COMM 4020: PUBLIC LIFE REPORTING Edgar F. Miles

HUMANS OF SUMMERVILLE

“I really love helping people because I’ve had a lot of people help me in my life. I want to help people who can’t afford medical care.”

“I suffer from depression, too, so I feel like any little thing that somebody does for me, it honestly does make a difference. And when I am helping other people it makes that sadness go away for a little bit. While I’m helping them and actually see that they really appreciate it, you know, that’s what makes me happy.”

“I don’t want to sound mean or anything, but I don’t really want to help upper-class people or middle-class people. I don’t want to be a doctor for them because they don’t appreciate it as much. They just don’t care; they expect it. Lower-class people, they’re grateful that they’re even getting anything because they know that they can’t afford it.”

“I’m pursuing my degree to become a physician assistant. I’m going to apply to some different PA schools. And if that doesn’t work out, I’m going to join the Peace Corps to see if I can help there. Just knowing that I made a little bit of difference for somebody is just super awesome.”

“I’m a Spanish minor, too, so I feel like I want to help people in Latin American countries because they don’t have the healthcare system that we do have here.”

Bryaunna Barrera, Biology major

DCCM FOOD PANTRY NUMBERS STORY

Christy Cunningham, Executive Director of Downtown Cooperative Church Ministries Food Pantry (or DCCM), and her all-volunteer staff spend every weekday working tirelessly toward the goal of eliminating hunger in the CSRA one bag or cardboard box at a time. Monday through Friday, people line up along the front of the organization’s building at 430 8th St. in Augusta well before the doors open at 10 a.m. for their chance to know, at least for a time, where their next meal will come from.

According to The Georgia Food Bank Association, 18.7 percent of Georgians –one out of every five people– live in a state of food insecurity, not always knowing where their next meal will be found. For about 75 people or families each day, those meals will be found at the DCCM Food Pantry.

Since 1978, the DCCM, through its partnership with The Golden Harvest Food Bank, local churches and other charitable organizations, has been providing food to elderly people, low-income and at-risk families and the homeless of the CSRA, including but not limited to residents of Richmond, Columbia, Burke, Greene and Taliaferro Counties. The food pantry is currently providing food for approximately 1,500 people each month.

Ann Willbrand, a weekly volunteer who also holds a position on the organization’s board of directors, credits Golden Harvest Food Bank as the backing organization that makes available the bulk of the food the DCCM distributes.

“Last year we bought over a quarter of a million pounds of food from Golden Harvest, almost 260 thousand pounds,” says Willbrand. She says the DCCM Food Pantry purchases the food in bulk from the food bank at about 19 cents per pound.

Willbrand says that about another 20 thousand pounds of food were donated to the DCCM food pantry last year by the Kroger on 15th Street in Augusta, adding that those resources will be lost when that grocery store’s location closes its doors for good in the coming months.

“That’s going to hurt us in that we’re not going to have as much food to deliver. And we’re also probably going to have an increase in our clientele because that’s going to make Downtown Augusta a food desert,” Willbrand says.

According to the 2016 financial report for the organization, which was distributed to board members on Monday, the DCCM Food Pantry ended the year in the red. The budget for the year had been set at about $75,500. But while the organization only spent $66,600, its actual income was only about $58,000.

“But when you think about this,” says Willbrand, “all of this food we’re distributing –a quarter million pounds plus– for all of those people, we’re doing it on only $66,600 dollars a year.”

The donation deal and with Kroger was one that Executive Director Cunningham had brokered, but she isn’t allowing the store’s closing or a budgetary shortage to create an unfilled hole in the pantry’s coffers.

“This is how worried I was,” said Cunningham, “I had a meeting this week with the Juvenile Justice Department. They gave me a list of five other grocery stores to pick up from all on the same day Whole Foods is closing. It’s a lot of work. But with Kroger also closing, I’ll take what they’ve got at Whole Foods and the other five. We’ve got capacity to store the stuff in freezers.”

Cunningham, Willbrand, and the DCCM Food Pantry’s 45 other volunteers are in the business of doing good for the community. So, for them, a lot of hard work is just business as usual.

IN-CLASS INTERVIEW

PROFILE OF MEGAN DRAKE

As the administrative assistant for the Department of Communication, Megan Drake manages the needs of students, faculty, administration and staff as gracefully as if she’s already got the steps choreographed. Handling issues spanning from registration to graduation, she fields questions for students, retrieves files for professors, arranges schedules and travel details, gives pep talks, orders supplies, and does so many other things that even he might have a tough time listing them. She is a solver of problems. And somehow, while functioning as the de facto communication hub of the Communication Department, Megan still manages to keep the smile in her voice while answering the phone.

Megan studied English Literature, earning her bachelor’s degree here at Augusta University. So she has personal knowledge of the difficulties facing students. When things aren’t going our way, sometimes we don’t behave as well as we should. But she understands that student life is tough, so she tries to find workable solutions.

“Sometimes during registration students can get frustrated,” Megan says. “They’ll get upset because they can’t get into a certain class. Or something will happen with their financial aid and they’ll get dropped. If we can get them back into the classes we’ll do that, and if we can’t we try to find good substitutes for those students.”

Megan meets frustration with understanding, and then works with students toward a common goal.

“I know that the student’s ultimate goal is to graduate, and that’s what I want to help them do,” she says. “So I just try to be patient and understand that they’re going through a hard time with registering and that they just need help.”

Dr. Richard Kenney, Department Chair and professor in the Department of Communication, says he chose Megan over 81 other applicants when the administrative assistant position became available.

“Megan Drake was the student worker in the department for years before I arrived,” Dr. Kenney explains. “She knows the faculty longer. She knows them better than I do. When she applied for this job there were 82 applicants. I screened all 82. I interviewed one, and I hired her.”

Her ability to keep calm when those around her are having a tough time is one of the qualities that led to that choice.

“Megan is an incredible people-person, and that’s really the most important value that an admin brings to the job, says Dr. Richard Kenney, Department Chair and professor in the Department of Communication. “Being able to deal with hundreds and hundreds of students and a dozen or so faculty who are all burdened by their own idiosyncrasies and Megan makes everybody feel like they’re the special one.”

Perhaps her easy-going disposition is bolstered by the obvious joy she derives from her other full-time job, mother of three-year-old Zeke. When she talks about him, her already-sunny demeanor glows a degree brighter. The smile stretches so wide across her face when she talks about how they dance in the living room to Justin Timberlake.

“Zeke’s favorite movie right now is Trolls, so we can’t get enough of ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling.’ Every time it comes on we jump up and dance. And then we have to rewind it and play it again.”

Megan loves crafting, so she makes all of the decorations and party favors for Zeke’s birthdays. His last party was dinosaur-themed, and it was a huge success.

“Each child had a dinosaur mask and a dinosaur tail, and they stomped around like dinosaurs,” she says. “Everything was a ‘chomp’ theme, so we took out the sides of the plates to make it look like the dinosaur bit the plates. He loved it. He still talks about it.”

It’s when she recounts the story of her son’s third birthday party that you see why Megan Drake is so good at her job. She wears a smile so genuine and full and effortless that it could disarm the toughest of customers. Even a frustrated student.

PAUPERS' CEMETERY STORY

Situated just across Division Street from West View Cemetery in the Harrisburg neighborhood of Augusta is a plot of land that it would be easy to drive past without ever noticing. Flanked by West View, a BMX bike park and a row of mill houses, it’s an unremarkable triangular lot covered in grass and surrounded by a chain-link fence. Like so many lawns this time of year, the land is dotted with dandelions that quiver in the late spring breeze.

But grass and flowering weeds are all the life you’ll find on this plot of earth. It’s not that the plants are the only things on the lot. It’s just that the small green triangle serves a specific population that is no longer living. Like the much grander historic memorial park across the street, this slightly sloping field is a cemetery. It is the Augusta-Richmond County Paupers’ Cemetery.

The pauper’s cemetery is where a person’s remains are interred if, at the end of his life, he doesn’t have the financial means to cover his own burial. Chief Deputy Coroner Kenneth Boose says that while this is not necessarily how such a situation is handled elsewhere, this is the process for dealing with the remains of indigent people in Augusta-Richmond County.

“Here in Richmond County it’s probably going to be a little different from every other coroner’s office in the state,” says Boose. “In Jefferson County, for instance, they might get a call from the hospital saying this guy died. He has no assets. He has no family, so the coroner will send the funeral home of his choosing, more than likely, over there to pick up the body and bury him. And they’ll bill the county for the burial.”

Boose goes on to detail the procedure for dealing with such a death in Richmond County by discussing a case he handled in late April. A homeless man from Sandersville had died after having been brought to Augusta University Medical Center.

“He has no family,” says Boose. “He has no money, no assets, no nothing. So we start a case on him.”

A case such as this involves verifying the person’s identity, searching databases to find potential next of kin, and finding out whether the deceased individual has any assets that could be used to pay for his burial. And in this particular case, Boose was able to turn up someone who knew the man.

“I did find a next of kin,” he says. “It was his ex-wife. She verified that he had no assets and that he has no other relatives. She has no means to bury him and doesn’t want to. She has no legal obligation to.”

So he sent for the body to be delivered to the coroner’s office to be processed. Boose then called in the Augusta-Richmond County Sheriff’s Department’s Criminal Investigation Division to collect fingerprints and photos that would be used to verify the deceased person’s identity.

Once it has been established that a person has died without the funds necessary for a proper interment, the body is taken to the pauper’s cemetery, that unremarkable triangular field only a few hundred yards from Lake Olmstead Stadium and the Augusta Canal.

How does a person wind up in the pauper’s cemetery? Boose says that winter weather has been the cause of some deaths among the homeless population, and that some have even become intoxicated enough to fall into the canal and drown. But these are only a couple of the issues facing the homeless that could end in death.

Clarke Speese, Associate General Counsel and Director of Risk Management for Augusta University Medical Center, says that any ailments suffered by the general population could be experienced by homeless individuals, as well. He adds, however, that something that may be easily treated in many cases could be life-threatening to a more vulnerable person.

“As a patient population, they are beset with everything that affects the general population plus more,” says Speese. “They are particularly vulnerable to the sort of cyclical types of ailments that affect the population like, for example, pulmonary issues during the harsher climate days in the winter when there are pneumonias going around all over the place.”

Speese lists exposure to the elements, untreated cancers and other diseases, addiction issues and a lack of a regular health maintenance program as particular risk factors that could lead to the deaths of homeless people in the community. While the same illnesses that strike homeless individuals affect everyone else, Speese says some life situations can make health issues more difficult to manage.

“Unfortunately, because some of our patient population do not have the wherewithal or even the inclination in many cases to get regular healthcare, things that are relatively minor for you or me if they are caught early, become major issues for them,” says Speese. “You could fairly say that they suffer a disproportional percentage of ailments versus the general population, and the consequences of those ailments are more severe because of their unique vulnerabilities.”

And when the unique vulnerabilities among homeless individuals lead to death, the staff of the AU Medical Center Risk Coordinator Cherrie Alexander has to call for the coroner’s office to take possession of the body.

“If a patient has been in the morgue for more than 48 hours, and they can’t find the next of kin or any family member for this person, they contact me,” says Alexander. “I’ll call the coroner’s office and get them involved. They have the ability to do a deeper search for family members with a person’s Social Security number, and sometimes, even if the person is homeless, the coroner’s office is able to find a family member to pull in and get assistance from. If not, then they take possession of the deceased.”

Once the coroner’s office takes possession of the body, the agency then works with a vault contractor to acquire an appropriate vessel to contain the remains for burial and a monument company to create markers for the graves. The total cost for each interment is about $1,000, Boose says.

“We contract out to the lowest bidder for a vault company,” says Boose. “They’ll come pick him up. They’ll put him in a vault, take him to West View, and bury him. Then about two to three weeks later they’ll have a headstone made up and the headstone will go up. The county supplies the burial and the headstone so that they will have some dignity.”

Currently, the remains of about 150 people rest eternally under modest, dignified headstones in the paupers’ cemetery on Division Street, and Boose says there is room on the unassuming triangular lot for about 700 more.

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