When Martha Haythorn was voted onto the Homecoming Court at Decatur High School she felt embraced by her peers. “It means a great deal to me. When I saw my name it made me realize that my school community accepts me more than I knew. They don’t see me as the girl with Down Syndrome but as a unique person, a leader and an advocate. People with disabilities want to feel like they belong.”
For the past 30 years Woody Jones has been creating what he calls mechanical amusements. “People tell me their stories and I make an animated little theatre depicting their story. They are hand cranked, all wood, hand carved, one of a kind automatons.” Woody’s greatest pleasure comes from watching the joy he spreads through his art.
When Mary Joe White moved out of her family home in Decatur she temporarily placed many of her belongings in storage. A water leak destroyed many irreplaceable items with the exception of a 70-year-old quilt that she had sewn with her grandmother.
Keson Graham fell in love with photography in middle school. He became inspired to start taking pictures after watching his peers photograph sporting events. Today, Keson is a photographer for the Decatur High School (DHS) yearbook and president of the photography club.
Mitsuko Ito grew up in Tokyo and moved to the United States as an adult. She has been trying to instill in her children one important lesson. “Respect is definitely a big part of the Japanese culture. We are very careful to maintain the harmony and peace of the collective.”
Kurt VogeI’s interest in computers began when he was in the fifth grade, and from then on his passion grew. His unique life experiences as a result of living with a disability have inspired him to become an advocate. “I’m someone who wants to utilize my skills, talents, and passion to positively impact the lives and career prospects of those living with a disability.”
When Robert Leonard purchased his house in 1978 the neighborhood was in distress. “The house was in very bad shape. Everyone who came in and looked at it said I was nuts to buy this place. Over the years, Robert has slowly worked to fix up his modest house and rehabilitate the two-acre property.
Meh Sod Paw was born to Burmese parents in a refugee camp in Thailand, where she dreamed of being a teacher one day. Now as a student at Agnes Scott, she is seeing her dreams come to fruition. “Being here is like a new world.”
Clarence Scott’s successful career in the NFL was the result of hard work, passion, and his Decatur upbringing. “Everything comes back to the community. It brought me up and taught me how to live life in a meaningful way.”
Decatur native, Noah Grigni, is an artist, living and studying in Boston with a clear vision for his future. “My hope is that my art will reach an audience of trans kids and show them that there is beauty in being trans. You can transition and still live a happy life full of creativity and love.”
City Schools of Decatur School Resource Officer Matthew Damico fosters positive relationships with students from the very young to the college-bound. “I take every child’s safety and wellbeing to heart. I want them to leave our community at 18 ready to be healthy members of society.”
For the past eight years countless Decatur kids have crossed Adams St. safely on their way to and from Renfroe Middle School thanks to whistle-wielding, award-winning crossing guard Eula Malone. Nothing has meant as much to Eula as a letter that a student handed her one morning.
Grace McGee has been a fixture of the Oakhurst neighborhood since 1968. From the days of “Mama Grace’s” annual back-to-school picnic extravaganza to today, Grace’s love for children has been abundant. “This street still has loving and caring people. I don’t get out much anymore, but if they need anything, I’m here.”
Khadija Barati and her daughters came to the U.S. in 2014 to escape mounting danger in their native Afghanistan. The nurturing environment they found at Decatur’s Global Village Project, a refugee school for girls, has allowed Khaty and Farzana to blossom. “Here, girls have freedom.”
Corbin McKinnon lives in L’Arche Atlanta in Oakhurst where adults with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities live together in community. Corbin uses Braille to read a book, but he learns music by ear. His favorite pastime is jamming with the other residents. “They play guitar, ukulele, and I sing harmony. Music makes me feel good.”
As Decatur Fire Department Support Service Captain, Ninetta Violante fights fires and stereotypes. “When I started it was difficult. I had to prove myself because of my gender. Today our department is very open and accepting. I think we’re ahead of the game compared to what’s occurring nationally and internationally.”
Wiley Roberson was born on Atlanta Avenue in Decatur in 1934. When urban renewal and white flight occurred it provided the African American community the chance to expand and live in other areas of town. “I have had a wonderful life in Decatur, but I’ve seen it change dramatically.”
In 1982, Catherine Carter and her family attended an overcrowded Fourth of July event in Stone Mountain. “When I got home I called a friend and asked her what she thought of the idea of having fireworks and a parade in Decatur. She thought it was terrific.” And so the seeds of Decatur’s rich festival tradition were planted.
Willie Mae was born on a plantation in 1908 and is the granddaughter of a slave. In 1939 she moved to Atlanta with her husband in search of a better life for her only child. In 1966, Willie Mae’s daughter lost her husband unexpectedly, and Willie Mae moved to Decatur to help care for her seven grandchildren.
A tragic accident in 2000 left Elliot Poag wheelchair bound in a nursing home, “just laying around waiting to die.” But a move to Decatur restored his independence and gave him a new lease on life. “I live like the birds outside, free. In my heart, I’m always free. I believe I can fly.”
McKinney’s Apothecary was established in 1952, and is the oldest operating pharmacy in Decatur. Owner, Doug Taunton, credits his success to the personalized service all customers receive when they walk in the door. “We enjoy getting to know people and hearing their stories. We know when a person needs an extra hug, or maybe a little joke.”
When Robert Griffin and Andrew Currie were invited by friends to attend a festival in Oakhurst, they were struck with the feeling that Decatur was where they belonged. “There was this incredible feeling of welcomed diversity, old and young, black and white, gay and straight, and everything in between.”
Recent DHS grad John Ellis represents all that is possible when a community can help shape its young adults into confident, loving, creative citizens ready to step into the world with outstretched arms. “I’m not done with Decatur. I’m just moving on. I’ll be back.”
As a young girl living in Decatur, Veronica Edwards witnessed white flight. “During this transition period, we knew as a community that we had to stick together and make sure that everyone in the neighborhood was taken care of. I learned to be an advocate and caretaker at a young age.”
When Faiza Haji came to America in 2006, she carried with her the Somalian tradition of poetry that is helping pave the way to her future. “I want to go into civil law because I want to stand up for people who don’t have a voice. That’s what I do with my poetry.”
Jon Abercrombie grew up in the segregated South during the turmoil of the civil rights era. His experiences led to a career devoted to social justice and community building. “These are the things that have shaped me, these experiences with people and their voices.”
Stay-at-home dad Huckleberry Starnes and his family moved to Decatur three years ago. “The reason we came was for the schools, and we haven’t been disappointed. One of the things we like so much is the diversity, but it is changing. We’re conflicted about it. I think it will probably level out at some point. It’ll be interesting to see how that works.
Valerie found teaching art gratifying. “I loved the students at Renfroe Middle school. Kids have a great sense of humor and they are full of surprises.” In 2016, Valerie retired. “I gave up my identity as an artist for a while to be a teacher and now I’m trying to recapture that identity.”