MONROE, Ga. — Honoring those who helped everyone survive a most tumultuous year, The Walton Tribune honored Walton County’s homegrown superheroes Monday night at its annual Visions reception.
The newspaper launched its annual progress edition, Visions, this week and kicked off the reveal Monday with the banquet, where the paper paid homage to those chosen as Unsung Heroes and for its top honor, the Community Spirit Award.
“This is a very special night as we celebrate some of the most wonderful people in Walton County,” Tribune Editor and Publisher David Clemons said.
Unlike previous years, the newspaper chose to honor larger groups as part of the team mentality required to tackle COVID-19 and the attendant challenges over the course of 2020, all in line with the magazine’s theme, “Real. Super. Heroes.”
“It took real effort to make sure we survived the pandemic without missing a beat,” Clemons said. “Our children are thriving, our businesses are growing and our future is as bright as ever. The people who did this work will be thought of as superheroes — real superheroes.”
The Employer of the Year went to the Walton County School District, which helped lead the way into resuming a semblance of normality last fall when it opened its doors to students for regular school hours.
“Despite the uncertainty in the early days of the pandemic, school administrators knew the ultimate goal was to get as many students and teacher back in the classroom as safely as possible,” Clemons said. “The year has looked a little different, but the finish line is in sight.”
Nathan Franklin, superintendent of the WCSD, accepted the award on behalf of the system.
“It’s certainly an honor to represent Walton County,” Franklin said. “Our stakeholders made it clear they wanted to go back to school. We had a good, safe plan and a supportive board to make it happen.”
The Tribune did honor one young individual for 2021 with the choice of its Youth of the Year, which went to Walnut Grove High School senior Jason Barker.
“The story of our Youth of the Year was one of my favorites to read in Visions,” Clemons said. “You see the quote from Walnut Grove principal Lindsey Allen on the poster here, ‘Every day he comes to this school, he makes this school better.’”
Barker was a bit overwhelmed by the award.
“I’m so honored to be here,” Barker said. “Wow. Just wow. There are so many people who got me here today — my family, my friends, my church and everyone who has stuck by me. I’m awestruck, honestly. Thank you so much.”
The Unsung Heroes, however, honored larger groups this year, including local public safety workers, churches and elected officials.
“Last year, we saw the importance of our public safety workers — police, firefighters, paramedics and down the line,” Clemons said. “While many people were able to work from home, these brave men and women continued to come in every day to help their communities, all while adding another layer of risk — their own health.”
Monroe police Chief R.V. Watts accepted the award.
“It’s such an honor to be here tonight to accept this award on behalf of all our public servants,” Watts said. “I want to thank you so much.”
“When the pandemic shut down pretty much everything, the Sunday routine for many of us came to an abrupt halt,” Clemons said. “Thankfully, local churches sprang into action and adapted to the circumstances. Churches kept up their important work of being the hands and feet of Christ.”
Dessa Morris accepted the award in her role as a member of the Faith In Serving Humanity board.
“Our local leaders had a goal to keep people safe, but also remain open to the extent possible,” Clemons said. “It wasn’t easy, but survive we have. For their efforts to lead Walton County through the pandemic, we honor our elected officials as Unsung Heroes for 2021.”
Mayors John Howard, of Monroe, Rey Martinez, of Loganville, and Mark Moore, of Walnut Grove, accepted the award.
Finally, Clemons presented the Community Spirt Award, which went to the frontline health care workers at Piedmont Walton Hospital.
“Perhaps no one was on the front lines quite like the heroes at Piedmont Walton Hospital,” Clemons said. “Before most of us knew was coming in 2020, the leadership at Piedmont Walton was getting ready for the biggest challenge any of them would face. But they rose to the occasion.”
Larry Ebert, CEO of Piedmont Walton, accepted the honor.
“I would like to express my sincerest gratitude for our Piedmont Walton team,” Ebert said. “Words cannot express my honor to lead this team. I also have a lot of gratitude for the community. We always knew we had the support of the community. We thank you for this award.”