Joyce Cowins stepped to the microphone, and looked out at the crowd gathered before her in the afternoon sun.
Then, with a broad smile, she proclaimed, "It has been a long struggle getting back home."
It has, indeed been a long struggle for the Georgia TASC (Training and Support in the Community) program of Thomson. The program, which serves the needs of individuals with developmental disabilities in Columbia, McDuffie, and Warren Counties, was celebrating its move into a new building located on White Oak Road.
This was the first building it had occupied which was specifically created for its needs since coming into existence 30 years ago. The history of the Georgia TASC-Thomson program and its travels from one location to another is more than the story of a small assistance program; it could very well serve as a microcosm of what volunteerism and community involvement can accomplish.
From its inception in 1973 as the MerryDale Center, the program was forced to occupy inadequate and cramped spaces. In March 1975, the program moved to quarters off White Oak Road.
According to Pecola Wiley, staff member and unofficial historian of the program, the floors would move as you walked across them. In fact, program staff recalled at the celebration on April 27 that whenever they would hold a Severe Weather drill for the clients the Civil Defense would not allow occupants to stay inside the buildings because they were so unstable. Instead, staff members and clients would have to go into a ditch which adjoined the property until the drill was over.
The program moved from that location on White Oak Road to Harlem, where it took up residence in the Harlem Elementary School. In July, 1994, the TASC program was once again moved to a school located on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Thomson. Again, the facilities were a tremendous improvement over those previously held, but over the years the demand for more room to take care of its other students forced the Board to take more and more of the TASC program's space. In addition, it soon became apparent that this building just was not suitable for clients with the handicaps which existed in the TASC program.
McDuffie Commission Chairman Charlie Newton, at the April 27th celebration, stated, "This is a great day for McDuffie County. ... In a time when other State Agencies are downsizing and moving back due to budget constraints, Georgia TASC is not. This is because we all worked together; the community, the McDuffie County government, as well as Columbia and Warren counties."
That statement, as accurate as it was, only touched the surface of the true magnitude of this project.
Beginning in October, 2002, with the proposal by the Community Mental Health Center (home Agency of the TASC program) Facilities Coordinator, John Sullivan, the project had supporters which refused to give up, including the Rev. Fred Favors and Fred W. Guerrant, Director of McDuffie Planning Commission.
Another vital element joined the team when State Fire Marshal James Crawley reviewed and became involved in the construction plans. Mr. Crawley freely offered his advice and direction until the plans were approved by the State Fire Marshal's Office. During the entire process of construction, both local government and individuals perceived the importance of this program to the citizens of the three counties (Columbia, McDuffie, Warren) and came to the aid of the Community Mental Health Center and Georgia TASC -- Thomson. In the words of Mr. Newton, "This is an important organization to us, and it is important to have both the Mental Health Center and GATASC centrally located as they are for McDuffie, Columbia and Warren counties."
McDuffie County Clerk Annette Finley became the conduit through which meetings were arranged and communications delivered between the county commissioners, county attorney, and county manager. Other sacrifices were found in the action of an entire department of McDuffie County government. Chris Pelly and staff of 32 at McDuffie's public works spent months clearing land, leveling the lot, and building a concrete foundation for the building.
In the private sector, volunteers marched forth just as quickly and diligently. Hudson's Grassing Co., Inc. donated gravel for the parking lot, and provided the lawn for the land. Wiley Bros., Inc. donated their trucks and labor. Dudley Nurseries, Inc. delivered shrubs.
Once the building was opened, and plans were being made for a reception and official ribbon cutting, local vendors stepped forward with donations of food, flowers, and other assistance. This outpouring of affection came from many sources in McDuffie County including Anne's Beauty Shop, Attitudes, Ivery's Restaurant, Louise's Stylon, Pam's Beauty Shop, Ryan's, Soul Food CafÈ, Springfield Baptist Church, SunTrust Bank, and Thomson Funeral System.
Nancy Johnson, former Board member of the Community Service Board of East Central Georgia, worked diligently to not allow the dream of a true home for Georgia TASC --Thomson to dissipate.
At the opening ceremony on April 27th, Dr. Nancy Williamson, Chairperson of the CSB, presented Ms. Johnson with a plaque to commemorate her involvement.
It started out as the dream of a few staff members workingwith the developmentally disabled citizens of three counties, but it became a master plan for how one community working with government agencies could bring about miracles. In the words of Betty Dyches, "we only wish that in our other counties, we had as much support as we have in McDuffie County."