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Opinion: Telling stories that celebrate Atlanta

It’s not every day you meet a kid like Bronco Reese, a Woodstock 11-year-old who’s not afraid to give warm hugs to a baby goat or boldly ask a striking, much-taller teen girl to the junior dance.

Bronco has faced a lot of fears in his life, the biggest being congenital heart defects that required a heart transplant about two years ago. I got to know Bronco through Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Helena Oliviero and photojournalists Curtis Compton and Ryon Horne. His Personal Journey — the newspaper’s first short documentary film — gave me a hearty glimpse into his very special young life.

“I met Bronco when I was doing a Personal Journey on Uno the therapy dog at Children’s Hospital,” Curtis said. “He was kind of like the spirit of the place even though he was waiting for a heart transplant. He was like the most outgoing kid in the hospital. He went to other people’s room to cheer them up.”

When Helena and Curtis began looking for someone to feature during the weeklong Camp Braveheart, Bronco was a no-brainer. Camp Braveheart is one of many camps held at Camp Twin Lakes in Morgan County for children facing serious illnesses and special needs.

Throughout 2017, the AJC has worked to bring you journalism that celebrates Atlanta. Metro Atlanta is filled with rich arts and culture, a growing food and dining scene and people who make our community better. But we don’t do journalism by ourselves. It’s readers who send us tips or special requests — along with the people in the community who allow us into their lives, sometimes for days.

Because Bronco, his family and camp officials gave the newspaper special access during his week at camp, our team was able to capture Bronco making new friends, fretting about scaling a climbing wall and taking a beautiful girl to the big dance.

“From the moment I met him, he just had a certain sweetness about him,” Helena said. “We had all this great footage, but the big challenge was how to tell the story. It was Ryon’s idea to have Bronco narrate it.”

“He has this raspy, deep voice,” recalled Ryon. “I thought having people hear him tell his story would be better than grownups telling his story. This was his first time going to summer camp, and no one else is experiencing the way he is experiencing it.”

Every week, Personal Journey editor Suzanne Van Atten leads the charge to give readers an intimate glimpse of a life that’s overcome life-changing obstacles, or someone who’s made a difference in another person’s life. Someone like Karen Kinsell, the only doctor in rural Clay County, an impoverished area in Southwest Georgia. For 12 years, she’s been the only physician in the town of 3,000 residents.

“My favorite Personal Journeys are the ones that surprise me like “Miracles Big and Small” by Tricia Stearns,” Suzanne said. “Her story combines her experience starting the first community garden and farmers market in Peachtree City with the tragic story of her daughter’s death. And she tells it with so much grace and a surprising amount of humor.”

The best Personal Journeys provide insight into a person’s life that expands our knowledge of the world around us. Today’s (Nov. 26) story is a good example. “You Don’t Look Indian” by AJC staffer John Perry explores what it means to identify as a member of the Cherokee Nation today.

Columnist Gracie Bond Staples often gives voice to people who might not otherwise be heard.

Take Bennett Stone, a 10-year-old who got his teacher and classmates to write 100 love notes to transgender students struggling with rejection. Recently when Gracie wrote a column about a reader unhappy about Bennett’s story, more than 30 readers responded with letters of support, all before 10 the morning the story ran.

“I think what resonated with readers was that this woman took me to task for even writing about him,” Gracie said. “I think most people felt like I did — that kids can be so mean and here’s a little boy with compassion for kids who were hurting and wanted to do something to help.”

She and the reader have since met for lunch to talk more about the column, Bennett and each other.

But Gracie’s favorite column in 2017? The one she wrote about her daughter’s wedding.

“Unlike most moms, I never shed a tear on the big days,” said Gracie. “I always knew I wouldn’t cry even if she got married, but I found myself crying while reflecting on raising her.”

Then there is the story of Macchiato the llama. When Jennifer Brett isn’t racing through airports to cover tragedies in places like Las Vegas, Dallas or Orlando, she’s blanketing Atlanta’s entertainment scene.

“As much bad as there is the world, though, there’s even more good,” Jennifer said, “Every tragedy awakens the heroes and angels among us. That’s why, when I stumbled upon a photo of a three-legged dog looking after an orphaned newborn llama while scrolling through social media, I picked up the phone.”

About a week later, Jennifer was bottle-feeling Macchiato while reporting on a retired police chief and his wife who left their Florida beach town to run an animal rescue farm in north Georgia.

“If I may paraphrase Winston Churchill,” said Jennifer, “There is something about the outside of a fluffy baby llama that is good for the inside of an exhausted, disaster-weary reporter.”

Then there are stories that impact our everyday lives. Since joining the AJC in 2015, food and dining editor Ligaya Figueras has changed our approach to food in Atlanta, and we’re the better for it. Case in point, our featured food tours.

“In Atlanta, we get used to staying within our own neighborhoods,” Ligaya said. “Food tours offer ideas for branching out. In 2017, we went to East Point, College Park and Hapeville.”

One reader agreed: “You may have provided more exposure for restaurants on the southside of Atlanta, in a year, than has been done in the previous ten.”

The AJC has a reputation for its watchdog journalism. While food and dining isn’t usually “watchdog,” it sometimes exposes issues readers care about.

This spring, Ligaya was at SunTrust Park covering the Atlanta Braves food offerings as part of pre-opening coverage. Ligaya asked if they would allow outside food as in years past.

“When the team said no, I wrote about it,” she said. “Fans cried foul, and the Braves reversed that decision within four days of our report.”

“The core of what we do is to serve our readers,” Ligaya said. “This year’s Fall Dining Guide, themed “Burning Questions,” was an especially fun project because we turned to readers for inspiration, sifting through letters as a guide for a series of requested restaurant reviews and trend stories.

Where would we be without our readers?

“Don’t kid yourselves,” said Ligaya. “They are the ones who stoke the fire inside us.”

»Read more of our Personal Journeys here.

»Find Gracie Bonds Staples columns here.

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