February 10, 2018 10:02:29 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
A lanky sixth-grader from Armstrong Middle School lopes across the floor, his orange oversized sweatshirt swinging with each long stride. With barely a pause, he drops his book bag on a table, walking on, eager to catch up with other middle schoolers who have already arrived. Somewhere between the table and the friends, he encounters Lee Ann Williamson. She's executive director of Christian World Missions (CWM) in Starkville, which conducts the after-school program the kids have come for. He stops to say hi and gets an "I need a hug" from Williamson. Hugs seem customary in this huge room called The Storehouse, where youth are mentored on weekdays and weekends may find a bride and groom dancing under twinkling lights.
What do weddings and galas have to do with Christian missions? It starts with what was once just a high-ceilinged warehouse attached to the Christian World Missions offices on Fire Station Road. Donated used medical equipment was stored there, to be refurbished and shipped to underserved locations around the globe. That mission was spearheaded by Williamson's dad, Cecil Williamson, who established the nonprofit CWM in 1971. After 9/11, shipping the equipment worldwide became unfeasible, and the warehouse eventually went largely unused.
When Cecil Williamson retired in 2011, his daughter, who had assisted her father, became CWM director.
"Finally the point came where we said we've got this big building, and we need to either get rid of it or decide how to use it," she said.
With some innovative design, the vast space has been transformed into The Storehouse, suited to its dual role of hosting CWM programs or as a rental venue holding several hundred guests for weddings, receptions, conferences, graduation celebrations, fashion shows and dinner theaters. More importantly, the rentals help fund the mission work, both at home and worldwide.
When Cecil Williamson answered the call to international evangelism in 1971, after 19 years as a local pastor, he began working with indigenous leaders around the world to establish new churches. CWM partnerships are at work in countries including Nigeria, Nepal, India, and Pakistan. The ministry helps train new pastors, builds pavilion churches, assists in land acquisition and even provides free medical clinics. It supports orphanages, schools and Bible colleges.
"But we thought, we're reaching out all over the world -- what can we do to reach out right here in Starkville?" said Lori Smith, CWM director of operations and events.
The answer is Youth Community Explosion (YCE). Now completing its third year, YCE is impacting fifth- through eighth-graders, especially in north Starkville. Three afternoons each week after school, they are transported in CWM vans to The Storehouse for tutoring, character development, Bible study, leadership training and activities. They also do monthly community service projects and enjoy field trips.
"We let them be kids, but at the same time, there has to be structure," Smith said, as several students gathered at tables to take part in a science experiment conducted by student volunteers from Mississippi State University.
"They've done cleanup at Salvation Army and several different parks around town, delivered goodies to first responders, gone to nursing homes and played bingo or done parties with residents, and today, they're at the International Friendship House cleaning up and taking office and cleaning supplies," Williamson said Thursday.
Field trips might be to the city library, to learn how to use its resources, or to the humane society, museums or local industries. Periodic speakers address topics like entrepreneurship, vocations and making good choices.
An army of volunteers, many from MSU, serve as tutors and trip chaperones. Others share their talents, teaching painting, dance or crafts.
Participant Kennedy Robinson is now a ninth-grader, "graduated" from the program, but she still returns as a student leader.
"We do so many service projects, and we have a lot of fun," she said.
"I really like the Bible study," said 10-year-old Brandon Shaffer.
"Me, too," added Michael Dixon, 11. "And we're learning what we can do."
The program that started small has seen C-level students now taking AP classes and thinking about college.
Kids who used to have anger issues are now helping to lead younger youth, Williamson shared. Those who once complained loudly when asked to serve others now bring ideas to the table for service projects.
This year, Williamson and Smith plan to propose YCE to youth court as an alternative to detention for non-violent offenders ages 9 to 17.
" ... They would have counseling in anger management, conflict resolution, decision-making and goal-setting," Williamson said. "They would also receive the mentoring and tutoring that all of our kids get."
Combined with donations, venue rentals allow YCE to pursue those goals.
The Storehouse "big room" can be dressed up or down for different occasions, but it also includes smaller rooms available as conference break-out rooms, or meeting rooms. A kitchen is available for renters' events.
When Jennifer Hartness' wedding was rained out a few months ago, The Storehouse crew stepped in.
"We love these people, and we love this place," Hartness posted on The Storehouse Facebook page Sept. 2, 2017. "Bonus -- renting this venue supports an unbelievable ministry."
Every detail matters, said Williamson and her brother, Amos, who is also affiliated with The Storehouse.
"We want to give you the experience you've always dreamed of and, in turn, you will help us help kids accomplish their dreams," Williamson remarked.
Transformation of the warehouse is still underway on its upper level. When that's finished, CWM will expand its outreach even more.
"We'll have a conference room, library, (upstairs) kitchen and break room, two more restrooms and a youth activity space with computers donated by OCH, ping-pong tables, foosball tables donated by local individuals, and office space," Williamson explained. "We are seeing the end in sight. I think within six months we'll see it all done."
Watching her dad give of himself to help others in need instilled in Williamson, and her siblings, a desire to serve.
"It's been wonderful to stand on his shoulders and build on the tremendous foundation he laid in 60 years of ministry," she said. "He's admired across the world. In other places, he's been called a 'general of the faith.' It's neat to be a staff sergeant."
Editor's note: Learn more about The Storehouse at Christian World Missions at christianworldmissions.org, call 662-324-0390 or visit facebook.com/storehouseinfo.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.