COVINGTON -- Recreation Commission Director Tommy Hailey said he got thrown a curveball Sunday when he was announced as the winner of the I Have a Dream Award at the Martin Luther King Jr. community celebration.
Hailey thought he was at the event to speak about the Miracle League's efforts to build a baseball field for special-needs children. Instead, he found himself having to give a very different speech.
"It's just an honor, and I'm just so humbled. I feel there are so many more worthy people than me out there that contribute so much to this community," Hailey said a few days later. He added that he was especially touched "to receive this honor on behalf of Dr. King, who spent his entire life fighting for the rights of people. It was great to see people there of all colors and races coming together to help celebrate that special occasion."
Flemmie Pitts, the 1997 winner of the award, a Recreation Commission member and friend of Hailey's, said Hailey changed a recreation department that mostly served white people at the time he was hired.
"When he came he made it inclusive for all," Pitts said, adding that children of many races and nationalities now participate and there is a diverse staff.
The Rev. Harold Dobbs was a member of the Recreation Commission and a county commissioner when Hailey was hired in 1989.
"He had a vision and that included having recreation throughout Newton County, not just for one group of people but for everybody," Cobb said. "That was Tommy's vision, and he put that vision into place and his vision changed the face of Newton County as far as recreation is concerned."
Hailey was adamant that recreation opportunities should be available for all children.
"Our vision is we don't want to turn down any child regardless of color or because of finances," he said.
Under Hailey's watch, the Recreation Commission implemented financial assistance programs to those that qualify and began soliciting donations from businesses and individuals. Hailey said he's even witnessed staff members take money from their own pockets so a child could play. The commission also has a program with Washington Street Community Center whereby kids can play in exchange for attending a tutorial program.
"You've got to understand, that child sitting in the living room at his house watching TV that can't play ball doesn't have control because mom and dad don't have the money," he said.
Hailey also helped spearhead the revitalization of the football field and gym at the old Cousins high school, which served black students during segregation, and has overseen the expansion of parks and facilities throughout the county to ensure the entire population is served.
His next goal is to see the Miracle Field completed before he retires, so children with special needs will have a place to play.
"I think if you ever sit down and rest on your laurels you're wasting your time. Keep setting goals and achieving what you want to do in life. If you become complacent, you need to find something else you want to do," he said.
Hailey hopes he can provide children with a better recreation program than he found, one where all are invited to play. But progress has only been made and can only continue through teamwork, he said: "Nobody is bigger than the program itself. When I'm retired, when I pass away, it will still be here. We want to give kids the opportunity to play, to not have to be on the outside looking in."