Jacqueline Daniel’s journey to the 2019 Gold Rush Days Grand Marshal began in 2000. It was then when she arrived here as a student at then North Georgia College & State University.
Before coming to Dahlonega, Daniel worked with the disabled at her church. She wanted to continue that ministry here and began Sidekicks, and evening of respite for caregivers and activities and entertainment for disabled youth and adults.
After graduation as she started to work as an elementary special education teacher she continued Sidekicks, moving the program from the university’s Baptist Student Center to Dahlonega Baptist Church.
“At that point it was like a hobby. We were just hanging out one Friday night a month,” she said.
After six years of teaching and keeping the respite program going, however, she was “ready for a change. I was either going to get a doctorate degree or start a nonprofit. I knew how to go to school. I didn’t know how to start a nonprofit, but a series of things happened so quickly I couldn’t deny that was the path for me.”
What happened was the transfer of about $1,000 and 501c3 status from an organization with a similar focus to Daniel.
“Then office furniture appeared, and office space was donated—all in six weeks,” Daniel said.
That was the beginning of ConnectAbitlity.
The name of the non-profit fits Daniel’s main goal—to more fully integrate the disabled into the community, finding ways and opportunities for the abled and disabled to meet and mingle.
“Our goal is to help people overcome whatever challenges they have and help build relationships; to bring people together who would not ordinarily cross paths,” she said.
And over the years Daniel's efforts have borne fruit.
“A real, genuine friendship is the outcome,” she said. “For example, a couple of weeks ago some people in the community picked up a group of adults with disabilities and took them to see the Holly play Frozen—as friends, not as a service project or anything. That’s just the magic that happens when you bring people together. I see it happen over and over.”
Daniel and ConnectAbility’s five part time employees and army of volunteers accomplish that goal through events such as the organization’s annual fundraisers—Race for a Reason and A 1000 Words Photography Project—and other community activities.
Race for a Reason teams the able-bodied and disabled who then train and compete in local 5K and 10K races—and in the process, form lasting friendships.
In the photography project teams of those with and without disabilities join to produce photos based on a theme. The experience gives the disabled a voice through the visual art of photography and allows them to share their world view through the lens of a camera while also enriching the lives of their partners.
Sidekicks, the respite program Daniel started in college, is now a popular part of ConnectAbility and includes the general community in the fun. Prom nights, movie nights, a Halloween Costume contest, and other monthly themes are offered, and all are welcome.
Daniel said she has seen “a change in the DNA of the community,' since starting ConnectAbility. “We have 100, maybe 150 active volunteers who participate in different activities.”
Many of the volunteers are university students, and Daniel “love[s] working with them. It changes their mindset and they take that all across the country.
“One of our volunteers was a high school student who was inspired to become a pediatric neurologist because of her work with ConnectAbility. I got a long email after not hearing from her for several years, telling me what she is doing and why. It’s because of the people she met at ConnectAbility that she is doing what she is doing,” she said.
‘INFLUX OF GENEROSITY’
Daniel said of her greatest joys is seeing “people in leadership now asking the question ‘How can we be sure people of all abilities are included.’ You can see it at Yahoola Creek and Hancock parks, and the accessibility on the square—the curb cuts and sidewalks are safe and clearly marked with blue posts to indicate accessible crossings.”
The library, too, is more aware of being accessible to those with disabilities. Youth Services Director Andrea Tucker called ConnectAbility to ask “how we could remove barriers to access to our program. It’s one of our long-range strategic goals,” she said.
The result was a Sensory Story Time with the abled and disabled attending.
“Between library patrons and ConnectAbility,” Tucker said, “we had to move to the biggest meeting room.”
All these changes, Daniel said, “would never have been possible without the huge base of support we have in the community. Even when our office burned donations of money and supplies just poured in.”
The building between NOA’s Thrift Store and Dahlonega Pharmacy on Memorial Drive where ConnectAbility was located for the last six years burned to the ground at the end of February.
The Ledbetters, who owned the building, were quick to offer Daniel the untouched next door location.
“They let us move in without charging us rent right away—and for several months,” Daniel said. “When we walked into it it was totally empty. We didn’t have a pen or a post-it note to write on. The influx of generosity was amazing to see.”
“Jacque is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever known. We are blessed to have her next door,” said Mai-Lan Ledbetter. “And ConnectAbility is a great thing.”
Daniel is working to make the organization even better by expanding its services to the disabled and integrating them even more into the community.
“I have so many exciting dreams,” she said.
But for the near future she has partnered with UNG’s School of Business to come up with a plan to start a small business to give ConnectAbility’s people something worthwhile to do.
“I see people with disabilities graduate from high school and then go home and sit on the couch. It’s a big challenge,” she said.
A challenge Daniel believes is worthwhile to overcome—for the disabled and the community.
It all goes back to Daniel’s first days in college, when she fell in love with the Dahlonega community.
“I grew up in metro-Atlanta and I found I really like the small town life, and I’ve made a lot of connections here,” she said.
One of those connections was her husband of 15 years, James, who she met at UNG.
“I graduated in May, we got married in June and I started teaching in August,” she said.
The couple have a 7-year-old daughter, Josie, and a 3-year-old son, Jameson.
‘SHE DESERVES IT’
Daniel said she was “flabbergasted” when she learned the Jaycees chose her as this year’s Grand Marshal.
“I was totally surprised,” she said.
She said the person from the Jaycees who told her of the honor said she received “a glowing nomination.”
But Daniel is full of praise for the Jaycees.
“I want to thank them for all they do for the community, and all they accomplish—with just five people.”
People who know her, and the organization, are not at all surprised by the Jaycee’s choice.
“ConnectAbility is an amazing organization that helps many people, so it’s no wonder Jacqueline is behind it,” said Allison Ledbetter Layne. “She is kind, loving and the most giving person I have worked with. It is a true blessing to have her working to better our small town and an honor to know her….I’m glad she’s getting this honor. She deserves it.”