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Ga.'s first lady visits detention center, Challenged Child
We want to make sure every child has a chance
Georgia first lady Sandra Deal visits with staff members at Challenged Child and Friends. - photo by Tom Reed

Even in one of the state’s highest positions, Georgia first lady Sandra Deal remains true to her roots as an educator.

Whether she’s reading a storybook to a room of children or interacting with a challenged youth, her passion for education is evident.

Deal visited two unique Hall County educational facilities, Challenged Child and Friends and the Regional Youth Detention Center, on Tuesday.

Deal spent the morning with the Women’s Advocacy group of Challenged Child and Friends.

Challenged Child and Friends provides a rare integrated experience for children under 6. Children with a variety of developmental delays and disabilities are able to learn and grow alongside their typically developing peers.

The Women’s Advocacy group was formed in 2007 to support the program.

Deal explained that since becoming first lady, she’s had the privilege of supporting causes and organizations that are meaningful to her, a privilege that keeps her busy.

“I’m not the type to drink sweet tea and read magazines,” Deal said, laughing. “That’s not me.”

Deal spent a few moments speaking with a group of more than 30 women about the importance of education and the impact early intervention can make in the lives and future success of children.

She encouraged the group members to support the program however their specific talents and abilities allowed.
“I hope Challenged Child is one of your stirrings of the heart,” Deal said.

After the meeting, Deal made an unscheduled visit to the Challenged Child and Friends building on Murphy Boulevard in Gainesville.

There she read and acted out scenes in the book, “Who I’d Like to Be” by Elizabeth Brown to a classroom of 3- and 4-year olds. She donated copies of the book to the program.

After a brief tour of the facility, she rode across town to show her support for another interventional program.

The Georgia Children’s Cabinet is highlighting juvenile justice during February. Throughout the month, Deal and several members of the cabinet will visit programs across the state that are aimed at preventing at-risk youth from becoming offenders. They will also visit facilities that are focused on the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.

During her visit to the Regional Youth Detention Center in Gainesville, Deal spoke with the center’s administrators, teachers and students.

The center houses 64 boys and girls who have been charged with or found guilty of crimes. In 2012 the center served 931 young people for an average stay of 16 days. The center serves 21 counties in the Northeast Georgia region.

Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery Niles said the center isn’t just about security, but also education.

“We, as an agency, have a great deal of responsibility,” Niles said. “That is to both educate the youth entrusted to us and to make sure that those individuals that come to us ... leave our facility better than they came.”

Students at the center attend classes as they would at a regular public school or alternative school, depending on what type of school the student came from.

“I like to say the agency has taken a school and laid it inside of a jail,” said Audrey Armistad, associate school superintendent.

The school is working to do more with technology and computer-based instruction. Students who behave appropriately are given the opportunity to check out Kindles preloaded with reading material. Students who took computer-based classes at an alternative school can continue working on their lessons while at the center.

“Our hope with that is to put them back in their school districts in the same place they left out of the school district,” Armistad said. “Then they won’t be returning to us because of problems at school and (with) catching up.”

Deal met with an 11th-grade student who cannot be identified for privacy reasons.

The student lives in another county and had been in the center once before. She told Deal about the difficulties she faced at home and the lure of gangs in her community. She shared the tragic toll that gang involvement has had on her family.

The student said she intended to change her life and the lives of her siblings after her release.

Deal encouraged the girl to think about the choices she makes when she goes back home and how she can prevent her friends from making poor decisions as well.

“We just have to find different ways to work with children and get them on the right path,” Deal said. “We know the success rate can’t be 100 percent, but we’re working toward that 100 percent. We want to make sure every child has a chance.”