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Deputy, mentoring program recognized as "Point of Light"

Staff Photo: John Bohn Gwinnett County Sheriff Deputy Steven Cooley received a national "Daily Point of Light Award" Friday, for his work with the STRAP program. The STRAP program is based in Duluth and teaches life skills and offers mentoring to troubled young men. At left is Steven's wife Betty M. Cooley.

Staff Photo: John Bohn Gwinnett County Sheriff Deputy Steven Cooley received a national "Daily Point of Light Award" Friday, for his work with the STRAP program. The STRAP program is based in Duluth and teaches life skills and offers mentoring to troubled young men. At left is Steven's wife Betty M. Cooley.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Gwinnett County Sheriff Deputy Steven Cooley receives a national "Daily Point of Light Award" for his work with the STRAP program. The STRAP program is based in Duluth and teaches life skills and offers mentoring to troubled young men. At left is Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Standing guard in Gwinnett County's juvenile court, day after day, Deputy Steven Cooley bears witness to a lot.

He sees wave after wave of troubled kids, doing stupid things, struggling in broken homes. He sees the county's resources to help them waning, and judges with few sentencing options outside of incarceration.

In all that, though, Cooley sees a way to help.

"He decided to do something about it," Judge Robert Waller said, simply.

On Friday, Cooley -- a 10-year veteran of the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department -- was officially honored with the Daily Point of Light, the 4,973rd such award handed out in the 20-plus years since then-President George H.W. Bush began the program. Meant to honor "individuals and groups creating meaningful change in communities across America," Cooley was honored for the product of his courtroom observations.

About 18 months ago, Cooley started a program in Duluth called STRAP, or Seeking the Right Amendable Path. A life skills and mentoring program aimed at troubled youth, its volunteers spend Saturday morning guiding the same kids he sees in court toward better life choices.

"This thing is bigger than any individual," Cooley said after a Friday ceremony. "It is a community effort, and that's what we want to do: Be a help to the courts, to the families, and also to the young men and women and give them a second chance, give them an opportunity to redeem their lives."

From about 9 a.m. to noon each Saturday, a number of volunteers lead youngsters in the program through classes with topics ranging from nutrition to gang alternatives to "dress for success." They visit college campuses and fire stations, have doctors and lawyers and other professionals lend a hand.

Throughout a six-month program and afterward with weekly school and parental check-ins, Cooley's program helps its at-risk youth avoid jail and become better people.

"Just about anything that we see that a kid is in need of," Cooley said, "we build a program around the individual kid so we can be positive about it."

Sheriff Butch Conway presented Cooley with his award Friday in front of a few dozen supporters, friends and coworkers packed into, appropriately enough, a courtroom.

"Deputy Cooley is what makes me enjoy being sheriff in Gwinnett County," Conway said. "We have the best employees in the state, and in the nation."