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Help available locally for survivors of suicide loss

On Christmas Day 2019, Julianne Miller’s 26-year-old daughter, Jerileeza Alexis Scroggins, ended her life with a stash of prescription medications she’d been stockpiling instead of taking for her depression.

When Jerileeza left the house that holiday afternoon, she said she was going to visit friends. She didn’t come home that night and Miller began a frantic search that ended the next day when she got a call from the coroner saying her daughter’s body had been found.

Miller’s world was ripped to pieces. “Jerileeza had moved back home at the beginning of 2019,” she says, “to try to pull her life together financially. In April she began seeing a therapist, had been prescribed helpful medicines and was surrounded by people who loved her.”

A common issue with suicides is that no one outside the person who does it sees it coming. All too often, says Miller, a person who has decided to take their life seems more peaceful than usual — they have made a decision to end whatever is tormenting them.

Miller has grappled with all the things one might expect in her circumstances: heartache, guilt, constantly revisiting what she could have done differently, helping her other children deal with their grief and confusion — and lots of pain and anger.

“I don’t want my daughter’s life to be in vain,” says Miller. To that end, she has thrown herself into helping others who are struggling as survivors of suicide loss and helping people who are at risk of committing suicide.

In 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 45,979 people in the U.S. committed suicide — an average of 126 every single day or one every 11 minutes. Another 1.2 million attempted suicide in 2020.

For every person who takes his or her life, says Miller, there are many more family members and friends left behind who often suffer silently. This can also increase the survivor’s risk of suicide.

After the initial shock over her daughter’s death, what Miller felt was simply alone in the world. “I had friends who wanted to help but they hadn’t experienced the loss of a child. I needed to find other parents who had dealt with this. The grief consumed me, making me feel more isolated — from my family, friends, life and what was going on around me.”

In an obituary for her daughter, Miller shared memories of Jerileeza’s life: “She loved being silly and making other people laugh. She made art out of anything and saw beauty in everything. She loved being in nature, going to the beach with her family, camping and hiking. She had a kind, compassionate and empathetic spirit and would rather give to others than herself.”

Jerileeza was more than the things that caused her to end her life. Miller needed to talk about that, too — with people who would understand. “Friends care,” says Miller, “but they just don’t know how to act. They avoid the topic and sometimes even avoid you. There’s no place to go, to unburden yourself, to share your feelings openly and honestly, to talk about the person you lost.”

Miller spoke with her long-time friend, Sally Ensley, who has worked as a hospice grief counselor and currently serves at Ringgold United Methodist Church as Minister of Care and Community. Together they saw a great need for support in this area and Sally started facilitating a survivors’ support group. Miller says she is very thankful for having this suicide group option in our local area.

The two now work together to run an in-person support group, with an online option, for people who have lost someone to suicide.

The support group meets twice a month at the LIFT Youth Center in Ringgold.

“The group is a no-pressure way,” says Ensley, “for people to share or just be with others who understand.”

“No one should have to be alone when they’re hurting,” says Miller.

If you would like to participate in the Survivors of Suicide Loss Support Group, here’s the information you need. The group is open to anyone from anywhere.

From HERE to CAREER Academy making progress in Catoosa

One thing the new From HERE to CAREER College and Career Academy under construction at the Colonnade Campus in Catoosa County does, says its new CEO Marissa Brower, is “help kids connect to their brilliance.”

In a recent interview with Catoosa County Public Information Officer John Pless, Brower and new Catoosa Schools Superintendent Chance Nix discussed what the academy will mean for the county and for students.

The academy, said Brower, teaches “middle skills” — construction, welding, mechatronics (which includes industrial systems technology and robotics), law and justice, emergency management, nursing, sports medicine and therapeutic services, information technology, architecture and construction, education, and logistics, distribution and supply chain management.

These are skills in high demand. Brower said that of every 10 jobs, one requires a master’s degree, two a bachelor’s degree and seven some college or specialized training. These seven are considered middle skills and make up 55% of demand in the workforce.

“Students need a purpose, a goal to work toward,” said Nix. He said not only will they gain highly sought-after skills at the academy, they’ll graduate with 33 college credits and a half dozen technical certifications.

While the college and career academy is still under construction, there have already been six graduates, through a pilot version of the program. Brower said one of those graduates has joined the military and one got a baseball scholarship. The other four, she said, are working part-time, making $20 an hour and continuing to work on getting associate degrees.

The From HERE to CAREER Academy works in conjunction with Georgia Northwestern Technical College and Dalton State, as well as with local industry and businesses, but it is part of the Catoosa County Public Schools system and under the governance of the Catoosa County Board of Education.

The physical plant

The actual academy facility is slated to open in August 2023. Construction by EMJ Construction, based in Chattanooga, is going strong. Two representatives from the company, Andrei Korobkov and Austin Crane, spoke with Pless about the progress of the construction.

“We’re still having some supply chain issues,” they reported, but overall they said progress has been good. Underground utilities are being installed and geothermal wells are being drilled — ultimately 200-300 of them at 500 feet deep each, as part of the school’s HVAC system. An elevator pit is also being dug.

At any given time, they said, 40-50 men will be working on the job, and ultimately, it will be 100.

There will be a two-story metal structure building, as well as a pre-engineered metal building that will contain the welding and construction shops. The county’s 911 center will be located in the back of the campus. Housing the 911 center was part of the original agreement when the county donated the land for the academy.

Korobkov and Crane say people should be able to see substantial progress by July 2 when they come out to the Colonnade for Independence Day fireworks.

6th Cavalry Museum in Fort Oglethorpe marks retirement of Chris McKeever celebrating 18 years of growth

Eighteen years ago, the 6th Cavalry Museum in Fort Oglethorpe was on the brink of closing. The aging veterans who served in the 6th Cavalry, who started the museum and kept it open for years, were just not able to keep it going. The members were forced to sell off items not related to the unit itself to keep the lights on and the doors open. Enter Chris McKeever.

McKeever had moved to the Tennessee Valley in 1982 to escape the harsh winters of her home state of Michigan. Since then she had worked at the March of Dimes, Hutcheson Medical Center and Signal Centers. But a new opportunity was on the horizon — ne that would change her life and save an important community asset.

Kyle Russell was on the board of directors for the museum in 2005 when they realized a full-time executive director was needed if the museum was to succeed. Russell admits that in the beginning, he thought the job should go to a man — preferably a veteran with knowledge of the military. Once again, enter McKeever. “It turns out [military knowledge] can be learned,” Russell said of his first meeting with McKeever, “You need somebody that’s got a personality that can get people to donate, and Chris has that ability.” The offer was made and McKeever was named executive director of the 6th Cavalry Museum, a move Russell credits with saving the museum.

McKeever hit the ground running, although sometimes it seemed she was running in place. Without money coming in, the museum was struggling to be a place people wanted to visit — and without visitors, it was hard to get people to donate money. It was up to McKeever, working with museum board members, to break the vicious cycle, and that meant making contacts and convincing them that the museum was not only worth saving, but could emerge as a major historical depository and tourist attraction.

The first five years were spent cleaning and arranging the loose artifacts into a collection recognized as a museum. McKeever learned all she could about the Post, Fort Oglethorpe and the military units that called the area home. She took a vast collection of anecdotal stories and artifacts, researched each and assembled them into a cohesive story of farmland turned military post turned successful city.

“She has more energy than any one individual I’ve ever met,” said Durinda Cheek, current board chair. “She’s like the Energizer Bunny.” Early on, the Tucker Foundation was a patron of the museum, injecting much-needed capital into the project. Then Cheek recounts how miraculously, the Lyndhurst Foundation came into the picture with a grant. After we received other small grants, the board agreed to engage Community Consultants to work with the museum, build our base of support and apply for more and bigger grants. The board worked with McKeever to create the 1919 Club, where members donate $19 a month to help with operating expenses.

Over the years, McKeever and museum board members came up with creative ways of raising interest in and providing funding for the museum. World War II reenactments, fundraising banquets, Painting for a Purpose, School Days and Vintage Baseball games were all added to the offerings of the museum. Not only did the events raise money, they raised awareness. And McKeever grew to celebrity status in Fort Oglethorpe. “When you go anywhere with her in the community,” chuckles Cheek. “She knows everybody in the room, and they all come to speak to her.”

She has enlightened those who work for and live in the city of Fort Oglethorpe about their rich history. “Without her doing programs with the schools, the youth didn’t even know where they lived,” said City Council member and museum board member Paul Stinnett, adding “Chris has kept that alive with the museum and her school programs, with what she has presented at council meetings and all the tourism aspects.”

Just when the museum was hitting its stride in 2019, another battle would present itself. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down public attractions, the museum included. Just when there was a steady stream of visitors, the doors were closed for many weeks. During the two years of reduced foot traffic, McKeever used the time to explore new, high-tech ways to get the story of the 6th Cavalry and Fort Oglethorpe out.

The museum website became a primary point of contact, so it was re-designed. And modernized. McKeever applied for grants and created videos that could tell the story of the post and the soldiers who served here. McKeever was able to turn the pandemic slowdown into a new, exciting way to spread the story of the 6th Cavalry Museum worldwide using multimedia. She even made virtual tours available through live webcasts. Now she was not reaching only local schools, but the opportunity was there to share the story of Fort Oglethorpe around the world through the internet.

After 18 years of continued growth and success, it’s now time for McKeever to take a break. As hard as it will be to imagine the 6th Cavalry Museum without her buoyant, bubbly, can-do attitude, McKeever is ready to be a full-time grandmother and to do some traveling. Her last day as executive director was April 30.

Georgia teachers running on empty, according to new report

ATLANTA — Georgia teachers are struggling to cope with the impacts of the pandemic on education to the point that many are likely to leave teaching, according to a new report from the Georgia Department of Education.

“The teachers I know don’t want to walk away … but too many teachers I know are running on empty,” Cherie Bonder Goldman, the 2022 Georgia teacher of the year, wrote at the start of the report.

The task force behind the report conducted focus groups with teachers across Georgia last winter.

About a third of educators said they were unlikely to remain in the profession for the next five years, according to a survey cited in the report.

Georgia should reduce the emphasis on test scores as a marker of teacher success, the new report contends.

“There were so many tests from every angle, district and state required, that the students were numb,” said one middle school science teacher quoted in the report. “These scores fall on us.”

“The unspoken message that if a student isn’t successful then it’s the teacher’s fault needs to go away,” an elementary school teacher added. “There are so many factors outside of a teacher’s control that impact student achievement.”

Georgia recently received permission from the federal Department of Education to collect less data on school performance for the third year in a row.

Teachers also need time and support to help their students return to pre-pandemic levels of engagement and performance, the report contends.

“Coming out of the pandemic, the desire to ‘return to normal’ has also come with an unrealistic expectation … without giving teachers the time, support, resources, and compassion to meet students at their current level,” the report notes.

The Georgia Department of Education recently said that it would use 2022 data, rather than pre-pandemic data, to evaluate school improvement going forward.

Class sizes should be reduced so teachers can “meet the individual needs of students,” the report says.

The report also recommends hiring additional school support staff, including counselors and psychologists, school nurses, and paraprofessionals.

School systems should streamline paperwork and reduce unnecessary meetings so teachers have more time to focus on teaching, the report states.

“The workload is nearly impossible to tackle during the hours we are actually at the school,” said an elementary school teacher. “So many of us have to ‘volunteer’ our time simply to do what is required of us.”

Gov. Brian Kemp and the General Assembly gave teachers a $3,000 pay raise in 2019 and provided another $2,000 this year. Teachers and support staff also received bonuses totaling $3,000 during the pandemic.

But teachers still need more pay if they are to battle burnout and remain in the profession, the report contends.

Georgia should “fund step raises at every stage of a teacher’s career” to encourage teachers to stay in the profession. The state should also protect teacher health-care and retirement benefits, according to the report.

“Teachers always seem to go above and beyond their call of teaching but are hardly compensated or acknowledged for their efforts,” one high school math teacher told the task force.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams recently said she would revise the teacher pay scale so that all teachers make at least $50,000 a year. Her revised pay scale would increase teacher pay across the board.

Those who are making decisions about what teachers do should either be teachers themselves or have significant recent classroom experience, the report states.

“So many decisions are made regarding what should be happening in a classroom by people who are no longer in a classroom and have been out for a long time, or by people who have never been in a classroom,” one elementary teacher quoted in the report states.

Finally, like all other Georgia workers, teachers need mental health support and work-life balance.

“Recognize that teachers are people … and treat them accordingly,” the report recommends.

Rising LaFayette High School senior Grant Langford became the first prep golfer in 15 years to win the Chicken Dinner Golf Tournament at the LaFayette Golf Course on June 11-12. Langford shot rounds of 66 and 69 before winning on the first playoff hole.