Jay Copp 2016-04-14 02:31:28
Still recovering from the recession, a Georgia town counts on Lions, many of them veterans, to battle its social woes. In the center of quaint Ellijay, as a crowd expectantly waits, the time nears 11 minutes after the 11th hour on the 11th month. Hundreds of homemakers, shop owners and country dwellers are gathered in front of the red-brick courthouse and a temporary platform, adorned with red-and-blue draping and filled with dignitaries. The people crane their necks toward an inky smudge emerging from the Blue Ridge Mountains. Peering into the distance, too, are clumps of youths—choir students in matching black shirts and pants and school band members attired in blue uniforms—and clusters of veterans, some frail and leaning on canes, and others greying and slowing but still sturdy. The small Georgian town of 1,100 celebrates Veterans Day with a spirited parade where schoolchildren wave flags while veterans march down the street. During the festivities at the courthouse the crowd loudly recites the Pledge of Allegiance, proudly sings the National Anthem and listens respectfully to a succession of speeches. The celebrants stand stone-silent first for a moving “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes, then a thunderous 21-gun salute and, lastly, a mournful “Taps” by a lone bugler. Later, Lions will treat veterans to a thank-you lunch at the spacious Lions barn. But the highlight of the day hovers in the sky. A relic of the Vietnam War, a dark-green Huey, at last a whirring presence, flies directly over the celebrants. Vigorously waving from the helicopter is Lion Herman Clark, retired U.S. Air Force Reserves. For 26 years the Ellijay Lions in this small northern Georgia town have enthusiastically staged the state’s largest Veterans Day celebration. The setting of the celebration is iconic—small-town America in cinematic perfection. Maybe elsewhere the national holiday in early November simply means a day off from school or no mail, but in Ellijay, home to old-fashioned emporiums, antique stores and a vintage barber shop, Veterans Day is robustly celebrated. If Norman Rockwell were here, he might have been tempted to grab his easel and oils and capture the scene. Yet there is a hidden underside to the Rockwellian scene: people struggling to make ends meet and keep their families intact. Many Ellijay Lions, retired vets, now practice patriotism of another sort: they’re on call for active community service, frontline participants in a daunting battle against social ills. It’s not a deficit in patriotism in the community that concerns Lions: it’s a lack of jobs. The enemy is not foreign but domestic: teenage pregnancy, child neglect and abuse, and entrenched poverty. “Too many children carry a lot of baggage here,” Lion Bill Leinmiller tells the LION. Leinmiller not only helps run the Lions’ charity arm but also helps direct some of the nonprofits Lions assist. Lion Merle Howell Naylor heads the Gilmer County Family Connection, an agency that assists students and families. “There is so much sadness. You have to see some success, or you’d lose your mind,” she sighs. Ensconced in leadership roles, Lions are well-positioned in the community to tackle the social problems. And their cumulative life experiences give them an edge. They’ve overcome their share of personal hardships and sorrows: hardscrabble youths, bitter family tragedy and devastating illness. For at least one influential Ellijay Lion, who harbors an acute sense of the local historical injustices, the desire to serve springs from a most unlikely source: a disastrous fire in town that roared through the cramped living quarters of impoverished immigrants. From ashes arose rejuvenation for many. Beauty and Woe Five lanes wide at times, Interstate 75 heads north out of Atlanta with its towers of steel and glass, veers past prosperous Marietta and other congested suburbs with their parade of stores, industry and jobs, and then 80 miles out, transformed into Highway 515, leads to Ellijay and East Ellijay, the two small communities known as the Ellijays that form the nucleus of Gilmer County. The Ellijays sit in a valley framed by the Blue Ridge Mountains, also known as the Smoky Mountains. On the weekends and in the summer Atlantans and others flock here for the artisan shops, mountain trails and stunning vistas. Indisputably, the towns form an idyllic rustic haven bursting with charm, blessed with gorgeous scenery and populated by the self-reliant. Ellijay residents relish the land—and their nation. Patriotism is hardly a one-day affair here; it’s deeply embedded in Gilmer County. For Veterans Day, courtesy of the American Legion, the roadsides are lined with 836 white memorial crosses for late veterans from the county. When First Lt. Noah Harris, a state champion wrestler and charismatic student leader, died in 2005 after a grenade hit his Humvee near Baghdad, yellow flags fluttered along the road for 20 miles prior to his memorial service, and the Ellijay post office was named after him. In the 1990s the Ellijays enjoyed a boom. Retirees from Atlanta, weary of the congestion, and seniors from Florida, exhausted by the heat, bought second homes or built new ones. The job market expanded, and Guatemalan immigrants poured in. Within a 10-year span the population jumped an astonishing 70 percent. Then came 2008 and the housing market crash. Gilmer County residents are hardy—many draw from well water and use propane tanks for heating and cooking. But jobs dried up, and social problems intensified. “There are pockets of real distress in Gilmer County,” says Julie Jabaley, who runs the nonprofit Craddock Center. On a wall in her office in a log cabin in the woods is a large map produced by the Appalachian Regional Commission. Counties are color-coded as to economic strength. Gilmer is a darker color, indicative of its at-risk status. The county suffers from alarmingly high teen pregnancy and child abuse rates, commonly attributed to lack of steady work. The unemployment rate spiked at 12.5 percent in 2011 and was still 8.3 percent in July 2014. The poverty rate is a galling 20 percent. The economic struggles are evidenced in the long lines at the Food Pantry, the 90 volunteers it takes to run the Faith Hope and Charity Recycle Store and the full rooms at the Kids Kottage, a visitation center for parents whose children have been judicially removed from them. The region’s beauty remains unmarred. The southern tip of the Smoky Mountains, so named because of the vapors that curl up from the trees in the afternoon, create a constant, almost friendly perimeter. These days smoke rises all day and night from Pilgrim’s poultry plant, the area’s largest employer with 1,100 workers. But other jobs are scarce. The carpet mills and sock factories closed years ago. Fortunately, the county’s most well-known product is recession-proof. “Only God and the weather can affect it,” says Leinmiller, 84, but still full of fizz like a shaken cola can. Outsiders may associate Georgia with peaches, but since 1903 Gilmer County’s temperate climate has grown tart, crisp apples. The county’s orchards produce 31 varieties of apples. Known as the state’s Apple Capital and containing the miles-long Apple Alley on Highway 52, the county produces more than 250,000 bushels annually. Ellijay is home to the popular Georgia Apple Festival, run by Lions for 44 years at the sprawling Lions fairgrounds close to the town center. Held over four days on two weekends in October and co-sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, the fair typically draws 70,000 people and raises more than $77,000 for the club. Many of the club’s 112 members put in long hours at the festival. A glutton for service, the club also sponsors an oldfashioned county fair over five nights in August. Primarily thanks to those two events, the club disperses as much as $100,000 annually to 37 charitable causes, most of them local. “The Apple Fest is our golden goose. The fair is a good chicken, too, that lays a good egg,” says Leinmiller, the treasurer of Ellijay Lions Club Charities. “We can do what some only clubs can dream about.” Lions Leaders The clock in the Lions barn shows 8 o’clock. By noon the large complex studded with long tables will be filled with hungry veterans, taking part in the Veterans Day lunch. Outside are the fairgrounds, nine acres leased by the club from the Gilmer Power Company for $240 annually. The commercial kitchen inside contains a formidable fryer and a mammoth industrial steamer for poultry. Readying the midday barbecue is the kitchen manager, Lion Jim Graviano, whose story among Lions is atypical. Veterans Day in Ellijay includes a spirited parade and a roadside memorial to veterans. Veterans salute during “Taps.” He once headed the kitchen at the Promise Land Ministry, a live-in facility for men recovering from addiction. Graviano was there for a reason. “I cut my thumb off. Got into narcotics,” he says matter-of-factly. Lions support Promise Land, and they took an interest in Graviano, whose vision was awful. The Lions first gave him glasses and then provided eye surgery. “One eye is 20/20 and the other 30/40,” says Graviano. “I had my great awakening with the Lions. Sixty-six and a brand new life!” As the veterans file in, so, too, do Lions. Most are older, at a stage in life able and willing to give a boost to others. As president, Robert Lique ran the Apple Fest last fall. It wasn’t a chore, he insists. “Our club has lots of good people. There are so many good people working the fair that you just have to manage them. They take care of things. I just needed to ask, ‘Is there anything I can do to help you,’” recalls Lique, self-effacing and mild-mannered. Retired Navy, he volunteers, as others in his club, with the Civil Air Patrol Squadron, a youth group. As an operation specialist during the Vietnam War, he aided the missions of destroyers and battleships. He then worked for years for the Veterans Administration in California. A Kentucky native, Lique relishes taking nature photos, an inducement to relocating to Ellijay. “It’s peaceful here. Nice waterfalls,” he says simply. Lique is 69 and not ready for days of watching TV in a recliner. “I do it [service] because it makes me feel good. I can do something other than sitting at home,” he says. Besides, he finds a way to make service fun. “I have a little competition going with Scott [Griffith, 2014-15 president]. I try to do a little better. Raise a little more.” And has he? “Yeah, I’ve been doing better,” he says with a laugh. Bob Fenner, a retired manager for Coca Cola in Atlanta, served as president three times. Earnest and straightforward, he speaks in measured tones in describing his upbringing. He lived in 17 different places and attended 13 schools while growing up. “My parents loved me,” he says as a shorthand way to deflect credit for his success. “Dad was in the insurance business. He ran into some problems. We weren’t living in poverty. We didn’t have an outhouse for a bathroom. We struggled for money at times. “A lot of us have done well. There are people in the community who struggle. We try to appreciate what we have.” Herman Clark, who rode the Huey, is another Lion who is retired military and grew up elsewhere—eastern Tennessee. “I’m a hill person,” says Clark, who has alert eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, with a smile. Clark is one member among many who knows people with hands on levers of power. He served as a state representative for six years. He’s an attorney for the school board (partly why he flew in the Huey—to locate the various schools scheduled for the flyover). Yet his service also is movingly personal. “I have an ulterior motive,” he confides. “My 23-year-old grandson is totally blind, born with no eye sockets.” Becoming a Lion in Ellijay doesn’t require a new selfrealization; often members can indulge a cherished side of themselves. A Lion since 1999, Jim Bradley once roamed faraway towns as a missionary for the Southern Baptists. Now he serves as club chaplain, devotedly visiting the sick and comforting the bereaved on behalf of Lions. Soft-spoken, Bradley shrugs and explains that both roles had a common foundation: “service.” Standing nearby, Leinmiller offers a more detailed formulation: “Every meeting of every group here starts with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. Then you get down to business.” Forty-three women are Ellijay Lions. Kathryn Watkins, 62, grew up in Ellijay but struggles to talk about its past—or her past. A brain aneurysm wiped out most of her long-ago memories. “It comes and goes in pieces,” she says. Life has thrown her other curveballs. After she raised her three children, she took in three of her grandkids. Still, she always set aside time for volunteering. Her children’s high school honored her. “I was always there,” says Watkins, who has curly gray hair and today wears round bright-red earrings. She also spent hours at nursing homes. “That’s what Lions were doing. So why not join them?” says Watkins, who took the oath six years ago. Watkins handles public relations for the club. Her yellow vest is smothered with awards pins. Members good-naturedly refer to her as “chatty Kathy.” “I’m OK with that; I do talk a lot,” says Watkins. “This is a good bunch of people. We don’t just go one way. Everybody gets a say.” A point of pride of the Ellijay Lions with the veterans lunch is the lavish dessert table—you could say Lions are sweet on vets. A 50-foot line of tables offers peach cobblers, apple pies, chocolate cakes and dozens of other rich pastries. One man who had dropped off a dessert asked what the lunch was for. Told it was for veterans, he wrote a check on the spot for $100. “I’ll write him a letter,” says Leinmiller. “I write a lot of letters.” By mid-afternoon the pastries are gone, and the last few Lions are locking up by 4 p.m. Tables and chairs have been rearranged: tomorrow in the barn is a Lions blood drive with the Red Cross. In two days, on Friday, toting white buckets, Lions will head at 7 a.m. to intersections to collect for their White Christmas fundraiser for needy families. The quick succession of projects illuminates two things about the club. First, this hive is full of worker bees. “Some people join Lions for the resume. We have a way of rooting them out. We’re a working club,” says Leinmiller. Second, the Lions emblem ensures fundraising success. “The community trusts us. We’ve garnered their trust,” he says with conviction. “When members are raising funds, some people will ask what it’s for. Other say, ‘It’s Lions, so it’s OK.’” Reliable Ally Leinmiller steers the wheel of his black Dodge Ram truck, its odometer topping 100,000 miles. We’re off to visit with some of the 37 beneficiaries of Lions’ largesse. Leinmiller describes landmarks and other points of interest; history is alive for him. Driving on Route 515 in Ellijay, he slows near Craig Street and points toward a patch of land. “That’s where the Trail of Tears began,” says Leinmiller in a gravelly voice. His craggy face, deep-set eyes and thick white hair give the guise of an Old Testament prophet. The notorious Fort Hetzel once occupied this land. Governor George Gilmer, for whom the county was named, ordered the barbaric removal of Cherokees from their land in 1838. “Everything was taken from them. It was wrong,” says Leinmiller, a natural storyteller whose hands sometimes jab the air as he speaks. The Cherokees were forced to march west, losing their lands, their way of life and, in many instances, their lives. Later, again on Route 515, Leinmiller jerks the wheel and pulls off to the shoulder near a weather-beaten black marker. It commemorates the former home of Chief White Path of the Cherokees. Pointing at the stub, Leinmiller says, “If you bushwhack up the mountain here, you’ll find my place.” His home, his second one in the area, sits on a ridge adjacent to Walnut Mountain. Leinmiller is anything but a lone wolf; he mixes easily and seems to know half the people in town. But he’s not hesitant to take a principled stand. A few years ago, when downtown Ellijay was struggling, he was invited to be part of a group to find ways to attract visitors. Someone suggested commissioning a statue of a Cherokee chieftain. Leinmiller strenuously objected. “That was the epitome of hypocrisy,” he says. “I wasn’t invited back to the group.” Leinmiller knows his way around the hollows and back roads of the Ellijays and approaches people with such warm familiarity that he seems to be a native. In fact, he carried a lifetime of experience with him when he finally retired to Ellijay in the early 1990s. Born in Cincinnati, he grew up in Atlanta. Another instance in which history seems to find him, as a child he witnessed the grand premiere of “Gone with the Wind” and eyeballed the movie’s stars such as Clark Gable. “I was just a kid–bored,” he recounts. The Civil War made a deeper impression on him in another, more tangible way. He played in culverts, later discovering they were trenches dug by Confederate soldiers, and in the dirt he uncovered Minie balls—bullets. ‘We’re not a Lions club. We are a family. The groups we help are part of our family, too...We’re not just writing checks. We’re involved in what they do.’ After serving in the 1950s for eight years in the Navy and Naval Reserve, Leinmiller returned to Atlanta and made his living as a manufacturer’s representative for children’s clothes. For his retirement, he built a comfortable home in Ellijay on Walnut Mountain, complete with rocking chairs on his porch. (One of his neighbors was another Mountain Lion: Jimmy Carter. The longtime second home of the former U.S. president is a rustic pine cabin on Walnut Mountain.) But serious illness made Leinmiller take stock of his plans. He had a massive, life-threatening heart attack and then battled colon cancer. A life of ease was no longer in the cards. “I said, Jesus, what do you want me to do?’” Not long after that an acquaintance invited him to a Lions meeting. Five miles east of Ellijay, Leinmiller turns off Highway 52 and parks at the Food Pantry. It’s the county’s only pantry (some churches have smaller food closets). The pantry was once housed in a woefully inadequate facility. But two years ago, testament to the webbed network of the county’s nonprofit agencies, the Faith Hope and Charity Recycle Store gave the neglected 7,000-square-foot facility to the Food Pantry. “The only thing living here was critters,” says Leinmiller. Like an old-fashioned barn raising, volunteers cleaned the building, crafted shelves from donated lumber from Lowe’s and solicited the other accoutrements needed such as chairs, which arrived courtesy of the First Methodist Church. In the amber-gloom of the warehouse, shelves are lined with staples of sustenance— rice, canned beans, soup, pasta and peanut butter. The pantry bustles with patrons every Wednesday. It distributes $175,000 of food annually, feeding 520 families each month. Walmart and Lion King (a grocery chain) donate food nearing expiration. The pantry also pays food banks in Atlanta and Chattanooga 16 cents a pound for food. The Lions typically give $5,000 annually to the pantry, providing 10 percent of the food budget (pantry staff is unpaid). About 40 percent of patrons are seniors, and about 40 percent are families with children. The pantry is near Apple Alley, the picturesque, welltraveled road for out-of-towners drawn to the raw beauty of Gilmer County. Poverty often remains hidden. “If you don’t look for it, you won’t see it,” says Judy Farmer, the longtime pantry director. Farmer and Leinmiller spend a few minutes catching up, and they chat about a blind patron of the pantry. He was persistently frustrated while shopping because he was not certain what was in the cans and boxes he plucked off shelves. There was a $10,000 device to solve the problem. But Leinmiller was able to tell Farmer: “there’s an app for that.” The club bought the man a smart phone (useful in myriad ways for the blind) and paid for the app. Total cost: $620. The sequence of events illustrates the club’s frequent role, not as bandaging a wound and turning toward the next problem and not plugging holes in a dike in a haphazard relief effort but as a continually present ally of community members intent on improving lives. The Lions’ donations to causes and groups generally range from $500 to $5,000. In the most recent year the club gave $2,000 to Kids Ferst, which gives books to preschoolers; $2,000 to the North Georgia Mountains Crisis Network, a refuge for women suffering from abuse; and $3,000 to the Gilmer Learning Center, which teaches adults academic skills. The club also amply supports groups outside Ellijay such as Leader Dogs, the Georgia Lions Lighthouse, the Georgia Lions Camp for the Blind and the American Cancer Society. Once the club starts supporting a venture, it pretty much sticks by it. “We’ve stopped funding only one,” says Leinmiller. The club believed the place spent money on non-essential matters so it ceased its support. Lions’ support often is crucial. “We don’t have big companies here like they have Coke in Atlanta,” says Jan Day, the unit director at the Boys and Girls Club. “We have groups like the Lions. We could not exist without them.” Another Lions’ beneficiary is the Gilmer County Family Connection, based at a school and committed to nurturing the potential of students. Lion Merle Howell Naylor, 60, joins Leinmiller today on the drive through the Ellijays. The wife of Lion Larry, a retired Methodist minister, she coordinates Family Connection. Her office is at Gilmer Middle School. “We’re kind of the 411 or the 911 for the county,” says Naylor, meaning its role is to respond to emerging as well as longstanding crises. Naylor, whose three sons are grown, knows a thing or two about overcoming obstacles. Her father died when she was a 16-year-old student at Gilmer High School. “My mom was not rich. But she handled it. She was from Atlanta— she just had a different attitude about things,” she says. Her mom had never worked, so Naylor took over paying bills and handling the family finances. “I think losing my dad at an early age made me more independent and responsible,” she says. “I guess I missed some of the typical teen-age pitfalls because I knew that someone was depending on me.” Family Connection strives to teach students about adulthood and its responsibilities and making wise choices while young. It sponsors a “Reality Day” in which adults talk about their jobs, and the students use a worksheet to calculate the routine bills and expenses that will one day arrive in their mailbox. The nonprofit also stages Teen Maze at the Lions fairgrounds. More than 125 volunteers take part to graphically illustrate the consequences of texting and driving, drug abuse, teen pregnancy and more. EMT personnel arrive at the scene of a mock crash as does an evacuation helicopter. Some students wear orange jumpsuits, get fingerprinted, confer with a real attorney and stand before an authentic judge. Others walk past a coffin with a mirror that shows their own reflection as they file by. “Pregnant” girls walk around with heavy sacks attached to their waist. Leinmiller serves as chairman of Family Connection, indicative of both the enclosure of Lions in the social service circle and the overall cooperation of the various agencies. The volunteers and the agencies and nonprofits they serve are often entwined, enhancing communication and coordination. Some two dozen of the nonprofits take part in Charity Tracker, which records support given to families. “There is no double dipping. If someone did that, someone would be without,” Naylor explains. We head toward Cherry Log. Our last stop is the Craddock Center, a log cabin in the woods. A colorful standalone sign reads “We Deliver Happy and Hope.” Its director, Julie Jabaley, is a favorite of Leinmiller’s. “She’s atomic energy wearing a dress,” he raves. In her 20s, Jabaley and Leinmiller greet each other with a warm hug. The Craddock Center brings music, storytelling and books to 3- to 5-year-olds in Appalachia. “We’re dealing with intergenerational poverty, cyclical poverty,” says Jabaley, who formerly taught first grade in Atlanta. “We flip the pyramid [of needs] upside down. Equally important is creativity, self-esteem, stimulating the imagination. Of course, we need to feed, shelter and clothe children. But we also need to stimulate the imagination through songs and storytelling.” The center sends its specialists to schools while in session, and in the summer, when poor kids lose ground academically, its workers fill a bucket with books and educational toys and fan out to low-income apartment complexes, housing projects and even empty fields. The key is not to leave the children on their own without access to resources and guidance. Lion Merle Naylor confers with Judy Farmer, the director of the Food Pantry. As director of the Craddock Center, Julie Jabaley believes in the value of books, storytelling and music for children. In essence, that’s what Ellijay Lions do as well—to be there for people in need, provide some assistance and boost their chances at success and fulfillment. They belong to the many-pronged network of support that fans out over the Ellijay area. “I’ve never seen community like I’ve seen in Gilmer County. It’s phenomenal,” says Jabaley. It’s too facile to say Lions are at the hub of the help. But Lions are usually part of the solution when there is a problem. “We’re not a Lions club. We are a family. The groups we help are part of our family, too,” says Leinmiller. “We work together with them. We’re not just writing checks. We’re involved in what they do. “We’re Lions in its purest form. At least that’s my interpretation.” To think Leinmiller wavered on becoming a Lion. After considering joining, he finally decided to after witnessing an outpouring of community spirit in Ellijay. Several dozen Guatemalan immigrants were living above a budget store, formerly the site of a gas station. A roaring fire erupted. Miraculously, no one was killed. Word spread quickly that families were in desperate straits. By that evening the homeless Guatemalans had found temporary living quarters throughout the community. Within four days they had sufficient clothes and permanent homes. A place that had been inhospitable and much worse to Native Americans and blacks had rushed to aid Latino newcomers. “That made up my mind to be a Lion,” says Leinmiller. Digital LION Watch a video of the Veterans Day celebration shot from a drone at lionmagazine.org. Digital LION Read how Lions supported veterans decades ago at lionmagazine.org. Indiana Lions host Civil War veterans (November 1925 LION). New York club gives a house to a blind war hero (December 1949 LION).
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