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Conyers Pilot Club celebrates 50 years

Conyers Pilot Club member Gwen Dean helps an unidentified Special Olympics athlete practice his bowling skills.

Conyers Pilot Club member Gwen Dean helps an unidentified Special Olympics athlete practice his bowling skills.

In April, Gwen Dean, along with fellow Conyers Pilot Club members, bowled with autistic children, helped Special Olympics athletes compete in track, provided an ice cream party for Alzheimer's patients and cooked dinner for people in a brain injury support group.

The club's volunteer work yields benefits on both sides, said Dean.

"They bless us more than we bless them, that's the God's honest truth," she said.

Dean is one of the 32 members of the Conyers Pilot Club, a service organization that primarily supports people with brain disorders. The Conyers Pilot Club celebrated its 50th anniversary in March, and Pilot Club International turned 90 last year.

Pilot International, founded in Macon in 1921, boasts 9,400 members in five countries including the United States, Bahamas, Canada, Japan and Singapore.

Conyers Pilot Club President Barbara Nix said the group's focus on aiding those with brain disorders on a global basis inspired her to join in 2007.

"More than anything else, it was the commitment that I saw -- the commitment, the history and that it was part of an international group," said Nix.

In the early days of the Conyers Pilot Club, founded in 1962, the group focused on fundraisers -- sales of Christmas cards, hats, shoes, dinners, handicrafts -- along with flea markets, rummage sales and even a mock beauty contest in which local businessmen dressed up in evening gowns, make-up and high heels for the competition.

"We were not opposed to standing on the corners asking for money for a good cause," wrote Ellen Trainer, a founding member, in her overview of the club.

The money supported the Boys Club, cancer patients, the American Red Cross, Rockdale Hospital, nursing homes and special needs citizens. The group purchased the first defibrillator for the hospital. They provided free milk to school children. They purchased wheelchairs for special needs individuals.

In the 1980s, Conyers Pilot Club helped establish high school Anchor Clubs, through which teens could volunteer in the community. The Anchor Clubs still operate today.

Georgia Artists with Disabilities is another effort the local club helped establish. It's an opportunity for disabled artists to showcase their work and win awards.

In 1990, Pilot International announced that the club's primary focus would be brain-related disorders and diseases. The goal was to aid a broad spectrum of people such as those with mental illness, Alzheimer's, traumatic brain injury, Parkinson's, addiction and developmental disabilities.

As part of the new focus, the Conyers Pilot Club installed a handicapped accessible playground at My Special Friends Daycare, a center for physically and emotionally challenged children. They also purchased a reading machine for the visually impaired at Tech Able.

Today, the Pilot Club provides hands-on volunteer work for Special Olympics, brain injury support groups in Newton and Rockdale counties, nursing homes, and centers for mentally challenged individuals, where they organize quarterly dances.

Dean said that volunteering is "a wonderful time, so inspirational."

"When you participate in these hands-on projects with these other Pilots, you make a connection there," said Dean. "We're a very close group who enjoys (each other) and enjoys working with the community together."

Other Conyers Pilot Club projects include Brainminders, a public service campaign to teach kids about bike helmets, seat belts, and other safety issues; and Project Lifesaver, which provides locator bracelets for people with dementia.

The Conyers Pilot Club also contributes financially to over a dozen local non-profits.

Starting this year, the Pilot Club's annual Christmas Tour of Homes, the group's largest fundraiser in addition to pecan sales in the fall, has been replaced by a Fashion Show Extravaganza.

In conjunction with Belk, the Fashion Show Extravaganza will be presented at Conyers Presbyterian Church, 911 North Main Street in Olde Town Conyers, on May 5 at 11:30 a.m. Tickets are $10 and include the fashion show (20 people modeling children and adult clothing) and lunch. To obtain tickets, call Betty McCullough at 770-483-8964.

"I think I've stuck with it because it keeps me doing things for the community," said Dean, a member for over 25 years.

"We get in our own little worlds and when I'm involved it keeps me doing other things I wouldn't otherwise be doing outside of my comfort zone."