Congratulations to Team South Georgia 2020-2021. This is the third time, South Georgia Business + Culture Magazine has recognized community champions for their innovative spirit and ability to obtain positive results.
Throughout South Georgia there are people of varying ages and levels of professional experience that aspire to make the region a better place to live, work, and play. This year’s class represents Berrien, Colquitt, Cook, Decatur, Lowndes, Randolph, Thomas, and Tift counties.
Justin H. Cox
A champion for Colquitt County, Justin H. Cox, provides his professional expertise and talents on numerous organizations and boards.
As director of compliance for Colquitt County Board of Commissioners, he was involved in creating, adopting, and implementing its comprehensive plan through zoning and land-use changes.
From working on getting an accurate census count to serving on the board of director of the Moultrie-Colquitt County Chamber of Commerce and Joint Development Authority (JDA), Cox has a passion for generating jobs and revitalizing economic growth in South Georgia.
With the goal to “get everyone counted,” Cox says despite the COVID-19 and other national issues, the Colquitt County Complete Counts Committee shows tremendous leadership.
Working with the JDA, which covers Brooks, Colquitt, Grady, Mitchell, and Thomas counties, Cox has great respect for regional economic efforts.
“The JDA shows me that even if a project does not locate in our county, its impact is positive and felt regionally in other ways,” Cox says. “Some similar industries may spur growth because of a larger one in the area.
“People have to have somewhere to live, and they may locate in Colquitt County so they can work in a neighboring county. People would be shocked to know the behind-the-scenes efforts that go into regional economic development.”
A native of Colquitt County, Cox is a graduate of Leadership Colquitt County and completed the Georgia Academy for Economic Development and University of Georgia Certified Public Manager program. He is a volunteer firefighter in Colquitt County and a member of the Kiwanis Club of Moultrie.
Yurshema Flanders is an advocate in the fight to improve the lives of homeless people and encourage parents to become more involved in activities at their child’s school.
Flanders is the executive director of the Lowndes Associated Ministries to People (LAMP), which has a mission to serve the homeless population in Lowndes County and surrounding counties.
As a member of the Parent Advisory Council at J.L. Newbern Middle School, Flanders created a program that makes it easier for parents to attend school events and informational meetings.
“I learned barriers of why many of the school’s parents were unable to attend programs and important information meetings,” Flanders says. “Something as simple as the inability to afford dinner was something I knew how to resolve. I hit the ground running and connected with local churches, organizations, and volunteers to provide meals for the school’s families and babysitting services, which removed those barriers and increased parental engagement at the middle school.”
She says removing these obstacles has increased parental engagement at school activities.
Her volunteer commitment extends to participating with the local section of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). Flanders works closely with the Valdosta-Lowndes Metropolitan Section’s Community Wide Family Reunion. Sponsored by the local section of NCNW, the event is free to the public and provides various resources, including health checks and food assistance.
A native of Thomasville, Georgia, Brandon Godwin, principal architect with Garschagen & Godwin Architecture, is focused on preserving the historical integrity of residential and commercial buildings throughout South Georgia.
Beyond his architectural efforts, Godwin serves on the National Wild Turkey Federation, Wiregrass Longbeards Chapter to raise funds and awareness on the importance of hunting and wildlife management.
Godwin currently serves as chair of the Historic Preservation Commission in Boston, Georgia, where he works with community leaders to protect the design and standards of historic properties. He previously served on the board with Landmarks of Thomas County to promote the importance of historic preservation.
“Preservation of historic homes and buildings is one of the most critical and effective things everyone can play a role with our local communities,” says Godwin. “Anyone can participate, just hire the right professionals to ensure the renovation is sensitive and implemented properly.”
His architectural projects and works of art have been highlighted in various regional publications, including Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles Magazine and Charlotte Home + Garden Magazine. In 2015, Godwin’s historic home renovation project was highlighted in “Saving America” on HGTV.
When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, Sharon Harnage rallied community leaders to create the Cook County Community Response Committee, which sponsored feeding programs for school children.
As the owner of Quick Consulting & Business Services, located in Adel, Georgia, Harnage used her professional expertise to help business owners navigate the Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and clarified questions regarding unemployment compensation. She also created a Facebook page to answer questions and provide resources for small business owners.
Training the next generation to be financially responsible, Harnage provided Cook High School with the Dave Ramsey curriculum for personal finance and entrepreneurship.
An active community leader, Harnage is on the Adel-Cook County COVID-19 Disaster Relief Committee, Adel-Cook County Chamber of Commerce, Adel-Cook County Tourism Authority, and Adel Downtown Development Authority, and Adel Mainstreet Board. She has also served on the Adel Tornado Relief Committee, Committee for Childhood Cancer Awareness, and Cook County Centennial Committee.
Continuing to give back to her community, this year, she organized a National Day of Prayer and Night of Solidarity to bring awareness of racial issues within her community.
Meghan Jordan Heckman
After receiving her Juris Doctor from the Mercer University School of Law, Meghan Jordan Heckman returned to Bainbridge, Georgia. Her professional career started at the South Georgia District Attorney’s Office before joining the Bruce W. Kirbo Law Firm as an associate attorney.
“I love to travel, but nothing beats coming home,” Heckman says. “I feel lucky to live close to my family, and work-life balance is very important to me. Bainbridge offers me the opportunity to practice law in many different areas, and, as a result, I feel that I am building a more well-rounded career.”
Encouraging young professionals to give back to their community, Heckman says they have the power to enact change. “While many people are eager to voice opinions about changes they would like to see in their communities, I think that it is essential for young people to volunteer and get involved locally in order for those changes to take place.”
In the past two years, Heckman has provided pro bono legal assistance to Elephant Aid International (EAI), a nonprofit organization that creates innovative approaches in the care and management of elephants.
“Animal advocacy has been my passion for many years,” Heckman says. “When I learned about EAI establishing a refuge here in Southwest Georgia, I was very excited about the opportunity to become involved in such a unique organization.”
Heckman volunteers with the Georgia Democratic Party, where she serves as a legal liaison for the Decatur County Board of Election to mitigate issues that may arise with the voting process.
With a strong desire to give back to her community, Heckman is actively involved in numerous organizations, including the Decatur County Historical and Genealogical Society, the Bainbridge-Decatur County Humane Society, and the Bainbridge-Decatur County Bar Association.
Working as a staff of one, Caroline Horne, executive director of the United Way of Colquitt County, is tirelessly working to support more than 20 partnering nonprofit agencies.
Horne began working with the United Way in 2018, and within months was faced with the devastating impact of Hurricane Michael. She worked tirelessly alongside hundreds of volunteers and organizations to provide food, shelter, and other needs for Colquitt County residents.
Two years later, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Horne created new resources to address the urgent needs of the community’s most vulnerable.
“COVID-19 was a huge feat, but we tackled it with determination,” Horne says. “In 2018, I began adding most of what our organization does to several online platforms to be efficient in our service efforts and virtual response. This played a major role in how we were able to continue working during Hurricane Michael and the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Throughout the year, United Way agencies provide a broad spectrum of support—food, clothing, financial, and educational—however, a crisis escalates those needs.
“When help is needed, our community always steps up and rolls their sleeves up and gets the job done no matter the circumstances or obstacles that may come our way,” Horne says. “It is a beautiful picture of servanthood where hustle and heart set us apart.”
At the forefront of the philanthropic effort is Colquitt County’s business community. The United Way partnered with National Beef, PCOM South Georgia [Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine], and several individual donors to leverage $90,000 in funding for local nonprofits impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Throughout the pandemic, Horne also coordinated with the Boys and Girls Club to promote its feeding program, helped the Colquitt County Food Bank secure grants, and located Wi-Fi connections to assist students with school assignments. As part of United Way Worldwide, Horne launched Character Playbook, a web-based learning tool to engage students in healthy online activities while schools were closed.
A fundraising champion, in 2019, Horne led the Colquitt County United Way in collecting more than $700,000 to support its partnership agencies, an increase of 28 percent from prior years.
Gaining the reputation as a “Master Muralist,” Chris Johnson, associate professor at Andrew College in Cuthbert, Georgia, uses his talents to uplift and revitalize small towns and cities across Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
“I have worked very closely with community organizations to create art that reflects the history and values of those locations,” says Johnson, who received the 2018 Randolph County Chamber of Commerce Volunteer of the Year Award. “In addition to working with these community organizations, I have volunteered countless hours to help these transformative projects become a possibility.”
While most of his paintings are displayed along the sides of downtown buildings, Johnson recently used a less conventional canvas when he painted a series of murals on grain bins in Shellman, Georgia. The massive artwork represents the agriculture, art, and culture of the rural town in Rudolph County.
This year, in Warner Robins, Georgia, Johnson completed an 11-panel mural that celebrates the importance of Robins Air Force Base and the history of American aviation. Commissioned by Tidal Wave Auto Spa, a local business, the murals depict historical events and people in flight, including the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Tuskegee Airmen, Chuck Yeager, and John Glenn.
As an educator, Johnson says he has used the public art endeavors to teach students how to become mural painters, hoping they will use the art form to transfer other communities.
For the past three years, Johnson, who received the 2019 Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities, has helped facilitate various fine arts events in Cuthbert, including jazz performances, art exhibitions, dinner theatre events, and an annual Arts Around the Square festival.
Randi “Roxie” Booker Price
She’s on a mission to improve the quality of life for children and adults in Tift County. Randi “Roxie” Booker Price is a University of Georgia Family and Consumer Sciences Extension agent who identifies community needs then works to develop, implement, and evaluate educational programs that improve a variety of quality of life issues.
“The part I love most about my job is the ability to provide individuals and families with resources and opportunities to improve their lives through access to research-based educational information,” she says.
The educational classes include food and healthy lifestyle, family resource management, improving relationships through better communication, food safety skills for restaurant employees, leadership development for all, housing and environment, and community development.
To help young children develop a healthy lifestyle, Price visits first- and second-grade classrooms to demonstrate the importance of handwashing to stop spreading infectious diseases and limiting sugary drinks to reduce childhood obesity.
Price also teaches a series of adult classes focused on budgeting, spending, and savings, to help participants control their finances and reduce stress.
“Partnering with other groups and agencies in Tift County, such as family resource centers, health departments, and other family-serving agencies in the county, is key to reaching audiences in need,” Price says. “Through these collaborations, the leaders solve community problems and multiply effectiveness.”
Through her passion and perseverance, Nichole Shanks has helped develop a thriving youth and adult apprenticeship program that has become a model adopted across many industries.
As Ace Electric’s workforce development manager, Shanks develops and implements strategic goals focused on supporting programs and partnerships with high schools, technical colleges, and exiting military and veteran organizations.
She recently worked with Lowndes High School and Wiregrass Georgia Technical College to develop a commercial industrial electrical internship program. In the first program, nine high school students were selected to participate in a summer internship with Ace Electric. After completing the internship requirements, the students were dual-enrolled at Lowndes High School and Wiregrass Tech while gaining valuable workforce experience with Ace Electric.
“Ace Electric’s goal for our workforce development initiative is to provide an opportunity for the youth to explore jobs in the skilled trades, especially at Ace,” Shanks says. “To enhance the current opportunities with training, apprenticeship, and continued education opportunities and show the many career pathways available in this industry.”
In 2018, Shanks received the Technical College Foundation of Georgia Benefactor of the Year and the 2020 Construction Education Foundation of Georgia K-12 Pipeline Employer of the Year.
Lisa Smart spends her days wearing multiple hats. As the executive director of the Berrien County Chamber of Commerce and the Berrien Economic Development Authority, she works to keep businesses of all sizes growing while at the same time working to recruit new industries and jobs.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Smart added the “voice of the community” to her list of duties. As head of the Berrien County Community Response Task Force, Smart gathered a copious amount of information from multiple sources. She then quickly disseminated the information to chamber members, county and city leaders, school representatives, law enforcement, emergency response, and hospital and public health representatives.
“I focused the task force in decision making and policy for the county, but our main focus was on communication,” says Smart, president of the Nashville-Berrien County Rotary Club. “We began with weekly meetings and then briefings to the public through social media.”
The strong communication effort was an essential part of Berrien County’s response to the health crisis. “We became through this, the source of communication for the county, serving as communication central,” Smart says. “We created a website to help keep citizens and businesses informed and served as a liaison when people could not find the answers to questions.”
As schools closed and businesses shuttered, the need for food assistance continued to grow. Smart, a board member of the South Georgia Regional Commission, moved into fundraising mode and coordinated a $100,000 donation for the local food bank.
Smart also spent 2020 working to ensure Berrien County had an accurate census count. As head of the local Complete Count Committee, she created a media campaign and led volunteers through the census count effort to ensure federal funding for the next ten years.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started in March, Michael Smith, executive director of the Greater Valdosta United Way, had been on the job less than a year and found himself navigating local nonprofits through an unprecedented global health crisis.
Working with 20 partner agencies, Smith, who was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp to serve on the Georgia Commission for Service and Volunteerism, has made tremendous strides in creating new avenues to improve the quality of life for individuals and families in Lowndes, Berrien, Brooks, Echols, and Lanier counties.
During the pandemic, Smith worked with corporate sponsors, civic organizations, and individual donors to raise approximately $90,000 for COVID disaster relief, including food distribution and utility payments. In addition to the COVID relief efforts, Smith led the Greater Valdosta United Way in surpassing this year’s 750,000 annual fundraising goal.
An advocate for using a regional approach to bring about change, Smith says, “Success is about relationships and trust and working together. Big problems cannot be solved alone or from one sector. I truly enjoy meeting new people from different backgrounds and life experiences. Everyone is essential and has value.”
Accepted to the Leadership Georgia class of 2021, Smith is an active community volunteer and serves on numerous boards, including the Lowndes County Tourism and Conference Authority, Leadership Lowndes, Wiregrass Foundation, and Valdosta State University Alumni Association. Smith is also an active member of the Valdosta Rotary Club and the Azalea City Civic Club.
Starting a business is no easy feat, but thanks to Guardian Bank Entrepreneurship Academy, navigating a startup is a little easier.
While developing the academy, Crissy Staley, executive director of fundraising at Wiregrass Georgia Technical College, reached out to Guardian Bank for sponsorship.
Regarded as a team effort, Staley says the idea for the academy came from a brainstorming session with Wiregrass Tech President Tina Anderson K. Anderson and Guardian Bank representative Dr. Ronald M. Zaccari.
“Wiregrass Tech is focused on teaching people how to master a skill, but for students who have their sights set on owning their own business one day, there was not an option in the curriculum to set them on that path,” Staley says. “Wiregrass students, alumni, and members of the public can participate in the academy, which is offered twice a year.”
Through support from the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center (SBDC), the academy includes six business-related courses: Writing a business plan, money finance and accounting, marketing, human resources, and strategic planning. Participants also receive one-on-one consulting from the SBDC.
“We’ve had a great response to the academy,” Staley says. “The fall 2020 session was held completely online, and we had our largest class to date with more than 100 participants. Students from a wide variety of programs have completed the academy, including neuromuscular, cosmetology, automotive tech, welding, and culinary.”
Gaining support through businesses and industries in the region, Staley works to raise the necessary funds for Wiregrass Tech to provide scholarships, class resources, and apprenticeship opportunities.
“I love everything about working at Wiregrass,” she says. “I especially love seeing our graduates working and succeeding in the communities we serve. To be a part of the team that is cultivating the present and future workforce for our community is an absolute honor.”
Staley, who grew up in a rodeo family and earned a scholarship to compete at the collegiate level, volunteers with the Exceptional Rodeo for children with special needs in Berrien and Cook counties. With just a few participants, the annual event, which started when Staley was in high school, has grown to nearly 100 special cowboys and cowgirls.
Staley lives in Nashville, Georgia, with her husband, Eric, and son, Travis. She is a 2013 graduate of Leadership Georgia and a member of the South Georgia Medical Center Berrien Campus Advisory Board.
For the past three years, Jessie Stanley leads a team of volunteers to the Dominican Republic to work on a community involvement project.
“I was not able to travel in 2020 because of COVId-19 restrictions, but I cannot wait to get back,” Stanley says. “My favorite part of my mission work is the time spent in communion with people. They make me a better person. The slow pace of life devoid of the distractions of ‘first world’ living gives me clarity to the fullness of joy that Christ has to offer me in this life. I leave grounded with a renewed sense of purpose and the peach that reliance on God produces.”
While working through a partnership with Lighthouse Projects in the Dominican Republic, Stanley and her mission team helped build a water purification plant that provides clean water for thousands and creates sustainable long-term employment opportunities.
“My goal for our team members goes beyond the work accomplished during our work trip and into heart and life changes upon return,” says Stanley, a veterinarian at the Thomasville Animal Hospital. “I am hopeful that seeing God move in miraculous ways in the Dominican Republic challenges our team members to live and love the same way right here at home.”
With the water purification plant now completed, Stanley says Lighthouse Projects has further plans for a trade school, medical clinic, and primary school.
Closer to home, Stanley also volunteers with Called to Care, a nonprofit that provides immediate physical needs to families in the foster care system. The organization recruits and supports foster parents, connects children to mentorship programs, and engages the community in service to children in the foster care system.
“At Called to Care, we recognize the Biblical charge to ‘care for orphans and widows in their distress,’ [James 1:27] as a literal calling,” Stanley says. “We believe that every member of the body of Chris is called to care for orphans in some capacity.”
Called to Care provides opportunity at every level of involvement in orphan care and prevention, and empowers Christians to find their role.
In 2018, Tyler Thomas followed his dream and moved to Bainbridge, Georgia, to open a restaurant. Three years later, he has two restaurants—The American and Café Sinclair—and the Willis Park Hotel, all located in Downtown Bainbridge.
Even working 80 plus hours a week, Tyler is dedicated to promoting and developing the downtown area. His passion and enthusiasm have led to the creation of several events drawing attention to the downtown area, including the Bainbridge Bluegrass & Folk Festival, which started in 2018, drawing nearly 1,500 people. Along with Gallagher Dempsey, owner of Southern Philosophy Brewing Company, Thomas helped organize the Bainbridge Jazz & Blues Festival, drawing about 1,200 people this year.
Last year, Thomas and his wife, Heather, organized “The Silver Lining: A Benefit for Cloud Kirbo,” a child who is fighting against the debilitating Krabbe disease. Thomas was able to recruit HGTV celebrity couple Ben and Erin Napier from the popular show “Hometown” to assist with the event, which raised more than $100,000.
An active member of the Bainbridge-Decatur County Chamber of Commerce, Thomas is eager to connect with people in the community and share his culinary expertise, including a regular demonstration at the Gilbert H. Gragg Library.
A fourth-generation farmer, Heath Wetherington, spends his days, and many nights, between two farms in Colquitt County. A technical leader, operations innovator, and accounting manager, Wetherington is the director of operations for Baker Farms and co-owner of H&W Farms.
When he’s not busy on the farms, Wetherington, a father of five daughters (ages 5 to 16), finds time to serve on the Moultrie-Colquitt Parks and Recreation Authority.
Enacted as an authority in 2017, Wetherington, along with other Parks and Recreation Authority members, have spent hundreds of hours overseeing improvements and construction of facilities and programs.
Having a high-quality recreational facility in Colquitt County is important to Wetherington—all of his daughters are active in sports, and he coaches softball.
“I was on the original board when we started the process of going through legislation to create an authority,” says Wetherington, who graduated from Valdosta State University with a degree in accounting. “When I first started, I had three daughters playing softball with parks and recreation. I knew it would take time to get things going, and we are making changes that will come for their children.”
Quality of life issue, Wetherington says Colquitt’s parks and recreation program brings the entire community together.
Part of the next generation of farmers, Wetherington is focused on incorporating technology into the production process. “Each day, we gather a lot of information, and the challenge is getting it in front of people who need it.”
From Google and other online platforms, Wetherington says today’s farmer is using technology to determine planting schedules, fertilizer and other chemical applications, and production reports.
An admitted “Excel spreadsheet freak,” Wetherington says having the right information, at the right time, in front of the decision-makers, is a game-changer for today’s farmer.