The transition from soldier to civilian is never easy, and becomes even more difficult when veterans return home with injuries, according to Michael Reynolds, who served in the U.S. Army as a flight medic for 18 years. During his service, he suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq and medically retired in August 2012.
Coming home to Gordon County, he wanted to find a new purpose, according to the television series "Growing a Greener World" created by the Public Broadcasting Service. In the spring of 2017, a PBS crew came out to Reynolds' farm to talk to him about being involved with the Farmer Veteran Coalition. In the series' episode No. 807, a short biography on Reynolds' experience as a farmer is captured on film.
"Being a soldier is hard work," Reynolds said on camera, explaining how the schedule of an army medic is often nonstop with little time to rest.
Though he is a licensed paramedic by the state of Georgia, because of his injury he was no longer able to continue in that line of work when he returned home from a military hospital.
"Guys at the fire department, the police department and emergency medical services tried to help me find a place but as hard as I tried to go back to those things, I physically couldn't," he said.
Unable to go back to the career he had started when he was in high school, he struggled to find something to keep him busy. Then, soon after returning home, he asked his friend and Pastor Eddie Brannon if he could start volunteering on Brannon's farm.
Drawn to a farming life
Always needing more help, Brannon quickly invited Reynolds to help out on his farm. Brannon, who is the president of Max Brannon and Sons Funeral Home, served as a mentor figure for Reynolds during their two year working relationship. Through volunteering, Reynolds quickly learned that farming could offer him the sense of purpose he had been seeking.
"I would start at 6:30 a.m. and go to bed at midnight, for six and a half days a week," Reynolds said. "And they ask me if I have nightmares, but by the time I go to bed I'm so doggone tired I don't have the energy to have a nightmare."
With farming, he was able to channel his energy into something productive, he said. He quickly learned he had to be focused and bring his "A" game, otherwise he or someone else could possibly get hurt.
"It's things like that where you can feel alive again," Reynolds said.
After two years volunteering with Brannon, Reynolds decided to start his own farm. Since he was new to the farming lifestyle, he didn't have equipment or land to provide him with a foundation. However, Brannon lent out his equipment to help kick-start Reynolds' dream of farming.
Reynolds Farms, also known as Hero Cuts, was able to get started with the help of not only farming friends, but also with help from the Farmer Veteran Coalition, the National Resource Conservation Service and AgGeorgia Farm Credit, according to Reynolds.
"With our farm, we have a goal of having 85 percent of what hits our family's kitchen table to come off of our 82 acres," Reynolds said.
His farm consists of solar-based energy, bee hives, goats, chickens, alpacas, cows, horses, pigs, timber and a variety of fruit trees and vegetables.
"Instead of farming a lot of one thing, we've got to farm a little of a lot."
Reynolds also has a goal of demonstrating to other veterans how farming can be a good way to both stay busy upon returning home and get guidance from older veterans who took up farming.
Earlier this year, Reynolds was invited by AgGeorgia Farm Credit to travel to Washington, D.C., to explain to key lawmakers and leaders in the U.S. Department of Agriculture the importance of agriculture to veterans. When he was specifically asked by a senator what the most important need for farmer veterans was, Reynolds' answer was guidance from older veterans.
"Everyone would think it would be money, but hands down it is mentorship," Reynolds said, reflecting on his visit to the capital. "You have got to have that older farmer who will come out and walk the field with you."
Geared to Give
Coming in a close second as far as needs, though, is funding, Reynolds told the USDA. When you have limited equipment, productivity can be slow. There's only so much you can do without the right tools and equipment, he said. So when Kubota Tractor Company chose Reynolds as a recipient of the keys to a new Kubota L Series compact tractor as part of the company's Geared to Give philanthropic program, his entire family was overjoyed.
On Tuesday, Reynolds was recognized by Kubota and his local dealer, Rhinehart Equipment Company, with his new tractor in a special ceremony. Those present included staff of Kubota, Rhinehart, NRCS and Farm Credit; Beau Chatham, a Warrior Life Services brain injury specialist; fire chiefs from Cherokee County, Bartow County, Chatsworth, Murray County, Gordon County; Calhoun Police Chief Tony Pyle; Gordon County's EMS and EMA directors; Eddie Brannon; and Anne Marie and Billy Carr with Gordon County Young Farmers.
The Geared to Give program, in partnership with the Farmer Veteran Coalition, was designed to provide U.S. veterans with the equipment and tools they need to advance careers in farming, according to the Kubota Tractor Company. The program started in 2015, and has provided equipment and grants to 26 farmers over the past three years.
"Having the tractor makes it where it's easier on me and makes things a lot safer," Reynolds said. "It moves you toward that goal faster and you can get more accomplished in one day."
Pyle, who was present at Tuesday's ceremony, was proud to be a part of the event.
"As a flight medic in the army, Mike's primary duty was to save the lives of other warriors, and in doing so, he constantly placed himself in harm's way," Pyle said. "I honestly believe Mike Reynolds is one of the best men I've ever known and no one is more deserving of this award."
"It's not just a piece of equipment to help me farm," Reynolds said. "It's going to help all of us reach our goal (of 85 percent sustainability), and that's big."
Reynolds plans to use his new Kubota tractor to increase the farm's independent sustainability, work toward self-reliance and build several barns. He is also interested in establishing a nonprofit to provide sustainable agriculture and cooking lessons to disadvantaged youth and veterans, according to a news release from Kubota.
To view the episode on PBS's "Growing a Greener World" series that features Reynolds Farms, visit growingagreenerworld.com/807. For more information on Reynolds Farms, visit their Facebook page.
This week, quite a few early birds came out to the polls to cast their votes before Election Day on Tuesday.
Shea Hicks, the chairman of the Gordon County Board of Elections and Voter Registration, said that the office has been incredibly busy with early voters. The Calhoun Times joined those who showed up to ask about voting history and opinions regarding the significance of voting this election season.
Two people at the polls this week were Dave and Betty Reeves, a couple in their 70s. Both thought it was important that everyone gets out to vote, and have been doing so since they were legally of age.
"It's our duty to vote," Dave Reeves said.
"If people want to change things that are going on, they have to vote," Betty Reeves added.
Both of the Reeveses felt strongly that voting is an important part of being an American. Another voting citizen Deborah Poarch, 69, said voting is a right, a privilege and an American duty.
"It's very important," Poarch said. "A lot of people think the small elections don't matter. But they very much matter."
Poarch remembers the first time she voted when she was 19. Though she was confused about the process, she wanted to do what she thought was best and exercise the right to participate in American government. She said over time, as she has continued to vote every year, she has learned of the impact it has on our communities, cities and nation.
The Bargers — Jerry, 74, and Teresa, 71, — were another couple who voted early this week. Excluding the two years where Jerry served in the Vietnam War, both of them have voted every year since they were 18.
"You get your choice and your freedom," Teresa Barger said. "You can't complain if you don't vote."
Some of the issues that brought these citizens out to the polls include abortion, immigration, party loyalty, gun control and education. By voting, you can get your opinion out there, Poarch said.
"I think it's pretty important this time," said Emily Leavell of voting in this year's election. "It's going to be a tight race in this area."
Leavell has been a voting citizen for over 30 years, and doesn't plan to stop anytime soon. She encouraged people to get out and voice their beliefs at the polls.
"Your voice matters," Leavell said. "It really does."
More than 5,500 in Gordon County have decided to vote early at the Board of Elections and Voter Registration office.
On Election Day, polls open at 7 a.m. and will close at 7 p.m. Voters can go to the MyVoterPage on the secretary of state's website — myp.sos.ga.gov – to verify their polling location before voting.
For the 2017-2018 College and Career Ready Performance Index, both Gordon County Schools and Calhoun City Schools scored slightly below the state average for school systems, according to data released by the Georgia Department of Education this week.
As a school district, Gordon County Schools scored 72.3, 4.3 points below the state average score of 76.6. Calhoun City Schools scored 76.4, 0.2 points below the state score.
The state reports growth based upon 3 percent and 6 percent as the target for increased scores in particular areas.
As a part of Georgia's plan for the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, the state made improvements to CCRPI calculations for 2018 scores, according to the DOE. The test has been remodeled to now reflect more than just "standardized test scores," the department reported. Any comparison that a district's scores have risen or dropped is inaccurate due to the 2017-2018 change in the test's measurements, according to the DOE.
With the redesigned CCRPI, the new components of the test include content mastery, progress, closing gaps, readiness, and graduation rate (for high schools). This new style of assessment, which is still measured on a 100-point scale, is aimed at providing information that tries to "reflect opportunities schools offered students – from fine arts to career education," according to the DOE.
The elementary district score for Gordon County was 71.5, 6.3 points below the state average of 77.8. Both math and science showed improvement at the elementary level, with scores being at or above the 3 percent target for all students. Multiple subgroups showed at least a 3 percent growth in language arts.
The two Gordon County middle schools scored an average of 71.1, 5.1 points below the state average of 76.2. The 3 percent target in math and science for all students was met, as well as the 6 percent goal in language arts for students with disabilities.
Students at the two Gordon County high schools showed growth in core areas, though they fell 1.2 points below the state average of 75.3 scoring 74.1. Categories that saw growth were English, math and science. In addition, graduation rates increased substantially to 93.8 percent to maintain an average well above the state graduation rate, which is 82 percent.
"While Gordon County schools showed increased content mastery scores in many areas, the district is not where it would like to be in overall scores," said Superintendent Susan Remillard, who is confident the 2018-2019 academic years' scores will improve.
In May 2018, the school district received a new federal grant in support of literacy instruction, the foundation for all other learning, Remillard said. The L4GA — Literacy for Learning, Living and Leading in Georgia — grant provides $1.8 million which will be spread across all schools to help in daily instruction as well as overall progress.
Other assessments used by Gordon County Schools to monitor student progress include Measures of Academic Progress, DIEBELS and Reading Inventory.
"Ultimately, our focus is on the whole child," Remillard said. "Our focus will continue to be providing quality day-today instruction in all of our classrooms."
For Calhoun City Schools, the average score for the elementary school — including students who attend the primary school — was 82.4, 4.6 points above the elementary level state average.
In content mastery, all of Calhoun subgroups met the improvement targets in English language arts and mathematics which produced a progress score of 98.1 (state average 84.4).
Calhoun Middle School was 7.8 points below the middle school state average scoring 68.4. The middle school received a five star climate rating of 93.3, which measures the quality and character of school life.
Calhoun High School overall's score was 74.7, 0.6 points below the high school state average. In the "closing gaps" component, the high school was 13.9 points higher than the state average of 70.
As a district, Calhoun schools demonstrated a 97.6 percent graduation rate. Calhoun continues to have one of the highest graduation rates in the state, according to a news release from the school system. In addition, all schools received a five star climate rating, which is based on discipline, survey feedback, safe and substance-free learning and attendance rates.
Superintendent Michele Taylor said the CCRPI is only one of the tools they look at to monitor student progress. She said since the testing formulas have been recently changed, it's hard to look at that information for progress indicators, but it is still helpful.
"We do look at the information, but really we focus on multiple measures," Taylor said.
The superintendent explained that the school system uses a variety of assessments, such as MAP, individual assessment tools, progress monitoring and community-based accountability. Taylor said community-based accountability is when local feedback is provided to allow the schools to see what the greater community feels the schools should be focusing on.
Kelli Kendrick, the director of school improvement for Calhoun City Schools, also prefers to look at the whole picture and prepare students individually for life after graduation.
"We just use CCRPI scores as another measure to see how we're doing," Kendrick said. "There are lots of different assessments that we use. We prefer not to stake everything in one test."
Kendrick said the most important thing about the Calhoun school system is that they try to daily cater education to each individual and guide students based on their own learning styles.
"That is what defines our success," she said. "Not our state scores."