For the fifth graders, it was just a chance to get out of class. But their principal said it could have an affect on their entire lives. The Dearing Elementary School cafetorium recently was filled with fifth graders, parents, school system administrators and local law enforcement dignitaries for the school's annual CHAMPS graduation.
"Fifth graders, I am so proud of you," Principal Laura Hughes said. "I just want to say this is a big deal. Just look at all these important people around here. They are here for you."
Each of the 73 graduates received a diploma and walked across the stage to shake hands with each of the dignitaries and officials, which included: McDuffie School Superintendent Mark Petersen, Richmond County Sheriff's Deputy Thigpen, Toombs Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Woody Davis, Retired Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Teddy Jackson, McDuffie County Probate Judge Valerie Burley, Juvenile Justice's Pia Bradshaw and Elmer Walker, Principal Laura Hughes, Assistant Principal Suzanne Arrington, fifth grade teacher Jennifer Bowler, DNR Ranger Leroy Ficklin and McDuffie Sheriff Department Sgt. Mike Hobbs.
The keynote speaker for the graduation was Judge Burley, the first female to ever speak at the CHAMPS graduation - formerly known as DARE - according to Dep. Whitfield.
A mother herself, Judge Burley first addressed the parents in the audience, telling the difference their involvement makes in their children's lives.
"Parents, don't just send your kids to do things. Go with them," she said. "If they see a familiar face, then they'll do a whole lot better."
To the students, the judge talked about responsibilities they'll have when they get their driver's license, and how to avoid going to traffic court.
"If you get a speeding ticket, then you have to come see me," she said. "Choose not to come see me. Whatever you do in life, always make good choices, and you'll be successful. â€¦ If you are having problems, come to my office to see me right away. I'd rather see you before you get in trouble than after you get in trouble."
Sponsored by the Georgia Sheriff's Association, Inc., the semester-long Choosing Healthy Activities and Methods Promoting Safety program teaches many issues such as alcohol, ATV and boating safety, bullying, street drugs, gangs, home alone and child abduction safety, internet safety, peer pressure, stress and tobacco.
While each of the topics are covered in the program, there is flexibility which allows emphasis on topics pertinent to the locale. Dep. Whitfield said almost 50 percent of the lessons taught in Dearing had something to do with hunting safety, and Ranger Ficklin came to teach those.
In order to be eligible for graduation from the program, students must complete a CHAMPS planner and workbook, have good attendance, write a report, remain drug-free and demonstrate good behavior during class. Students also designed posters or wrote essays.
"They were all good, but some worked harder than others," Dep. Whitefield said.
Essay winners were: Savanna Wells, Karli Moss and Tyler Gates.
After some of the students read their essays, music teacher LaTosha Ramsey sang a song. Then the students and parents enjoyed a hot dog cookout prepared by the local fire department.