Columbia County Community Connections leaders and partners gathered Thursday to celebrate at the organization’s annual luncheon.
“It’s been an amazing journey we’ve been on and I’m really looking forward to what comes next,” Community Connections Executive Director Julie Miller told the room full of people at Harlem Baptist Church. “You’re investing in the future of Columbia County, and we just really appreciate that.”
The organization, which opened with one $50,000 grant in 2003, has grown into an organization with a $1.3 million budget that operates many children and family programs in area schools and the community.
More than 400 pupils attend Community Connections after-school programs at five schools in Harlem and Grovetown. The organization runs Saturday Sacks, a program providing food for needy children on the weekends, Summer Work Experience for Teens, and awareness programs on substance abuse and abstinence. It also sponsors the Ryan Clark Scholarship.
Recently, Community Connections started the Dream Academy, an off-site after-school program, and the Family Resource and Evening Reporting Center in Harlem.
At the luncheon, organization leaders surprised two young people who started with Community Connections programs in the seventh grade.
Harlem High School senior Brandon Jenkins, 18, often volunteers with Community Connections, which recently received a large anonymous monetary donation to “change someone’s life.” Jenkins received an iPad2 and a $500 check to get him ready for the military, where he hopes to become an officer.
“I’ve always loved serving my community. I didn’t expect anything in return at all,” Jenkins said. “I always enjoy showing up, helping wherever I could, whoever I could. ... I had fun. I learned all the time. It helped form who I am today.”
Sarah Garrard, 20, attended the luncheon as the organization’s photographer. She experienced a difficult childhood in foster homes and spent several years in Community Connections programs, getting close to Assistant Director Teka Allen.
“She helped me transform my thinking, because ... all the stuff she had gone through,” Allen said. “She’d experienced so much in the seventh grade. It completely changed my life, understanding that every day when I had a chance to work with a young person was a chance to change a life and form and shape the world into a better place.”
Allen and other leaders surprised Garrard with a step up on her professional photographer ambitions – a new Nikon camera.
“I never thought I’d have somebody to call on,” Garrard said. “ ... I just can’t say thank you enough to Columbia County Community Connections for providing me with all the support they have. ... It’s amazing what they do and how they help the community.”
With the support of Community Connections, the music program returned to Harlem High, after being lost to budget cuts a few years ago.
The school’s after-school chorus En Voce performed at the luncheon.
“On behalf of (Harlem High music teacher) Mr. (Phillip) Streetman, and Harlem High School, and myself, I’d like to extend a warm and heartfelt thank you to Columbia County Community Connections,” said Harlem High drama teacher Roy Lewis. “Because of your support and your encouragement, Harlem High School now has chorus back in its school.”