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Family Life Center gives kids fighting chance

By By James Crawford
News Editor
The Atmore Family Life Center has taken over the old middle school on M.L.K Boulevard and turned it into launching pad for afterschool programs, summer activities and nighttime programs for kids.
The center exists as a 501-C3 non-profit partnership between the Atmore Family Life Center, Greater Mt. Triumph Baptist Church, the Board of Education and The Poarch Creek Indians.
The idea for the Atmore Family Life Center was born out of the frustration of seeing the old middle school building sitting idle and rotting away.
"The county had just left the building sitting there. They were vandalizing it and breaking windows. I was driving by one day and thought to myself we can do a lot of things there. I should call Mr. Powell and ask him if I could use the building for after-school tutoring and he was very supportive," said Lillie Johnson, center director.
Johnson joined forces with Yvonne Grissett, a second grade teacher at Rachel Patterson, and together they hammered out the idea for the center and began the process of putting together volunteers, donations and programs. The daunting challenge seemed like the natural thing to do for both they ladies who have very strong ties to the old building.
"I went from first grade to 12th here," said Johnson, who talked fondly about her former teachers and her years at the school. Grissett attended the old middle school as well and also feels an affliction for restoring the old building.
The first stop on the long laundry list of needed items was funding and support. The partners when to see Chief Eddie Tullis of the Poarch Creek Indians to see what he thought of the idea and test their own resolve. Chief Tullis was in resounding favor of the center and the two partners had their first community backing. "He was the first to help us. He said sure, what can I do to help," said Grissett.
The second major accomplishment was simply to get the building cleaned up and ready to be opened. With years of neglect, the grounds were littered with broken glass, trash and unkempt weeds.
"It hasn't been easy. I have to give thanks to Warden Folks for sending the inmates in the work release program to help us with cleaning up the grounds and Mayor Shell did everything he possible could to help us. Don Wallace from the street department helped remove rubble and stuff that was torn up – he hauled all that stuff off for us," said Johnson.
The center is comprised of three boards: an executive board that makes policy decisions and sets directives, a planning board that discusses new programs, ways to increase funding and brainstorms new ideas for the center, and an advisory board that lends advice on legal, economic and other matters. The boards all meet once per month and then together for a joint meeting every three months.
Virtually everything in the center has been donated from the computers to the paint on the wall to the books and supplies and of course the endless hours of free labor they have secured from the community and civic leaders such as Atmore Fire Chief Calvin McGhee.
"We would ask for materials and they would just give it. Some people would even say what do you need. Teachers donate a lot of their personal time. Some money comes from the county board through the partnership grant but the rest of it is their own time that they give," said Johnson.
"Math and science is usually their worse course. We start preparing them in the eight and ninth grade so they'll be prepared. We had a 12th grade student in one class telling them they need to take it serious. That's what the center is all about," said teacher Mary A. Lawson, who instructs a high school exit exam study class. "It's a wonderful program here to give them something to do this summer and after school."
"Win, learn and have fun. That's what we plan to do. This summer we have the gym and we plan to let them play some ball," said Johnson. "We are also looking for a cook and sewing teacher. Our 10th, 11th and 12th grade girls have all said they want to learn how to cook and sew, so we're going to try and teach them," said Johnson. "Young ladies need to know all the aspects of life."
The partnership grants have been the center's lifeblood but time is running out and with the current education crisis that money isn't guaranteed next year, so Grissett and Johnson are currently in the process of looking for new grant money to continue developing their existing programs and add new ones. "We plan to pray about it. Our parents instilled in us the attitude that you don't give up. If you are determined, the lord will find a way," said Grissett.
During all the cleaning, funding woes and securing the needed materials, the center has still managed to do what it was created for – to help children.
"I have seen a lot of improvement overall in their work," said Latonya Milton who has three children at the center after school. "They needed the after school tutoring and their getting the instruction from the same teachers they have in school. They love the art activities and love seeing all the other activities like the boy scouts."
"My mother used to tell me if you are living and you can't help someone, then you are living in vain," said Johnson. "My former teacher, Dr. McBride used to say prepare yourself and perhaps your chance may come, and I believe that."
The center is currently accepting donations of sewing machines, cooking units and utensils and is always in need of art supplies.
The center is open Monday-Thursday from 3:30 until 6 p.m.; Tuesday from 3:30 until 8 p.m.; and Saturday from 10 a.m. until noon. The center will be open this summer from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. for tutoring and other programs that Johnson and Grissett are continuing to develop.