HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Early morning rain did not discourage runners from showing up at the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds to race for a good cause, awareness of a non-profit organization, which recruits, trains, and supervises citizen volunteers who advocate for abused and neglected children in the area.
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) sponsored the event. In 2017, local CASA volunteers advocated for the best interests of 141 children in Towns and Union counties.
Mother Nature cooperated and the weather cleared as the runners set out on 5K and 10K paths. The 5K traveled from the fairgrounds to Hiawassee Square, with the 10K leading beyond the Square to Mayors’ Park, retracing back into the heart of town.
Finishing in first place in the 5K division was 15-year-old Luis Quijada, a Towns County student, crossing the finish line minutes ahead of the other participants. Quijada completed the race in an impressive 21:07. Crossing the finish line shortly thereafter was Tim Jones, a participant in the 40 to 49-year category, in unison with Andy Gwynn, a firefighter from Union County, with a dual time of 23:28. The first to complete the 10K was Amber Jones.
Supporters and spectators cheered as runners approached the finish line.
Upon the completion of the race, medals were awarded to the participants in each age category, followed by recognition of CASA’s “Everyday Heroes” in the community.
Applications for nominees were circulated throughout Towns and Union counties.
“Our organizational theme is Everyday Heroes, meaning that our Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) in their every day role become heroes to an abused or neglected child by doing extraordinary things to make a difference in that child’s life,” Enotah CASA Executive Director Linda D’Angelo began. “We wanted to expand on our theme and recognize citizens who go above and beyond in the community in their work and volunteer activities and are able to make a difference in their role.”
The first award was presented to John Keister, a former high school and college basketball coach who now extends his talents coaching children under the age of 12 through a program at the Towns County Recreation Center. Keister recently led his team to victory in the district championship after an undefeated season.
“Coach Keister is an effective coach because he focuses on fundamentals, discipline, and sportsmanship. He loves implementing strategy to combat rivals’ offenses. Some say his young men are too young to learn these techniques, but his talent as a coach has proven how effective this strategy can be,” Director D’Angelo shared.
The next category recognized was first responder and public safety where two Union County nominees were recognized.
Andy Gwynn, a volunteer firefighter, has served with the Union County Fire Department for 15 years. Gwynn was a participant in the 5K race.
“Andy is a person you can always count on. He is a dedicated firefighter and public servant. When the call is made, he is usually the first to respond, day or night. He is constantly training to improve his skills, as is evidenced today by his volunteering to run in the 5K and improve his physical conditioning. He is a great role model and mentor and inspires other firefighters to be their best,” D’Angelo said.
Also honored was Susie Cheek, a sergeant and night jailer with the Union County Sheriff’s Office. Known as “mama” at the sheriff’s office since 2004, Cheek was awarded for her dedication.
“Sergeant Cheek stands out from others through her interactions with the inmates. She treats them with respect, is willing to provide guidance, and lead them to a better place in their lives,” D’Angelo said. “Her Christian values are the hallmark of her heart and efforts to make a difference for those she serves.”
The final category recognized areas of community and non-profit work, with two individuals and an organization awarded.
Hamilton Gardens volunteers were acknowledged for their dedicated efforts in rescuing the 33-acre grounds in 2014, which had previously suffered neglect.
“Through pruning, planting, weeding, painting, building, repairing, soliciting other volunteers and donations, holding fundraising events, and offering free events for the public, the group has reinvigorated the gardens,” D’Angelo stated. “The enthusiasm has not dimmed in the past three years, and now the gardens are an important destination for tourists as well as providing a community treasure for local residents.”
Jesse Cook, an employee of the city of Hiawassee, was awarded for his dedication and described as a vital resource, with D’Angelo adding that most people that live in Hiawassee likely recognize and know Cook by name.
“Jesse is committed to maintaining the beauty of the city, while keeping it safe,” the CASA director explained. “He has been instrumental in Clean sweep, Tree City USA, Arbor Day, and the list goes on. His work with the first annual Light Up Hiawassee event ensured the Square was perfectly decked out for the celebration.”
Marsha Elliot, chair of the Towns County FireWise Citizens Coalition, was recognized for her promotion of FireWise involvement throughout the community as well as her volunteer service with Hamilton Gardens.
“Marsha has led the coalition to identify and train 21 communities in Towns County to commit FireWise practices, and this group leads the state of Georgia in the number of communities who are committed to this vital safety program,” D’Angelo announced. “Towns County has become an example of effective community engagement in safe fire practices due to Marsha’s leadership.”
Marsha Elliot also volunteers her time at Hamilton Gardens.
Towns County Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw, Union County Commissioner Lamar Parris, and Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales were stationed at the finish line, congratulating runners as they completed the race and assisting in presenting awards to the community’s Everyday Heroes.
CASA Director Linda D’Angelo thanked Jennifer McQueen, Liz Ruf, Lynn Beck, John Seymore, Sherri Harden, and Classic Race Services for their help in orchestrating the event.
Featured Photo: Coach John Keister (left) with Towns County Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw.