Usually the sight of flashing blue lights, fire trucks and a helicopter when driving down the road is a cause for alarm, a sure sign that something terrible has happened.
But as Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, Fire Department and other patrol vehicles lined Sawnee Drive at McDonald & Son Funeral Home on Monday night – lights flashing wildly, dozens of law enforcement officers – first responders and local citizens gathered to celebrate, memorialize and remember the sacrifice of heroes across the nation at the third annual Blue Lives Matter event.
According to Lauren McDonald of the funeral home, this year they were able to host and feed almost 250 members from the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office, the Cumming Police Department, Georgia State Patrol, Forsyth County Fire Department and Central EMS, along with dozens of members of the public.
As some ate, McDonald said that people were able to wander the funeral home grounds, looking at the different vehicles on display including patrol vehicles, fire engines, muscle cars and a Georgia State Patrol helicopter. Events like this are important, McDonald said, because they allow citizens to interact with first responders in a positive, safe environment.
"It’s very important for our community that we give them an opportunity to come out and say thank you to the men and women that protect us every day,” he said. “We call it a Blue Lives Matter event because each and every day they are going into situations, whether it’s walking up to a car or going in a house, where there’s a lot of unknowns."
After the crowds filed inside the funeral home chapel for the main event, a color guard from the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office presented the flags, local boy scouts lit candles and students from Cumming Elementary brought music to the event, singing God Bless America for the audience.
McDonald said that this year they welcomed a number of speakers from the community, including Cumming Mayor Troy Brumbalow and Cpl. Angela Taylor of the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office, while letters from Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall were read to the crowd.
Forsyth County State Judge Leslie Abernathy-Maddox spoke about her time in the county and how she has seen the community rally around fallen first responders like Forsyth County firefighter Brant Chesney, who was killed in 1996, and Forsyth County Sheriff's Office Sgt. David Land, who died in 2003.
"I saw our community rally around his wife Brenda and two boys and his mom, Mary Ann, and his dad, Bobby," she said about the aftermath of Chesney's death. "I saw the beautiful service that we had and how the sense of community was so tremendous in that time of loss."
Maddox said that time after time, in times of tragedy and hardship, she has seen the community come together as one and give back.
"Those things I just described to you, that's more than a random act of kindness, that's more than generosity ... that is love in action," she said.
After Maddox spoke, five other guests took the stage and took turns at the microphone, each reading out the names, departments, and date of death for 136 law enforcement officers and first responders that were killed in the line of duty over the last year.
“This was 136 lives that were lost in this nation since last October, and that's who we are saying thank you to," McDonald said. "It's a big number, it’s a number we'd like to see reduced."
McDonald said that as a retired firefighter with 25 years of experience, he’s worked closely with law enforcement officers in Forsyth County and knew well the sacrifices that many had made — but for many, the impact of what it means to get up and put on a gun and badge every morning isn’t part of their reality.
"They see it on the news or read it in the newspaper and they don't know how to say thank you,” McDonald said. “This gives them a vehicle to come out and say thank you … To touch a law enforcement officer, walk up to a police car, talk to an officer and understand that they are fathers, they are mothers, they are real people, they're not out to put somebody in jail, they are there for protection and to try to enforce the law.”