There are those who say things move a little slower in the South, and most rural Alabamians might agree that’s the greatest lure of the area.
Unfortunately, in the South, nature’s law also often applies to bureaucracy. Nearly every politician will tell you that the greatest changes happen, or happen faster, when the community is involved. The most influential — or at least, loudest — voices in Ozark oft come from everyday concerned people, of which there are many. These people know how to organize and make things happen.
Susan Judah is one of those driving forces in Ozark who focuses her attention on ways she can help.
She first understood the power of community during her childhood when her father was deployed to Vietnam. Growing up in Enterprise during wartime, Judah and her family shared an era of worry and uncertainty with other military families in the neighborhood.
“The best part of it is you learn to bond with other families,” she said. “All other families depended on one another… for companionship and support.
“I wouldn’t trade growing up in a military family, because it gave me an appreciation for our country and the sacrifices that are made by the military and their families.”
After graduating from Enterprise High School in 1975, Judah went on to attend Enterprise State Junior College, where she began to pursue volunteerism.
“That’s when really, my interest in volunteering, my interest in community service piqued,” she said. “Because when I got to Enterprise State, there was a lot of opportunity to get involved with the community.”
She started her involvement efforts in clubs, and realized how being involved allowed her to meet other people. For a tried and true extrovert like Judah, it seemed like a natural transition.
Growing up Enterprise was fun, she said, because it was a community that supported its school system and teachers there pushed her to become more than she thought she could, like Dr. Imogene Mixon, who inspired her to attend Auburn University and train to become a teacher herself.
After earning her bachelor’s in secondary education in language arts and speech communications, she married her husband, who went to University of Alabama, and moved to Ozark in 1982. She commuted to Enterprise to fulfill her dream of teaching at the schools that gave her the heart for education in the first place, although she eventually began teach at East Gate in Ozark when she began having children.
She taught for 15 years, retiring after having her second child to be a stay-at-home mother and wife. Staying at home to raise her children has always been a goal of hers and her husband Sammy, an Ozark native who owns Circle Insurance. There, she said, she got her degree in motherhood.
The opportunity was a blessing for Judah, as it served as a catalyst for her involvement in the Ozark community.
She learned she could make a difference in new roles.
“That opened the door for me to work in the schools as far as in Ozark,” she said. “During their time in school, I was PTA president at every school they attended all the way through high school.”
She also became highly involved with Ozark Partners in Education, where she volunteered raising money and grants for the school system.
“That really got me involved with realizing that there are things that parents could do to enhance the school system, to enhance the learning experience, to get things that the schools otherwise could not afford,” Judah said. “What you could do for individual teachers that would benefit all the children.”
Judah has maintained a relationship with the school system since she retired.
“I’ve stayed involved mainly in schools because I love children,” she said
After her kids graduated, Judah maintained her dream of teaching, currently working at the Accelerated Learning Center next to Carroll High School, where she teaches middle- and high-schoolers basic grammar, teamsmanship, self-expression, soft skills, and behavioral lessons.
She gets the most fulfillment from a ministry she created that sells painted crosses and used the profits to buy bibles for high school athletes in the area, primarily football players, called the Eagle Bible Project.
“I had just noticed in working through the schools, that some of the kindest and some of the most wonderful kids were players for the Carroll High School football team” she said. “I noticed they had such great manners and they really had a heart for the city and they wanted to be successful and they wanted to be leaders and that led me to praying for them…”
She said she felt called to give them the opportunity to dig deeper into the kind of person they want to be and “that’s one of the things I get the most joy in.”
While much of her work is with the Ozark City school system, Judah finds passionate work everywhere in Ozark, a place she calls her mission field.
“I have a hard time saying no,” she said. “Basically, it’s because I see so many hardworking people in our community — we have so many people in this community work hard for the things that they believe in so it’s hard to tell someone no when you see them working so hard.”
One community effort Judah was instrumental in helping organize the construction of Kidzone within Steagall Park, along with Ken Kantley, a yearlong process that involved around 1,000 volunteers ages five to 90.
“The whole community worked on that project,” she said. “I was just a piece of the puzzle.”
She said the effort was overwhelmingly positive in bringing about a common goal.
“It seemed like it was a time of real growth in our community — growing together, working together,” she said.
The park was completed in 1997 and remains today, but not without a hiccup. Two years ago, the city council considered removing KidZone because they felt it was outdated.
“It was a real battle for me because I believe in progress… but I felt like our park, Kidzone, could be a part of that progress and it didn’t need to be torn down,” Judah said. “So we actually got another group together to renovate the park. We worked with the city where we could leave a portion of the park, and then a new section of the park was built.”
With the redesign, the park is better than ever, Judah says.
“What could have been a negative turned out to be a very big positive because we learned to compromise as a group,” she said.
“I learned a valuable lesson, that you can’t expect it to keep going unless people keep volunteering. You can’t rest on your laurels, you have to keep busy.”
During Make a Difference Day in October, Judah hopes that a community effort will be able to fund the re-installation of some of the swings that were taken out during renovation to add “a reflection of the old” and add some shade.
Her church, First United Methodist, where she serves as an adult Sunday class teacher, works with Wednesday night youth, missions chair, and event planner. The church also heavily supports the Ozark community and Boys and Girls Club, has been an outlet and gateway for much of her volunteerism like decorating her church’s gym for a “Night to Shine,” a prom for the special needs community, visiting nursing homes, and directing more than 50 weddings.
A self-proclaimed people person, Judah says she enjoys making a difference, especially when it involves working with others.
“It’s really a selfish thing, because I enjoy being around people,” she said, adding that she is working on narrowing her focus so her energy is best spent, so she doesn’t become overcommitted. However, she has no regrets, and continues to look forward.
Now, she is working on self-reflection with bible study and looking for ways to devote her time that will have a meaningful personal impact.
“One goal I have as far as working with young people is that I would like to sort of somehow develop a program in our community that would help them from graduation until the day they get a job,” she said.
“Now, it just seems like, once they graduate, well, we’re finished with them. A lot of them step out of high school or even college, and don’t know what they want to do.”
She said as far as community efforts, there are always places for citizens to step in and help, that can provide them with a good perspective of where they live.
“Really, it just brightens your life,” Judah said. “Get your foot out there and try to get it done.
“I love Ozark. This is the most generous, kindest community. Whenever the community is asked to step forward for anything, it always has.”
She added that she wouldn’t trade her experiences for anything and it is important to “keep up the rhythm” and continue looking after the things the community has worked hard for or it could go away.
Judah has had an inspirational voice Ozark, but only because she was inspired by the voices who drive her: her mother, who instilled in her the value of hard work and service; her supportive husband, who also has a passion for involvement; the late Mrs. Louella Henderson, who introduced Judah to Girl Scouts and community service; and those in the Ozark community she works with every day.
“I am so blessed by all of the young people I see who want to make a positive difference in this world,” she said. “The Wiregrass is full of smart, loving and generous young people. Our future looks very bright if they are an indication of what is to come.”