Origins of the Georgia Center for Opportunity: Why we choose to focus on healthy families

Origins of the Georgia Center for Opportunity: Why we choose to focus on healthy families

Origins of the Georgia Center for Opportunity: Why we choose to focus on healthy families

As an organization whose mission is to alleviate poverty in communities across Georgia, we are sometimes asked why we choose to focus on healthy families. After all, some of the most contentious flash points in our culture today center on the divergent views Americans hold about the definition of marriage and the role of family in society. 

This is why many groups working on poverty alleviation sidestep the crucial role that family plays as the bedrock of society and instead focus on resolving the presenting symptoms of poverty—as important as they are—rather than the root causes.    

But back in 2005, the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) was asked to participate in a healthy marriage initiative. In considering our involvement, we looked at the research on stable, intact, two-parent households and saw that this type of family structure is optimal when looking at a wide variety of social metrics—including poverty alleviation. 

And while there’s no doubt that single parents often do a great job raising children who become highly productive members of society, the data clearly show superior outcomes for children who come from loving, low-conflict, two-parent households—and that this family structure is key to dismantling generational poverty and building thriving communities. 

The bottom line is that while poverty can still be experienced in the context of two-parent households, it’s less likely to happen than in single-parent households. And as a root cause for poverty, we knew we had to focus on building healthy families if we wanted to help individuals flourish—and strengthen our communities and state.  

This is why GCO has invested heavily over the years in programs that offer relationship education to men and women. And this is why we have worked hard to build coalitions of nonprofits, faith groups, and local businesses to go into communities and lovingly address factors that destabilize marriage and family like divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and domestic violence.

The Success Sequence provides an outline of how to reverse the cycle of poverty in our communities. GCO uses this as a framework for much of our work.

Learn more about the impact GCO is making on families within our state. 

To this end—thanks to a federal grant from the Bush Administration—we were able to offer training to help couples overcome barriers and strengthen their relationships. Through this healthy marriage initiative, we certified 1,000 trainers to go out into their communities and teach more than 5,000 couples how to improve the quality of their relationship and stabilize their families.  

Today, GCO continues to move forward with a holistic and comprehensive solution to poverty that takes aim at its root cause—family instability. And while we continue to offer relationship education, we have expanded our focus beyond romantic relations with our Healthy @ series that works with churches, schools and businesses to examine healthy relationships in other areas of life, including education and work. 

Our goal at GCO has always been to remove barriers to human flourishing. And as we know through the PERMA model that an underlying barrier to overcoming poverty is improving the quality of relationships. 

By focusing on healthy families, GCO helps people recognize and regulate their emotions, learn how to effectively communicate with family members, identify unhealthy behaviors and relationships, and establish appropriate boundaries. More than anything else, learning these skills changes the trajectory of individual lives. And this is how generational poverty is defeated and communities are transformed—one life at a time.



Aidan’s story: How a private school saved a young man’s life

Aidan’s story: How a private school saved a young man’s life

Aidan’s story: How a private school saved a young man’s life

Aidan's Story

“Every day was truly a dark day.”

That’s how Tiffany Pearce describes life during the hardest weeks of trying to care for her son, Aidan. Diagnosed with bipolar with mania, on top of an earlier diagnosis of autism and sensory integration disorder, Aidan couldn’t do most things we take for granted—everything from communicating his feelings to using the restroom. 

But tragically, that extended to Aidan trying to hurt himself during his manic episodes. To help, Tiffany would try to hold Aidan to prevent injuries. The results from this strong eight-year-old boy were that Tiffany herself would often get injured.

“He was having episodes three to four times a day lasting anywhere from one hour to three or four,” Tiffany says. “With these episodes, it’s like he didn’t know who he was at the time.”

When the manic episode calmed down and Aidan would recover, he would look at the blood on his mother and ask, “Why don’t you move out and leave. I don’t want to hurt you any more.”

Tiffany took her son to a long list of doctors and specialists for help before he was eventually admitted to the Atlanta-based Peaceford Hospital, a behavioral health treatment facility. But even that didn’t help. Aidan continued to struggle. It was all made worse by the fact that Tiffany could not stay with him at night.

“I’ll never forget the time he looked up at me and said, ‘Mommy, I want to be in heaven.’ You just feel completely helpless as a parent at that moment,” says Tiffany. “To hear an eight-year-old say that is devastating.”

Later on, Tiffany waged a battle with the insurance company to move Aidan from Peachford to a residential facility where they would better be able to serve his needs. At the same time, she had to make a choice about where to send the young man to school.



It was the first time his mother heard, “we want Aidan.”

All students deserve the chance to succeed.

But Tiffany soon discovered that not many schools were willing to support a child like Aidan. The local public schools in Cobb County wanted to put him on an EBD (Emotional and Behavioral Disorder) satellite campus, but Aidan’s doctors and therapists said that would have been detrimental to his behavioral and development issues.

Thankfully, there was another option: CORE Community School, a private school in Atlanta. 

“I’ll never forget them saying, ‘We want him. We want Aidan.’ That was the first time I felt hope in a year, because he deserves to be wanted. All kids should feel that. They deserve that,” Tiffany says.

Today, Aidan is thriving at this private school that prioritizes serving students with unique needs and challenges.

“Being at school is the first time in a year and a half that I see Aidan smile,” Tiffany says. “I didn’t think I would see that again. I wondered if this boy with the biggest heart would ever feel like he was worth anything. And he did here.”



Key GCO priority bills make crossover deadline

Key GCO priority bills make crossover deadline

Key GCO priority bills make crossover deadline

legislative update

The Georgia legislative session is halfway over, and already we’ve made some important progress in breaking down barriers to work and expanding opportunity for all Georgians.

We reached a key legislative mark on March 8: The crossover deadline. That means that any bill not passed by at least one chamber (either the Senate or the House) is likely dead for the remainder of the session.

The great news is that several key bills supported by the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) made the crossover deadline.


Get Buzz'd capitol update

Watch Buzz Brockway, VP of Policy for GCO, from the state Capitol as he updates us on what legislation is moving forward, and what is over for the year. 


Heading up that list is a measure that would expand the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship. This program helps students with individualized education plans (IEPs) attend a private school that is a better fit for their individual needs. On March 3, the state Senate passed a measure, Senate Bill 47, that opens the scholarship to preschoolers in addition to students with a wide range of special needs, just not those with an IEP.

We’re continuing to work with lawmakers on the House side to pass the bill and send it to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk for his signature. We’re hopeful that 2021 will be the year this important measure becomes law in order to better serve families of special needs students who have disproportionately suffered during the pandemic.

Occupational licensing

We’re also seeing progress on occupational licensing reforms. Occupational licensing is needed in some industries and job categories, but the laws on the books today in many cases are an unnecessary roadblock to employment for workers.

Two bills on this issue made the crossover deadline. The first, Senate Bill 45, allows people who move to Georgia and hold an occupational license to immediately be granted a provisional license. This will allow these new Georgians to immediately go to work and support their families.

A second measure, Senate Bill 27, extends the time (up to two years) a retiring military member may count their military training toward requirements for an occupational license

Both bills are now pending in the House.


Adoption reforms

We’re pleased that two adoption-reform bills passed the House before the crossover deadline. House Bill 114 would increase the annual tax credit available for adopting a foster child from $2,000 to $6,000. And House Bill 154 would lower the minimum age to adopt from 25 to 21.

Foster and adoptive families play a crucial role in creating stable environments for some of the most vulnerable children in our society. Anything we can do through policy reform to help these families should be a priority.

Justice reforms

In an attempt to address the type of tragic vigilante violence that occurred in the Ahmaud Arbery case, lawmakers unanimously passed House Bill 479 on March 8. The measure overhauls Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law to generally prevent bystanders from attempting to arrest an individual suspected of a crime. GCO believes this is a crucial piece of legislation to prevent unnecessary tragedies and foster greater racial justice in our state.


Bills that didn’t make the cut

Unfortunately, supporters of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) will likely have to wait another year before we see them become a reality. Although a measure (House Bill 60) to create ESAs passed the House Education Committee on Feb. 26, it never came up for a vote on the floor of the House.

ESAs are an important way to expand educational access and choice for Georgia students. They allow parents and kids—no matter their race, the circumstances of their birth, or their socioeconomic status—to have equal access to the funds needed for a great education. We’ll continue fighting for ESAs in the 2022 legislative session.

On a positive note, bills that would have legalized parimutuel horse-race betting and casino gambling in Georgia are now dead after failing to make crossover.

Is it time for voting rights reform for felons?

Is it time for voting rights reform for felons?

Is it time for voting rights reform for felons?

prisoners listening

Coming off the contentious 2020 election, the issue of voting rights has been in the news lately. That is likely why, this year, there is a renewed push among some lawmakers in the Georgia legislature to reform voting-rights laws for those convicted of a felony.

This issue is central to our mission here at the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO). For well over a decade now, GCO has advocated for criminal justice reforms that help returning citizens create a new life—through joining the workforce, caring for their loved ones, and becoming productive members of society once again. Voting rights are part of that.

Here’s where Georgia law currently stands: Those with a felony on their record automatically have their voting rights restored once they complete their sentence, which includes serving all parole and probationary periods and paying all outstanding fines, fees, and restitution. They are also eligible to vote if they have First Offender status and that status has not been revoked.

“Just coming out of incarceration period, you feel like you have no opportunity. You feel like there are no options. I don’t have any options.”  


Understanding the challenge of voting rights for felons

The goal of voting rights laws for those with a criminal record should be moving them in the quickest way possible to becoming positive, contributing members of society again. Once the individual has fully paid his or her debt to society, it makes perfect sense—and is in the best sense “just”—to reinstate their voting rights.

At the same time, there are good reasons for restricting felons from voting until the end of their sentences. Society has an obligation to prevent people who have demonstrated impaired ability to make good decisions from voting. That’s why we don’t let children or the mentally ill vote. 

Felons have an added strike against them in that, in addition to poor judgment, they’ve also—in many cases—expressed contempt and disregard for the laws that govern us and shouldn’t be allowed to impose laws on the rest of us until they have shown their respect for and willingness to abide by the law.


A good place to begin

So, where should we begin with reforms to voting rights for felons? A great place is also the simplest and most non-controversial: There is strong evidence that even some felons who have fully paid their debt to society face challenges in having their voting rights restored.

For example, in 2019 a representative from the Georgia Justice Project testified before a state Senate committee that there is frequently misinformation within voter registration offices, and sometimes among volunteers, about whether someone ever convicted of a felony can vote. There are also challenges with felons proving they are officially “off paper” (i.e., they have completed their probation or parole) and are now legally eligible to vote.

Let’s begin here with clearing up misunderstandings around the law on voting rights for returning citizens and ensuring that all election-related officials are applying it correctly. A big step would be for election officials to be required to accept Certificates of Sentence Completion from the Department of Community Supervision as sufficient proof that a returning citizen should be added back to the voter rolls.


Work is important, too

A central goal of the Georgia Center for Opportunity is to help returning citizens reintegrate into society. Voting rights is one aspect of reintegration, but there are others—like finding stable employment—that are far more important to improving outcomes for returning citizens. 

We know that work is a key way to reduce recidivism: Research has shown that if an ex-offender can keep a job for six months or more, their likelihood of ending up back in prison drops dramatically. It also improves the odds that a returning citizen will reconnect with loved ones, especially their children, another key to preventing recidivism.

GCO’s efforts through initiatives like Hiring Well, Doing Good are making progress here, and stories like Kevin’s are inspiring.


School closures, a job loss, and health emergencies: How the pandemic is impacting one family of a student with special needs in Georgia

School closures, a job loss, and health emergencies: How the pandemic is impacting one family of a student with special needs in Georgia

School closures, a job loss, and health emergencies: How the pandemic is impacting one family of a student with special needs in Georgia

Mom and special needs son

Students are missing the magic that happens in a classroom that cannot be replicated on a Zoom call

When the pandemic came home to DeKalb County in March 2020, Jennifer Sheran and her husband never expected that it would touch off a year-long stint of trials.

It all began with the public school system’s transition to online learning. A virtual classroom worked fine for Jennifer’s two older children, but her youngest son, 10-year-old Joey, has Down syndrome. Online learning is entirely unworkable for him due to his special needs.

For example, DeKalb is following a normal bell schedule but staying engaged on Zoom for hours on end is not working. Morning classes will sometimes go well, but by lunchtime Joey is tuned out. It is impossible to get him back online after the lunch break for specials, such as music and art, and Jennifer cannot stay tied up until 2:30pm every day. She has seen academic and social regression for her son as he has little to no interaction with peers.

Additionally, his academic growth is limited due to repetitive practice of current skills on worksheets with no new individual instruction to learn new concepts in language arts or math. As a highly visual and experiential learner, he is missing the magic that happens in a classroom that cannot be replicated on a Zoom call.

“It’s day-by-day and minute-by-minute,” Jennifer shares. “One class he is engaged and on task, and the next minute he is hiding under the bed or taking his shirt off.”

Adding fuel to the fire, Jennifer’s 25-year career in PR and corporate communications hit a speed bump in July when she lost her full-time job. Her income was a significant part of the household budget.

Normally, Jennifer would have launched a job search immediately, but the demands of online learning for Joey meant that she could only pick up a few freelance projects to try and bridge a small part of the gap in their family budget.

Today, nearly a year after DeKalb schools went virtual, Jennifer is getting so desperate that she and her husband have decided to list their home in Dunwoody and move south to Henry County, where public schools have been open for in-person instruction since September.

We’re expanding opportunities and giving new hope to children across the state. All students deserve access to high quality education options. 

Good news on the horizon

Another layer of challenges hit when Jennifer’s mother had a stroke and is now in rehab. With her father already suffering from COPD and advanced kidney disease, the Sherans will be selling their home and moving in with her parents to be caregivers until they can make the permanent move to Henry County.

All schools continue to have their doors shut to in-person learning, Jennifer shares that the special needs community “is getting completely overlooked.”

“In other states and even elsewhere in Georgia, school districts make accommodations, understanding that special-needs students have a need to return back to classrooms earlier than others,” she said.

There is good news on the horizon for families like Jennifer’s: Georgia Governor Brian Kemp recently allocated $10 million in federal emergency relief dollars specifically to reimburse parents of students with special needs for education expenses incurred during the pandemic.

In Jennifer’s case, the funds would be crucial to help hire tutoring help so that she can find more work to make ends meet.

“One-size-fits-all won’t work here,” she said. “We can’t allow our special-needs students to fall even further behind. They will be more dependent on society as they transition to adults. These children are capable of so much if we give them the support they need.”