Justin Dempsey takes flight

·4 min read

Aug. 1—While the Mack Gaston Community Center has received countless visitors over the years, few — if any — have made an entrance quite like Justin Dempsey, who landed a helicopter at the site.

"Everyone had tears in their eyes" because they knew what Dempsey had overcome, he said. "I wanted to provide a little inspiration and a little hope" to other youth.

"I come from complete poverty in the Mississippi Delta — nobody makes it out of where I came from" — but as a child Dempsey would look up to the sky and dream, he said. "You have to believe in yourself."

"I have the same negative thoughts as anyone," but Dempsey has learned to "turn up that good voice" inside him and tune out "the bad voice," he said. "Believe, and anything is possible."

"I really didn't have a family when I came to Dalton in 2008, but (Tom) Pinson took me under his wing," said Dempsey, now 34. "He invited me over for Christmas, and I saw his strong family" foundation.

Pinson, the executive director of the Mack Gaston Community Center, provided plenty of fatherly advice, and Dempsey learned the value of "listening twice as much as I talk," he said. Pinson also helped him fill out financial aid forms for college, and Dempsey eventually earned his certified nursing assistant (CNA) and technical specialist certification from Georgia Northwestern Technical College before graduating with a bachelor's in health and wellness from Dalton State College.

Dempsey "is one of our real success stories," Pinson said. "He used to come to the old community center — at that time, his main (focus) was basketball — and he got involved with community events."

Through "volunteering, his spirit for people came out," Pinson said. "He's such a people person."

"Since I was young, I always wanted to help people," so nursing was an obvious career, Dempsey said. Dempsey was a caregiver to several notable individuals, including local business magnate and philanthropist Shelby Peeples, and placed most of his focus on individuals with Alzheimer's and dementia.

He played basketball at Georgia Northwestern Technical College, but his promising career was seemingly ended with an ACL injury, he said.

"I kept the faith," however, and conducted numerous basketball camps for youth while injured before a team doctor for the Atlanta Falcons "fixed my knee — I still don't know how that happened."

While working at the Dalton Convention Center, Dempsey met then-Dalton State College head coach Tony Ingle and vowed he'd play for the coach one day. Ingle told Dempsey he heard that dream all the time, but handed Dempsey a mustard seed, an allusion to the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus explains that with faith as small as a mustard seed one can move a mountain.

"I ate about six mustard seeds," Dempsey recalled with a laugh. When Ingle responded one would've been enough, Dempsey noted, "I'm going to move a bunch of mountains."

Dempsey worked on his game nonstop, because "everyone has dreams, but you have to put the work in," he said. Basketball wasn't really "work" to Dempsey, anyway, but, rather, "a safe place — a sanctuary — a playground, like a sandbox."

Ingle eventually gave Dempsey a scholarship, and he was a member of the Roadrunners' 2015 NAIA national title team. He later played professionally in Australia — before the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to return to the U.S. — and in Paris.

Dempsey continues to conduct camps, often alongside Tremaine Dalton, who trains prospective professional basketball players around the world through his training company, The Process Basketball.

With camps, as well as motivational speeches, Dempsey seeks to "inspire the next generation to let your light shine," he said. "Keep praying and keep pushing."

Dempsey began helicopter school in Sevierville, Tennessee, on April 1, and he'll finish the six-month program in September, he said.

"I'll be able to fly in all conditions and teach."

He then plans to attend a week-long camp in Texas "to learn how to fly turbine choppers that hospitals and the (military) use," he said. "Then, I'll fly tourists back here."

Like basketball, "I will keep getting better and better at flying until I master that," he said. "I'll fly as much as I can and then help others."

He's already used his flight skills as a force for good, dropping thousands of Easter eggs for hundreds of children during Easter season, he said: "That was beautiful."

Several local children with special needs were part of the crowd at the community center, as were numerous friends, family members and church acquaintances of Dempsey who "helped me make my dreams come true," he said. For example, "look at how far that bit of grace and faith (Pinson) put in me has taken me."

Dempsey "always had a good attitude, and even (constructive) criticism, he took in stride," Pinson said. "For him to have that dream of flying, and to fly here and land on our field, that was an awesome feat to me."

"I will keep flying and going higher" — both literally and metaphorically — because "I want to give back," Dempsey said. "I want to make a place better than I found it."