Please join us in celebrating our 2016 Light of Hope Award Winners
Our first Light of Hope Award Winner is Lisa Bennett. As the Assistant Director of Special Education for Forsyth County Schools, she has been a source of information, guidance and compassion for students and families.
In addition to her work in the school system, Lisa recognized there were very few summer camp opportunities offered for children with disabilities and many of the children with whom she worked could not be successful in a typical camp environment. In response, she partnered with the City of Cumming Recreation and Parks Department and developed a recreational summer camp for children and young adults with developmental disabilities. For 18 years, Camp Cool Kids and Teens has provided campers the opportunity to participate in swimming, crafts and outdoor activities. If not for Lisa’s vision, these individuals may never have had the chance to experience the joy of camp and all the wonderful experiences that come with it.
Lisa has dedicated her life to those who sometimes do not feel they have a voice in our society. She continues to be there to support individuals with special needs and their families long after they have left the school system. At a time when Lisa should be enjoying retirement and taking care of herself, she has become determined to find a way to serve adults with developmental disabilities. With no services to speak of in our community, Lisa found an opportunity to provide a safe environment for adults with disabilities to learn and practice skills necessary to improve the quality of life by partnering with Creative Enterprises of Gwinnett County to open a satellite program in our community. Under Lisa’s leadership, this dream will become reality very soon!
Jordan Bennie is a South Forsyth High School senior and tireless advocate for disadvantaged and disabled children. She has served for the past three years in a leadership position for the Jr. Civitan club, an international organization dedicated to the service of students with emotional, mental, physical and intellectual disabilities, and with the Special Olympics program for 4 years.
In both her Junior and Senior years, her excellent academic standing earned her the right to enjoy numerous easy elective class options. Instead, Jordan has chosen help in the Special Education class as a Peer Facilitator.
Outside of the school setting, Jordan is an advocate in many other outreach programs, including Meals by Grace, Mentor Me North Georgia, Street Reach and Lighthouse Family Retreat. Her work provides both physical and emotional nourishment. If you ask Jordan, she will tell you she has received so much more than she has ever given. It is the joy she sees on the face of a child with cancer getting to spend a week at the beach with his family. And the tears on the mom’s face, recognizing she has not seen her son’s beautiful smile in months. For Jordan, those smiles and tears are thanks enough.
Jordan is a mature young lady working diligently to instruct and support intellectually challenged students. She is an inspiration and a positive force for so many hungry, lonely, sick, and needy members of our school and community. She treats them with the respect, love, care and safety they deserve.
Jordan has plans to attend Kennesaw State University in the fall where she intends to pursue a career in pediatric oncology nursing.
Cathy Brugnoli is the Director of Girls On The Run Forsyth County, plus GOTR Hall and Cherokee Counties (more currently GOTR North Georgia). More than 15 years ago Cathy began as a Girls On the Run coach in Fulton County to provide her daughter the opportunity of experiencing the program. Seeing the positive impact the program had for her daughter, Cathy decided to take on the challenge of bringing Girls On The Run to Forsyth County, where she and her family have called home for those 15 years.
The GOTR curriculum is focused on teaching young girls how to make good life decisions and providing them with the tools to recognize their strengths and to successfully navigate life’s experiences. It gives pre- adolescent girls guidelines for making good choices prior to going into the teen years and the skills to utilize throughout their lives. The Girls On Track curriculum provides middle school girls with positive core values as they face the pressures of forming a self-image and setting healthy goals.
Girls On The Run began in one Forsyth County school. Now, girls in every Forsyth County elementary school have the opportunity to participate in Girls On The Run and every middle school girl in the county has the opportunity to participate in Girls On Track, a program especially for 6th through 8th grade girls.
GOTR is an international non-profit organization. Cathy follows the strict standards imposed by the founding headquarters. However, Cathy makes certain that every coach at every location has the support she needs. Because she was given the curriculum book and told “Good luck, Have fun!” when a coach in Fulton County, she, to this day, makes sure that every coach under her watch is given the support (whatever it necessitates) she wants and needs. This makes for a more successful program all around.
Dr. Ellen Cohan
Dr. Ellen Cohan has been serving the needs of children and educators for over 40 years. Always a caring teacher at heart, she has served students and their families in some of the most impoverished and difficult situations imaginable. After teaching in the classroom for over 25 years, Dr. Cohan became an administrator (assistant principal and principal) in Cobb County, and then moved to the Forsyth County School System in 2000 to serve as our Associate Superintendent under the leadership of Superintendent Paula Gault. During this time, she worked closely with teachers, building leaders, and district leaders to ensure that our students received the best possible education. Innovative leadership and professional learning became synonymous with Ellen Cohan.
Dr. Cohan has worked tirelessly, many times 70 and 80 hour weeks, to serve the needs of our students and educators in Forsyth County. After her retirement in July of 2000, she returned to our district in a part time capacity (40 hours weekly!), supporting our current and new school leaders. It is in this role that her brilliance and knowledge of her work have aided the work of our school leaders and had great impact on our students.
Ellen inspires leaders and provides them with a framework and the confidence to grow their schools into places where our children thrive. You can ask any leader in our district and they will attest to the important work she has done for our system. Her support and influence has helped their schools achieve great success. Indeed, when you ask others around our nation about Forsyth County Schools, you will hear descriptions of excellence, caring, and superior performance. Dr. Ellen Cohan’s role in the success of our district is rooted in the wisdom and support she provides for our leaders. They, in turn, create wonderful environments in which our students thrive.
As of June, 2016, Dr. Cohan will be relinquishing her part time role of leadership support. There are so many educators in our community who want her to know what a “Light of Hope” she has been to leaders, teachers, and most of all, our children.
When Ann joined the board of directors of the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce in 1994, she infused the value that it was important, and necessary, for the business community to be connected with the education community. She spearheaded efforts to establish the Partners in Education (PIE) program, which gave businesses an opportunity to engage with our students, gain a better understanding of our school system and insure a brighter future for our community. Twenty-one years later, the PIE program continues to thrive, serving all of our schools, our students, and Forsyth County.
In 1996, Ann joined the president of the Chamber of Commerce in calling on the Forsyth County School Board to authorize a community based strategic plan for the school system. Her vision for the “big picture”, or the future of our school system, resulted in her being appointed one of the three co-chairs as a representative from the business community. This was the school system’s first strategic plan, which significantly laid the groundwork for the phenomenal school system we have today.
In 2000, she was asked to serve on the Blue Ribbon Task Force on funding for our schools. This led her to coordinate efforts to get the first SPLOSTreferendum passed in 2001, helping to secure funds for our school system as it began to grow.
As her involvement with our school system continued, Ann felt a calling to serve in a greater capacity. In 2002, she was elected to her first term as District 1 Representative for the Forsyth County School Board, a position she is proud to continue serving in today. During her tenure on the school board, she has served as Chair, Vice-Chair and the Legislative Liaison for our local state delegation. She was also appointed to the Governor’s Education Advisory Committee in 2010 and served as the Ninth District Director for the Georgia School Board Association for 5 years.
Ann’s work has not been for one child but for thousands. Every day, she tirelessly advocates for our students, making sure they have every resource available to thrive and reach their highest potential. Her passion and efforts have inspired many people to make a positive impact on education and the children in our community.
When Barry George returned from Guatemala where he served on a global mission trip to rebuild the City of Hope for children, he felt called to serve his community of children here in Forsyth County.
Serving as a West Forsyth Youth Lacrosse coach, Barry has led numerous boys to treat their teammates and opponents with equal integrity. Giving countless hours of instruction, hundreds of boys have grown under his thoughtful tutelage, and have matured into young men who represent our community with a value system that some had only previously known through a relationship with Coach George. Taking that leadership to another level, Coach George plays Old Guy lacrosse with other dads whose sons were beginning to play the sport. These dads, many unaccustomed to the game, learned also through George’s instruction—he provided tools that they could bring home, thereby ensuring that dads and sons could engage in discourse about the game and learn alongside one another.
Building upon this bridge between adults and children, Coach George serves on the West Forsyth Youth Lacrosse board, giving more of this time to ensure that kids in our community learn the sport with honest integrity and are coached by those whose interest in the players will provide an additional positive resource for the player.
As a 3rd generation Eagle Scout, Mr. George leads Pack 254 as its Cub Master. Hundreds of boy scouts as well as scout leaders benefit from the careful, thoughtful training that Mr. George brings to the pack. He began with Pack 254 as a Den Leader now gives endless hours as Cub Master, overseeing all Dens—again providing leadership for hundreds of boys but also by impacting those scout leaders to whom some of the boys will grow incredibly attached and will potentially see as offering respite from a difficult home situation.
Surely, his quiet, positive service as a role model, while supported by his wife who understands his need for generous service, not only gives an example to his own sons, but also to so many other members of our community. He is very deserving of our thanks and of this light of hope award. So many children may see Barry’s presence as a needed sanctuary, but more so, other children may similarly benefit by extension of this sanctuary if taught by a leader also mentored by Barry. His impact is multi-leveled and far reaching and undoubtedly deserving of this award.
Deanna exemplifies the Girl Scout Ethic of “Letting Girls Lead,” she guides them at a young age and then helps them find their own footing as older girls – trying activities, reaching out to other, completing Silver and Gold Award projects, and sponsoring events to raise money for trips. Her older girls brainstorm, plan, shop, and execute their ideas. She is building the foundation for these young women to be successful throughout life – to be an advocate for themselves and others; to stand up for what they believe; to make thoughtful choices; and to believe in themselves to the fullest.
Even while battling Breast Cancer, Deanna never gave up the fight for the girls, constantly advocating on their behalf. Her previous work made sure that when she wasn’t able to speak up someone else could – Forsyth County is filled with women and girls who live, breathe, and exemplify the values of Girl Scouting that Deanna taught them.
Deanna has always made Girl Scouts and the girls that she serves a priority. She showed her dedication as a membership specialist for Forsyth County by working diligently to bridge social gaps and improve communication between the 3 Service Units. As a leader and a summer camp director, she is extremely thoughtful in her approach to girls as to ALWAYS be an example of a kind, caring, respectful, and fair individual.
As a Membership Specialist she led Forsyth County through a difficult restructuring process – moving from three Service Units to five. In the process, she helped us to navigate difficult conversations with people and remain friends throughout the process.
Deanna has taught the adult leaders how to work together and how to be advocates for the girls in their charge. Without her, this county would be less rich, less inspired and less of an amazing place for girls.
She deserves this award for herself and for the hundreds of women and girls she has inspired to be better, work hard and to ask the question, “why not?”
Barbara Kastner has worked for the Bald Ridge Lodge, a Stablization and Assessment Center for boys since Sept. 2008, serving as the Program Director since 2013. She and her family have spent many years working with youth in our community in a variety of ways. In addition to the Bald Ridge Lodge, Barbara has worked with Boys Scouts of America for more than 20 years. Barbara and her husband Bruce have been married for more than 27 years and in addition to raising their son Andrew, they have also fostered more than100 children in their home.
Safety and wellbeing is what she values most when serving youth over the years and making a connection with them. Barbara loves teenagers, planting seeds in their minds and giving them a positive role model to follow. Barbara has a very calming nature and does not scare easily. No teenage boy’s circumstance is too much or too difficult to overcome. She takes time to talk with each one and gives a listening ear when needed most, giving the boys confidence to be the very best that they can be. She works with all of our Community Partners to make sure each young man has every opportunity to be his best, including the Forsyth County School System, Juvenile Court, DFCS, volunteers, and mentors.
Several of the boys continue to keep in contact with her after they are no longer at the Lodge and those calls never go unanswered. Many boys call to just to say hello and check in to let her know they are doing well. She has been a Light of Hope for each of these young men and has truly made a difference in their lives.
As a school social worker, one learns quickly that there are people who are pillars in the community who don’t have fancy titles and offices, but have influence and the respect of the community. Norma Malone, who serves as an Educator on Special Assignment in Transition Services for Forsyth County Schools, is one of these individuals. She is an advocate for the needs of children and families who are English Language Learners in our community. She is a trusted by families and is the expert many parents in our Latino community feel comfortable going to for advice regarding their child’s education and collaborating with school staff, navigating community programs, and general parenting advice.
Social workers sometimes have difficult conversations with parents when students or families are in crisis. Norma is always able to put families at ease with her calm and nurturing approach. She is always willing to assist in reaching families when there are language barriers, even though she is incredibly busy with all of her roles in the transition services office. Whether she is teaching family engagement classes, testing students to determine eligibility for English Language Learner services, or welcoming families who are registering new students in the school system, Norma is a welcoming, smiling face.
Norma is connected with families through outreach programs and her faith community. She works closely with local non-profits such as The Place of Forsyth to ensure that the basic needs of students and families are met. Sometimes families in vulnerable positions are afraid to involve law enforcement, even when their safety is at risk. She has worked with law enforcement to support families and help them feel at ease through the process to ensure their children’s safety. Norma is an inspiration within the community because she does her work with patience and love. So much of what Norma does is done quietly, with little fanfare, and behind the scenes. She rarely seems to tire. What she does to help others is just a part of her fabric.
Not only has she had the responsibility of teaching our students, but she is now the first contact for all international students and families to our school system. She registers all students for school and determines if they need support in learning English. For some students and families, she registers the students, directs them to the schools, and they go on their way. For many more families, she becomes their support system and connection to our community. Forsyth County and Forsyth County Schools are better place for our international families because of Norma Malone’s dedication.
Catherine has been volunteering as the leader of “The Only Way” program at SAFFT, a nonprofit organization with a mission to protect children, rebuild families, and empower caregivers. Catherine arrived in August of 2014 as a volunteer mentor. Her passion and experience quickly became clear and when a leadership position was needed, Catherine jumped in without hesitation. “The Only Way” is a program that serves parents who are in crisis by offering a 10 month program teaching individuals how to face their past, take personal inventory of their issues, and address them head on through a faith-based Christian curriculum.
As a certified Celebrate Recovery teacher, Catherine saw the great need for a structured program so she introduced it immediately. She personally developed the SAFFT program from a mentorship service to a complete, outpatient support program for anyone with substance abuse issues, family dysfunction, and past child abuse. Catherine began dedicating 4-5 days per week, including a weekly Monday evening class, to ensure The Only Way program would make a long-term impact on the clients served. The Only Way program now serves dozens of families every month in both Forsyth and Hall County.
Catherine’s hard work and contribution to this community will impact 2-3 generations for countless families. When Catherine and her team bring a mom or dad from a place of brokenness, hopelessness, and depression and teach them life skills and substance abuse recovery, this parent becomes a stable home forever. This in turn ensures the children in the home do not repeat this cycle, which affects generations thereafter. A recent example involves a mom who was a drug addict, jobless, and homeless. The mom entered the program in early 2015. When she graduated from the program her life had completely changed. She has been clean for 6 months, maintains a stable job, and received custody of her children after successfully completing her case plan with DFCS.
Thank you, Catherine, for being a Light of Hope for hurting families in our community.
Elisabeth Westbrook does not have a traditional family. What she has is a big family and a home full of love. She and her husband Slade, are the biological parents of three amazing daughters and are the adoptive parents of 4 beautiful children – Charlie, Celia, Kate and Finn, ages 6 and under -- and all 4 with Down syndrome. These are their “littles.”
Elisabeth believes every child deserves a chance. She is patient, loving and devoted to her family. She also looks outside of herself, advocating and fighting for children in the special needs community, eligible for both domestic and international adoption. She embraces and runs to children with differences, often hearing from professionals their worry that a child will never find a forever home because of their medical challenges.
Each one of the Westbrook “littles” is medically fragile. Many have come ‘home’ with feeding tubes and were oxygen dependent. Three have had major heart surgeries; one is facing another surgery in the coming years. And if that was not enough for one family, Kate was diagnosed with leukemia just after her first birthday. We are excited to celebrate today that she is cancer free. With each medical challenge, Elisabeth researched and became an expert on the care her children needed.
Today, what you will see are three kind and compassionate young ladies who have learned much about love from their parents. You will also see four “littles” who are growing and learning from a family who has great expectations for each. They are learning to be independent and meeting milestones that were thought to be out of reach.
That is the beautiful thing about this family. Every child has been given the opportunity to be their best selves! Elisabeth could have very well just focused on her three daughters – her hands were full. But as she so often shows us, so is her heart. This fall the Westbrook family will be growing again as they welcome 8 year old Abe into their family. How lucky Abe is to have this forever family waiting for him.