Robert Eastman can't walk the school hallways now without a child calling out to him.
They ask "When are we starting?" and say "I want to run this year."
Eastman, a Grovetown Department of Public Safety officer and Trinidad native, does not need to recruit the city's children to his Grovetown Liberty Runners group. Many find out by word of mouth through others at school.
The officer is the draw.
His accent, tempered by 24 years in the U.S. Army, fascinates Grovetown's younger crowd.
And maybe they know his stories, how he survived a brutal attack while on duty five years ago and learned this month he was cancer free after undergoing surgery in 2009 to remove the disease from his prostate.
"It takes a special person to go through something like that and then be focused on other people, instead of being focused on yourself," Grovetown Department of Public Safety Chief Al Robinson said of Eastman.
Eastman, 56, started the program for Grovetown's youth two summers ago in response to truths he knew from traversing the town on bike patrol. In the summertime, children need something to do.
Eastman rounds up as many children -- pre-K to eighth grade -- as possible. And they run.
The group meets three times each week, starting two weeks before school lets out for the summer. Activities include stretching and other calisthenics and distance runs. Eastman and his volunteer coaches enter the children in local races on the weekends.
"We're not trying to establish Olympic champions or anything like that," Eastman said. "We're just trying to get kids to live a healthy lifestyle and, most important, that they won't be bored in the summer."
There is no bureaucracy that oversees Eastman's program. He solicits help from anyone who will listen.
His premise is that parents not pay a dime for their children's participation. The first summer, that meant a large contribution from Eastman's pockets.
He sacrificed golf trips to provide his runners with supplies.
This past summer, Eastman received help. The Juvenile Justice System gave $1,000. Boots, Bridles and Britches gave more than $500, and the city of Grovetown donated $250.
Pepsi donated 40 cases of water and 40 cases of Gatorade.
Augusta Sportswear provided the group uniforms at minimal cost. Eastman's next goal is to provide running shoes for those who cannot afford them.
Eastman reaches Grovetown's children by substitute teaching on his days off. He talks to classes about his job and about laws and regulations.
Katherine Tiller, a teacher at the Columbia County Alternative School and bookkeeper and assistant coach for the Grovetown Liberty Runners, said Eastman's contributions to the schools led her to help with his program.
"They get to know him," Tiller said. "It's a lasting thing. They can always turn to him for help."
Eastman retired from the Army in 1997 after being stationed at Fort Gordon multiple times and falling for Grovetown's small-town feel. Compared with New York City, where Eastman immigrated to as a 19-year-old in 1973, Grovetown was paradise, he said.
In Grovetown, Eastman's greetings received warm responses, and he left his doors unlocked as was typical in Trinidad.
On the night of June 21, 2005, Bill Charles Pate entered Eastman's unlocked door. Eastman, who was baby-sitting a friend's daughter that night and working at a desk in his bedroom, felt someone watching him and looked up to see Pate in the doorway. Eastman believes Pate had come to hurt him, but that Pate had second thoughts after having seen the girl.
Eastman escorted Pate out of the house and called a fellow officer.
Eastman doesn't know how his colleagues dealt with Pate that night. The following day, Pate rammed a van into Eastman's black Corvette. He pulled Eastman from the car, punched him repeatedly and slashed him multiple times with a box cutter.
Eastman was airlifted to Medical College of Georgia Hospital and underwent emergency surgery.
The wounds healed quickly. Eastman's psyche took longer to recover.
After the attack, Eastman saw Pate's face in others. Once, on duty and waiting in line at McDonald's, Eastman thought he saw Pate from the corner of his eye and instinctively put his hand on his holster. Eastman told his superiors of the incident and was placed on leave.
He told no one of further incidents. Working and being out on the streets was his therapy. And Eastman said he was in no danger of hurting anyone. He now carries a weapon wherever he goes.
Pate was found mentally unfit for trial and was sentenced by a judge to five years in prison. He likely will be released in June, Eastman said.
Eastman was diagnosed with prostate cancer in May 2009. After mulling options, Eastman elected to undergo robotic surgery at MCG.
He learned this month the cancer is gone, but he will be monitored every six months.
In response to a question about how he has dealt with recent troubles, Eastman quotes the book of Isaiah: "No weapon formed against you will prosper."
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