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Hundreds show support for People First of Henry County

Spaghetti dinner, raffle raise money for group

UPDATE: Connie Dodgen said the dinner and walk-a-thon raised more than $10,000 for People First of Henry County.

By Kathy Jefcoats

kjefcoats@news-daily.com

MCDONOUGH — Turnout was overwhelming Sunday at People First of Henry County's spaghetti dinner and raffle at the Moose Lodge.

"We had to go buy more spaghetti," said Connie Dodgen, one of the co-founders and co-director of the nonprofit organization that caters to the special needs population in the Southern Crescent.

Dodgen, who helped create the group to meet the needs of her own daughter, Melissa Dodgen, 35, of Hampton said the support means the organization is getting the recognition it deserves.

"People know our name and that we're really a great organization," she said, looking over the donated raffle prizes and muttering to herself. "OK, we've got a $10 Starbucks card. And what's this? Oh, an iTunes card. OK, looks like we're good. Now, what else?"

As Dodgen made dozens of trips from the front door where she collected dinner tickets to the rear of the lodge to check on other aspects of the evening, other directors took on other duties. Tina Mills manned the raffle table. Mills founded the group with Dodgen because of her own daughter, Kristi Mills, who was born with Down Syndrome.

Dodgen said the group sold 300 dinner tickets but it is possible that the number is closer to 400. The ladies of the Moose Lodge donated desserts ranging from simple cupcakes to elaborate layered coconut cake to peach cobbler to brownies and muffins. The men ladled up meat sauce over spaghetti, added a toasted piece of garlic bread and sent diners on their way into the meeting hall where tables and chairs were set up.

The food was great but the primary draw was a karaoke machine. Interested singers put their name on a list and Moose Lodge members took turns with members of People First in taking the stage to entertain the group. Melissa Dodgen and Todd McEarchern, son of Ginny McEarchern, sang a duet, "Mr. Mom." They were followed by Raymond Craft of Ellenwood and his girlfriend, Amy Murphy of Henry County, and Tina Bedwell of Stockbridge.

Amy Murphy's family is always the hit of any People First gathering. John and Jeanette Murphy has garnered national attention through the adoption of 24 special needs children. The couple raised four biological children, too. Some of the kids took the stage Sunday and sang, "God Bless America."

When they weren't singing, the Murphy kids were on the dance floor, moving like Jagger by themselves, with each other, with anyone standing next to them. Few had as much fun as the Murphys Sunday but having fun is what it was all about, said Gail Craft, Raymond's mother.

"I think events like this are just wonderful," she said. "It gives them all a good social outlet. Raymond would probably be sitting at home, playing video games or watching television."

She said her son is also active in Special Olympics. Many of those involved in People First are stellar Special Olympiads.

"Special Olympics provides a sports outlet and People First provides a social outlet," said Craft. "Both create a wonderful social atmosphere."

Also helping out Sunday were six volunteers from Kohl's Cares. Myra Mitchell, an associate in the McDonough store, said "Associates in Action" provides volunteers for various events.

"Kohl's will donate $500 if five associates volunteer for an event," said Mitchell. "This is our fourth event with People First. We're doing what needs to be done."

All the money raised Sunday goes toward the group's Walk-A-Thon, which is Saturday in McDonough. For more information on People First of Henry County, access the group's Facebook page.