Our first volunteer work group in almost exactly a year arrived in Clarksdale around 7:30 PM CDT on Saturday March 14, 2021. The trip was the brainchild of Stacey Driggers, Vice President of US Operations for our new parent organization, the Fuller Center of Housing and, besides Stacey, consisted of six students from the Jimmy Carter Presidential Leadership Scholarship Program of Georgia Southwestern University in Americus Georgia, led by faculty advisor Lynda Lee Purvis and chaperone/driver extraordinaire Tzvetelin Iordanov. With the exception of Stacey (who has been here a few times as we transitioned from Habitat), none of them had been to the Delta before, but the leaders had plenty of Habitat/Fuller experience.
The construction work mostly focused on painting the interior of 90 Choctaw, an abandoned Habitat house that construction supervisor Ben Williams and new homeowner Shequita Carter and family had been rehabbing for weeks on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings. In addition, every morning a couple of volunteers worked with Verna Jones and the crew at the Clarksdale Care Station. As is typical, work at Choctaw was a little slow at first as the students got used to picking up painting skills, but their attitudes were excellent and their aptitudes proved more than sufficient. By the end of the week, they were pros and the results of their efforts reflected that. As they were putting the finishing touches on the painting on Friday, Ben turned to me and said, “Can you believe this is the same house we were looking at Monday?”
On Monday evening after work, we successfully experimented with our first COVID-driven dinner and meeting with members of the Fuller community. Blessed by warm spring weather, our outside meal at the dorm included homeowner Sherry Williams and board member Lorraine Cancer. After dinner, still outside and reasonably warm, Spring representatives Veronica Kahaleua and Sarah Sterling introduced the volunteers to the work of their outstanding afterschool program. Veronica presented Spring from the perspective of a cohort leader, a native Clarksdalian, a Habitat/Fuller homeowner, and the mother of a Spring student, while Sarah’s perspective was one of a summer intern from Stanford University who had decided to throw in her lot with Spring after graduation. Both were, unsurprisingly, marvelous, and each gave the students insights and encouragements as they pursued their own leadership paths. On Wednesday night, in a similar COVID-safe operation held inside our carport due to inclement weather, we met with veteran homeowner Lillie Matthews and new homeowner Shequita Carter and her family, and Executive Director Leonette Henderson, Meraki Coffeehouse Director Ben Lewis, and Art Director Bella Dallas acquainted the group with the work of the Griot Arts program. Once again, the conversation was informative and exciting, as we shared for the first time publicly the Fuller-Griot dream of building tiny house communities for deserving Clarksdale residents.
Besides providing work for the volunteers at the Choctaw house and the Care Station and introducing them to the important work of Griot and Spring, we were also able throughout the week to give the volunteers some really significant historical context for the work that CAFCH and the related non-profits are doing in the Delta. On Tuesday afternoon, we did the usual Coahoma County/Habitat-Fuller history tour, complete with a stop for campfire and s’mores at the MS River. At the end of those awful stories of racial oppression, we concluded on an encouraging note by visiting with Dorothy Jenkins at the Farrell-Sherard Volunteer Center and celebrating with her their transition to the Fuller Center. There, Dorothy showed the group the Jimmy Carter Awards won by Farrell-Sherard for being the most productive US Habitat affiliate in 1999 and 2000.and she told the improbable story of the very existence of the legendary former affiliate and explained the vindication that the awards exhibited.
To continue another of the purposes for the week—to establish and encourage Fuller connections in the Delta—on Thursday afternoon, the group met Patrick Weems, the director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in nearby Sumner and heard the horrifying story of Till’s murder and farcical trial, which many cite as the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement. We also visited with Willie Williams who, along with Patrick, is on the board on the West Tallahatchie Habitat affiliate and they were most interested in our story of transitioning to Fuller since they share similar challenges in their housing ministry. (Our time together was marvelous but none of us got to actually visit the scene of the infamous trial at the courthouse across the street from where we were meeting, because JayZ and Will Smith had it all tied up with a mini-series about Emmett Till’s mother that they are underwriting.) From Sumner, we proceeded to Indianola where we enjoyed the BB King Museum—a truly impressive place, for the history of racial dynamics in the Delta, for the history of the blues in the center of American cultural history, and for the history of a remarkable man, BB King, himself. And, after the museum, we drove on to nearby Leland, where we enjoyed fellowshipping with representatives of another Fuller covenant partner there.
On Friday, David Snell, President of the Fuller Center for Housing, and his wife Sheila, who had arrived in Clarksdale the night before, met with 18 CAFCH board members, employees, and friends, in order for members of the local Fuller Community to get a clearer sense of what the Fuller Center is all about, in order for the Fuller leaders to better appreciate the breadth of the work of CAFCH, and in order for all to share stories and visions. After some inspiring opening remarks from David, the group heard about possibilities for future collaborations with youths from Spring, Griot, and Young Life, about ways that our historical educational program has benefited the work Visit Clarksdale has been doing to highlight important and inspirational stories of Coahoma County, and about plans presented by Meraki Director Ben Lewis and CAFCH construction supervisor Ben Williams about the need and potential feasibility of collaborating on the construction of a tiny house neighborhood. To this point, the conversation had been practical and goal-oriented, but it ended, fittingly enough, with a more spiritual emphasis. Ben started it by asserting that in his 18 years with Habitat and now Fuller, he had never experienced such a meeting, in terms of energy, enthusiasm, collaboration, and vision. Then, espying a scriptural quote on the Griot black board, he shared it with the group. “Let your light shine before others,” he read, “so that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) Ben is not one to throw around scripture lightly so this was profound in and of itself, and it really summed up the mood not only of the meeting but of the week and even of the two plus years we had been struggling to make the affiliate/covenant partner viable again. The meeting ended with longtime Clarksdale Habitater Pat Davis reciting his beautiful poem, “That’s What You’ve Done Today” and CAFCH Vice President Bobbie Butler dismissing us with an equally moving and powerful prayer. But now for the actual doing!
With that major blessing under our collective belt, the rest of the day should have been anticlimactic, but, as it turns out, we were just getting started. At 3 PM, the new homeowner, Shequita Carter, her three kids, her mother and her stepfather joined a smaller group of us at 514 S. Edwards, her new house for a good old-fashioned closing. During this time, the students had an opportunity to describe what the week had meant to them and then Marquita (Shequita’s mom) moved many of the group to tears when she emotionally shared what it meant for her, to have her daughter be able to move her family into a real house. And then, the coup de grace–as a housewarming present, David Snell presented Shequita with a brand-new electric lawnmower, donated by the Stihl Corporation that makes them. And when David started it in the middle of the new kitchen (!), the crowd roared its approval.
In most cases, volunteer groups pack up on Saturday morning and scurry out of town as fast as they can. But not this group. I had asked Stacey earlier if they would be willing to stick around for a last breakfast and one final CAFCH inspirational story to send them properly on their way, and she had graciously agreed. So, Saturday morning found Veronica and Elliott Kahaleua sharing with the GSWUers their incredible Habitat/Spring/Fuller saga—of Elliott and Veronica meeting in the prison where she worked and he was incarcerated, of the Bible study that brought them together initially as friends, as Elliott’s fulfilling his promise to return to MS for her once he was a free man, of their struggles as a married couple in a rough neighborhood in Clarksdale, of the random shooting and subsequent miraculous recovery of their daughter Mesha there, of their discovery of Habitat as a means of escape from that neighborhood and their introduction to Spring where Veronica is now a cohort leader, of their willingness to take in abandoned and orphaned children not their own, of Elliott’s willingness to volunteer for Fuller on Saturdays after working 60 hour weeks, and of their testimony to the grace, mercy, and love of God through all of those almost unbelievable chapters. Thus, with full stomachs and even fuller hearts, our first Fuller group of 2021 departed for their homes in GA. What a way to get back on the post-COVID track!!
Bill Sutton NEWS