The sign was not over-sized or pretentious, but it carried plenty of meaning on a cold Friday January morning in Columbus. “The ACT Center,” it read, and for the individuals who for years have walked through the doors of the structure behind it, it represents identity.
It’s long been a dream of Columbus’ James W. Hunt to have an ACT Center sign out front to let the community know the building at 1201 Main St. was a special place. On Jan. 5, several others dedicated to improving the lives of individuals with developmental limitations gathered to reveal the sign — and say thank you to Hunt.
The ACT Center — Adults Conquering Tomorrow — provides supported job skills training and work placement opportunities through contacts and contracts with local companies. It’s been an offering of Columbus Community Programs, a division of Ellisville State School, which is a part of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health.
But for the efforts of Hunt and others, there may have never been an ACT Center. The Mississippi University for Women professor emeritus of education has been a pioneer in improving resources for special needs children and adults in Lowndes County since the early 1960s.
“He is the epitome of an advocate for people with disabilities,” said former ACT Center director Connie Tilley. “He sees a need, and he goes and digs until he gets something done.”
The first ACT Center in Columbus started up in 1978, an expansion of an adult day care center which opened in 1975. After being housed in various locations, the center officially moved under the Ellisville State School umbrella in 2001 and moved to Main Street in 2002.
The program is currently in a state of transition, but after recently celebrating Hunt’s 93rd birthday, those familiar with his efforts were inspired to pursue a sign for the work activity program he helped establish.
“It had never had the (ACT Center) name on the outside,” said retired educator Alma Turner of Columbus, another longtime advocate for individuals with developmental issues. “Dr. Hunt felt passionate about the people going in there having an identity. He wanted them to be able to say, ‘I work at the ACT Center.'”
For many individuals at the center, it was the first time they had worked and been paid for it. Tasks varied, from packaging utensils for restaurants or refurbishing floral stands, to making keys for Baldor Electric Co.
“For the first time these youngsters had reasons to get up and wash their face or shave in the morning, to get up and go to work like everyone else,” said Hunt, tapping his fingers for emphasis on a near 1-inch-thick bound research study that long ago laid the groundwork for the center.
Hunt is quick to credit three of his MUW graduate students — Martha Crawford, Ann Dove and Carol Frazier — who, in 1974, visited activity centers for the handicapped throughout the Southeast. That research, conducted under Hunt’s direction, was sponsored by the then-Lowndes County Association for Retarded Children, a group of local parents and supporters, including Hunt, committed to improving available services and resources.
“Our budget was strictly locally raised,” said Hunt, noting that service organizations, civic clubs and local government helped shoulder the expense. “Every year it was a mountain to climb.”
Results, however, were worth it.
“There is no way to count the number of people who have benefited from the center,” remarked Tilley, who retired in 2015.
Rinsey McSwain is director of Ellisville State School in Ellisville. She was in Columbus for the sign dedication Jan. 5.
“I was very proud to hear Dr. Hunt talk about the history and how all this process came down,” she said. Numerous individuals and families have been touched, McSwain added.
“I think it’s enhanced their skills and exposed them to many different opportunities that can be rewarding to them as citizens — and we look at all of them as productive citizens.”
Of the ACT Center, Peggy Glover of Columbus said, “Oh, my goodness, it’s been a lifesaver.”
Her son, Stan, now 61, has been involved with the center since he was 5. As an adult, he was able to secure work at Jitney Jungle for several years, and later Jubilations Cheesecake, through the center’s services.
“Stan was always able to participate in different things through the ACT Center,” Glover continued. “He’s very active. Now he’s volunteering at the YMCA.”
There are other stories like Stan’s. Which is why fellow advocates and friends wanted to express gratitude to Hunt with the recently-made sign. It is currently inside the building awaiting final placement.
Turner said, “I don’t know of any other person who has gone out of their way like he has. … Ellisville wanted to honor him for having the vision.”
Hunt again credits the teamwork.
“I was just blessed to work with these people.”
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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