Erica Deaton almost gave up on the dream of a college education when her Army husband, Jake Deaton, received orders to go to Germany back in the fall. Thursday evening, Deaton was named Ogeechee Technical College’s 2020 GOAL winner, the college’s top student honor.
Glancing at her three children at the awards reception, Deaton said, “When Dad went back to Germany, we had to reevaluate our plan. But with the help of community and great friends, and the support of my husband and kids, we decided I’d keep going.”
Deaton said her children have been her biggest cheerleaders. Scarlet, 13, Wyatt, 10, and Mollie, 7, couldn’t stop smiling during the event and clapped excitedly when their mother’s name was read aloud as this year’s winner.
Deaton, 37, admitted that going to school while filling the role of a single mother for most of the time and attending as a non-traditional student has had its share of challenges.
“Sixteen years ago, after finishing my last year of high school, I married my high school sweetheart and moved to Ft. Stewart where he was serving,” she said. “I started in the education program at Georgia Southern, but later found out I was pregnant and that we were moving. We made three moves and added three kids to the family, then came to Statesboro while my husband was on recruiting orders.”
When the youngest child started pre-kindergarten, Deaton thought about school again.
“I loved my job, but I knew something was missing. The problem was, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’ve always loved food. I love cooking; I love serving; I love eating. I have a passion for food and fellowship. When I was a child, we spent a lot of time at my aunt’s house and my entire extended family would come and we would cook together.”
A love of food
Deaton said she continued that love of food and fellowship as a military wife.
“We’ve always loved hosting dinner parties wherever we lived. We love having single soldiers from my husband’s unit come over for dinner.”
The 2020 GOAL winner believes food is more than just nourishment for the body.
“We live in a very divisive world, but food is something that unifies us,” Deaton said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s different ingredients and different ways of preparing a dish, the emotion that we have when we share a meal together is something that we can all understand.”
With that passion, Deaton decided to enroll in Ogeechee Technical College’s culinary arts program. She began her study in the summer of 2019 and plans to graduate in the spring of 2021. Deaton has several ideas for utilizing her degree, but hasn’t quite decided if she wants to continue catering, like she is doing now, or own a food truck or a restaurant.
She plans to continue adding to her food blog, www.fellowshipandfood.com, with recipes and stories.
Her immediate plans, however, are to fine-tune her winning speech in preparation for the regional competition, and hopefully, state competition.
“Listening to the speeches of the finalists tonight reminds me that there are so many talented people in the technical college system and I expect to have tough competition in the next round.”
Deaton’s faith plays a huge role in her love of food and fellowship and feels that God led her to this career at OTC.
“I’m excited for what this opportunity is providing me. God has been so, so good during this time and has provided a way, even when I have doubted. I can do nothing but give him all the glory.”
Deaton was eager to let her husband know about the win, but with a six-hour time difference and a military march the morning following the event, she wasn’t sure when she’d be able to talk to him.
“My husband had encouraged me for a long time to go back to school. He even gave me his post-911 GI Bill to go to school. He’ll be thrilled!”
Deaton was nominated by Chef Bryan Richard, an instructor at OTC for about 12 years. Richard was elated when his student was selected.
“I’ve nominated a student just about every year and have been fortunate to have four or so become finalists at the college, but Erica is the first representing culinary arts to win the GOAL award,” he said.
Richard said that from the very first assignment, Erica stood out.
“Her essay was so well-written, and in such detail with emotion, the way she described how she grew up with food being part of her daily life, that I knew this was a special student.”
Richard recognizes that Deaton’s dedication to her education, children and military husband made her an obvious candidate for GOAL.
“These qualities,” he said, “along with her clear passion for culinary arts, and her understanding that food goes beyond just sustenance, but can be used to bring people together, made her an obvious choice for my nomination to represent the culinary arts program, OTC and ultimately all of the Technical College System of Georgia.”
The OTC Foundation and the Student Leadership Council joined the college in saluting its 10 Georgia Occupational Award of Leadership nominees and presenting cash prizes to the four finalists. Deaton, as the overall winner, received a $250 prize and will now represent Ogeechee Tech in regional and potentially in statewide competition.
The state GOAL winner receives a new automobile and serves as a spokesperson for the opportunities available through the Technical College System of Georgia. As the nominating instructor, Richard received a $100 prize.
In the last 12 years, OTC students placed as three state GOAL winners, three first runner-up positions, and five regional finalists.
Other finalists this year included Sidney Billingsley, information technology student, nominated by Terry Hand, and Sarah Myers and Heather Snowden, surgical technology students, nominated by Terri Crosson.
All nominated students gave speeches and answered questions for a screening committee of five OTC staff members. Then the finalists repeated the process for a selection committee of five people from outside the college.
Deaton will compete against GOAL winners from six other colleges in the regional event in late February. Regional winners take part in the statewide event in April.