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Pastor leaves to continue son's mission

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By Shannon Watkins

Inspiration sometimes leads people in unexpected directions: Pastor Sam Bartlett of First Baptist Church of Galax announced recently that he will be leaving his position in order to promote his late son’s legacy, Police Fitness; and a career in public speaking to support that work.

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“Police Fitness, the nonprofit that we have started, has been very demanding of my time,” said Bartlett, “because there has been a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and interest about our mission, that the first responders be fit to serve.”

Police Fitness is, in a nutshell, a nonprofit founded by the Bartlett family in honor of Curtis Bartlett, a local police officer and fitness trainer who died in the line of duty in 2017. Its goal is to help law enforcement officers to be in the best possible shape mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically. It will occupy Sen. Bill Carico’s old office in downtown Galax.

In the last few months, Bartlett spent some time thinking through the nonprofit’s mission. The toll on his and his family’s time created by trying to run Police Fitness, and serve the church’s community in full capacity, eventually brought things to a head. The nonprofit demanded a flexible schedule, one that ministering to a large church couldn’t offer.

“I tried to figure, how do I run Police Fitness and continue to pastor one of the largest churches in the area, and I couldn’t see how I could do both,” Bartlett said. “We thought about and prayed about it and met with the pastor support team, and shared the news that I was making the transition. I wanted to given them plenty of time to find a replacement.”

Bartlett’s last day as pastor is scheduled for Aug. 1, but says he will serve past that point if no replacement is found by then. A church committee is actively scouting, however.

“It has been obviously with a lot of mixed emotions, because we’ve experienced a lot of growth here at First Baptist,” he said, noting that the church also shared the family’s grief when Curtis died.

“They stood by us as a family, with what we’ve been through,” Bartlett said of the church. “It was certainly a hard decision when we got to that point where we were going to step down.”

Police Fitness

“Police Fitness believes that law enforcement officers are athletes no different than baseball or football players,” said Bartlett. “We call them ‘tactical athletes.’”

It is perhaps unusual, and emotionally charged, to take up the mantle of his son, when so often it’s the reverse: the child carries on the legacy of their parents. But, said Bartlett, “This whole concept of Curtis’s about ‘living inspired’ — he’s somebody we really kind of looked up to, even though he’s our son.”

He continued, “Personality wise, I’m a little more methodical; Curtis was more fly by the seat of his pants. Certainly he has inspired me as I thought about the next phase of my life, I’m approaching 60.”

The next phase is to carry on Curtis’s message; but this meant a change of plans for the family, who gave it due consideration, Bartlett said: “I have done motivational speaking, and I didn’t feel like I could do that and meet the needs of this congregation, as well.”

Therefore, Bartlett said, he’s going to use motivational speaking as a financial base to provide for his family, and Police Fitness will be his heart’s project.

The latter will be a three-part mission: helping agencies adopt a comprehensive fitness plan and working with local healthcare providers; promoting regional fitness events geared towards tactical athletes; and maintaining a robust website where first responders can go and get inspirational resources and stories.

The first fitness event will be held in Grayson County on the Bartlett family farm, which is 100 acres, with a gun range Curtis built.

“This Police Fitness event will not just involve physical activity, but combining that with shooting,” said Bartlett. “Curtis really believed it was one thing to go qualify when you’re relaxed… but if you have been involved in a chase and are having a lot of stress and now you’re having to make decisions, you’ve got to be mentally strong, and physically strong.”

He continued, “This competition will be designed to test that in these officers. Certainly, it’s big in the news these days of officers not reacting properly or acting too quickly, and there’s a tremendous amount of stress involved, and that was something Curtis was passionate about.”

The Bartlett family envisions Police Fitness holding regional Spartan-type races, which are basically a grungier version of the “American Ninja Warrior” challenge that he and his friends brought to the Galax Firehouse earlier this year. Spartan events usually involve activities that combine cardio and strength, like crawling through mud under barbed wire, rope climbing and javelin throwing.

“Our competitions will be like that, but they will also have a tactical element to them,” he said.

Spartan races, in general, tend to draw all kinds of competitors, he noted. “I think deep down, people want to be challenged, they want to be motivated, they want to be inspired. And you’ll find some people out there who have lost limbs in the military or other means, and yet they want to take this challenge, just to see what they can pull out from within themselves.”

Public Speaking and Living Inspired

Bartlett said that on the paid, professional side, he already has public speaking gigs lined up in Galax, Richmond, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia; to healthcare leaders, law enforcement officials, aspiring principals and students.

“The one group in Richmond has an association where if an officer is killed in the line of duty, they send a check to the family, and so they sent us I think $1,000,” Bartlett said. “We applied it to Police Fitness. And I sent a thank you note and a link to the video [the nonprofit’s website contains with a nine-minute video explaining how the organization came to be] and he was blown away.” The association invited Bartlett to come speak.

Despite public speaking and Police Fitness being separate elements, Bartlett said he’s definitely taking Curtis’s “live inspired” message to the former events, as well. As someone who’s tapped to deliver messages about skills like team building, conflict management and emotional intelligence, his son’s work fits right in.

“Whatever topic I’m called upon to speak about, I’m going to share Curtis’s story and how it changed my life, and I’m going to share his principle for living inspired,” said Bartlett. “What happened impacted our family so dramatically, it’s sort of who we are, it’s part of our fabric. It’s like, wherever I go, what has happened is sort of shaping the future and causing me to want to spread that message to others.”

Bartlett is working on a book about what it means to live inspired, as well. “I’ve done some writing on the past with a book for the K-12 marketplace, so this won’t be my first book, just my most personal one.”

The six principles of Curtis’s philosophy, according to Bartlett, are knowing your purpose, overcoming setbacks, pursuing excellence, building a team, fighting fear by taking action and having fun.

“One of the things I said on Sunday is that I believe each person has been gifted to contribute to society,” said Bartlett. “One of the important questions as we go through life is, what are we going to do with what we’ve been entrusted with?”

It’s not a question he asks lightly; the family knows intimately what it is to search for meaning in the wake of tragedy. “We didn’t ask for what we’ve experienced, which is our son’s death, but we’ve been entrusted with it, and what are we going to do with it? Are you going to get bitter, or are you going to get better? The reason I’m resigning from the church is that I’m being called to spread this message of living inspired to a wider audience than I can reach if I just stay here at First Baptist.”

While the congregation would understandably like to keep the Bartletts around, they’ve been gracious about the decision to leave.

“I will say that the church has wanted to talk me out of it, if I wanted to stay,” said Bartlett. “But they also understand what we’ve gone through, and are very supportive of this next chapter in our lives. I can’t say enough about how supportive the church has been to us. They’ve been like an extended family.”

Columbarium

Bartlett, who’s been fielding questions and telling his story in the parlor at First Baptist, leads the way outside to show the church’s columbarium, which is essentially a small mausoleum to hold the ashes of cremated persons.

Though there’s only one, the church might go on to put up two more with a small garden, Bartlett said. There are already soft pink cherry blossoms overhead, blooming on an old, gnarled tree. A few spaces on the columbarium have been purchased and etched with names of church members; some have end dates and some, reserved in advance, do not.

It has not been dedicated yet, and thus is still empty despite the markings. However, on the side facing out to E. Stuart Drive, in the top row, you can read against the black stone, “Bartlett,” and underneath it, “Curtis Allen, Aug. 17, 1984-Mar. 09, 2017.”

“This place means so much to me,” said Bartlett. “The original plan was to spread his cremains over the fields and gun range on the farm, because he loved to be there. But several of his military buddies have come to visit us from overseas and ask, ‘Is there a place we can go and reflect?’ and that’s why we decided to have his cremains here at First Baptist.”

He paused a while, and said, before heading back into the church, “First Baptist has found a forever place in my heart, because of what we’ve experienced together.”

For more information, visit policefitness.com