COVINGTON -- As simply as she made up her mind last August when her son was shot to buy enhanced bullet-proof vests for every Newton County Sheriff's Office deputy, Dawn Atha announced Friday morning that her goal had been met.
With her husband Marshall Atha and friend Susan F. Aaron at her side, Atha proved once again there is no power like "Mama" power.
Sheriff Ezell Brown and several staff members were present at the small gathering at the Sheriff's Office to announce that 99 new vests have been ordered and are expected to arrive within the next 90 days. Fifty-seven more vests will be ordered in the near future so that each of the 156 sworn deputies and the sheriff will have the added protection, Brown said.
The official total of contributions from members of the Newton County community stood at $89,167.23 Friday morning; However, Atha said she knew of several more private donations that are coming in and she predicted the total amount of Vest Fund community donations will soon reach $90,000.
Additionally, the grant to the NCSO from the U.S. Department of Justice's Bulletproof Vest Partnership is also earmarked for the campaign. That grant, announced in September, was for $28,770.50 and requires matching funds from the Sheriff's Office, bringing the total to $57,541. Community donations coupled with the grant bring the grand total of the fund to date to $146,708.23.
Atha began with a goal of $113,000, the estimated cost of vests for 166 deputies, 10 more than are now employed at the NCSO.
Brown said any surplus funds will be used to buy additional safety equipment which "officers will wear every day," and that the vest fund will remain open for additional donations. He declined to elaborate on what kind of equipment he was referring to for security purposes, he said, and requested no description or specifics of the new vests be made publicly.
The initial order for the 99 vests was at a cost of $57,541. The cost for the remaining 57 vests has not been calculated, Brown said.
Atha said she came to the decision to buy the enhanced vests while at the hospital waiting to hear the condition of her son, Deputy Wesley Atha, and Deputy James Trent. They were shot in August 2009 by a man who later killed himself. Atha's vest saved his life, but his mother learned that the vest he was wearing didn't have the stopping power recommended for today's officers and she determined to change that.
"At the beginning I felt like, 'There is no possible way we can raise this much money," she said. "But everybody came through ... the businesses ... the people and the civic organizations, those were the majority givers. It was the most amazing thing I've ever done. People have just been so precious," she said. "I never heard a single negative thing. Everybody was always very positive and would say, 'Oh, yeah, they deserve this. They need this.' People wanted to help."
Brown said he'd like to thank the residents of Newton County for their generosity.
"What began as a tragic afternoon has grown into a community-wide effort to ensure that those hired to 'serve and protect' would be safer as they found themselves in harm's way," he said, adding, "A special thank you goes out to the Atha family for taking the lead role in starting this effort. Individuals, families, civic and other community organizations, churches, large and small business, and many others grabbed hold of their vision. The rest, as they say, is history."