Whitley: SOS will take over your heart

Published 10:06 am Friday, October 2, 2015

The sign by the doorway to Lee Ann Whitley’s office at Crawford Street United Methodist Church says “JOY.”

A retired special education teacher from Warren Central High School, Whitley is the church’s coordinator of missions and handles its JOY ministry, its seniors ministry. “Joy,” she said, means “Just Older Youth, and they’re pretty much the same (as the youth).”

But during the year — and especially during the summer — she wears another hat as a member of the coordinating team for Service Over Self, Crawford Street’s weeklong summer community outreach program that annually helps elderly and low-income residents in Vicksburg by improving their homes. It’s a program she’s been working with since 1997.

SOS, Whitley said, was begun by local contractor Bob Moss who took a group of Crawford Street youth to work in an SOS program in Memphis, Tenn. and later decided to implement the program here.

“That first year, Crawford Street did it. The next year, Hawkins United Methodist Church got involved and from there it has just exploded,” she said. “This past year, we had about 75 kids from 15 area churches involved with us in SOS.”

When SOS began, Whitley was the church’s youth director. She joined SOS that summer of 1997 to help out.

“Bob worked a full-time job, so they needed a staff person who could make the phone calls, line up (house) visits and volunteers,” she said. “They all knew me from school. I had most of their kids in student council.”

She, Moss and Daniel Renfroe, who had been an SOS youth worker, meet and plan the program each year, lining up homes, getting the volunteers together, and dividing the youth and adult volunteers into teams to work on job sites for the week.

“It’s one of those things that if you ever do it one time, it will take over your heart and you will be involved from then on,” she said.

“It’s seeing how appreciative of the homeowners are for the help,” Whitley said. “The homeowners you work with, and the youth and adults from other churches you did not know until that week, the impact you see it makes on them.

“We have youth from all the churches in town and adult volunteers. Crawford Street houses them and houses our materials, but it is 100 percent a community youth Christian-based outreach.”

The Thursday night of SOS week, she said, the program has its closing worship service and a meal, and invites the homeowners and their families served by the program to come to the meal and the service.

“This year, every one of the homeowners came,” she said. “Most of the time, most our homeowners are there. We go and pickup those who don’t have ride or who don’t drive at night. It’s a fantastic experience.”

She said the homes for the program are selected by several methods. “We have been doing this long enough, that we have people who call the church and say, ‘I need help with my home,’” she said. “We have people who have been volunteers with us in the past who call in with referrals.” The city housing department and United Way also provide names and addresses.

An appointment is made with the homeowner to inspect the home, and she, Moss and Renfroe go look at it and meet with the homeowner. They ask the homeowner about their needs, and then walk around the home to inspect it. Sometimes, Whitley said, they find other things to help the homeowners.

“Bob Moss and Daniel Renfroe have been involved with it longer than I have. They are the two who really know the construction end and know, when we go and look at a home, whether it’s something we can tackle with youth and with adult volunteers or not.”

When the program starts, she joins Moss and Renfroe by working at a jobsite each day and spending the night at Crawford Street with the youth volunteers.

“We are here from the very beginning to the very end,” she said.

So are the youth volunteers, who stay at the church during the weeklong program.

“We have a commons area upstairs for the girls and we put the boys in the gym,” she said. “Some of the kids, from time they get here Sunday afternoon until Friday, never go home. They’re so afraid they’ll miss something. Some of the kids go home and shower and they’re back by supper.

“We have some who leave for baseball practice and other activities (after work), but most of the kids we have are completely committed for the week. We have high school football players who get up at 5 o’clock and go do their weightlifting and are back here by breakfast to be on their job site we have 100 percent dedication from the youths and the adults who volunteer with us.

“I thoroughly enjoy it.”


About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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