Charity bike ride
Where: Woodstation Baptist Church, 42 Round Pond Road, LaFayette, Ga.
When: Saturday. Registration starts at 8 a.m.; ride starts at 10 a.m.
Cost: $20 registration fee
Together We Stand concert
Where: LaFayette High School gym, 5178 Round Pond Road, LaFayette, Ga.
When: Sunday. 6-9 p.m.
Cost: Free; love offering taken during the service
Orange and black bows hang on church doors, storefronts and mailboxes.
Handmade signs taped to windows and sprinkled through business lawns say "Support Austin" and "Pray for Austin."
The small town of LaFayette has rallied around Austin Whitten, a 15-year-old sophomore from LaFayette High School who broke his neck doing a belly flop into a pool in June. The outward signs demonstrate a level of support residents say they've never seen before.
"It's unwavering. It's going to explode when he comes home," said Debbi Hix, who owns a flower shop near the downtown square.
Austin, currently in an Atlanta hospital, was a rising star athlete during his freshman year of high school. He played football on the varsity team and was a bac-up on the high school basketball and baseball teams. He also volunteered in the community and was vocal about his Christian faith.
He had played sports since he was a small boy and, as he grew up, he talked about playing for a pro team, his aunt Lisa Rector said. At 6 foot 4 and weighing 230 pounds, the young teenager had the potential, many believed.
On June 9, however, Austin was horsing around with his friends at an end-of-school party. When he jumped into the water on his stomach, his neck snapped.
He was taken to Erlanger hospital, where doctors told him and his family he was paralyzed from the chest down and had a 1 percent chance of walking again, his father, Brian Whitten. said.
The next day, Austin's pastor, Clay Powell, asked the congregation of Ridgeway Baptist Church to pray during Sunday morning services. The word spread and, before Powell knew what was happening, the football field was packed with hundreds of residents praying for Austin during a specially organized event in June. They prayed for healing, Powell said.
"I don't know the mind of God," he said. "[But] the Bible tells us faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."
Since then, Hix made bows and lollipops to sell in her shop, which have raised more than $1,000. A friend of Austin's made bracelets with Philippians 4:13 -- "I can do all this through him who gives me strength" -- and has sold 500. Someone else made T-shirts that say: "All together for Austin," and an account was set up for the family at the Bank of LaFayette.
More than 2,000 people follow Austin's daily updates on Facebook. In local stores, residents ask Hix what's the latest word on the teen.
This weekend, residents have a charity motorcycle ride planned Saturday and a benefit concert on Sunday.
Brian Whitten said there are no words to describe his appreciation for the local support his family has received.
As for Austin, he keeps smiling and laughing as visitors pop by his Atlanta hospital room at Shepherd Center, his father said. Two weeks ago, he wiggled a toe for the first time.
"He knows he'll walk again," his father said.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...