This spring's commencement exercises might be only a few steps along life's path for most graduates, but for one student - and for The Cottage - it represents a milestone.
For the Cottage, a component of Northwest Georgia's foster care system, this is a groundbreaking achievement.
"They will be the very first I've seen walk across the stage," said Marjorie Lyons, director of The Cottage. "I'll be there as will several other staff members and all her fellow residents; these kids have grown up together."
Substitute the word "cottage" for "village" and the African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child" has rung true in the four-county Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit.
SInce January 2004, The Cottage has sheltered neglected and abused boys and girls ages 13 to 17 years old referred by the Department of Family and Children's Services in Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade and Walker counties.
"There was a need," Lyons said. "The teenage population is the hardest to find a placement for foster care and we were not set up to have teens in the system. DFCS workers were being called to spend the night in conference rooms at DFCS offices because there was nowhere to place these kids."
Lyons said teenagers were being sent to Atlanta and further south, something which made it difficult for them to maintain contact with their families, friends and siblings.
Because they, unfortunately, were familiar with the need, Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson said he and Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers have helped raise money for The Cottage since its inception.
"It gives us a local place within the judicial circuit for children displaced from their homes," Wilson said. "Keeping them in this area, keeping them in an environment they are familiar with, keeping them in their school helps these children."
Wilson serves on The Cottage's board of directors and said donations are critical to the facility's continued success since its being funded by the state Department of Human Resources is never guaranteed.
"It's scary, you never know from year to year," he said. "We are well established but can never become complacent."
Lyons said that even more than its housing teenagers, The Cottage is unique in being a coed facility.
"That allows us to place sibling groups that have brothers and sisters," she said.
Not only do families stay together, Lyons said her "wonder staff" and residents function as a family.
"Our job is to take care of their needs during the time they stay with us," she said of the adult staff. "We enroll them in school, set appointments with doctors and dentists - we are surrogate parents."
The Cottage works with all middle and most high schools - students were enrolled this year at Heritage, LaFayette and Ridgeland - in the surrounding area as well as at Georgia Northwestern Technical College.
"We want to make certain these kids are prepared for life outside The Cottage," Lyons said.
While attending school, those living in the group home are encouraged to participate in extracurricular activities at the schools they attend and in local recreational activities, she said.
"We have one that goes to gymnastics and cheerleading classes," she said. "We take them to camps and have nine that will be involved in a work program this summer."
Their numbers may ebb and flow; there might be 15 or as many as 20 living in the group home, but this week residents of The Cottage will celebrate the success of one of their own.
"This graduation is a milestone," Wilson said. "It is a great achievement for the graduate and for everyone involved with the program."