Revisiting journeys past

Following up with a restaurateur, a tea shop owner, a mayor and a doctor.

Next week: Former NFL player finds new purpose at the College Football Hall of Fame


Personal Journeys had a banner year in 2014, and our peers in the industry took notice. The weekly feature received multiple accolades, including a Salute to Excellence award from the National Association of Black Journalists, a Best A&E Feature award from the Society of Features Journalism and two Best Feature Writing awards from Georgia’s AP Media Editors.More importantly, our readers responded with positive feedback nearly every week. Here’s a sampling. Click the title of each to read the original story:

ExploreRescue me

Wendell Brock gave a whole new meaning to the words, “I Love Lucy.” His story warmed the heart of this dog owner who has rescued several wonderful needy pets.

Alice Soder, Decatur

ExploreTayla’s victory

The picture of Tayla Washington at her graduation, with her diploma held high and a smile of joy and accomplishment on her face, was a perfect way to introduce her Personal Journeys story... There were actually many victories chronicled by writer David Markiewicz in this young woman’s inspiring story; determination over despair; getting up over giving up; hope over hopelessness. We can only pray that good things are ahead for this remarkable woman and her family.

Jerry Schwartz, Alpharetta

ExploreRequiem for a blues player

I just read your piece on Sean Costello and just had to write you right away to tell you how wonderful it was. That story was respectful, informative, poetic and restrained. I learned a lot, felt I wanted to have known this awesome prodigy and now want to listen to his music. Great writing, and what a lovely tribute to this guy.

Julia Levy, Decatur

ExploreSecret keeper

I served as a volunteer chaplain at the Atlanta Florence Crittenton home in 1966-1967. I heard many stories like that of the woman you wrote about. Many of them were tragic and some not so much, but as you point out, all of them had secrets and were hiding there for two or three months. Thank you for a very moving article.

Ross T. Hightower, Cumming

ExploreSins of the father, gifts of the daughter

I am a psychologist in private practice in Sandy Springs and your article was fantastic. I really believe that Wende can have more impact with her work than what we do by sitting in an office. Your article read like a novel. Great article with much substance.

Richard Blue, PhD, Sandy Springs

Life is messy. Sometimes all the best-laid plans in the world don’t work out the way we want. Sometimes fate intervenes, or we just simply make a colossal mistake. Personal Journeys strives to portray lives with authenticity, and that often means spotlighting the missteps and setbacks as well as the victories. And if we’ve learned anything from the last year of Personal Journeys, it is that nothing reveals a person’s true character like adversity.

Savoring the now: Jen and Ryan Hidinger
Jen and Ryan Hidinger, a young couple in their 30s, were the subject of a Personal Journey in October 2013. At the time they had recently established a nonprofit foundation, The Giving Kitchen, to award grants to restaurant and hospitality workers in need. They were also drawing up plans to open a restaurant, Staplehouse. And though they didn't know it at the time of publication, they were about to spend their last three months together.
Rewind. In late 2012, Ryan Hidinger, then chef at Muss & Turner's, was diagnosed with late-stage cancer of the gallbladder and was given a dire prognosis. Within a couple of months a great segment of the Atlanta restaurant community had rallied to his support and staged a food-and-drink fundraiser, Team Hidi, that brought in more than enough money to keep him financially afloat as he sought treatment. That was the genesis of the Giving Kitchen.
It was also the beginning of a whirlwind year of hope, during which the Hidingers laid the plans for their long-deferred dream of opening a restaurant. They travelled, spoke to crowds, created partnerships for the Giving Kitchen and raised awareness for restaurant worker rights.
I met with the Hidingers for three months, from July through September, and accompanied them on an appointment to their oncologist. At that time they found out Ryan's response to treatment, at first so promising, had plateaued. Tumors that had once shrunk had begun to return in force.
Ryan managed a last Christmas with his family before losing his life on Jan. 9, 2014. Later that month key members of the Atlanta restaurant industry staged Team Hidi 2.0, which brought in more than $320,000 for The Giving Kitchen. Jen got up and addressed the hundreds of well-wishers in the crowd and spoke eloquently of her recent loss.
Jen says this past year has not been without its joys and pleasures, but it has been an emotional ride. "I have such an amazing support system, and I have family, so I'm grateful for that," she says. "But the feelings really come in waves, particularly now at the end of the year. November was our anniversary, so that was hard and strange, and Ryan really, really loved Halloween."
She has been going to a support group for widows, spending time in Indiana with her family and continuing to push on the opening of Staplehouse, which is awaiting final permitting from the city to begin the build out in a century-old building in the Old Fourth Ward. Jen will manage the business, while her sister-in-law, Kara Hidinger, will manage the front of the house. Kara's husband, Ryan Smith, will be chef.
As of today, The Giving Kitchen has awarded more than $120,000 in grants to more than 60 restaurant workers coping with lost wages due to illness or injury. When Buckhead's longstanding OK Cafe was closed due to a fire, The Giving Kitchen encouraged employees to apply for grants to make their monthly payments.
Jen says she still feels Ryan's presence throughout their house. "Before he passed he told me and a couple of other close people that he'd be playing with us," she says with a smile in her voice. "Sometimes something weird happens, and I think that's him. That's my sweet, goofy husband."
Team Hidi 3.0 takes place Jan. 25, 5-9 p.m., at the Georgia Freight Railroad Depot. Tickets are $150. Food and drink from Atlanta's finest will be served, and all profits benefit The Giving Kitchen. For information go to www.thegivingkitchen.org/th3.

Read the original story here.

John Kessler, jkessler@ajc.com

Tiger Heart and the power of one: Katrell Christie
For Katrell Christie, the end of 2014 has meant an end and a beginning.
The owner of Dr. Bombay's Underwater Tea Party in Candler Park had shut down her new center in Kolkata that was to pave the way for expanding The Learning Tea, her project to educate lower-caste girls in India.
But Christie also married in December in a ceremony on the Mekong River in Vietnam.
In May I traveled with Christie to India, chronicling her unlikely transformation from an Atlanta Rollergirl and tea shop owner to a philanthropist pushing for women's education halfway around the globe.
Christie's original center for scholars in Darjeeling is going strong. Two more young women recently came aboard, meaning 11 now inhabit the pink house on the "up-up road." Christie supports the project largely through the sale of tea and fundraising dinners.
Still, closing the Kolkata center on a return trip to India in November hit Christie hard.
"It hurts my heart," she said. "I don't like to fail."
Kolkata was to be The Learning Tree's second location. But the densely packed and intensely poor city of 14 million proved a tougher challenge than Darjeeling, a more intimate place nestled among the tea plantations in the Himalaya Mountains.
In addition to funding challenges in Kolkata, Christie struggled to find a reliable house mother to run the center. With Christie in Atlanta most of the year, a strong house mother is critical to keeping the young women safe and on track with their studies.
Christie is continuing to push forward on a new Learning Tea center in Chennai, in the south of India on the Bay of Bengal, and she spent time there in November. She is working with an American sponsor from that region who wants to help.
But the setback in Kolkata has Christie rethinking her strategy and considering anew how she can be most effective.
She is doubling down on the center in Darjeeling, spending time there helping women research jobs for when they graduate. And she is in discussions with her tea supplier about packaging The Learning Tea leaves in cup-sized sachets, rather than just bulk, so it will be more marketable to stores like Whole Foods.
Christie also signed a contract to write a memoir, which I will co-author. She hopes it will expand her fundraising reach.
And she is now wed to Thanh Truong, a broadcast journalist from New Orleans.
For the ceremony, which took place in a fishing boat, Christie wore an off-the-shoulder white dress she pulled out a freebie bin at a store in Kolkata.
"Sometimes things do work out," she said.

Read the original story here and read part two here

Shannon McCaffrey, smccaffrey@ajc.com

Hope for a hometown: Charles Gibson
Charles Gibson cannot help it. Whenever he drives past the block, just off Lumpkin's town square, he feels a pang.
The tract, once home to a peanut-processing facility, was to be the spot for the town's new library. Instead, it's an overgrown reminder of a promise made — and, so far, not kept.
"I'm upset," said Gibson, the mayor of Lumpkin, population 2,700. "But you have to think about the people you're leading. You have to smile."
Last March Personal Journeys profiled the mayor and his dream for a town library. For Gibson, 39, achieving that goal is a mission both personal and political. Growing up in Lumpkin, he regularly visited the old library on the town square, which closed in 2008 due to mold infestation. When Gibson ran for mayor in 2010, a part of his platform included a promise: Elect me, and I'll get us a library.
But the mayor didn't reckon with Chattahoochee Valley Libraries. The organization, based in Columbus and operating seven public libraries in Chattahoochee, Marion, Muscogee and Stewart counties, balked at funding the annual expenses of another library. Staffing a rural library can cost $80,000 a year or more.
Library officials said Lumpkin is well-served by the library in Richland, nine miles away
In response, the city of Lumpkin withdrew its annual contribution to the library system, which this year was to be $7,500.
Alan Harkness, the library system's executive director, believes Lumpkin made a mistake.
"If you're not paying into us, it's cutting off your nose to spite your face," he said. "It's short-term thinking."
By pulling out of the regional organization, Lumpkin no longer qualifies for state funding that could help defray the costs of a library, Harkness said.
The mayor thinks Lumpkin could build a library now. The city has about $86,000 in its general fund. A special local option sales tax Stewart County voters approved last year would be good for $150,000 more. Gibson said he has lined up donors to pay the balance.
But no one, he said, is willing to spend money on a library without an operating budget. There the matter rests. Now Gibson's waiting to talk to the library authority when it meets this month.
"It's not like we never had a library," said Gibson. "We're just trying to replace the one we had.
"It'll get there," he added. "It's going to happen." Meantime, the block where groundbreaking was to have taken place earlier last year gets ever more overgrown.

Read the original story here.

Mark Davis, mdavis@ajc.com

Eye on the cure: Dr. Frank Richards
Dr. Frank Richards enjoyed 12 months of incremental victories and one personal setback since The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote in January about his war on a devastating health threat.
Richards is the Carter Center's field general in the battle against river blindness, a horrible tropical illness carried by biting black flies. And incremental is the only available measure of success when fighting an enemy spread across thousands of isolated villages, often in war-torn or ungoverned areas.
The disease afflicts people in the Americas and Africa, but victory drew nearer in the West in 2014 thanks to Richards' strategy, which involves killing and sterilizing the parasitic worms that cause the disease by administering multiple drug treatments to sufferers and potential victims.
The last 12 months also saw a major loss for Richards. His father, Dr. Frank O. Richards Sr., died in February. Called "the Jackie Robinson of the surgical profession" by a colleague, Frank Sr. provided inspiration and a role model for his son, who he instructed to dream big, do something with your life and take on challenges.
A year ago, Personal Journeys documented Frank Jr.'s decades-long obsession with eliminating river blindness by traveling with him into the back country of Ethiopia. The battle continues to show slow but thrilling results.
In September the World Health Organization confirmed Ecuador as the second country in the Western Hemisphere to kill off the disease after Colombia. Mexico and Guatemala are in a three-year waiting period to be certified disease-free.
Richards' leadership has reduced river blindness in the West to one spot in the Amazon jungle on the border of Brazil and Venezuela.
Last year Richards predicted the disease would be eliminated in the West in 2015. Now he's adjusted that projection slightly.
"It was pretty aspirational to get it done by 2015 in the Americas," he says. "It's not bad to say we made 95 percent of it."
Now the Carter Center and its allies, such as the Lions Clubs International, are spreading Richards' strategy to Africa, where the fight is tougher.
The disease is more entrenched, the insects more efficient at transporting it, and the number of people subject to it near 120 million. That could add up to a billion doses of Mectizan, the parasite-killing and prophylactic drug made and donated by Merck.
The eradication date has been proposed as 2025 in Africa. That would put Richards past 70 years old. His father lived to 90. Richards is confident.
"This is the road map to get to the end of the road," he said.
It will be a long one in Africa.

Read the original story here.

Christopher Quinn, cquinn@ajc.com