A Special Bicycle for a Special Student

A Special Bicycle for a Special Student

Lisa Patrick

The Ashland Beacon

lisa article

   Learning to ride a bike is something that most children take for granted. Some take longer than others to learn, but almost all of them at least get the chance to try. For Spencer Nichols, riding a bicycle with his brother and sister was something that he could only wish for. That is, until the Ashland Kiwanis stepped in.

   Spencer Nichols, a seventh-grader at Ashland Middle School, was born with Say Barber Biesecker Young-Simpson Syndrome. The syndrome has several different characteristics for diagnosis. These can include limited facial movement (also known as a mask-like face), small eyes with droopy eyelids, heart conditions, hypothyroidism, low muscle tone, and a moderate to severe learning disability. Only 200-400 in the world have Say Barber Biesecker Young-Simpson Syndrome. His mother, Rachel Nichols, said that “when he was born, if he lived at all, we were given a list of things that he wouldn’t be able to do, including walk.” Spencer proved the experts wrong by taking his “first independent steps at age four, and he hasn’t stopped since,” said Nichols.

   Last Thursday, the Ashland Kiwanis came to Ashland Middle School and presented Spencer with a brand new tricycle that was made especially for him. Spencer may be nonverbal but there were no words needed for him to express the amount of joy he felt at taking that very first ride. The happiness was written all over his face.

   Nichols said that “we have always strived to treat Spencer like any other kid. We have never told him that he couldn’t do anything that his siblings could do.” The family has been able to “adapt a lot of things meant for kids without disabilities” to work for Spencer because something with a “special needs label is instantly more expensive.” However, safely adapting a regular bicycle for Spencer was something that they were unable to do. “It is the one thing that he has never been able to do with his siblings.” Buying a “special needs” bike was also out of the question for the family. The bicycle alone costs thousands of dollars. Then they would have had to order additional modifications to make the bike work for Spencer and each of those modifications “cost hundreds of dollars.”

   Spencer’s new tricycle has all the bells and whistles needed to keep him safe. Other than the stability of three wheels, the typical handlebar has been replaced with one in circular form to make it easy for Spencer to hold onto. There are “arms” on the side of a seat that is more like a chair that includes a seatbelt to keep him safely in place. There are straps to help keep his feet on the pedals and a basket on the back of the tricycle where he can stow things that are important to him. The Ashland Kiwanis also included a helmet.

   This new tricycle also makes an activity that he used to watch attainable for him. Nichols said that now Spencer can “ride bikes with his siblings as a family. It means his life is a little more neurotypical.” The family is leaving the bicycle at school for now “so all of Spencer’s friends can enjoy it too.” But during the summer break, Spencer will be riding his bike just like all of the other kids.

True Crime & Criminal Investigation Sparks Student Interest Mark McDowell Impacts Students through Criminal Justice

True Crime & Criminal Investigation Sparks Student Interest

Mark McDowell Impacts Students through Criminal Justice

Deidra Bowling-Meade

The Ashland Beacon


Did you know one in three Americans say they consume true crime content?  The true crime genre is being fueled with new docuseries and crime books constantly being released.  Some might question the validity of this content and wonder if it is doing more harm than good.  Mark McDowell, a retired Ashland Police Department Commander and current Security Specialist with Ashland Independent Schools, is using his experience and knowledge with criminal justice to give students at Paul Blazer High School the insight into a career with criminal justice, as well as encourage students to apply critical thinking and communication skills. 


This past week, students in McDowell’s Criminal Investigation class were given an experience of a lifetime by getting to have a virtual meet with Special Agent Tammy Lee from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Lee was a lead investigator on the Chris Watts murder case and part of the Netflix documentary “The Family Next Door.” Chris Watts was found guilty of murdering his wife and children in 2018.  

The opportunity to speak with Special Agent Lee occurred due to McDowell’s diligence in wanting the best for his students. McDowell remarked, “I have a saying, ‘ask not, get not.’ I sent Agent Lee an email before Christmas break, and she replied to me over the break. It was an early Christmas present knowing my students would get a very keen insight into the crime we were studying. There were so many unknowns for this case because it unfolded so rapidly. Agent Lee was on the front line of the investigation, and it was so interesting to have this live stream interview with my class. The kids had some really interesting questions to ask of her on the case.” 

Eleventh grade student Baker Elam made some interesting observations from watching the documentary and speaking virtually with Agent Lee. Elam remarked, “There were many things I found interesting about Agent Lee’s perception of events that she talked to us about during the livestream. One thing I found very interesting was when she said that she and some other agents were watching the interview that Chris Watts had on his porch, and they started suspecting that he was the one who made Shanann and her kids disappear because of his mannerisms and the way he was acting. It made me wonder how differently this case would have been if Chris had decided not to do that interview, and how much longer the case would have drawn out. Another thing I found interesting was that one of the agents didn’t want to let Chris’ father in the interrogation room because it seemed to me that his father was a big reason that Chris did a partial confession.”  Elam asked Agent Lee, “Do you think that if Chris’ father wasn’t with him in the interview room that he would have confessed?  And if so, how much longer would it have taken him to confess?"

Julia Wallace, who is in the 10th grade, commented, “The highlights of our visit with Agent Tammy Lee was once in a lifetime thanks to Mr. McDowell.  Agent Lee helped us understand what it would feel like if we were under the same investigation on Christopher Watts. She gave a clear description on how Chris acted through interviews and everything he had slipped up on through this case. Agent Lee gave her own thoughts on things that weren’t clearly answered by Chris. For example, why the bodies were buried opposite from each other or if she thought the girls were already dead when Chris killed Shannan in the house. There was a lot of insight she had given us, and she was very brave to talk to us about this after going through such a horrifying experience with this case. Agents Lee and Coder had an amazing report on this case, as well. We wouldn't have gotten the notes we needed in this case without their excellent work.”

The news that McDowell’s class would be live streaming with Agent Lee spread throughout Blazer’s campus.  Other classes and teachers joined the live event or watched the recording.  One of  Blazer’s English teachers, Rose McCallister, was thrilled with the opportunity and shared her thoughts: “As a true crime buff, Mr. McDowell invited me to view the live stream discussion regarding the Chris Watts case. It was remarkable that students were able to connect with such a well-known investigator and an internationally recognized case.  This was an amazing real-life experience for students who are interested in criminal justice as a career. Agent Tammy Lee did a wonderful job presenting information from this case and was able to share the process, as well as her personal experience. She also shared that she has a high school aged child, and she recognizes the impact experiences such as this has with students. She was incredibly inviting and open to sharing her knowledge. The students were given the opportunity to ask questions, and I was impressed with the level of critical thinking that was shown by Mr. McDowell’s students. As educators, we always want students to be able to connect and reason with topics in the classroom. This connection was well portrayed in this experience…an experience I’m sure these students will always remember.”

Junior, Rachel Tackett, shared the impact this experience had upon her, “Getting to listen to Agent Lee talk was by far the highlight of my day. As someone who hopes to work in the BAU, getting to talk to someone in such an important case was absolutely incredible.”

Throughout the Criminal Investigation course, students have studied various criminal cases to determine if the investigations were done thoroughly, if additional questions remain, what was done correctly and what could have been done differently.  The level of critical thinking application in this course is an interesting way for students to learn skills, which actually can apply to other subject areas such as history and English. The course also sparks an interest in possible job opportunities for students.   McDowell explained, “On my dry erase board in class I have the 4th Amendment on one side and ‘who, what, when, where, why and how’ on the other. It’s been there since school started. These are the basic questions investigators must answer before a prosecutor will take a case. There are hoops to jump through to ensure suspect rights are not violated.”

The students have studied the OJ Simpson case, Chris Watts case and currently the Tupac case.  Each case provides a different view on criminal justice for students to examine. McDowell described what he wanted the class to see from each case: “The Watts case unfolded quickly; you can read the entire case file, all 1,690 pages, on the internet. Evidence in that case was carefully identified and collected to ensure its integrity. The constitutional rights of the suspect were protected from the time the first officer arrived on the scene up to Watts’ confession. Agent Lee told us one of the reasons the investigators followed up with Watts in prison, was to fill in some blanks on some finite details and try and see where they could improve on their management of the case.

The OJ case, on the other hand, was marred by sloppy evidence collection and documentation. Ask any of my students if they know who Furhman is and what he’s noted for in the OJ case- they’ll tell you. And even the trial- LAPD was on trial- not OJ. Police investigators have so many more tools today to help the prosecutor prove a case, especially with the acceptance of DNA in criminal trials.

 Tupac will be our next case study- it remains unsolved today. It’s also a 90’s case, and I want to show the kids how this was marred from the beginning by a moving crime scene and witnesses who refused to cooperate and get involved with the investigation.”

 McDowell’s knowledge of criminal justice and personal experience with public safety is unmatched. McDowell actually started his public safety career in 1987 at Boyd County 9-1-1. In 1989, he started with the Ashland Police Department as a patrolman. McDowell worked as a detective in the Criminal Investigations Section in 1993. He was promoted to Sergeant in 2001 where he worked in the Patrol Division, promoted to Lieutenant in 2009 and then Major in 2011. McDowell retired from APD in 2017, after 28 ½ years service as Commander of the Technical Services Division. In the fall of 2017, McDowell was sworn in as a part time deputy with the Boyd County Sheriff's Department. In the spring of 2018, after the Parkland HS shooting in Florida, he started working as a security specialist with the Ashland Independent School District. For the last four years at Paul Blazer High School, students have been able to sign up for McDowell’s classes in the criminal justice pathway.

McDowell loves sharing his passion with Blazer students. McDowell commented, “There are many career paths in the Criminal Justice Field. I share law enforcement, courts, corrections, support services such as forensic lab techs, intelligence, the whole spectrum of career paths in the CJ field. Many students are not sure which career path they want to pursue.  Some may realize this is not what they expected, but it still gives each of them a unique insight into the criminal justice field. I hope this course sparks an interest in students to seek a career, not just a job, in making their community safer for families.”

Once a Tomcat… Always a Tomcat

Once a Tomcat… Always a Tomcat

Davis Returns to Roots as the New Head Coach of Ashland KittensDavis Cheers her team on from the sidelines
Sasha Bush
The Ashland Beacon
   For as long as Stacy Franz Davis can remember, basketball has always played a huge role in her life. Davis’ love for the game developed at a very young age and has since flourished into an unquenchable desire to help others develop that same passion.
   At age 10, Davis took the courts for the first time and hasn’t seemed to ever put the ball down since. Growing up, young Davis had many role models and sources of inspiration. Davis shared that the biggest role models were her grandparents… “Murmur (Glwanda Franz) and Granddad (C. Wayne Franz M.D.),” noted Davis. “From a very young age, I have always looked up to my grandparents. Growing up and living next door to them, I always spent a lot of time with them. They were the two faces I saw at every event during my childhood. They were the most caring and kind people you could ever meet. They were my heroes. From a very young age, they taught me through their actions that the values of integrity, perseverance, hard work, determination, and passion were needed in all aspects of life to succeed,” added Davis. Having a role model is so important and vital to the development of our youth. A role model provides a positive influence to give everything your absolute all, encourages you to pick yourself up and try again in the face of adversity, and most importantly loves and guides you through any obstacles that life may throw at you. Davis certainly had two of the best role models that anyone could have been blessed with in life.
    Davis’ basketball career continued through her middle and high school years.  Davis played ball within the Ashland Independent School system all the way up to her graduation at Paul G. Blazer High School. She then went on to play basketball at Transylvania University on a basketball scholarship, which she received her senior year a Paul G. Blazer High School. During her years at Transylvania University, Davis impressed everyone with her talent, determination and love of the game. Her experience as a point guard earned Davis many awards and recognitions. Davis was named Most Valuable Player and Best Defensive Player. Davis also earned the honor of being named to theMid-South All Region Team. As Davis’ senior year at Transylvania University was quickly coming to a close, she realized that she wanted to pursue coaching. “It wasn’t until I began working with the Don Lane basketball camps and teaching the youth the skills and fundamentals of basketball that I realized I wanted to coach. I realized that my career as a player was eventually coming to an end, but my passion for the sport was still just as strong as ever. I realized that I really enjoyed teaching others about the game,” shared Davis.
   After college, Davis began coaching the elementary level at Catlettsburg Elementary School and Summit Elementary School. Davis continued her coaching career at the middle school level by coaching Boyd County Middle School’s Seventh Grade Boys Team. It wasn’t until later that Davis was offered the position as freshman coach at Boyd County High School and later worked under Pete Fraley as the assistant varsity coach from 1997-2005. Davis continued her coaching career and soon found herself coaching at Ashland Middle School.  Throughout the years, Davis had the opportunity to help shape the skills and minds of countless young ballplayers. Davis instilled in them what she considers the most important characteristics of any young ballplayer, “One must have a good sense of awareness about the game. Determination, confidence, being coachable and passionate about the game is a must. Being a great teammate is also of great importance. To be a good ballplayer, you have to embody all these characteristics, as well as have a certain degree of mental toughness about you.  The ability to self-motivate, and of course, be competitive plays an important role in any sport,” noted Davis.
   Davis now finds herself living her dream come true. Recently, Davis was offered the position of head basketball coach for Paul G Blazer’s Kittens. For Davis, this opportunity is a dream come true and one that she doesn’t take lightly. “It is an honor and privilege to be chosen as the head coach of the Ashland Kittens. To have this opportunity to coach at my alma mater is truly a dream come true. I am beyond blessed. This coaching position opened up at the right time in my life. I know it’s all just part of God’s plan,” stated Davis. As a former Tomcat herself, Davis takes great pride in being able to don the maroon and white again. “I am so excited to be able to give back to the school, program, and community that has played such a big part in helping define who I am today. My hope is that I can have the same impact on these athletes.” Davis has described her time at Ashland as a student athlete, “I have shed so much blood, so much sweat, and so many tears for the Maroon and White.  It is my goal to instill those same qualities in our current and future Kittens. I want them to understand that it is a privilege to be a student athlete at Ashland Blazer High School.”
   Up until now, Davis has typically coached boys basketball, so making the switch from boys to girls brings with it a new set of challenges. “Girls tend to wear their emotions on their sleeves more and have a real desire to be accepted. For girls, it’s a bit different because they want you as a coach to know them as a whole person and not just a player. I’ve also noticed that girls are more afraid to fail and need more bonding time to grow as a team. I love that they have that need to bond more as a team.” For Davis, this brings back some of her most fond memories of her own basketball journey through the years, “There is just something so special about the bond you make with your teammates. My fondest memories are from the true friendships and bonds that formed with my fellow teammates. All our times on the bus, locker-room chats and overnight trips make for some of the best memories that I will forever cherish.” The team has a motto now that Davis is the head coach for the Ashland Kittens, “Our team motto is all about sisterhood. We achieve through various team building/bonding activities. I’m a firm believer in team bonding.” Team bonding occurs not only on the courts but off the courts, as well. “We do team activities, team sleepovers, team lock-ins, team community events, meals as a team, and even team movie nights. All of these provide the girls with an opportunity to really get to know the sisters that they share the court with,” noted Davis.
   Davis has big plans for the Ashland Kittens in the years to come. To start out, Davis wants to make sure that the team grows both on and off the court and they all develop an understanding of this new coaching system. Davis stated, “I want to build a championship level program. A program that not only establishes core values for the team but one that is also active in the community. I want these girls to really understand what it means to “RepTheA” and to take pride in wearing maroon and white. I want us to have the program that makes it as a state contender year in and year out—a program that our athletes, our school, and community can take pride in.” One thing is for certain, Davis truly understands what it means to be a Tomcat and bleed maroon and white down to her core. This season is sure to be an exciting one with Davis at the helm, and we can’t wait to see what those Kittens can do.

Celebrating A Cancer-Free Christmas

Celebrating A Cancer-Free Christmas

By: Lisa Patrick

Ashland Beacon


       About two and a half years ago, Briar Howell and her family got some horrible news. Three-year-old Briar had been diagnosed with leukemia. Although her parents tried to keep everything as normal as possible, there were some things that just could not be the same. But this year, “Warrior Princess” Briar has beaten cancer and is looking forward to the first “normal” Christmas in her memory.


       Briar’s mother, Gina Howell, said that it’s nice to be able to get back to a “real normal.” They’ve spent the past couple of years scheduling all of their activities around chemo treatments and trying to estimate the days that Briar might be feeling bad so that they would be at home, especially during the week when she was on steroids. However, Briar “never complained” about any of it. Howell said that she was “just as happy as could be” even when she was in treatments or when she was sick or in pain. Her family and the staff at HOOPS Children’s Hospital in Huntington, West Virginia where Briar went for treatments were amazed at how brave she was through her entire battle against cancer. The HOOPS staff were the ones to give Briar the nickname, “Warrior Princess.”

       Christmas the past couple of years has looked pretty different for the Howell family. The first Christmas after her diagnosis, COVID precautions were in place. When added to the immunity complications that Briar was experiencing, the family opted to stay home and open gifts with family through FaceTime. Last year, they did get to visit with family for Christmas, but Briar had to wear a mask the entire time. This is one of the things that she is glad to be rid of after beating cancer. She gets to go places and “not be the only kid wearing a mask.”

       Back in September, Briar got to “ring the bell” at HOOPS signifying the end of her chemo treatments. The entire community celebrated with her and her family. They created a huge parade that went from Bridges Church on Diedrich Boulevard all the way to Super Quik in Flatwoods. There were people lined up all along the route waving and cheering, and she got to see some of her friends from school in the crowd.

       When asked what she is most excited to do now that she has finished all of her cancer treatments, she proudly exclaimed, “Eat salad!” This was something that she was only allowed to do at home before finishing her treatments. When neutropenia was an issue, they had to make sure that “everything was washed very well” before she could have a salad. Now, she is excited that she can order a salad at a restaurant.

       This year, Briar got to go to Disney World courtesy of the Make-A-Wish Foundation and was “treated like royalty,” per Howell. She never had to wait in line for the characters or the rides, so the family just went “nonstop the whole time.” While at Disney, Briar saw the toys that she decided she would ask Santa Claus to get her for Christmas. On Christmas morning, Briar received the Rapunzel and Cinderella castles that she had started dreaming about months before.

       This Christmas, the family also got to see Briar sit on Santa’s lap for the first time since she was three. She got to talk with Santa at both the Marathon Fire Department Christmas party and the Wurtland Fire Department Christmas party. Besides getting to see Santa Claus, Briar was also excited that “the Grinch came to school” even though it was “just someone dressed up.”

       Briar spent this Christmas with all of her family (“without masks!”), and she was most excited to “see Grandma and Papaw.” She left sprinkle cookies and milk for Santa and made reindeer food and left some carrots for his reindeer. She got to spend “lots of time with family.”

       The day after Christmas, the family went to Florida with some of their friends where her brother, Noah Danner, will play baseball again. Going into the New Year, the family is most looking forward to Briar having surgery on January 16th to get her mediport removed. Right now, Briar is still having to take antibiotics three times a week because of the port but will be able to stop them once it is out.

       Howell said that without the support of the community, “we may not have gotten this far.” She said that all of the fundraisers and financial support that the family has been blessed with made it possible for them to be able to pay all of Briar’s medical bills “so far.” This was such a “huge blessing” because “even if we had set up monthly payments, it would have still been more than our mortgage.”

       Briar’s family considers her to be “nothing short of a miracle.” Even though she went through such a “terrible time,” she was “such an inspiration to others” that they “can’t wait to see what she does in the future.”

       Briar will still have to get monthly blood work done to watch for signs that the cancer may come back, but it still does not dampen her spirits. A few days before the holiday, Briar said, “Mom, do you know what I want the most for Christmas? Joy with my family.”

Sweet Christmas Memories

Sweet Christmas Memories

By:  Ellen Keaton

Ashland Beacon

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What comes to your mind when you hear the word Christmas?  I think of several things … the baby born in a manger, Jesus, the twinkling lights everywhere, and my family. As I get older, I seem to remember things from the past and realize how amazing they were. Christmas is one of those. My mom was the oldest of four children born to Ollie James and Gladys McCarty. My Grandpa Ollie died on the USS Hoel during World War II when Mom was only five years old. They grew up very poor in an old two-story log house on Davis Branch in Kentucky. Each of the McCarty children eventually got married and left home to start their own families, and Granny remarried Edward Hicks, who was known to all of the grandchildren as “Paw Ed.”    

There was one time of year that everyone came back to that old log house where they still lived … Christmas.   The memories are as vivid in my mind today as then. The house had no modern conveniences, heat, running water, bathrooms. You could smell the wood burning in the open fireplace in one room and from the potbelly stove in the other. A fresh cut pine tree stood in the corner. It wasn’t one of the perfectly shaped trees that you see on the lot.  Instead, it was one that Paw Ed had gotten on the hill, cut down and dragged in. From the time I could remember, the tree had bubble lights on it every year. I was always intrigued with how they worked. There was always so much food, turkey and dressing and all that went with it.

It was the one time of year that all the cousins were together in one place… and there were a LOT of cousins. I can’t remember not going to Granny’s at Christmas. We always had presents and of course none of us kids wanted to eat because we just wanted the presents. They weren’t expensive gifts; many of them were clothes that were handmade with lots of love. It didn’t matter because we were family — alive, healthy and together. Even today, whenever any of the cousins are together, we all remember the Christmas’s in that old log house and the love that was there.

The years came and went, and we all grew up and started our own families. Paw Ed was diagnosed with cancer and there was one last Christmas together.   As I think back today, it’s hard to believe that was 46 years ago this Christmas … I remember it so clearly.  My first child was five months old, which meant there were five generations at that Christmas dinner.  Years went by, and each of us was so busy with our own families that we just didn’t get together again.   

A few years ago, after only seeing each other at too many funerals, everyone decided it was time to have a family Christmas again. We gathered at a church fellowship hall because the family was so large now.  There were 89 of us there that night, which still didn’t include everyone.  It was almost as if no time had passed at all. There was laughter, kids everywhere, too much food and most importantly, family.  The last time we were all able to gather was in 2019, and at 99 Granny was still able to attend. That year there were children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great, great grandchildren.   This year Granny is 102 years old, and there are six generations of McCartys totaling well over 100 direct blood descendants of Ollie and Gladys McCarty. What a blessed family I have! 

As I look back, it wasn’t the “things” we had in life growing up that made Christmas special, but rather the family and the love.   I am guilty of wanting the “perfect” Christmas …. you know like the ones you see on television. The ones where the houses are perfectly decorated, everyone is dressed in their best clothes sitting down to a beautiful table. I have figured out life isn’t a Hallmark movie and sometimes it is messy and out of control. I wouldn’t trade the memories I have of Christmas with the McCarty clan for anything.

This Christmas think about the important things in life … the baby in the manger and the memories you are making for your children and grandchildren. Don’t stress about the things around you and remember those who helped shape your life. I will gather with my mom and our family, which by the way has grown to quite a crew over the years.   I will also visit with Granny at the nursing home with my grandchildren, and cherish the memories from my childhood — thankful to have one more Christmas with this amazing woman.