It was an eclectic group that met each month over lunch to talk about solutions.
There was no membership application. No dues. No attendance requirement. No demands. People came, people left, people reappeared as their schedules and desires permitted. All were welcome. The only prerequisite was a love of the community and a desire to make things better.
For lack of a better name, the gathering was known as the Quality of Life Group, spawned from the Peter Jennings series “In Search of America.” In 2002 ABC television aired the series that focused on a variety of communities and what it means to be American.
Jennings, the longtime anchor for ABC News, put together the six-part series with his team. Members of his crew had been in and out of Aiken for months prior to Jennings’ arrival when he met with many of Aiken’s leaders to discuss the city.
The episode on Aiken was broadcast on Sept. 5, 2002, under the title “God’s Country.” Looking at the text that describes the program, many who have made this place home since then might be intrigued about what was happening at that time.
It reads, “In the God-fearing town of Aiken, South Carolina, a group pushing to teach creationism in schools, a calendar created for charity featuring some of the town’s grand dames posing naked, and the mayor’s campaign for character building have turned Aiken into a microcosm of the American dilemma over godliness, values and morality.”
A VHS tape (remember VHS?) of the program was sent to the Aiken Standard prior to the broadcast. Publisher Scott Hunter brought a number of community leaders who were part of the show to see what the ABC crew put together. Discussions ensued, and before long the Quality of Life Group emerged.
One individual at the preview meeting told another that they had not even so much as sat down together over lunch. That struck a chord with Scott, and he arranged for a lunch meeting with several of those involved to talk about issues within the community. The first lunch was held at Aiken Department of Public Safety, and it was later moved to a building on the Aiken First Baptist Church campus, where it found permanent home.
For a dozen years Scott has faithfully compiled an email list of people who have shown interest in the meetings. He sent out notices each month, arranged for use of the room, made sure that lunch was provided and set out an initial talking point for the group to begin discussing.
Gathering to take part were many of Aiken’s social service leaders, nonprofit organization heads, educators, government officials and those from faith-based groups. While they were trying to find solutions to some of the social ills in the community, their focus was always upstream.
Scott began the meetings by asking people to think not only about the problems that exist but what caused them. It is one thing to pull someone from a rushing stream, quite another to keep the person from falling in. It’s better to prevent an accident than to bandage it.
The discussions often took unexpected turns. Connections were made between individuals and agencies that led to collaborations. Topics as varied as literacy, domestic violence, child care, transportation, poverty, homelessness, mental health, crime and recreation were brought up.
There was an energy created among groups who realized they were not alone in the effort to make things better.
Those who attended always left feeling that they were better informed, and many went back to their offices with names and numbers to assist them in their particular part of the helping world.
In recent months, attendance has been down a bit, and Scott sent another email this week to those who have been part of the Quality of Life Group.
He said that he is discontinuing his role with the group. He wrote that he always came away from the meetings with better knowledge of his community, but now is the time for him to step away.
“I believe I have used that knowledge to better guide my actions in trying to improve the lives of those less fortunate than me,” he wrote. “I hope our group as a whole has helped make our community better.”
Communities become great when individuals step out and selflessly do things for the betterment of others. Scott has done that in many ways during his time in Aiken. The Quality of Life Group is just one example.
While its monthly gathering may disappear, it has provided for a meaningful and helpful look at Aiken far beyond what Peter Jennings could have envisioned.
Jeff Wallace is a retired editor of the Aiken Standard.