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Neighbors helping neighbors: Conyers family and neighborhood featured on OWN channel
Episode to air Sunday, Jan. 27, 3 p.m.
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Dr. Annise Mabry and her daughter Ally Mabry, now a 9th grader at Eastminster. - photo by Michelle Kim

Where to watch:

"Trouble Next Door," 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27, on the OWN network

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The story of a little girl who nearly gave up on life and a Rockdale neighborhood that stepped up will be featured on Oprah’s OWN channel this Sunday Jan. 27. Titled “Trouble Next Door,” the show will highlight a community coming together to rescue a local family in crisis.

The story began with 12-year-old Ally Mabry, who suffered so much at the hands of bullies that she left public school in 2011 at the end of seventh grade. Her mother, Dr. Annise Mabry, said it began with students hitting her daughter in the back of the head with books and tripping her in the classroom. The last straw was the torrent of taunting texts, Twitter and Facebook messages, one of which read “You are so ugly. Just kill yourself. Die.”

Ally Mabry enrolled in Georgia Cyber Academy and was homeschooled by her mother, a post-secondary education administrator. But for a year and a half, Ally holed up in her room and refused to come out. The bright, witty teenager became a bitter recluse and abandoned all the good things that come with what should be an innocent and promising childhood. 

This is where the story gained traction – an article in a juvenile justice publication caught the attention of Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) producers, who were looking for stories on extreme bullying. Once they met Ally and Annise Mabry, the focus evolved into a community issue when they realized how isolated the family was. The producers hit the pavement to recruit neighbors for a show titled “Trouble Next Door.”

It was a spring afternoon when strangers approached Kevin French and his wife Laura in their front yard and told them about the Mabry family living just down the street. They were told of a middle schooler who wouldn’t leave her own bedroom, and a single mother who suffered from a crippling disease that attacks her nervous system. What’s more, there was the youngest Mabry, sweet and shy 7-year-old Niles, who has Asperger syndrome. 

Domini Hofmann, the series director and executive producer, said the show was not meant to be about bullying but rather what would happen if families in crisis reached out to their neighbors and asked for help.

“People today don’t always or often know their neighbors and lean on them the way they may have in the past, and we wanted to create a platform that would spark connections within communities,” Hofmann said.

However, she added, "One of the topics we were always keen to explore inside the series was bullying, and the pain and devastation that it causes entire families, often behind closed doors and in private, and this episode, this family, was a case in point example of that."

And so an intervention of sorts began. The two families met in a community meeting organized by OWN producers at JP Carr Community Center last spring.  

“I don't remember a whole lot other than crying,” Annise Mabry said of that first meeting. “But the one that sticks out in my mind the most is Laura leaning over to me and putting her hand on mine and she said ‘We don't just want to bring you dinner, we want to have you over for dinner.’ All of the neighbors (who came to the meeting) were like that.”

What followed, as the show will detail Sunday, was a community coming together to do more than support a family. 

There were small things, like helping with chores and walking the dogs.

LaVie Spa and Salon offered its services in hopes it would help with Ally's self esteem, Annise's health issues and give the mother and daughter bonding time together, said neighbor Diana Travis, who works there. 

And then Laura French led the Mabrys to the private Eastminster School in Conyers. There, Ally Mabry was “reborn” and is now a flourishing ninth grader. Seven-year-old Niles found a friend in Will French and the two formed a bond over soccer and video games. Annise Mabry found a support system and could finally call Rockdale “home” after years of questioning her decision to move her children here from her native Coweta County in 2009, leaving family and life-long friends behind.

“I have a different child now. She is the child that has emerged as a result of Eastminster and our community,” Annise Mabry said. “For me, that is life changing. You are opening up a door and creating a whole new life. She laughs. She is excited about her appearance. I've not seen her excited about anything in life in a long time.”

Ally, now 14 years old, seems much older after such an ordeal. She said she had just given up and withdrew. Eastminster School helped pull her back out into the world. 

"People here don't bite,” she said of the 160-student school. 

Eastminster offered Ally Mabry a full scholarship after following the standard application and exam. She was enrolled at the beginning of the academic year and plans to finish high school there.

“I remember seeing Ally for the first time,” Eastminster Headmaster Roy Alexander said. “You could see in her face that she wanted the opportunity to interact with other students. You have an opportunity to help a young person develop into a person. This is what we want to do every day for every child. We have high expectations because every individual is capable of that. We have the ability to help each individual and stop the things that are detrimental to self esteem and growth.”

For Laura and Kevin French, who are both life-long Rockdale residents, having an opportunity to be a part of transforming a family’s life trumps the appearance on a national television show. 

“It was not acceptable to me that there was a child in our neighborhood who doesn't come out of her bedroom,” Laura French said. “The show provided an opportunity for me and my family to have clarity that we will stand in the breach when we need to and we will stand up when we need to. Our motives were pure and had nothing to do television cameras.”

When asked for advice for other young students suffering at the hands of bullies, Ally said the best thing to do is speak up until somebody listens. 

“It is something you have to find within yourself to get over,” she said about her withdrawal as a victim of extreme bullying. “After having so many issues dealing with people, you just don't want to be around people. You just disassociate.  Here everyone is treated with respect.”

The show will air at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27, on the OWN network.