After hearing about the passing of Cumming Elementary School teacher Tammy Waddell earlier this year, Blake Anderson, a former student of Waddell’s and a recent graduate of West Forsyth High School, knew he wanted to do something in her memory.
But unlike the hundreds of people who donated backpacks of school supplies to the Forsyth County School system to fulfill her final request, Anderson knew he wanted to do something different — something personal that would touch individual students at a school that taught him the importance of giving back.
"Seeing the memorial that people did for her, it really showed me what an impact she had on people," he said. "And Liberty was a place that I felt connected to."
In 2017, Anderson was one of the more recognizable high school football players in the county, turning down several offers to play college football to go to his dream school, the University of Georgia.
Now a preferred walk-on and freshman at the University of Georgia, Anderson filled two UGA book bags with school supplies, UGA items and a signed letter from UGA football coach Kirby Smart, and talked to an old teacher at Liberty Middle about making the donation happen.
This week, the administrators at Liberty selected two students from the school, a seventh- and eighth-grader, and presented them with the backpacks.
Tanya Dowdy, older sister of 13-year-old Dylan Dowdy, who was chosen to receive one of the backpacks, said that with the recent death of their father to cancer, Anderson’s actions could not have come at a better time.
"When he came and received that book bag, it opened his eyes," Dowdy said. "He came to me and said, 'Just tell them being a Georgia fan feels great, but knowing my favorite team is giving back is a blessing.’"
She said that her brother received Anderson’s backpack just days before his birthday, and in her eyes that was their father looking out for Dylan.
According to Liberty Middle School Assistant Principal Ronnie McNeese, when Anderson first broached the idea of a backpack donation to the school, he knew it was a good idea because it was a good representation of what they try to teach their students.
"Every day we try to teach kids not just the academic side of things; we try to teach right and wrong and the moral principles," McNeese said. "And to have a student do what he is doing makes you feel good."
McNeese said that like nearly every school in Forsyth County, Liberty Middle teaches students the seven mindsets, and one of those mindsets – "Live to Give" – is what Anderson displayed to their students.
"I think the message that hits me is, we try to instill in the kids, 'live to give', and that's what he is doing,” McNeese said. “His dream is coming true, everything is working out because of his hard work, but yet he wants to take time to give back to his community. I just think that's awesome."
McNeese said to have a student go through school, graduate and still take time out of a busy schedule to spread what they learned makes everything they do as educators worth it.
"I know how college football goes,” McNeese said. “He's got two full-time jobs right now, football and school, and to take time out of his schedule to be able to help a kid back at his middle school, that means a lot,"
Ultimately, McNeese said he was happy but unsurprised that Anderson did what he did.
"I'm not surprised, but I'm very grateful," McNeese said. "It means parents are doing something right, and it means the school is doing something right."
In the future, the Anderson family said they plan to make this donation a tradition. Not only to give back to a community that supported and accepted Blake, but also to remind students that hard work pays off in the end.
“If you know where you want to be, just keep your head down and keep pushing along.” Anderson said. “As long as you keep working and keep getting better, things will fall into place.”