Faithful footprints: a journey of service

Published 2:40 pm Sunday, June 16, 2024

Lee Ann Whitley has been a highly valued member of the staff at Crawford Street United Methodist Church for 27 years. During her tenure at CSUMC, she has led many groups, including the youth group, the “Just Older Youth (JOY)” group and missions.

Originally from Charleston, Miss., Whitley was educated at Delta State, where she received a degree in education. Whitley’s opportunity to start her teaching career came through her roommate, who connected her with the superintendent of schools in the Vicksburg Warren School District. Whitley spent the next 34 years as a teacher at VWSD. She was a popular teacher at Warren Central High School for many years, specializing in special education resources.

Whitley recalled how she became involved with CSUMC. Two parents of her students approached her and asked if she was looking for a summer job. “No, not really,” she responded, then agreed to help with the early stages of Service Over Self (SOS). 

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“It was supposed to be a summer job,” she said, laughing, “and I’m still here.” The job at CSUMC was the beginning of a long career that continues today.

Regarding the “JOY” group, Whitley explains this is a group specific to older adults. “We always have fun,” she said. The group gets together once a month for a potluck lunch and often takes trips to Branson, Mo. and other places.

Whitley also heads up missions outreach. She has participated in foreign mission trips to Honduras and other countries as well as countless local missions. Next week, CSUMC will host a “Rise Up Against Hunger” missions project. Volunteers will pack emergency meals into individual packages to be distributed.

“We expect to package 40,000 meals. Most of the meals are distributed to third-world countries. There are some instances, such as droughts or fires, that they will send some to the United States,” Whitley said. She adds the packages consist of rice, beans and a vitamin pack.

One of the biggest yearly events for Whitley begins Sunday. Service Over Self (SOS), a youth-driven community enhancement effort, has been a large part of her ministry.

The effort sees up to 100 youth come from around Mississippi and beyond to spend a week improving homes. Many youth come with a church and others come on their own. The youth paint, work on roofs, replace siding, perform interior work and improve yards.

“We’re starting out with nine job sites,” Whitley said, of this year’s SOS.  “Several of them will take the whole week to finish, and some will not and we’ll move those (youth) to other job sites.” 

Job sites are individual homes that have been chosen according to need by a committee. Adults are assigned to each job site to ensure the work is done correctly.

“Really, what we want is the kids to do the work. Not the adults. We want the adults to be there to guide them. This is a youth project. We’re really proud that it’s youth from all over the community.” 

This year, churches from Hattiesburg and Starkville are coming to participate, as well as the children of previous SOS volunteers who live in other states.

Although SOS is limited to participants in grades 8-12, many return after graduation to help as adult volunteers. The work is heavy manual labor in extremely hot conditions, but the kids love their time at SOS. Whitley believes the combined effort of the kids working together, eating together and staying together for the week creates strong bonds, as well as pride in knowing they are capable of this type of hard work.

Whitley has a hard time choosing her favorite activity during her time at CSUMC, but admits the youth camp in North Carolina, Lake Junaluska, holds a special place in her heart.

“I enjoy getting to spend time with the youth,” Whitley says, of the week-long experience. 

Each year she takes a group of teens from the church to the camp. The youth share a week of spiritual instruction, bonding with other teens and a gripping, emotional finale where the teens silently trek to the summit of a hill topped with a cross on the final evening of the camp.

When asked what she likes to do outside of CSUMC, Whitley just laughed. “I play mahjong at the Y,” she said, and indicated she enjoys traveling. When asked about herself, Whitley modestly deflects to her extended family, mentioning her two sisters, niece, nephew and great-nephews.

Long-time friend, Kay Boolos, said of Whitley, “Lee Ann is the ‘real thing.’ The words ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine,’ are replaced by ‘you,’ ‘others,’ and ‘how can I help?’ I am blessed to call her my friend of 30-plus years.”

There are many people in this community who would agree with that sentiment and are thankful for Whitley’s dedication, service and compassion for all.