and teachers in Effingham county have been incredibly supportive, and we’ve been blessed to have their students come every year since the program began.”

Epling says there are countless examples of how the Ebenezer ALIVE! Program makes an impact on its visitors, but she recalls one from about four years ago. “We were holding our program, and I was in costume, as were the other instructors.  I did a brief slide show, and then we had basket weaving and cane grinding, followed by a museum search at the Georgia Salzburger Museum. After we listened to a pastor speak (in costume) from the nearby Historical Jerusalem Lutheran Church and the group was walking back, I asked one of the eighth grade boys if he enjoyed it. He said, ‘You know, Ms. Beth, history is really real; it’s not just words in a book.’ And that’s when a light went off; you learn by doing and through experience, and that’s what our program is all about.”

Located on the banks of the beautiful Savannah River near Rincon, GA, the Retreat Center is about a half hour’s drive from downtown Savannah.  Now poised to enter their sixteenth year, the Ebenezer ALIVE! Educational Program continues to provide an enriching educational program for students that promises to make an impact not only on the lives of the students, but on the lives of the teachers and visiting adults as well.

For more information, visit  www.newebenezer.org or contact Beth Epling, Education Coordinator at (912) 754-9242 or fax (912) 754-7781 or email at beth@newebenezer.org.

Dallas McCorkendale: Jazz on the side

story by jeff whitten

photos by natalie mcallister

Dallas McCorkendale is one of Effingham County’s most gifted students, South Effingham’s STAR student. He will soon begin attending Georgia Tech on academic scholarships to study chemical engineering.

McCorkendale, 18, is also one of the area’s more talented young guitarists, and one who has already played professionally in Savannah and on Hilton Head. Still, one has one’s priorities.

“I  think it’s a lot easier to pursue my academic interests and pursue jazz on the side than it would be to pursue jazz full time and pursue chemical engineering on the side,” says McCorkendale, a Governor’s Honors Program finalist in jazz.

That’s right, jazz. Not the Kenny G. “smooth jazz” Muzak that gained popularity in the 90s, but the genuine article, the real thing. We’re talking the music of Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell and Chet Baker, for starters.

McCorkendale, 18, was introduced to jazz by South Effingham assistant band director Michael Nestor about four years ago and the music struck an immediate chord.

“He told me I should listen to Wes Montgomery’s ‘Smoking at the Half Note,’” McCorkendale recalls. “It’s been downhill ever since.”

Given that jazz, widely considered an art, is also just as widely ignored by much of America, the odds were against McCorkendale discovering his passion for the music without Nestor’s suggestion. McCorkendale is just glad  it happened.

“I immediately liked it, I felt it,” McCorkendale said. “All of a sudden I was seriously listening to Wes and Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Kenny Burrell and Grant Green, and last summer when I made the Governor’s Honors jazz band I spent a month in Valdosta, that really opened my eyes to a lot of great musicians and there was a lot of broadening of horizons there.”

McCorkendale subsequently was named All State in band, and in February performed with other talented high school musicians under the direction of noted jazz musician Don Braden.  There’s video of their performances on Youtube, and you can tell McCorkendale knows his way around a six string guitar. But he’s still just scratching the surface of his own ability, in a sense, and is still developing what someday may be known as the Dallas McCorkendale Sound.

“Right now I’m trying to listen to as much as I can and take in as much as I can and then apply what I can,” McCorkendale said. “I think it kind of develops organically over time.”

Not that he lacks confidence. McCorkendale launched a handful of jazz combos in high school, though whether he made new jazz fans is an open question. He, meanwhile, says he doesn’t want to oversell his own ability.

“I’m pretty realistic about what I can and can’t do,” McCorkendale said. “I can play at the professional level, but I’m not some world-class, going-on-a-world-tour jazz musician. I can hang. I can usually pick it up and if I have time to practice on it I feel like I can play it pretty well.”

Jazz is widely considered to be America’s most original art form, but it’s hardly commercial and tends to resonate most with musicians and those who appreciate it as much on an intellectual level as they do emotionally. So why do some like jazz and others avoid it like the plague? What is it about jazz that seems to draw mostly strong reactions? And why is it so popular in Europe but not the United States?

And why is McCorkendale so much a fan of jazz?

“That’s a hard question to answer,” McCorkendale said, then gave it a shot anyway. “I think besides the obvious, which is that it sounds so good, it’s also a very emotional music. Its roots come from the African American community and when it was oppressed, jazz became an artistic outlet and they were able to channel a lot of things through the music. You hear a lot of stories in jazz, a lot of profound emotions, good emotions, bad emotions, regardless of whether you’re a musician or non musician, whether you like jazz or don’t like jazz, I think on that level alone most can appreciate jazz.”

Those who don’t get the music probably don’t spend time listening to it; either that, or they’re introduced to more out-there avant garde jazz, which can sound like so much noise to the novice ear. But some jazz can sound like noise to more experienced ears, as well.

“At a realistic level, some of it is noise,” McCorkendale says. “You kind of have to suspend your disbelief and find the stories and emotions in it. And, when you listen to that kind of music you have to know it’s something planned out and thought through and there’s a lot of musicianship involved. If you go into it with the attitude it’s just noise or somebody messing around, you’re missing the entire point of the improvisation.”

There are easily around 50 jazz genres, from acid jazz and bebop to cool jazz to Dixieland to European free jazz to jazz rap and jazz blues and jazz rock and orchestral jazz and West Coast jazz, some of it with roots stretching back to the 1920s, others of a more recent vintage.

There’s no right kind of jazz, however, though McCorkendale suggests newcomers should probably start by checking out traditional jazz, especially jazz standards from the late 1950s or early 1960s. Listen to music from his influences, which in addition to Montgomery includes Burrell, Davis, Dexter Gorden and McCoy Tyner.

Despite it’s occasional inaccessibility, jazz keeps finding a way to stay relevant locally, thanks to the non-profit Coastal Jazz Association, and find its way on the airwaves. Savannah State University’s FM 90.3 occasionally airs jazz standards and offers a weekly online podcast called Jazzscape, and Savannah has its own jazz festival, now in its 35th year. It will be held in September and Braden, whom McCorkendale got to work with when he was with All State band earlier this year, will be in the lineup.

By then, McCorkendale will be at Georgia Tech. He’ll still play, though how much will depend on classes. And then there’s what to do after he graduates from Tech armed with the degree in chemical engineering — unless between now and then he finds another academic discipline more suited to his talents.

But then, he’s only 18. There’s time.

“I’m still kind of figuring that out in a lot of ways,” McCorkendale said. “I definitely don’t want playing music to be my only source of income, I don’t want it to be my career. But I want it to be an active part of my life. I want to be a professional musician without having to do it professionally.”

There’s wisdom there. Wes Montgomery reportedly said that once he felt he was good enough to play professionally, he went on the road with a group. They starved. But Montgomery, one of the greatest jazz guitarists ever,  knew what mattered in the end.

“Regardless of what you play, the biggest thing is keeping the feel going,” he said.

JULIE HALES: Effingham’s Representative for the 2016 Kiss a Pig Campaign Let’s Bring Home the Bacon for The American Diabetes Association

story by katie vandenhouten

photos by susan deloach

As the owner of Independence Day Publishing, Julie Hales has made a career of spotlighting outstanding residents in Effingham Magazine, Effingham Sports Digest, Pooler Magazine, Beaufort Lifestyle, and Chatham Isles Living. Now, she gets to take the spotlight to raise money for a cause that is personal to her: diabetes.

The American Diabetes Association has chosen her to be a part of the Kiss a Pig Campaign, which is their largest fundraising event of the year. Hales will be representing Effingham County as the team captain of “Hams from Effingham.” And she is confident that she can get the people of Effingham County to ban together to raise the most money for diabetes.

Pigs are honored by the ADA as the original source of insulin and recognized for saving lives, so creative porcine puns are a fun part of the Kiss a Pig fundraiser. This year’s theme is: “Hollywood:  Your Chance to Hog the Spotlight.” The team captain who raises the most money wins the competition and gets to kiss Lulu the pig, the official mascot of the American Diabetes Association.

Hales was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes about fifteen years ago, and she was living a normal life until her health made a sudden and unexpected turn for the worse. In November, she was at a function giving a speech when she felt like something burst inside her head, and excruciating pain followed. She was taken to the ER, where her blood sugar was a dangerously high 393.

Just like that, with no warning at all, her diabetes had gone from a controlled chronic condition to a life threatening one. For that reason, it is often called “the silent killer.”  More Americans die each year from diabetes than from breast cancer and AIDS combined.

The health scare was a wakeup call for Hales. “The initial visit in the ER was bad enough, having to have a CT scan done because they thought I had a brain bleed. Then all the follow up appointments with my doctor and tests, none of which had good results,” she says. “So I am on a mission to get better.”

In addition to spearheading the Kiss a Pig fundraiser in Effingham, Hales joined her own office competition at Independence Day Publishing to raise additional funds for diabetes and to encourage herself and her employees to maintain a healthier lifestyle. She is asking people to sponsor her for each pound she loses from January to May 1.

Long-time employee of IDP, Lane Leopard, is also competing in the office weight loss challenge. She says, “Our office has always been a close group of people who really care about each other. When Julie made the decision to join the ADA campaign, and getting herself healthy, we all backed her 100% and wanted to help in any way we could. She’s always supported me in everything I have set out to do, and this is a way for me to pay that forward, and get myself healthier as well.”

Lea Allen, administrative assistant at IDP, is thrilled that Hales is raising awareness for others and making an effort to get healthy. “Ever since I have known Julie, she has always been so big into giving back to the community. I think it is amazing that she is heading up the Kiss a Pig campaign here in Effingham County to raise awareness of diabetes,” she says. “And the most amazing part is that she is not only helping and supporting her community, but also giving back and helping herself by adopting a healthy lifestyle to tackle and control her diabetes.”

Hales is no stranger to community outreach. She feels honored to be able to make a difference in the community where she grew up. “I have been involved in a lot of community organizations such as United Way, Effingham Victim Witness, Optimist Club, the Recreation Department and many others. Giving back to the community that has afforded me so much is very important to me,” she says. And that is one of the reasons she was chosen to represent Effingham County for this event.

Though she has participated in countless charities and fundraisers through the years, this one is special to her.  “This is actually the first time that I have ever been asked to be involved in something that can, and does, affect me,” she explains. “I am experiencing major health issues as the result of this disease.”

Hales is deeply committed to this cause and to educating as many people as she can about diabetes. “Trust me. It is nothing to play with,” she says. “And people need to know more about it and what they can do to prevent it and keep it under control.”

One of the frightening aspects about diabetes is that anyone can develop it at any age. That is why education is a crucial part of fighting the disease. In its early stages, many people experience no symptoms at all, which is why it is important to get screenings and to be aware of the signs, symptoms and risk factors.

Some warning signs include extreme thirst, frequent urination, blurred vision and tingling in the lower extremities. Individuals who are overweight, have a sedentary lifestyle, are over the age of 45, or have a family history of diabetes are at an increased risk. African Americans and Latinos also have a higher risk for developing the disease.

“As you can probably tell, I am very passionate about raising awareness,” Hales reiterates. “I had no idea the health problems my diabetes was causing and I feel certain there are many of our residents that have the same issues and many that have this disease that are not even aware they do.”

She couldn’t be more correct, according to The American Diabetes Association. In fact, it is estimated that nearly 30 million Americans have diabetes, and 7 million of them don’t even know they have it.

What’s even scarier is that 86 million people are considered to have “pre-diabetes” and may eventually develop Type 2 Diabetes if their health goes unchecked. Many people don’t realize that this disease can lead to amputations, blindness, cardiovascular disease, kidney complications and even death if left uncontrolled.

Maria Center, the Director of the American Diabetes Association for Southeast Georgia and coastal South Carolina, says it is crucial to raise awareness and educate as many people as possible of the dangers of diabetes. “I don’t think people realize how much damage this disease can do if unmanaged,” she says. “I want people to know that diabetes is serious and potentially deadly if not controlled.”

Center is confident that Hales will do an outstanding job as Effingham’s Kiss a Pig team captain. “We chose Julie because she has deep roots in Effingham County and is a well respected leader with a personal interest in diabetes. She has the ability to engage many other leaders to help the Association.”

She maintains that the best part of working for the ADA is bringing people together from all backgrounds to work toward a common goal. “It’s very rewarding to see people working for something larger than themselves,” says Center. “We also have a great time for a great cause.”

Anyone who knows Julie Hales can attest that she knows how to have fun, and so Effingham County should be in for a good time at the coming Kiss a Pig festivities. “And who knows,” she adds, “I may get to kiss that darn pig!”