Wise County Person of the Year 2018

By Messenger Staff | Published Wednesday, December 5, 2018
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Person of the Year

For the third year, the Wise County Messenger will name a Person of the Year.

The nominees as chosen by the newsroom staff, include Wise County Red Cross action team leader Melvin Castleberry, Raquel’s Wings founder Fabio LaBrada, Decatur cross country coach David Park, Wise County Emergency Management Coordinator Cody Powell and Wise County Christian Counseling founder Beverly Ross.

Today’s Opinion page features columns detailing why each person should be considered for the honor. The winner will be named in the Jan. 2 issue.

In the meantime, we invite you to weigh in by voting online at Voting is open through Dec. 14.


By Richard Greene

Melvin Castleberry

When flames tore through more than 400 acres of the LBJ National Grasslands Aug. 3, firefighters from 20 departments rushed in to try to contain the massive fire.

As they waged the taxing battle in the 100-degree heat for hours on end, Melvin Castleberry was on the ground in his familiar cowboy hat to meet their needs. For 30 hours, the head of Wise County’s Red Cross action team remained on site near the Hopewell Baptist Church, organizing and providing water, electrolytes and food for the hundreds of firefighters and first responders.

“I’m a glorified water boy, but I love it,” Castleberry said.

The explanation of his role displays the humbleness of the Greenwood resident and Bridgeport graduate. Castleberry, 48, through a brutal summer was at nearly every fire canteening for firefighters and looking for any way to help. But it was only a small part of his contributions, from showing up in the aftermath of a damaging storm in Chico to offer help to victims, helping with families that lost homes in fires to organizing local blood drives.

“Melvin is very active and enthusiastic. He takes a lot of the initiative on himself in disasters to reach people and get them help,” said Doug Crowson, the executive director of the Texoma chapter of the Red Cross. “Any time there’s a disaster in the area, he’s on call and will be there. Day or night he responds.

“I don’t know what we’d do without him.”

The Red Cross honored Castleberry’s inspiring and tireless giving in June. He was given the Community Spirit award for his exceptional partnership with the community. He also received the President’s Volunteer Service award from the White House.

Castleberry, who is a retired lieutenant with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, earned the awards two years after signing on to help with the Red Cross after attending three meetings.

“I always tell people to be good and do good,” Castleberry said. “The Red Cross is such an opportunity to do that.”

Since joining, he can be found all over the county talking up the organization. This summer he set up a booth at the PBR Challenge in the searing heat to try to recruit volunteers. Later in the summer, he organized the volunteer fair on the Square to not only try to get additional help for the Red Cross but also many other charities and organizations in the county.

“That was all his work. He put an enormous amount of energy into trying to help the community and get people involved,” Crowson said. “He’s a great representative of the Red Cross.”

But it’s in the time of need when Castleberry is able to show up to extend a helping hand to a family that’s lost their house in a fire and provide them a place to stay for the night or simply hand a water bottle to a firefighter that serves as payment for all his work.

“People that you help are so grateful. The firemen are so grateful,” Castleberry said. “It’s a good feeling to help. That’s where the payoff is.”

For his willingness to volunteer and help no matter the crisis, this good guy in the cowboy hat, Castleberry, is a worthy candidate for Wise County Person of the Year.


By Austin Jackson

Fabio LaBrada

After years of touching the lives of cancer patients, the disease came back to touch Decatur pilot Fabio LaBrada.

Since 2006, LaBrada has dedicated his life and skills as a pilot to help people battling cancer get treatment. In 2006, he established Raquel’s Wings for Life, a non-profit organization devoted to his mother, who died of breast cancer in 2005.

The service flies Wise County cancer patients to MD Anderson in Houston for free and has taken around 400 flights in the past decade. It’s a trip for families who get a little relief at the time of greatest adversity.

Despite his good deeds, LaBrada faced the disease himself, 13 years after losing his mom to cancer.

In November 2017, LaBrada noticed blood in his urine. A CT scan revealed a mass that was three times the size of LaBrada’s right kidney.

The Decatur pilot was forced into the same shoes as the patients he’s spent the past 12 years helping. But the cruel irony of cancer hasn’t grounded pilot Fabio LaBrada or his mission.

In fact, it’s only fueled him.

Last year, Raquel’s Wings made 37 flights to Houston. Thanks to Fabio and volunteers, the non-profit has been averaging two per week, already eclipsing 70 on the year.

“It gave me a different perspective because even though I’ve been with my mom, who had cancer, and other patients since 2006, before, I would say, ‘Wow I know what you’re going through.’ But when you’re there and it’s you, it’s like ‘oh my gosh. I can die,'” LaBrada said. “It gives you a different perspective in life altogether. It’s like I’m running out of time. It’s like a healing process. What? Why? Why me? Then you get over that. I trusted in God. In my case, I became a stronger believer.”

Luckily LaBrada was able to contain the cancer with surgery. He’s down one kidney, but he’s cancer free.

One of his strongest beliefs for Fabio has always been in helping others. That’s his mission and his goal in life.

And this year he helped others more than he ever has, despite facing cancer himself. LaBrada hopes his work is contagious. One thing he’s most proud of is how he’s inspired others to give back.

“Helping the community here is a no-brainer. I would have done it with and without cancer. Being a member of that club with cancer makes you realize how beautiful life is and how much more kind we need to be to each other,” LaBrada said. “I want to leave a legacy. If something happens to me due to cancer or anything, I want to leave a legacy where people keep helping people in need. That’s what is most important. It’s so rewarding to help others. When people ask what I get out of this, I tell them, sure it’s costly and can be a hardship, but we get to help people. People who need it. In our case, it’s people with cancer. Kids with cancer. Nobody wants to be in the hospital. Nobody wants to be there. The fact that we provide and make it a little easier. Provide a little comfort to people that are having a really hard time. It makes it all worthwhile not only to me but everyone involved.”

Due to LaBrada’s selfless service through his own fight with cancer, he is a worthy candidate for the Wise County Person of the Year.


By Reece Waddell

David Park

Over the years, David Park has become a fixture at Decatur High School.

The longtime track and cross country coach has brought a slew of medals and trophies back to Decatur – including a boys cross country state championship this year. But Park has never been fixated on the accolades. He’s remained focused on helping each runner that comes through his program prepare for something much bigger than athletics.

“Cross country is a sport that’s about teaching life lessons,” Park said. “You can’t fake it. You have to be sincere.”

The 57-year-old coach has won seven state titles – three girls and four boys crowns – at Decatur since arriving in 2004.The girls team has made state 15 years in a row. They were second in Class 4A this year.

Park said ultimately, success boils down to one thing.

“As long as you stay focused, put others first and yourself last, that’s when you’re going to find success,” he said. “Running is what we do. It’s who we are. We’re not runners on a team; we’re a team that runs. We always have to keep that perspective.”

Park began coaching in 1982 and has spent more than three decades in the business. He and his teams face grueling schedules during the year, waking up as early as 4 a.m. to train.

In addition, the teams also sacrifice most of their Saturdays and weekends from August to early November. But through all the early mornings, lost weekends and endless miles, Park said his kids learn a valuable lesson.

“First and foremost it teaches them perserverance – not to give up,” Park said. “The neat thing about my sport is there’s a measure there. Whether you’re No. 1 on varsity or the last runner on the team, the first thing you’re competing against is yourself. You have something tangible in the stopwatch that says ‘I got better. I improved.’ Helping them learn how to continually improve themselves.

“There’s a lot of pain in training. It’s going to hurt. You have to teach them that’s OK. It’s OK to hurt.”

Park has even learned a few things himself in the past 33 years, particularly how to help kids who are dealing with problems outside of running find an outlet.

“Kids are going to have struggles. Some struggles that you or I have never gone through,” Park said. “But when we go out there and work out, that’s pretty much like a sanctuary.”

At the UIL cross country championships earlier this month, several former Decatur standouts made the trek to Round Rock to cheer on their old team.

“We don’t shake hands. We hug,” Park said. “They’re part of my family.”

The same goes for every other kid Park has ever coached.

When it’s all said and done, Park wants to have an impact on each student he comes into contact with. He’s off to a good start and doesn’t intend on stopping anytime soon.

“I want them to know someone cares about them,” Park said. “I want them to [know] they can do anything they put their mind to.”

Park’s dedication to students and his providing lessons on and off the course makes him a worthy candidate for Wise County’s Person of the Year.


By Kristen Tribe

Cody Powell

Wise County Emergency Management Coordinator Cody Powell admits he’s been accused of being an adrenaline junkie. His resume validates his quest for risk, reward and rescue, having served in the U.S. Marine Corps from July 2000 to January 2006 and being a firefighter and paramedic since 2007.

Twelve months ago he gave all that up for what some dub a “desk job,” but he’s still in the business of saving lives. He is the county’s first dedicated emergency management coordinator.

For many years, the position had been combined with the county fire marshal post, and frankly, it was too much for one person to handle. While interviewing candidates to fill the position following the departure of the previous fire marshal/emergency management coordinator, county commissioners and County Judge J.D. Clark decided to do it right and dedicate the resources to expanding the office and better protecting the county.

“So much of our world is emergency preparedness and emergency management,” Clark said. “I can’t think of anyone better to be working on it. With his military and firefighter background, he’s been a good fit.”

Clark said he’s currently reviewing emergency operations plans that Powell created for each county building – 10 total, with plans to soon start working on one for the sheriff’s office and jail. The judge said Powell has also worked closely with local cities to give input or help them tweak their own emergency preparedness plans.

“He’s not a silo person,” Clark said. “He always asks, ‘what does our community need to work on as a whole in terms of emergency preparedness?'”

Oddly enough, Powell said that’s one of his favorite things about the job – the never-ending cycle and constant research to improve systems and tactics.

“The job as a whole … there’s not an end goal,” he said. “You’re constantly trying to improve and trying to evaluate. You don’t even have time to be stagnant. I like the continuous motion of the job.”

Powell anticipates changes to state laws during the legislative session to force his office to make adjustments.

Within the first year, Powell has created a Hazard Vulnerability Assessment, the first in many years and perhaps ever for the county, which serves as a local guidebook for emergency planning and telling his department how to prioritize funding.

In August, he coordinated the attack of the Barclay Fire, which involved more than 20 fire departments and the U.S. Forest Service. The blaze ripped through Barclay’s Salvage yard in Alvord before burning almost 500 acres. No lives or homes were lost in the fire.

Powell will soon be installing trauma kits in every county building to go alongside the AEDs.

He’s constantly reading and researching emergency planning and finding ways to implement the best of those ideas locally.

“When I was still operational, I was a tactical medic attached to the SWAT team; I was a public safety diver, I did public rescue … This is a different type of stress,” he said. “It’s a different type of adrenaline. It’s much more mental.”

Powell is quick to give credit to the elected officials who hired him, saying they allow him to do his job. He also noted he’s not afraid to ask for help. His mentor, Josh Robertson, who is now the state emergency management coordinator, told Powell his greatest asset is his Rolodex.

Powell has worked to build relationships with other emergency management coordinators in the region to pool resources and make sure he has whatever is needed at his fingertips, whether that’s equipment or manpower. He’s always on call and always at the ready.

“I hope that 100 percent of everything I do is useless,” Powell said, “but I’m also not naive to believe that it is either.”

For his tireless work to protect the county and its citizens against known threats and those yet imagined, Powell is a worthy candidate for Wise County Person of the Year.


By Brian Knox

Beverly Ross

In 2018, Wise County Christian Counseling founder Beverly Ross opened a new grief center that is very close to her heart.

Jenny’s Hope – named after Ross’ daughter, Jenny Ross Bizaillion, who died following a sudden illness in 2010 – opened its doors in September.

“I wanted to do it to honor Jenny,” Ross said in a January Wise County Messenger story. “It’s for people who are learning to carry the pain of the death of people that they love.”

Wise County Christian Counseling and Jenny’s Hope moved into a new location this year, in the Prada Shops on Farm Road 51 South in Decatur.

Jenny’s Hope is the first grief center in Wise County and offers professional grief counseling to all ages, with Monday nights dedicated to children. The building renovation was designed with this in mind with specific rooms set up and decorated for different age groups.

In a September story on the opening of Jenny’s Hope, Ross explained that grief is part of the human experience and shouldn’t be rushed.

“We’ve got to help people not have sympathy, but empathy. Sympathy is ‘I feel so sad for you,’ and empathy is ‘I want to walk beside you.’ My pain may not be your pain, but we’re shoulder to shoulder figuring it out. The experience doesn’t have to be the same; the common emotion is what’s the same,” she said.

Ross taught in East Texas before starting a career in counseling in Dallas. In 2005, Ross and her husband, Rick, moved to Decatur and soon became friends with Robert Isham, who urged her to open a local counseling center.

Wise County Christian Counseling opened in 2006 to provide professional counseling for people struggling with depression, anxiety, grief and relationship issues. Clients are allowed to pay for their needs on a sliding scale.

The Decatur Chamber of Commerce in October honored Ross for her service to the community when it named her as the 2018 Decatur Citizen of the Year.

“She’s always had a desire to help others,” Chamber of Commerce President Brandt Wicker said in presenting the award.

Ross’ work to help local citizens deal with their grief in a healthy way is the reason she’s a worthy candidate for Wise County Person of the Year.

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