Taste Shop Give 2013…An Event to Remember

Did you miss our Taste Shop Give event on Thursday, November 7th? If so, you passed up an opportunity to experience some fantastic music, enjoy an incredible meal, bid on some amazing live auction items, and meet some awesome people who are dedicated to our mission at Georgia Center for Opportunity.

GCO’s third annual Taste Shop Give event was held at The Ballroom at Twelve, Atlantic Station. Former White House chef Walter Scheib prepared a formal State dinner in the same fashion as he has prepared countless banquets for heads of State during his tenure under presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The dinner included field greens with balsamic dressing and baked goat cheese; stuffed pecan crusted chicken breast filled with smoked mozzarella and sun dried tomatoes; parmesan risotto; French beans with a roasted yellow pepper sauce; and vanilla ice cream with warm banana caramel compote.

This mouthwatering meal was served up by our Breakthrough Ambassadors, high school students from Norcross High School. They did such a great job serving you would never have known they weren’t professionals.

Taste Shop Give 2013 featured uplifting musical entertainment from three inspirational solo artists, Mary Millben, Shay Watson and Peter Lee Johnson.  Mary has been a featured vocal soloist at The White House and the Kennedy Center, and for events hosting presidents, George W. Bush and Barak Obama, and many others. She sang a gorgeous version of “Georgia on My Mind”, among other songs, for our Taste Shop Give guests. Shay Watson has carved out a place for himself in the global music community as a songwriter, artist and producer. He sang a few of his original pieces and together Mary and Shay sang a duet of “Oh Happy Day” which was quite moving. Peter Lee Johnson is a young violin genius who played a variety of popular cover songs during the evening. You can see below that even some of the Breakthrough Ambassadors joined in on the entertainment.

After the dinner, entertainment, and good conversation, the evening was wrapped up with a live auction. There were several great items auctioned off including an electric violin signed by Peter Lee Johnson, a home entertainment system, an Italian getaway, a premier cruise excursion, and an exclusive set of Pickard Whitehouse tableware – all donations are used to support our mission to remove barriers to opportunity and ultimately help more Georgians achieve a better life.

If you missed our event this year, please join us next year. If you were able to attend, we sincerely thank you for your support!!!

First Steps for College and Career Pathways


There are many pathways that will lead students to success later in life. We just have to get them started. Courtesy: Experience

The dream of an abounding future for folks in Georgia obliges a closer look at the current pathways for our young ones to reach success as adults. College attendance is shifting from a privilege for a small group, to a growing necessity for the majority of us. Sources such as the Lumina Foundation project that by 2025 60% of all jobs in America will require an Associate’s degree or higher. Currently only 36% of working Georgians have reached this mark.

In addition to preparing more students for traditional college settings, it is imperative that we build new pathways that lead directly to thriving jobs. Technical colleges, apprenticeships, public-private partnerships and other training programs remain underutilized resources that could provide new possibilities for student outcomes. To create a seamless transition from high school to postsecondary education, and on to careers, we must remove barriers to opportunity now.

The Georgia Center for Opportunity is excited to launch its College and Career Pathways Working Group this November. With a mission to discuss the issues that bar students from postsecondary success, GCO has assembled a cohort of experts across the education space to lend their experience and insights to creating sustainable solutions.

Key Focus Areas of College and Career Pathways

  • Defining college and career readiness
  • Teacher quality in Georgia
  • Use of virtual learning for college and career readiness
  • Identify important components of  the transition to postsecondary education
  • Impact of the rising cost of college attendance

At GCO we look forward to creating a new dialogue for college and career readiness in Georgia. Finding solutions for the problems that threaten to keep more Georgians off the path to middle class by middle age will undoubtedly require that we draw support not only from experts, but also schools, communities and at home. What part can each of us take to adequately prepare youngsters to make their dreams a reality? Let’s share the work of making tomorrow a little peachier!

Prison Implements Faith and Character-Based Initiative

Inmates of any faith are encouraged to apply to the first “Faith and Character-Based” prison in Georgia, at Walker State Prison, located in the northwest corner of the state.  The Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) is seeking to positively affect inmate behavior and reduce recidivism through this newly established program, which focuses on accountability, responsibility, integrity, and faith.


Inmates at Walker State Prison performing

Inmates at Walker State Prison performing


An important part of GCO’s research within its Prisoner Reentry Initiative involves visiting correctional facilities throughout the state to view firsthand what programs and services GDC offers to prepare offenders to transition back into society. This varies greatly by the quality of education, training, and treatment they receive during their incarceration. Some facilities are better than others, and this prison impressed us as having great potential for success.

Changed Expectations:  A Prison of Hope

Pulling up to Walker State Prison, it appeared that the prison was just like any other from the outside: razor-wire fence, guard tower, patrol car, lock-down facilities, and an overall feeling of intimidation. However, inside the prison, the atmosphere was quite different from what I expected. We were greeted by respectful inmates with head nods and hand-shakes, who appeared somewhat happy to see visitors. From observing a group of men in a classroom taking guitar lessons to seeing a large mural in the cafeteria depicting a scene from the Garden of Eden, an air of hope seemed to permeate the otherwise grim state facility.

What the GDC started in recent years with a dozen or so faith and character-based dorms throughout the state has evolved into this new two-year initiative being tested in Georgia. The success of these initial dorms paved the way for expanding the program into a prison-wide capacity at Walker in August 2011.  This idea was first tested by Lawtey Correctional Institution in Starke, Florida, whose faith and character-based program has shown to positively affect inmate behavior and reduce recidivism since 2003.

Once inmates complete the two-year program, they will either transition into society (via parole, probation, or maxing-out) or transfer to another prison to finish their sentence. Participation in the faith-based component of the program is optional to inmates, but it can be readily accessed through taking various elective classes that are offered. Further, volunteers from the community come into the prison to mentor and help inmates grow in their respective faiths.

Culture of Reform = Unlocked Lockers

At the core of the program is the idea that inmates should be men of character. This is not a policy that is forced from the top-down; rather, it is a goal that each inmate internalizes personally.The pilot group of men adopted articles that govern the way they interact with each other and painted them on the cafeteria wall to be on display for all to see. They even decided to keep all of the lockers in their living quarters unlocked as a reminder to be men of integrity. This powerful symbol – exemplified in the unlocked locker – shows the extent to which the inmates strive to create a culture of reform that is distinct from other prisons.

The staff and inmates at Walker State Prison are cultivating something that is indeed unique among Georgia prisons, as well as in the country at large.

The chaplain shared with us that sometimes men come into his office crying because they feel a sense of release from the oppression that marks the prisons from where they came.

It often takes time for inmates who recently transfer into Walker to adjust to the new prison culture. However, once this starts to happen, the shell around their heart begins to crack, and for the first time in years an inmate may be seen with a smile on his face, finding a ray of hope during this dark time in his life.

Educational Focus

During our visit, I had the opportunity to attend one of the elective classes offered at the prison, taught by volunteer Bruce King.  He provides valuable assessments to measure inmates’ vocational competencies and gifts, where they discover the type of jobs for which they are a good fit.  They also learn how to reframe their story in a positive light and explain to employers why they are the best candidates for a particular job. This seminar gives inmates priceless tools to overcome formidable barriers to employment (such as getting hired with a criminal record), as well as the confidence to know what they are naturally good at doing.

Much more than seminars are offered.  In fact, the entire prison has an educational focus. The inmates spend their day taking both general education and elective classes. The general education classes have proven to be very successful in enabling inmates to acquire a GED certification. Elective classes are more faith-focused, allowing inmates to choose classes based on their respective faiths. Currently Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Jehovah’s Witness, and Wiccan faiths are represented.

The electives are facilitated entirely by inmates and volunteers, as the state does not provide funding or staff to run the faith and character-based program. Two electives at the prison, Greek and Hebrew classes, are taught by seminary-trained inmates from Phillips State Prison (this prison offers courses from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary). This model of inmate-facilitation provides a great opportunity for inmates to assume leadership roles, to grow in confidence, to hone their professional skills, and to positively impact their fellow inmates.

Beautiful Trash and Second Chances

The counselor at the prison introduced us to several inmates throughout our tour, and one of these men supervised the art program. We had the privilege of seeing pictures of some of the masterpieces this group produced. The majority of their paintings depicted scenes from the Bible, such as Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and Daniel in the lion’s den.  They paint the murals on bed sheets and donate them to churches, foster homes, vacation Bible schools, etc. The group also uses recycled cardboard to build creative works of art, including a toy castle, motorcycle, model plane, and a life-sized grandfather clock with coke insignia all over it (this piece looked so good that it’s now sitting in the Coca-Cola Museum).

The supervisor of this group of artists told us that the message they want to convey through their artwork is that God takes what the world deems as trash and turns it into something beautiful.

It is this same message of redemption that they hope to communicate with their lives.

On a larger scale, at Walker inmates are beginning to see what is possible as they develop a new way of thinking and believing, recovering what has been marred from years of destructive thought patterns. They are seeing their worth as human beings who have been given unique gifts and abilities, and recognizing fresh opportunities where they can serve other people.

For offenders who desire a second chance at life, Walker State Prison is a good place to begin this journey.