People First of Henry County celebrates 15th anniversary

By Jason A. Smith
Times Correspondent

Country-music singer Richie McDonald made his fourth trip to McDonough over the weekend to help People First of Henry County celebrate its 15th anniversary. McDonald, lead singer of the band Lonestar, began developing a connection with the organization after meeting one of his biggest fans, Melissa Dodgen of Hampton.

Lonestar lead singer Richie McDonald (second from left) was the featured performer in a free concert celebrating People First of Henry County’s 15th anniversary. He was joined by (from left) People First directors Joan Angelini, Connie Dodgen and Kristy Dobbs. Special photo

McDonald said he was glad to help the organization mark a significant moment in its history.

“Fifteen years is a milestone,” said McDonald. “They just do such great work for the community. They’re such good people, with big hearts. Just to be a part of it ... Melissa told me I’ve been a part of it for 12 years now. Anytime any of the guys in Lonestar have an opportunity to give back and be a part of something as special as this, we’re always there to help.”

People First holds free social events throughout the year for the special-needs community. Hundreds of people gathered Saturday at the Henry County Performing Arts Center in McDonough for an invitation-only concert featuring McDonald.

Melissa Dodgen’s mother, Connie, is one of three directors for People First, along with Joan Angelini and Kristy Dobbs. Dodgen said the group helps to boost the self-esteem of kids and adults with special needs.

Special photo

“We put them out there, they take it in, and the rest is history,” said Dodgen. “They feel like they are on top of the world, and they dare to dream for everything in this world. Nothing is out of their limits. We are proud to say that People First has been a big part of that.”

Angelini, of Atlanta, has been a director at People First for the last 14 years. She emphasized that the organization has “changed people’s lives and brought them out of their shell.”

“They seem happy,” she said. “It took away that shyness. People First has made these special people very outgoing.”

Angelini said one element of the group’s success is involvement from special-needs individuals and their families.

“When we have an event, it takes the family to participate,” she said. “The parents can’t just drop their child off and leave. It takes full family participation.”

Dobbs, of Jackson, became a director for People First a little over a year ago. She said her interest in serving the special-needs community dates back to her high-school days, when she first met Melissa Dodgen. The two later reconnected at a Caring for a Cause event, which eventually led Dobbs to get involved with People First.

“I’ve always had a heart for special needs kids and adults,” said Dobbs. “It’s my favorite thing to do. I absolutely love each and every one of those kids, and I feel like it’s where God led me to be.”

Melissa Howard’s 12 1/2-year-old son, Garrett, was diagnosed with a seizure disorder when he was a year old. Howard, of Locust Grove, was relieved to have a way for Garrett to interact with other kids through People First.

“I just felt safe there,” she said. “It was a safe place to go for activities with Garrett without being looked at and judged for the way that he may have behaved. You’re just welcomed and invited to have a good time.”

Howard, now in her seventh year volunteering for People First, said the organization helps people live fuller lives. She credited the dedication of Connie Dodgen, in particular, as a factor in her volunteering for People First.

“I just saw her passion for it, and I wanted to be a part of it,” said Howard. “It’s just a group that shows love to people. We have people in group homes that don’t really have a lot of activities. People First gives those individuals more options for recreation and interaction with others. It helps us grow as parents of a child with special needs. It’s been great for me and my husband to have a support system.”

Among those in attendance for the 15th anniversary celebration was Ricky Craig of McDonough, who spearheads an annual Walk-a-Thon to benefit People First. He said it is important to give back to the community.

“There’s no better people to give back to than People First and the special-needs community,” said Craig. “The ladies that run People First, they take care of their money and they do a super, super job. If it wasn’t for them having activities for these kids, a lot of these kids wouldn’t ever have activities to go to.”

Ashley Hood of Hampton currently serves on the board for the nonprofit organization. Hood, who was born with spina bifida, appreciates having a recreational outlet for herself and others with special needs.

“It means a lot to me because at the events People First puts on, a person with special needs can be themselves and have fun,” said Hood. “People in the world today can be cruel to someone with special needs simply because they don’t understand, so to have a place to go and have fun means so much to someone like me.”

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