Personal Journeys past

A look back at some of our most popular stories and an update on what’s new.

Personal Journeys is now in its fourth year and any trepidation that we might run out of compelling stories to tell has been proven unfounded so far. Here are four very different stories about extraordinary people who are charting new territory in their lives and giving it their all.

Remembering Frank

Photo by Ryon Horne

A friend memorializes Frank Barham’s life by finishing the journey cut tragically short last year.

“I’ve passed those trails many times, but I never thought to see where they went,” my friend Samer muttered while catching his breath. His comment meant more to me than he could have known. It was the beginning of November and I had just finished leading my first group run.

When I started running in 2011, I really didn’t like it. I stuck with it, though, and as my endurance improved and I was able to go longer distances, I found that it was an amazing way to explore Atlanta. This drive to explore pushed me to run the 100-mile Great Southern Endurance Run through metro Atlanta, which I wrote about in a story for Personal Journeys called “Long-distance runner” in 2015.

These long runs that I began to crave also served another purpose. The extended periods of physical activity combined with the solitude of running helped focus my mind and allowed me to meditate, pray and work through things I otherwise would have left to settle in the recesses of my brain.

Last June I wrote a Personal Journey called “Remembering Frank” about the privilege I had finishing a journey started by my friend Frank Barham that ended tragically. Rolling his wheelchair from Atlanta to Savannah in 2015 to raise awareness for the Americans with Disabilities Act, Frank was killed when a tanker truck struck the support van following him. Also killed was Margaret Kargbo, who was in the van with Carrie Johnson, who was injured.

Carrie Johnson (from left), Frank Barham and Margaret Kargbo were all on a trip to Savannah as part of a charity event when they were involved in a crash in southeast Georgia. Barham and Kargbo were killed. Facebook photo

Carrie Johnson (from left), Frank Barham and Margaret Kargbo were all on a trip to Savannah as part of a charity event when they were involved in a crash in southeast Georgia. Barham and Kargbo were killed. Facebook photo

Starting from the point on Ga. 21 where Frank was killed, I ran for eight hours to Savannah. That time alone with my thoughts not only gave me a sense of closure, but it allowed me to feel Frank’s presence and remember long forgotten stories of our great times together.

Because of the number of miles I clocked exploring Atlanta, people frequently asked me where to run and remarked that I probably knew the city better than anyone else. What made Samer’s comment so special was that we weren’t in Atlanta. We were in Jerusalem and our run took us past Samer’s boyhood home.

The 7.5-mile route I’d just shared with the group that morning had taken us through the commercial heart of Jerusalem, up the Mount of Olives, past panoramic views of the city, through Gethsemane, past the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall, and through the ancient Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan.

Earlier this year, my wife and I — along with our children, then 11 and 13 — moved to Jerusalem. Adrainne had gotten a job working in communications for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. I was the “accompanying spouse,” working part-time shooting photos and video.

When making a life change this dramatic, there are so many unknowns that it is futile to try to list them all. But we are flexible people, and we were willing to let our lives evolve into something new.

One of the biggest unknowns for me was whether or not I could continue running. Everyone I talked to who had knowledge of Jerusalem discouraged it. They thought it would be dangerous, that I would be laughed at or harassed or even that it would make my work difficult because people would see me as immature. Then there were the walls and checkpoints that are designed to restrict movement to and from some areas.

I was willing to cut back on my running, or even quit altogether, but Adrainne said I was a better person — and more enjoyable to be around — when I ran and that I shouldn’t give it up.

After a few hours of Googling, I came across a running group called Right to Movement (RTM). They started the Palestine Marathon and their website says they are “running for the basic human right to freedom of movement.”

That sounded like the perfect group for me, so I quickly found a contact with the group and started asking questions. I was assured that I would not only be able to run, but I would also find a supportive running community.

The group welcomed me warmly and I started running with them twice a week. This enthusiastic group, made up of Palestinian and ex-pat runners, showed me several routes around the city as we ran together and became friends.

Ben Gray, who moved with his family to Jerusalem last year, now has new terrain to explore when he runs. Photo courtesy Ben Gray

Ben Gray, who moved with his family to Jerusalem last year, now has new terrain to explore when he runs. Photo courtesy Ben Gray

The Jerusalem RTM group rotates their runs through four routes. As I learned them, I used them as starting points for my own explorations. Along the way I shot photos of the cool places I discovered and posted them on Instagram (@photobgray). Having an American accent and a blue (U.S.) passport gave me the privilege of not having to worry about being stopped by authorities and harassed if I stumbled into an area where my Palestinian friends couldn’t go.

The RTM runners started commenting on the places I’d run after seeing my posts. Some had lived here their whole lives, and I was discovering places they had never been.

So I pieced together the coolest and most varied route I could and vetted it out for parts that might not be safe for my fellow runners. I shared a map of the route with one of the group’s organizers. She thought it looked great but recommended I take a small group to do a test run.

The following Saturday morning, runners gathered as usual for our weekly run. After an opening stretch, five of us turned away from the usual route and headed off in a new direction.

— Ben Gray

Reclaimed lives

Ben Hobbs (left() and Matt Hobbs at work reclaiming wood. Photo by Shayna Hobbs

Troubled siblings find success in lessons rooted grandfather’s teachings.

Two days before Thanksgiving, the Sons of Sawdust — 30-something brothers Matt and Ben Hobbs — were busy as buzz saws, prepping for an eventful end to a blockbuster year.

These long-bearded, fun-loving, woodworking entrepreneurs had launched their business turning reclaimed wood into one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture in 2014. They’d learned the craft from their grandfather, Cecil T. Hall, who taught them when they were boys in south Georgia. As Sons of Sawdust took off, it gave purpose to the brothers, whose struggles through recession-era joblessness and ruts of depression were chronicled in a Personal Journey called “Reclaimed Lives” in January.

Less than three years since their first table sold on Craigslist, the Hobbs’ Instagram following had ballooned to 106,000 people. Their clientele spanned the continental U.S. (and they’ve shipped T-shirts and other merchandise as far away as Russia and Australia), and their backlog of orders stretched from Thanksgiving to St. Patrick’s Day.

The brothers are still “rocking and rolling,” said Matt. And December has been their biggest month ever, at least in terms of exposure.

Ben and Matt at work on a table in their studio. Photo by Hyosub Shin

Ben and Matt at work on a table in their studio. Photo by Hyosub Shin

Early in the month, they hosted a grand opening for their brick-and-mortar showroom, Sons of Sawdust Supply, near Athens.

“We wanted to build a place where people could come, and kind of invite them in to the story, show them some of the old hand tools we’ve got, some of the stuff our grandfather passed down to us,” said Matt.

Also last month, the company Ridgid power tools sent a film crew from Kentucky to shoot footage for a documentary about the furniture makers’ process and backstory. It is tentatively planned for distribution online.

Meanwhile, a video Matt and Ben shot with Scripps Network Interactive was scheduled to air on the DIY Network in late December and later on HGTV. Depending on response, Matt said, they could be asked to shoot a pilot for a reality television show. The clip focuses on a piece (they’re contractually obligated not to reveal what it is) they built for the 2017 HGTV Dream Home on St. Simons Island.

“The wood came from Georgia, the boys who built the piece of furniture came from Georgia, and the house is in Georgia,” said Matt, the eldest by four years. “It’s pretty cool.”

The brothers grew up under a sort of microscope as sons of a small-town preacher, and they both endured reckless streaks as young men. Only a few years ago, both were so hapless they considered suicide, but following a knee injury Ben suffered while working construction, Matt had the idea of building furniture to create income for his brother. Subsequently, they stumbled into what they feel is their lives’ calling.

 Ben (left) and his brother Matt Hobbs and Matt's wife Shayna. Photo by Hyosub Shin

 Ben (left) and his brother Matt Hobbs and Matt's wife Shayna. Photo by Hyosub Shin

The altruistic lessons they took from growing up in the church endure. Sons of Sawdust donated furniture in 2016 to nonprofits including Special Olympics of Georgia, Extra Special People, Athens Area Homeless Shelter and Wholesome Wave Georgia, among others. And the company continues to partner with Creature Comforts Brewing Co. for a campaign called “Get Comfortable,” which benefits five local nonprofits battling hunger and homelessness.

After their Personal Journey was published early last year, Ben said Atlantans now place roughly half the orders they receive. Among their clients is a wealthy financial adviser who’s tapped the brothers to build a colossal dining-room table for his Midtown penthouse from a cypress log that’s estimated to be 1,000 years old.

“We’re going to take this tree that’s been at the bottom of the river the last 200 years, lost and forgotten, and we’re resurrecting it … and it’s going to sit right in this room overlooking the city,” said Matt. “I just think that it’s a cool story that connects with us in such a deep way, the way we once felt like we were lost and washed up.”

— Josh Green

Grandmother of the year

Loretta Jenkins tosses a ball with her 3-year-old granddaughter Trinity. Photo by Curtis Compton

Like 100,000 grandparents in Georgia, Loretta Jenkins is raising grandchildren, and everyday is a challenge.

Stories don’t always end the way we’d like. Last April our Personal Journey “Grandmother of the Year” told the story of Loretta Jenkins, a 53-year-old woman on disability raising seven grandchildren by herself. Jenkins’ story highlighted the growing challenges faced by more than 100,000 grandparents in Georgia who are raising children whose parents have died or are ill, incarcerated or addicted to drugs.

Rep. Stacy Abrams (D-Atlanta) introduced several bills during last year’s Legislative session aimed at helping address some of the issues grandparents face, such as eliminating red tape that prevented children from receiving medical care or getting registered in school. Two out of eight bills passed.

Jenkins spoke in December 2015 at a state hearing on the issue. She described the challenges of raising children with learning disabilities and emotional problems from having experienced trauma and loss at such a young age. Jenkins said she told her grandchildren not to expect Christmas presents that year.

The one ray of hope in the Jenkins household was Markey, the oldest grandchild, who was on track to graduate in May. Markey, who has Asperger’s and depression, planned to attend Roosevelt Academy in Warm Springs. The school helps students with disabilities transition from high school to vocational training and sometimes college.

Markey did graduate from Creekside High School as planned, Loretta said, but he spends a lot of time in his room upstairs in Loretta’s house rather than in a dorm at Roosevelt Academy, as they’d hoped. There’s some hold up in the paperwork, Loretta said. She isn’t sure why it’s delayed or when it will be resolved.

Markey’s younger brother, Maleak, who is bipolar and has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, spends a lot of time in his room, too. Unable to stay seated or control his impulse to blurt out words at inappropriate times, he has been suspended six times this school year.

C.J. (from left), Trinity, Maleak, Jalen and Markey with their grandmother Loretta Jenkins (center) in the living room of the family home. Photo by Curtis Compton

C.J. (from left), Trinity, Maleak, Jalen and Markey with their grandmother Loretta Jenkins (center) in the living room of the family home. Photo by Curtis Compton

The boys’ mother has struggled with addiction for years, Loretta said. She lives on and off the streets, but this past summer, she came to stay with Loretta for a few days.

It was more than Loretta could manage.

“Lord Jesus, it’s like a demon’s inside her. ‘The Exorcist’s’ got nothing on her,” said Loretta.

— Virginia Lynne Anderson

Life of Brian

Photo by Hyosub Shin

As Manuel’s Tavern prepares to reopen, owner Brian Maloof looks for ways to bring his love of farming to the table.

To prepare for what turned out to be the biggest night in the 60-year history of Manuel’s Tavern, owner Brian Maloof went a little nuts.

He set up a 20-foot TV screen in the parking lot behind the iconic North Highland Avenue watering hole. He ordered so much food that his staff thought he was crazy, so much Bud and Pabst that his beer distributor wondered about his judgment.

He was at the tavern for 36 straight hours. His wife and daughter helped run food. And in the end, the crowd drank all the suds and ate all the provisions, even though the night did not end as the patrons of the historically Democratic gathering spot expected.

This was of course Nov. 8, the day Donald Trump shocked the world by defeating Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. But whatever one’s politics, and 49-year-old Brian keeps his closely guarded, the moment was a reminder of Manuel’s towering stature as a place where politicians and political organizers, cops and vagabonds, journalists and artists go to enjoy hot dogs, beer and discourse.

The scene at Manuel's Tavern on election night, Nov. 8, 2016. Photo by Ryon Horne

The scene at Manuel's Tavern on election night, Nov. 8, 2016. Photo by Ryon Horne

As chronicled last July in a Personal Journey called “Life of Brian,” Brian Maloof feels a sacred calling to preserve his late father’s namesake bar.

Manuel Maloof, a staunch Democrat, opened Manuel’s in 1956 and went on to use it as a pulpit for his own political ambitions. In 1974, he was elected to the DeKalb County Commission and later rose to chairman and CEO. Brian purchased the Manuel’s Tavern brand and its contents from his family in 2006.

In early 2015, Atlanta was stunned to hear the Maloof family was selling the tavern property and surrounding parking lot to Green Street Properties. As part of the deal, Green Street agreed to finance a sorely needed renovation of the tavern, which it would then rent to Brian.

The tavern closed for business on Dec. 27, 2015. Soon after, Selig Enterprises Inc. joined the partnership as an equity partner and co-developer. The renovation dragged on for seven months, and the tavern barely opened in time for its 60th anniversary on Aug. 6, 2016.

The construction delay wasn’t the best news for Brian, who has three children in college. But it gave him more time to spend at the nine-acre Pickens County farm he purchased in 2015.

There he got to hang out with the tavern’s famous chickens, which had been installed in a rooftop coop in 2013. During the bar’s overhaul, they were moved to the farm. To the original flock of 24, Brian has added 16 more. Their eggs, as well as the vegetables he raises there, find their way into the tavern’s kitchen. Over the summer, Brian had such a surplus of vegetables that he shared them with homeless shelters and restaurants.

Brian Maloof with a rooster at his farm in Jasper. Photo by Hyosub Shin

Brian Maloof with a rooster at his farm in Jasper. Photo by Hyosub Shin

Brian’s passion for farming is new-found and has provided a respite from the pressures of running a high-profile business. It has also allowed him to better understand where food comes from, something he never bothered to question as a restaurateur accustomed to watching the bottom line.

Now he wants to dig deeper.

Brian plans to build a hydroponic greenhouse on the farm, where he’ll grow tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers year-round. He also wants to add a herd of goats and maybe dabble in goat milk and cheese.

“It will be tiny, microscopic, small scale,” he says of the idea. “But I just want to see. I won’t know unless I try.”

As for his business, he’s delighted by customers’ responses to the “new” Manuel’s Tavern.

“I’m still excited when people come in and they don’t see what’s changed,” he says. “But that also makes me wonder what kind of customer they were.” (Check out the new bathrooms, dude.) “People tell me it has the same look and feel. It’s just cleaner.”

On the downside, he misses staff members who have moved on. Being without work prompted some of his old employees to put their college degrees to use. But Brian is philosophical.

“What a beautiful thing that is to find out what you are supposed to be doing in life,” he says.

This is a man who knows of what he speaks.

— Wendell Brock

Brian Maloof (third from left) is among those welcoming President Bill Clinton as he stops by Manuel's Tavern in August, 2016, during a campaign visit to Atlanta. Photo by Curtis Compton