2014 Light of Hope Award Winners

 

Stacy Archer

A growing body of research literature finds that in addition to improved physical health, sports play a primarily positive role in youth development, including improved academic achievement, higher self-esteem, fewer behavioral problems and better psychosocial attitudes!  But the organization, Girls on the Run has known this for years.  It is a program which combines training for non-competitive 5K walks and runs with an interactive curriculum to develop self-respect and healthy lifestyles for girls 8-13 years old.

The Girls on the Run curriculum addresses many aspects of girls’ development – their physical, emotional, mental and social well-being.  One girl put it this way, “ I learned that I am the boss of my brain.”

According to those who know her, Stacy Archer is a positive, driving force behind the growth and success of this organization at Chestatee Elementary School.  Volunteering over 250 hours for the past five years, Stacy works with 3rd through 5th grade girls, inspiring them to by joyful, healthy and confident.  She arms them with the tools necessary to effectively manage many of life’s challenges including gossip, bullying, establishing healthy friendships and teaching them to stand up for themselves and others.  They learn to make positive decisions and avoid risky behavior.  Stacy believes that once these life skills are learned, they are with the girls for a lifetime.

Stacy played a critical role in establishing this program at Chestatee.  She attends every 5K – cheering the girls on and reminding them that they have what it takes to complete the run.  She loves each and every girl and they know it!

Beyond working with the girls, Stacy supports the program by searching for additional volunteers, putting together community service projects and making the Girls on the Run Program so exciting that girls flock to it each year!  Her can-do attitude and natural ability to work collaboratively with others inspires all around.  Stacy Archer is, indeed, a Light of Hope!

Jason Breyo

According to legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, “Sports do not build character, they reveal it.”  Coach Wooden may have been talking about Light of Hope recipient Jason Breyo.

Since the spring of 2009, Jason has touched the lives of more than 1000 kids by bringing the game of lacrosse to Forsyth County.

Jason grew up in New York where lacrosse was big.  He was good at it, went on to play in college where it continued to guide his friendships and was a big part of his life.  According to Jason, not everyone is suited for football, basketball or baseball.  But lacrosse is a great game – as long as you are an athlete- you can play!  So shortly after moving to Forsyth County, he became passionate about advancing the sport, beginning with the creation of the South Forsyth Longhorn Youth Association.

After searching for field space, Riverwatch Middle School invited the fledgling association with its 100 kids onto their school field.  Now, years later, Jason is watching kids play on high school teams who received their first stick from him when they were in 3rd grade.

While he continues to coach the youth league, he also coaches the freshman and JV teams and coaches defense for the Varsity team at Lambert High School.  His admirers marvel at the amount of time and effort that he puts into giving kids an opportunity to get involved and grow in the sport.  He teaches them to the rules of the game, good sportsmanship and leadership by encouraging the older boys to give back through assistant coaching younger team s and refereeing.

Jason fondly remembers his childhood and being raised by a single mother “who worked her tail off.”  He is repaying the kindnesses of the adults in his life who made it possible for him to play the sport he loves by ensuring the kids form single parent households all play without incurring a financial hardship.  In fact, Jason recently traveled to Statesboro, GA to offer a lacrosse youth camp to kids who  might never have been able to experience it.  He was able to get equipment donated to help the kids who were financially disabled.

It’s not about winning,  It’s all about building relationships with kids – watching them grow up and being available to discuss concerns and problems,” Jason said.  Most recently, Jason is using his networking resources as the recruiting coordinator at Lambert, where he has been able to give his players college opportunities at Division I schools as they transition into adulthood.  He offers support to his players by calling and checking on them when they are homesick or feeling overwhelmed by the college experience.

Jason certainly is a passionate Light of Hope for our community!

Susie Brookshire

DID YOU KNOW? Students in a mentoring program are :

·        53% less likely to skip school

·        46% less likely to begin using illegal drugs

·        33% less likely to hit someone

·        more likely to increase their grades and reach their goals

In fact, the experts all agree:  any effort to help the next generation – especially children at risk – must include mentoring. Mentoring can help young people change direction and do better academically and socially. In 2013, 470 mentors provided 2700 hours to children in Forsyth County schools, thanks to the efforts of Susie Brookshire.

In 1998 Susie began working for Forsyth County Schools and established the county’s school mentoring program in the same year.  Through her vision and execution, the mentoring program connects community members with students who need a caring, adult role model in their lives. Since its inception 15 years ago, the program has grown from 100 to over 470 active mentors, serving children who need extra guidance and support outside of the classroom.    

As expected, the results have been dramatic for the children who have mentors.  Attendance has increased.  Academic performance has improved and children exude new found self-confidence. It’s mutually beneficial for all involved -- community member’s lives are touched AND children’s eyes light up when their mentor visits.

Not one to simply relax and glory in the fruits of her labors, Susie saw that more could be done to make the school environment safer for children.   She became a certified Olweus Bullying Prevention Program trainer in 2004 which expanded her commitment to protecting children in Forsyth County Schools.  As bullying continues to be a hot topic, Susie stays up-to-date on prevention resources and interventions.   When funding is limited, Susie manages to locate grant funding to provide services, curriculum, and resources dedicated to bullying prevention.

She serves as an inspiration and a mentor to her colleagues and peers. She has never asked for anything in return as she continues to devote her knowledge and energies to prevention in the community.

Susie “never meets a stranger”. Her outgoing personality reflects her desire to build relationships with others whether it is students, counselors or community members. She strives to see the positive even when the negative is hovering all around. She is positive, enthusiastic and demonstrates her love for children and others through the field of prevention.  Susie is truly a light of hope for Forsyth County and the field of prevention.

Nick Futrell

It is hard to believe that in Forsyth County, Georgia – reportedly one of the most affluent counties in the nation—there are families who are hungry.  Lambert High School junior Nick Futrell is not only aware of this fact, he works tirelessly to remedy the situation.

Math teacher Liz Anne Adams recalls being very impressed when Nick approached her about creating a club at school to feed hungry families.  A day after their initial discussion, she says she was ‘blown out of the water,’ when he presented Ms. Adams with a typed proposal listing his target population, action plan and excitement for feeding children in our county.  Nick was especially concerned about the epidemic of families who rely on free school breakfasts and lunches to feed their children during the week and are then unable to feed them on the weekend.  It became his passion to help these children and the Forsyth County chapter of Blessings in a Backpack was born.

School social worker Nicole Lea identified 50 students that needed Nick’s help.  He met with county officials, churches, school counselors, hospitals – anyone who would listen to his message – and he was able to fund the program with their generous contributions.  Now, 106 students in 11 schools within the county receive backpacks filled with kid-friendly food every Friday.

Happy with the program’s current success, Nick’s goal is to serve 400 families with participation in all of the Forsyth County schools.  To reach tat tall order, Nick applies for grants, organizes food drives and fundraisers.  He even convinced his high school to offer free admission to anyone with a food donation.  He estimated he has raised approximately $20,000 to date.  He has an army of student and adults who gather every Friday to fill the back packs and deliver them to the schools.  Beyond the here and now, Nick is training young leaders who will lead the club when he leaves for college.

As a testimony to the value of this program, we end with a letter Nick received from a grateful father, “I’m one of the families that receives the book bag.  I just wanted to let you know what you are doing is a very powerful, loving and generous thing.  The items from the book bag has helped my family in so many ways.  We have been going through hard times for a while now, but when we stared receiving the bag it was a sense of hope that there are people out there that really do care and want to help.  When my wife told me you were in high school and you raise all the money to purchase the items, that blew me away.  So thank you so much, Nick and keep doing what God has put on your heart to do.  You have been a blessing to my family.”

What began as a spark has now grown to a bonfire, warming the lives of the neediest families and their children in Forsyth County. 

Molly Hevia

Each year the staff at CASA has the unenviable task of selecting the CASA Volunteer of the Year for Forsyth County from the nearly 100 CASA volunteers who give their time and energy to make sure victims of abuse and neglect have a voice in the Juvenile Court system.

Molly Hevia joined our program as a CASA volunteer in October 2010.  Since that time, she has demonstrated a sincere dedication to fourteen children in six cases. Throughout her tenure as a CASA, Molly has proven to be a shining light to the children and families she serves. Let me share with you the impact Molly has had with two of these youth.

In May 2011, Molly was appointed to two young men who entered the foster care system in 2003 at the ages of 7 and 9. From the time they entered foster care and the day each were anticipated to age out of the system, one had moved 30 times, the other 20 times ranging from foster and group homes to psychiatric residential facilities and detention centers in 19 Georgia counties. When Molly became involved with the case late in the game, both brothers were on a downward spiral, with few placement options and bleak futures.

What happens when a child turns 18 and "ages out" of the foster care system before they find a safe, permanent home? The statistics are grim.  One in five foster care alumni will be homeless within a year after leaving foster care. One in four will be incarcerated within the first two years after they leave the system. Only 58% will have earned their high school diploma and fewer than 3% will earn a college degree. Molly knew these statistics did not have to be the reality for these brothers.

For the past 2 ½ years, Molly has championed these boys by using tough love to earn their trust and as each approached their 18th birthday, she was able to help them understand their limitations to tackling the world on their own.  Each has earned their GED, and the youngest began college last fall.

Tim and Teresa Ledbetter

(written by their daughter)

“My parents have fostered 22 children over the past 5 years, one of them being in their home for over a year.  Most recently, they have opened their home to children that come into care late in the day or night allowing DFCS to find a more permanent foster home for them the next day.  When they arrive, they are fed, bathed and put to bed in new pajamas.  When they leave the next day, they have four new changes of clothing, a stuffed animal and a toy, plus the items they arrived in, which have been washed.  My parents offer these items freely to DFCS.

“My parents have also been involved with Girl Scouts for 30 years, holding all kinds of volunteer position from troop leaders to Service Unit directors.  For the past 5 years, they have combined their role as foster parents with their Girl Scout world, by leading a multi-aged troop for girls in foster care.  When a girl comes into foster care and wants to be a Girl Scout, she has a place in my mom’s troop.  My parents provide uniforms, books and pay all fees for each girl.  There is no cost for the girls to be in her troop.

“My parents do several very special things every year.  For instance, each summer they organize a weeklong ‘twilight camp’ at a local church, allowing girls to earn a badge or a patch from a different Girl Scout Council in the country each night.  Although attended mostly by local Girl Scouts, this camp is open to all foster girls (even if they are not Girl Scouts) at no cost.  Mom has had 4-5 girls in foster care at every camp for the past five years.

“In December, my parents host a ‘girl led’ Christmas Ornament Workshop for the Girls Scouts where participants make six ornaments, leaving one that will be delivered to a local nursing home.  Girls in foster care attend at no cost to their foster parent.  Local Girl Scouts are encouraged to bring a wrapped ‘gift of love’ that they have purchased from money earned by doing extra chores at home, which is then donated to Angels Over Forsyth, a local program that coordinates Christmas for foster children.  Any leftover presents are given to the pester parents in Forsyth and Dawson counties.

“The Girls Scout Easter Basket service project is going on right now.  Each Easter, a troop will get together and will make a basket to be given to any foster child, but mainly for the girls at Jesse’s House, the local girl’s emergency shelter.  Baskets are filled with a toy, some clothes and of course, candy.  My parents collect the baskets and deliver to Jesse’s House and to other foster parents all over the county.  Thy have been doing this for as long as I can remember.”

And so ends a loving tribute from an adoring daughter, who will undoubtedly mirror the kindness and generosity she has watched in her parents.  You see, Lights of Hope not only transform those they serve, but shed light for the next generation of volunteers to following the future.

Maddie Malmfeldt

It’s April and spring break has ended.  Pencils that were once long and sharpened are now nubby and dull.  Crayons have broken and backpacks are tattered.  Glue sticks and markers have dried out.  In just a matter of weeks, students throughout Forsyth County will celebrate summer.

For West Forsyth High School senior Maddie Malmfeldt, the end of school signaled more than the beginning of her summer break.  Instead, for the last four years, it started her race to fill more than 100 backpacks for foster children being served by CASA of Forsyth County.  She passed the time on family road trips to the west by making phone calls and sending emails to prospective donors.  She presented pizza and ice cream parties to Girl Scouts at day camp who donated the most pencils, paper and back packs.   She spoke to civic organizations to spread awareness and garner support for her project.  And she shopped, filling carts with hundreds of binders, packages of paper, dividers, crayons, glue and spiral-bound notebooks.

With the shopping completed, the family’s basement became school supply central as back packs for each grade level were filled with items specific to the needs of those students.  Crayons for kindergarteners, binders for middle schoolers, jump drives and calculators for high school students. 

According to Maddie, her desire to help others came from recognizing her own anxieties at the beginning of a new school year.  “I always feel anxious when returning to school, so it is my hope that these foster children will feel better about beginning school when they are prepared with the supplies they need.  Having a new backpack full of school supplies is a small thing, but I hope it gives them one less thing to worry about,” she said.

Maddie’s focus on children and their educational success continues through the school year as she has tutored Hispanic children through the Mentor Me program for the last three years.  According to her youth leader at church, Maddie has a genuine love for others and is compassionate and kind.  She inspires others to be better and to do better, including the adults who know her.  She is definitely a light of hope in our community.

Gladys Sasso-Alvarez

A job description provides a helpful guide for an employee to follow while navigating a new job. 

For instance, in her role as the McKinney-Vento Program liason with the Forsyth County School System , Gladys Sasso-Alvarez is responsible for implementing the federal law that governs the educational rights of children in homeless situations.  She is responsible for identifying homeless children and facilitating their enrollment in school.  She must inform families of educational opportunities available for their children, giving them an equal opportunity to be successful in school.

So, now let me tell you what she really does to care for homeless families!  She organizes food drives, and coordinates with local churches to provide clothing, food and school supplies for homeless students.  She works with the holiday outreach program to ensure homeless children have gifts to open on Christmas morning. 

She serves on various committees looking for solutions to community-wide issues such as housing, food, medical and dental care and transportation.  Her bilingual skills are an asset to her work.

Many of the homeless students live in uncertain or transitional living situations.  Gladys shows compassion and treats them with respect and kindness, greeting them with a warm and encouraging smile.  Although working with children and families in difficult circumstances can be disheartening, she does what she can to ensure that a student’s basic needs are met so they can concentrate on being successful at school. 

According to her colleagues, Gladys deserves this award because ‘she is a light in a gloomy situation’ that many families face in our community.  Never one to say ‘that’s not my job,’ Gladys is dedicated to supporting children and can be counted on to go above and beyond to help families.  We are lucky to have her smiling face in our community. 

Sergeant Jennifer See

Honesty, integrity and courage are descriptors often used by adults to describe the traits we believe law enforcement officers should possess in the line of duty.  But many youth who have experienced chaos and turmoil in their young lives often perceive them as a n enemy they need to fear perhaps because they have born witness to a parent’s arrest or worse, they themselves have been arrested or detained. 

The persona of law enforcement to them then becomes one of suspicion and hostility.  That is, until they meet Sergeant Jennifer See of the Court Security Unit of the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.  As the Sergeant in charge over court security at Juvenile Court, Sgt. See has come to know many of the youth under the Court’s jurisdiction, especially the youth involved in the Adolescent Substance Abuse Court, ASAC for short. 

The youth involved in this court program are struggling with a plethora of complex issues in their lives that many times lead to substance abuse addictions.  Without support, these addictions can cause loss of young lives.   As a valued volunteer member of the ASAC team, SGT See interacts with these youth weekly, sometimes several times in a week.  She expresses compassion and empathy for every youth in such a genuine , no holds barred fashion, that youth who have closed themselves off from most everyone else will open up to her, sharing information about themselves that ultimately  helps put them on the road to recovery and sobriety. 

SGT See also participates with the youth in the court’s adventure –based program, High on Life and her added sense of humor enables her to communicate with these youth so that she becomes a leader and mentor to them, one who deserves their respect.  SGT See not only displays the honesty, integrity and courage we would expect from a law enforcement officer, she goes above and beyond what is expected to listen and encourage these youth when many others would become exasperated and frustrated.  She shows extreme patience and understanding to the youth who so deeply need that type of support.  In a time when the number of these youth is increasing, SGT Jennifer See shines as a beacon of light through the heavy fog the youth are lost in and helps guide them back to a safe and healthy harbor!

Alisa Steigerwalt

After six years of presenting the Light of Hope awards to outstanding individuals in Forsyth County, we have recognized a characteristic common to all of our recipients – across the board.  The do not want to be awarded.  They are not interested in being applauded for their selfless service.  They do not want to be recognized. 

Light of Hope recipient Alisa Steigerwalt is no exception.  She prefers to work behind the scenes.  And that is exactly what she does – she creates scenes designed to enhance the lives of challenged children.  She says, “I like to make things beautiful and create happiness everywhere.”  She initially began creating happiness at Cumming Elementary, by collecting clothing for low income families whose children attend the school.

As her children transitioned to Kelly Mill Elementary, she became aware that their sensory room needed some new supplies.  Although her own children do not have special needs, she stared doing research to find the best equipment at the best prices, finally soliciting donation to purchase the necessary equipment.  In addition, she painted the room with fun and happy designs.  “I like to make things happy – especially for children whose circumstances may not be typically happy,” she explains.  She wants them to know that their space is customized just for them.

When a friend’s son became ill, she turned her efforts to co-chairing the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Friends group in Forsyth County.  She helped with fundraising , planned patient parties, and provided hundreds of gift bags for parents whose children were in the ER.

When CHOA’s urgent care office opened in Forsyth County three years ago, Alisa offered to decorate the location for Christmas.  She spent hours each day for over a week, making sure that every ornament and tree was perfect and that there was something festive in every space.  Her goal is to make children and their families smile when they are having some of their worst days.  Christmas decorating has expanded to include decorating for other holidays and seasons throughout the year.  According to CHOA staff, Alisa is like a little elf!

Always humble, Alisa says it is easy to give back when God has blessed her with so much in her life – even the bad things have taught her great lessons, which in turn has made her a better person and a better mom.  “You just have to give back!”  She creidits the example set by her father who always gave back to the community, being the first person to show up in a crisis, for guiding her desires to give back now.

Although Alisa is passionate about spreading beauty and happiness to others, she prefers not to be noticed.  Her kindness, generosity ad desire to bring joy to others is a gift for our community.  Alisa shines the Light on children of Forsyth County.

Annaliza Thomas

A small underserved population in Forsyth County is relatively anonymous. Few of us hear about them, few of us know about them and yet, they are vital to our agricultural community. They are migrant families whose daily struggles leave little time for learning or much of anything beyond hard work.

When their seasonal work in one state is finished those families move on to their next job, on to another state, moves that occur every 15 to 18 months. Think what those moves do to a child between the ages of six and eight, whose family may be struggling to learn English, whose families may not be able to help their child with his homework, but whose family knows that the only way to save their child from the lives they’ve lived is to get an education.

Annaliza Thomas is contracted by Forsyth County to support six of these young children by tutoring each individually for two hours weekly bridging the educational gap these moves create. But, that’s not all she does.

Far more than tutoring, she provides hope and encouragement and a generous helping hand to the families. She provides a recovery plan when high school credits don’t transfer between states.  She has been known to drive students to and from bus stations so they can travel to locations for GED testing.  She is a key resource for providing food for families in crisis.  She has purchased car seats to ensure that babies are transported safely.

She collaborates with school counselors and social workers sharing concerns and observations, seeking resources to protect and support children.  Her motto?  Anything that can be done will be done to get these young people a step ahead so they can break the chain of poverty through education.  She wants them to be emotionally stable and live a life that will allow them to care for themselves and their families.  She is genuinely committed and determined to give each of these children the best part of herself that she can.

According to one trusted associate, Annaliza is willing to put herself out there every day, to assist children and families in any way possible. These children know that many people come in and out of their lives, but through Annaliza’s genuine care and concern, they will internalize the lessons learned at her side.   She shines as a true light of hope, by developing their ability to be champions for themselves. 

Melony Witt

It is not unusual for our “Lights of Hope” to begin their good works as a small spark and in no time at all the spark grows into a glowing flame.

Such is the case with Light of Hope recipient, Melony Witt.  We first met Melony when as new foster parents, she and her husband took in two young brothers, from a sibling group of five, into their home shortly before Christmas.  Two of their sisters were placed in another foster home, and their nine year old sister was placed at Jesse’s House – a group home that typically houses teenagers in Forsyth County.  Melony quickly recognized the trauma the siblings were feeling from being separated not only from their parents, but more importantly, from their siblings.  She often invited the additional three kids into her home for holidays, weekend overnights and special occasions.

When it became apparent that reunification with their parents would not be an option, Melony and her husband and biological son determined that they would adopt all five children.  The process was long and challenging, filled with therapist visits, court dates and DFCS visits, but the family persevered through the ordeal and the adoption was complete.

When having six children in her home was no longer a challenge, Melony became a volunteer mentor at the Bald Ridge Lodge – a shelter for teenage boys in Forsyth County.  She came to the Lodge every Friday to see if one of the young men would like to spend the weekend in her home.  The boys enjoyed her warm and inviting home and they looked forward to her invitations.  Through her interaction with the boys she learned that one of the young men did not have hope for reunification with his biological family.  The thought of a boy with no permanent home in his future brought Melony to tears and initially she and her husband became his legal guardian.  He now is a daily part of their family as an adopted son.

In just six short years, Melony has changed the lives of six children.  She is not daunted by challenging behaviors brought on by years of trauma and abuse.  She cheerfully accepts her role in their healing process that will undoubtedly last for a lifetime.  Her dedication and commitment is ongoing, day in and day out.  Just as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, she will be their Light of Hope forever.


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