WNEG Tuesday Commentary with Billy Chism



Every day, there are people in Toccoa and Stephens County doing something for others. It may be a simple act of kindness toward a neighbor or volunteering at your church.

There are also programs in the community designed to help make someone’s life a little better. One such program is the Stephens County Schools mentor program.

The mentor program has been around for quite a while and the concept is pretty simple. An adult makes one visit per week to a school, usually for an hour or less, to meet one-one-one with a student.

That adult serves as a listener, a role model, a coach. They are matched with a student by the mentor coordinator, Nancy Ekback, and the individual school’s counselor.

The mentors are no substitute for teachers or counselors. They are just someone who shows up every week at the school and takes an interest in a student.

Mentors volunteer in every Stephens County school – Big A Elementary, Liberty Elementary, Toccoa Elementary – as well as the 5th Grade Academy, the middle school and the high school.

For mentors, some visits can be hard, with very little spoken during that 15 to 30 minutes. Or, it can be heartbreaking when the mentor realizes that things at home or school could be a lot better.

Mostly though, it’s a time when the mentor arrives at the school once a week to show they care. They may listen to a child read or play a game with the child.

For older students, it may mean offering a little bit of advice in regards to doing better in class. It may mean a pep talk… letting the student know you care.

For some students, the visit by a mentor could be the highlight of their week. When that happens, a special bond forms between the mentor and the student.

Right now, the Stephens County School System has approximately 75 mentors, with 84 students currently being mentored.

If you are interested, you can contact Nancy Ekbeck, mentor coordinator with Family Connection of Stephens County, at 706-898-5115 or e-mail her at nancy.ekback@stephenscountyschools.org.

If you think you would enjoy spending one-on-one time with a student – whether it’s a second grader or a tenth grader – get in touch with Ms. Ekbeck.

“Our mentors are making a difference,” she said. “They are touching the life of a child. They are changing his or her future.”

It may be worth looking into. And that’s something to think about.







When I moved to Toccoa and Stephens County in 1973 – 44 years ago – I was a young reporter at The Toccoa Record, covering both city and county governments.

It didn’t take me long to figure out one of the most contentious issues between the city and county was animal control – what to do with the multitude of stray dogs and cats throughout the county.

There was talk: Is that a “city dog” or “a county dog?” Of course, they were all county dogs since we all live in Stephens County.

But the city – because of the concentration of population – felt they had an obligation to help with animal control. So the city and county worked together to do what it could to curb the out-of-control animal problem.

But it was a half-hearted effort. For years, animal control mostly meant picking up stray or dangerous dogs and taking them to a holding pen before they could be euthanized. That routine continued until recently when Toccoa and Stephens County got it’s first real animal shelter.

That shelter – the Toccoa-Stephens County Humane Shelter – opened in February 2013 on Scenic Drive just off Prather Bridge Road. This new shelter changed things in a big way regarding how we treat animals in Stephens County.

In the past, approximately 93 percent of all animals picked up were killed. And the holding pen they were kept in was less than humane, to put it mildly. It was sad to see what we were doing.

Today, we have an animal shelter we can proud of, and the survival rate for both dogs and cats averages 80 percent.


What changed? In 2007, a group of dedicated citizens pushed the city and county governments to do something. City and county officials responded admirably by forging a joint agreement with these caring local citizens to help build a real animal shelter. Under this set-up, animal control became a function of the shelter.

This new approach doesn’t mean every animal is saved. Every month, some animals – due to health problems or other considerations – have to be sedated and then euthanized by injection. A crematorium on site is used to dispose of the dead animals.

The good news is animals are treated humanely at the shelter and most eventually find loving homes, whether locally or through out-of-town rescues. In fact, a batch of animals will be taken to New Jersey in the next few weeks.

The shelter board has been awarded a $38,000 grant to help buy a new transport van that must be equipped with cages and safety equipment. The city agreed to add $20,000 to help make the purchase possible. The county declined to fund a portion of the van in any way.

Toccoa Mayor Jeanette Jamieson, also current chairman of the Humane Shelter board, said the transport van is a key part of the operation. She added, “We couldn’t see them lose that $38,000 grant. So we put in $20,000.”

Let’s back up, though. Our shelter couldn’t have been built without the help of the city and county governments. Both supplied money for building materials for the shelter and both secured state inmate labor to build the facility, which is on county land.

Since that time, the city and the county and the Humane Shelter board – a nonprofit organization – have jointly funded animal control and the shelter’s operations. Each provide 1/3 of the revenue needed to make it all happen.

This money is used to pay for shelter staffing and animal control services. It also is used to feed and house 2,000 animals each year, not to mention basic veterinary care for them.

Right now, the shelter is filled to the limit with 200 dogs and cats. The ideal number is 150. But the folks at the shelter make it work, especially with its transport program.

Last fiscal year, the city and county each contributed $170,000 for operations. The Humane Shelter board – through donors, grants, fundraisers and fees charged at the shelter – raised in excess of $162,000 in revenue.

This fiscal year, the city again budgeted $170,000 for animal control. The county, however, cut its portion by $20,000 to $150,000.

The county needs to step up next year and fund its full share, matching the city’s contributions and those of the shelter board.

And when they do, the good thing we have going in Toccoa and Stephens County will continue. We are much better off today than we were 10 years ago when that small group of citizens appeared before the city and county.

Jeff Roberts, shelter director, says he “appreciates the support we get.” But added: “It’s a challenge to take in 150 to 200 animals a month when your shelter is full.”

The solution, of course, is to move out as many animals as come in. One key is the transport program. The shelter also can currently spay or neuter any animal for only $20. That’s about as low-cost as you can get.

“This shelter is a major asset for this community,” Roberts said, “and it shows the community has heart.”

I agree. The Toccoa-Stephens County Humane Shelter is a fine example of citizens working together with local governments.

Board member Peggy Chambers, among the small group who helped found the Humane Shelter, put it this way: “My heartfelt feeling is this shelter has provided more services than we ever imagined, and the need for it is great throughout the county.”

She added: “It’s not about saving every animal. But we are so much better off. We have a real shelter and treat our animals humanely. Our positive actions reflect the kind of people who live here.”

And that’s something to think about.


If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail hobbs@gacaradio.com. Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.




This weekend, something special is happening in Toccoa and Stephens County.

It’s the Currahee Military Weekend … a time when veterans from throughout the country come to our town to enjoy each other’s company, participate in the many events and take in Currahee Mountain.

Ah, Currahee Mountain. Our mountain and the memories of Camp Toccoa are the calling card for many… for that’s where the paratroopers lived and trained during World War II.

Of course, as the years have passed, fewer and fewer World War II vets are still alive. But, the weekend has become more popular through the years because it has turned into an event to honor all veterans.

More than 500 guests are expected to visit this year, according to Brenda Carlan, executive director of the Currahee Military Museum. The museum is operated by the Stephens County Historical Society.

Weekend events include everything from a USO swing dance to a dedication of the Lt. Col. Robert Sink exhibit at the military museum. There’s also a downtown parade on Saturday afternoon and that evening a veterans banquet hosted by the historical society at the new pavilion at Camp Toccoa. Guest speaker will be Lt. Gen. Pete Johnson, current commander of Fort Jackson in South Carolina.

In addition, veterans will do a lot of just sitting around and talking with each other during the weekend. That’s one of the best parts, Carlan said.

You may be wondering how the Currahee Military Weekend got started. It began with a book by Stephen Ambrose. The book – “Band of Brothers” – told the story of Easy Company, those paratroopers who dropped behind enemy lines during the D-Day invasion.

In interviews with these men, Ambrose discovered they trained at an army camp near Currahee Mountain, tucked away in Northeast Georgia. Running up and and down the mountain was part of the training. When these young soldiers jumped from platforms, they would shout: “Currahee.”

HBO picked up “Band of Brothers” for a mini-series, and decided to hold a premier showing in Toccoa in July 2001. HBO invited all 21 surviving members of Easy Company, and 19 of them came to Toccoa.

Former chamber president Cynthia Brown met these men, and remembers the relationship they had with each other and the stories they told.

“They never talked about the hardships they faced,” she recalled. “They talked about Currahee Mountain… something they had to conquer. They were proud to be ‘Toccoa Men’.”

Since that first reunion in 2001 and with the work of many local folks, the sons and daughters of these veterans continue to be drawn to Toccoa, as are many active service men and women and veterans from throughout the country.

“They want to go to Currahee Mountain and touch the dirt where these men trained,” Cynthia said. “Some are sons and daughters or grandchildren of these men. But no matter who they are, they are drawn to this place. These visitors make an emotional and physical connection with the mountain.”

She believes that’s why Camp Toccoa at Currahee – located on the site of the old Milliken Plant on the mountain – is so important. Camp Toccoa provides a sense of place. As visitors enter the camp through a new wrought-iron entranceway arch, they can tour the revamped headquarters building and the new pavilion. Four army barracks will be constructed.

Here’s a hearty welcome to all our visitors. So many people have worked as a team to make this weekend happen.The Historical Society. The Chamber. Main Street Toccoa. We thank them. And we remember those who trained at Camp Toccoa during World War II. Many sacrificed their lives for our freedom. And that’s something to think about.






Can one person make a difference in a community?

I believe the answer is yes. You only need to examine the life of Agnes Oglesby of Toccoa to make the case.

Agnes has been a quiet leader in Toccoa and Stephens County for many years. And she’s still going strong.

Agnes Ogelsby just doesn’t talk about getting things done… she does them. She reared six children of her own, but also fostered 24 children along the way.

She retired from Coats & Clark in 2000 after a long career. She began working there in 1963, becoming the first black employed by the company. When she retired, she was a respected supervisor who had helped many others along the way.

“She’s been a blessing to so many people in our community.” That’s how Stephens County Sheriff Randy Shirley put it.

The Rev. Isaac White, associate pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Toccoa, called Agnes “an inspiration. I’m amazed at how energetic she is. She’s always doing something to help the community.”

Indeed, her involvement in areas that matter to people has been ongoing for years. Today, Agnes serves on the boards of the Toccoa Literacy Council, the Boys & Girls Club, Habitat for Humanity, Neighbors to Neighbors and the Northeast Georgia Housing Authority. She also is a member of the Stephens County Board of Registrars, which oversees the county’s active voters list. For 15 years, she managed the Habitat’s store and remains on that board.

And just last month, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Toccoa-Stephens County Chamber of Commerce.

Her philosophy is simple. I quote her:
“I just wish each one of us would look at everybody as people – not what position we hold… or how much money we’ve got… or whatever. We just need to love each other and support each other.”

Agnes credits the late Imogene Dean of Martin as being a force in her life. She said: “Imogene Dean made me realize that anything I wanted to do in my life I could do.”

Today, Agnes continues to work for her community in her quiet, effective way.

She noted: “I’m proud of what little I’ve had to offer has made an impact on the community I was born and raised in.”

“She’s someone who cares, but there is a fearlessness about her.”

That’s how the Rev. Mary Demmler, former rector of St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Toccoa, described Agnes.

“She’s not afraid to be honest about what needs to be done for others and the community. She’s not afraid to ask: ‘Why can’t we do this? What’s the worse that could happen?’ This fearlessness, partnered with caring, makes Agnes such a valuable resource,” Demmler said.

I think we all need to have a little more Agnes in us. And that’s something to think about.



Tuesday, September 19, 2017

I’ve been thinking lately about why people live where they live? To be more specific, why do people live in Toccoa and Stephens County?

Think about it… why do you live here? Were you born here and never left. Or returned years later? Maybe you moved here in the 70s or 80s. A new industry brought you here. You may be a newcomer. Or a retiree living on Lake Hartwell.

Many of us would say we like the “quality of life” here. But what exactly does that mean?

I would suggest quality of life means different things for different people. For instance, someone with young children may perceive quality of life as good day care and good schools. For others, it may mean a good paying job close to home.

For some, quality of life may mean having a sense of security – feeling safe in their home and in their neighborhood.

The list can go on and on. No matter our age or economic condition, we want to live in a place that offers an excellent quality of life.

So how does Toccoa and Stephens County stack up?

It depends on how we measure quality of life. Each of us have our own beliefs, opinions and perspectives.

With that in mind, I believe there are a number of big categories – taken together – that make for a good quality of life. Let’s look at them:



Number one. A safe and clean environment in which to live.

Number two. Access to quality health care.

Number three. Employment opportunities locally or close by that offer above-average wages.

Number four. Quality public schools and nearby colleges.

Number five. Stuff to do. Recreation, entertainment opportunities.

Number six. Progressive city and county governments that provide dependable services for its citizens.

I’m sure you could add to this list. But these are mine. These elements build a favorable quality of life.

So back to the question, how does Toccoa and Stephens County stack up?

On safety and a clean environment, it probably depends on where we live. We have pockets of dilapidated houses and other buildings. We have drug and alcohol abuse, which leads to crime.

On access to quality health care, we are fortunate to have stability that the Northeast Georgia Physicians Group now brings to the Toccoa Clinic. Our county hospital situation is in transition. Will a larger entity buy it and keep it going? We don’t know. We hope so.

Employment opportunities are a never-ending challenge. We have had some successes in the last few years – with a new manufacturer from Turkey locating here and another from Germany. Our local development authority is working to retain existing jobs and bring in new ones. Does our county government understand its importance?

Our schools have made a remarkable turn-around financially. I like the idea that our primary and elementary schools are now organized by grades. I believe this enhances the collaboration among our schools.

As for stuff to do, that’s always a challenge in small communities. But Main Street Toccoa is doing a good job with events like the summer Ida Cox concerts, and now some upcoming events at the renovated Ritz Theatre.
And our public library offers a variety of top-notch community activities for all ages.

Finally, what about our city and county governments? I believe the Toccoa City Commission had made great strides since bringing back city manager Billy Morse. City officials are not afraid of projects that boost our quality of life – like the new swimming pool, the renovated facilities at Lake Toccoa and the Ritz.

The county government has lots of departments fighting for county funds –from the sheriff’s office to the courts. Not to mention roads and recreation. It’s a challenge under the best of circumstances.

So, what grade does Toccoa and Stephens County get when it comes to quality of life? I give it a B. Not a B-plus and certainly not an A.

But we’ve got something to shoot for. And that’s something to think about.


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If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail hobbs@gacaradio.com. Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.