As a child, Richmond Hill resident Kristi Fillers Cox knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up. It wasn’t a lawyer, or doctor or even a race car driver.
She wanted to be a juvenile probation officer.
Cox, who was born in Oklahoma, comes from a military family and spent her youth moving across the country before moving to Savannah and Southeast Georgia, the place she now calls home.
"My mom is from Savannah and met my dad while he was stationed in Savannah. They met while he was working at Hunter Army Airfield," she recalled. "I grew up all over the place. My dad was stationed in multiple places. I grew up in Virginia and Georgia. We lived in Hawaii and Germany. I was 10 when we lived in Germany. I was blessed by that experience. When you think about it, moving different places so often, you gain that ability to meet people from all walks of life.
"Then I married Allen, who was born here in Richmond Hill. I moved to Richmond Hill when I married Allen in 1994. I went to high school in Savannah and graduated from Windsor forest."
The mother of four daughters said she knew early on she wanted to be a juvenile probation officer.
"I set that goal early in life. That’s what I wanted to do. While I was working as a probation officer, I met Allen’s sister, Wendy. And I met Allen through her when we stopped one night to see her dad, who was in the hospital," she said.
"I loved being a juvenile probation officer. It was the ability to take kids and show them a different way of life. I wanted to help them see that they didn’t have to stay in the same place but they could do something positive with their lives."
Cox graduated from Armstrong State College with a bachelor’s of science degree in criminal justice and was very happy when her daughter Allena decided to attend Armstrong as well. Allen, director of transportation for Bryan County Schools, also graduated from Armstrong.
"I was working for an attorney after I graduated from high school. A position opened up as a typist in the juvenile court. I took a huge cut in pay just so I could get my foot in the door."
Cox says there wasn’t just one thing or circumstance that set her on an early path to becoming a juvenile probation officer. She also said there wasn’t an incident in her youth or a friend’s circumstance that made her make an early career decision.
"We had a lot of people in my family that were working in the criminal justice system."
She laughed when she said she never got caught doing anything illegal and never had a juvenile criminal record or contact as a youth with the criminal justice system.
"There wasn’t anything specific that made me want to do it."
She says her career aspirations began to change in 1999 when she and husband Allen lost a baby.
"I was eight months pregnant and had a stillborn baby. After that I just felt that God was leading me to a different path. I realized that as a juvenile probation officer, I was being followed home after work. I had tire irons flying around me while at court. I had to put electronic monitors on children in bad areas," she said. "The realization was that I had just lost a baby and needed to be here for my other daughter, Allena, who is now 20.
"I just realized how dangerous the job had become and that I needed to be there for my husband and daughter."
Cox said there was one incident that cemented in her mind how dangerous the job had become and the threat it presented to her and her family.
"I was going into a bad area in Savannah to put an electronic monitor on a child. The electronic monitoring company was with me so there was two of us," she said. "We walked up to the door, which was open. When we walked up to the door, they slammed it shut. We kept knocking on the door. They waited a few minutes and finally said, ‘Come on in.’ And then I wondered what might be on the other side of that door and I thought, ‘Let’s not do this.’ So we turned around and left. I thought, ‘We’re not doing this.’ That was an eye-opening experience.
"About that time in 2001, a position opened up with the March of Dimes," Cox continued. "I accepted the position with the March of Dimes and I was able to be a program coordinator. It was actually supposed to be 15 hours per week."
One of the attractive things about the March of Dimes position was that it would allow her to be at home and spend more time with Allena.
That job also allowed Cox to talk to groups about the heartache of losing a child and ways that she coped with such a tragic loss.
The job, she said, didn’t stay part time for long.
"But that quickly grew and they wanted me to be over other regions. It became 30 hours per week over 66 counties. I prayed about it and within two days, an ad appeared in the newspaper for a birth mother case worker with a Christian adoption agency based in Macon. It was the perfect job for me at the time. I was working with girls in crisis pregnancies."
But life has a way of changing things.
"My daughter Alea was born, and I resigned to spend more time with her. I had had another daughter, Alevia, and we now had three daughters.
"Because I wanted to be home to take care of the girls and some medical problems I was having, I resigned that position."
While being a stay-at-home mom, she started doing volunteer work.
That led to her accepting the position of Bryan County director for the United Way of the Coastal Empire in 2012, a position she holds today.
She smiles and says her entire working career has been trying to help people.
"United Way is there to provide assistance to people in Bryan County who need help. We fund many programs to help people. We help people of all economic backgrounds."
Cox is a religious person who often puts her life in God’s hands and believes all things happen for a reason.
"I just want to be doing what (God) wants me to when he wants me to be doing it."
It was during this time that she and Allen decided to adopt a special needs child from the Ukraine.
"In December of 2013, our family got together and talked and prayed about it. We felt that God was leading us to get a little girl from the Ukraine. We started the adoption procedure," she said.
"We arrived in the Ukraine and got the adoption paperwork. We told them to start the process. She was 12 years old when we met her and weighed 33 pounds. She was starving to death."
When they arrived in the Ukraine, it was in the midst of the war between Russia and the Ukraine and the airport was ringed with military men with weapons.
After a long, tortuous journey navigating the Ukraine legal and adoption system, they finally brought home their daughter, who they named Allie.
She attributes her long work history in the helping profession to her upbringing and the influence her parents had on her.
"My parents provided me with an amazing childhood that was full of love and security and they encouraged me to always do my best, don’t give up, work hard and do more than is expected, be kind and help others.
"They taught me the value of hard work and helping people. I am what I am because of them."
Cox says she enjoys relaxing, but with four daughters and a husband, those times can be few and far between.
"In the past, I’ve done a lot of things, camping, boating and reading. But at this time, things are pretty busy. Sports are important to us with Allen having been a coach. Right now, though, there’s not a lot of extra time.
"After working all day and coming home to the children, I’m exhausted. But in a good way."
"People often tell me they don’t know how I do everything I do. I don’t really know. I just do it."
For more information about the United Way of the Coastal Empire, call Cox at 912-459-4111.