April 1, 2013

A full-circle success story

By Mitch Talley Whitfield County Director of Communications

— As she flips the heavy tractor tires over and over, does dozens of jumping jacks and push-ups, lugs buckets full of rocks back and forth, and jumps like a frog for yards along a physical fitness course drawn off on the parking lot behind the Whitfield County Correctional Center on a recent sunny March afternoon, the determination shows on Crystal Walker’s face.

That’s no surprise to those who know her. Just as she has always done, the 22-year-old Whitfield County woman is working hard to overcome the obstacles blocking her path.

When she was a young child, though, those obstacles didn’t last just an hour. She was constantly battling the effects of parents whose lives were decimated by drugs and alcohol. In fact, things got so tough when she was 10 that the local Division of Family and Children Services had to remove Walker from her home and send her to live at the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association’s Cherokee Estate for girls in Whitfield County.

That’s when her life began to take a turn for the better, however.

“When I first got there, it took some getting used to,” she admits, “because your parents not coming to see you is tough … and I would wonder why they didn’t come.”

Her attitude soon began to change, though. Thanks to love and nurturing from her houseparents, Debbie and Jerry Brown, and other staff members, she started to enjoy her new life more and more at Cherokee Estate. “I loved being there,” she says now.

“It was a much better home life,” Walker said. “They actually had a job program for the girls during the summer, and I got one of those jobs helping do maintenance with my houseparent, Jerry.”

Walker also played a role in helping to start a horse therapy program at the youth home.

“When Debbie Phipps started helping over there, she knew that I liked horses, so we actually started the horse program there,” she said. “Now they’ve built a whole new barn, and they’ve turned it into a very big thing out there. They’ve got a lot more girls involved in taking care of them and riding them.”

An even more dramatic change in Walker’s life soon arrived thanks to Cherokee Estate’s “volunteer parent” program, where adults from the community volunteer to spend special time with the children on weekends. Walker’s volunteer parents were Eddie and Vicki Pippin, who soon came to love the young girl so much that they invited her to live with them at their home in 2005. She’s been there ever since.

In fact, she refers to the Pippins as her mom and dad now.

“Oh gosh, my parents now have probably made me who I am today,” she says. “They’ve taught me to be independent — like I got a job when I was 15 and worked for everything. They’ve taught me a lot of things.”

That included setting goals and accomplishing them.

About this time last year, Walker applied for — and earned — a job as a detention officer at the Whitfield County Correctional Center.

“At the time we hired her, I didn’t even put together that she had once lived at Cherokee Estate,” said Sheriff Scott Chitwood, who has been a loyal supporter of the youth home for years.

Chitwood is proud to call Walker a co-worker these days.

“Going from campus to corrections is definitely a success story,” Chitwood said. “I think it touches me just for the fact that she’s almost one of our products from the youth home, and now to come to be employed by the sheriff’s office and she wants to be part of us now, it’s like it has come full circle.”

Walker is assigned to the booking area at the jail now, where she is part of the staff that handles the intake process for people who have been charged with crimes.

“We tell people that they grow up quick here,” Chitwood said. “They go from being a young adult to a mature seasoned individual in law enforcement because of what they see in the jail, and the type of people they deal with. We’ve had contraband in jail, we’ve had knives, we’ve had guns, we’ve had suicides, we’ve had fights — just being in that atmosphere, you grow up real quick. You learn how to handle different situations.”

And that variety is one of Walker’s favorite parts of the job.

“It’s been fun,” she said with a laugh. “I really like it. I like that it’s not the same thing every day. Something new can always happen. I like stuff like that. I don’t like boring stuff. Like in my old job, I knew what was going to happen, but here you never know. I mean, it’s a great job. I love it.”

The sheriff said that like other workers at the jail, Walker is constantly undergoing training. Already, she’s been through the jail certification school and is now a certified jailer.

“Other than just a year experience, she’s as trained as anybody we’ve got back there,” Chitwood said. “Other people have just got more experience, maybe have gone through more schools, but Crystal’s got as much training as anybody back there’s who’s been employed a year. We’ve got as much faith and trust in her and her ability as anybody that we’ve got. I talked to her supervisor, and they were very complimentary of her work.”

Chitwood praised the efforts of the entire correctional center staff, pointing out that they perform one of the duties of the sheriff’s office that is mandated by the state Constitution.

“I have to run the jail, I have to do the courts, I have to do civil process,” he pointed out. “I have to do these three things by the Constitution of the state of Georgia. So working in the jail is a very, very important job for these folks.”

He praised the efforts of Walker and her co-workers in the booking area because it’s up to them to keep contraband from infiltrating the jail.

“I’ve seen criminals cut the soles out of tennis shoes and put marijuana in there,” Chitwood says. “They’ve put it in the lining of their underwear — split the seam and put it in there and sew it back together. They will either attempt to bring it in or they will attempt to smuggle it in if we have to take them outside to go to the doctor, something like that. So we’re constantly on our toes. We’re constantly faced with a challenge. So all the booking officers do a great job because they intercept it virtually all the time before it ever gets to the back of the jail, which is to our benefit.”

Through their training and their observation in the booking area, “we can intercept that contraband before inmates actually get into the jail area,” he says, “which is very much a safety issue for us because there could be problems if a gun got back there or a knife got back there.”

While aware of the importance of the jail staff, Chitwood also understands Walker’s desire to grow in her job and perhaps become a patrol officer one day. He knows why she was working so hard on the physical fitness course as part of several weeks of mini-camp training that could lead to the realization of her dream.

“Virtually everybody that’s on patrol division now came from the back of the jail,” Chitwood says. “I’d have to look to be sure, but probably 85 percent of them have been promoted from the jail and worked their way to patrol. It’s a stepping stone they go through. So as time allows, hopefully she’ll reach her next goal.”

To work in the patrol division, Walker will have to be mandated by the state of Georgia and go to the Police Academy to become POST-certified to earn her powers of arrest. POST stands for Peace Officer Standards and Training.

“As time permits and slots become available, we allow people working in the back of the jail to apply for mandate school, which lasts 11 weeks,” Chitwood says. “Eventually she will have the opportunity to go to this school and become a patrol officer.”

It wouldn’t surprise Cherokee Estate resident director Nikita Jordan to see Walker in a patrol car one day.

“Crystal is a wonderful young lady who is well mannered and was an excellent student,” Jordan says. “She was a great role model to the other kids during her placement. She was also Youth of the Year. She has remained in contact with us and has volunteered at a golf tournament that supports Cherokee Estate.”

While the sheriff is quick to point out that the residents at Cherokee Estate aren’t juvenile delinquents but just victims of circumstances beyond their control, he’s still proud of the life that Walker is enjoying now.

“We’ve very proud of her and you just want to reach over and hug her neck because of what she’s turned out to be,” Chitwood said. “Not that all the kids up there haven’t, but there’s been a few failures through the course of the years. We provide a home and it’s like a family — all children are not perfect.

“A lot turn out good, but you’ve got one bad apple in every crop sometimes, so when we have a success story like Crystal, it’s like, yeah baby!” he said, smiling.

He believes that the love and nurturing and structure that are part of Cherokee Estate “hopefully will turn the kids up there into young adults that can make something out of themselves.”

Walker is the latest in a string of success stories from Cherokee Estate, the sheriff said, “and I don’t just say that because of the college graduates or the employment that they lock in. It’s a success story because of who they turned out to be as an individual.

“I mean, Crystal has taken the ball and run with it,” Chitwood said. “She’s matured, she’s grown up with us, and she’s got a career here as long as she desires to seek that career. The success story is within the heart oftentimes, not just up here on the surface. It’s from within, so Crystal’s a prime example.”