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PRESS RELEASE: DBHDD Honors Georgians During Inaugural Flame of Hope Award Ceremony

ATLANTA — The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) recently announced seven recipients of the inaugural Flame of Hope Award on Wednesday, December 6, 2023, at the Georgia State Capitol. The Flame of Hope Awards recognize individuals across Georgia who exemplify the spirit of hope and embody the mission and values of DBHDD.

“The Flame of Hope honorees are unsung heroes to the individuals they serve, a beacon of hope for families in crisis and a source of inspiration within their communities,” said DBHDD Commissioner Kevin Tanner. “This ceremony honors these recipients and highlights their contributions to the well-being and progress of those facing mental or behavioral health challenges. Moving forward, we hope these stories inspire others to do the same.”

During the ceremony, Georgia House of Representatives Speaker Jon Burns (R-Newington), a bipartisan group of state legislators and community leaders gathered to recognize the award recipients. The Flame of Hope nomination process garnered a substantial response with 160 nominations from community leaders, providers and stakeholders.

The ceremony highlighted the stories of seven awardees:

· Ella Marchese, a young woman from Effingham County, is breaking down barriers for individuals with down syndrome. Nominated by Commissioner Kevin Tanner, Ella’s resilience and personal story are the source of inspiration for the Flame of Hope Awards.

· Lauren Saporito is a forensic peer mentor with Legacy Behavioral Health in Valdosta. She first came to the facility as a patient battling suicide, addiction and homelessness and now works with others suffering from similar crises.

· Judge Marc D’Antonio has served on the Muscogee County Probate Court since 2013 and has worked closely on mental health reform efforts including Assisted Outpatient Treatment and Orders to Apprehend to support individuals in crisis.

· Ryan Carroll began suffering from seizures as a toddler, which resulted in a medical diagnosis that he would never read, write or live independently. He overcame the odds and today works as a lab runner at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and is a resident of Champions Place.

· Pej Mahdavi is the director of the co-responder programs under View Point Health in the metro Atlanta area. In this role, he’s grown the co-responder program over two years to serve 15 cities across three counties.

· Mary “Claire” Smith helps individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities navigate complex government services. From Paulding County, she has served as a support coordinator with the Columbus Organization/Columbus Cares for nearly 20 years.

· Tabernacle of Faith Christian Church has volunteered for a decade at the Central Unit of the Georgia Regional Hospital of Atlanta, consistently providing Thanksgiving luncheons that extend beyond mere meals, offering invaluable emotional support and care to the patients.

Commissioner Tanner also honored the following eight "Champion of Hope" honorees, the second highest recognition of the inaugural awards: State Representative Shelly Hutchinson (D-Snellville); Dr. Esteban Lim, medical director at Bridge Health in Northwest Georgia; Diane Wilush, CEO of United Cerebral Palsy of Georgia; Catoosa Co. Sheriff Gary Sisk; Tripp Talley, recovery support supervisor at Macon Recovers; Paula Mounce, certified peer specialist at a Medication Assisted Treatment Program in Athens; Kimberly Worsham and Greta O’Dell, River Edge Behavioral Health in Macon.

A video recording of this ceremony may be found here.

DBHDD empowers individuals with behavioral health challenges, fostering recovery and emphasizing strengths. We also provide tailored services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, promoting independence and fulfilling lives. DBHDD manages the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

Winners of the DBHDD Flame of Hope awards (Photograph courtesy of DBHDD)
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