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Posted: December 20, 2009 12:30 a.m.

Community service day

This year has been tough for most of us. Nearly everyone I know has been touched with furloughs, decreases in retirement funds and property values or unemployment. However, after Thursday’s Leadership Newton Community Service day, I realized that I am so blessed.

We began our day at FaithWorks, a nonprofit organization that assists local residents with small emergency loans for utility or rent bills. Not only is the organization highly organized, but also it has the support of 35 local churches. This is amazing and helps director Dennis Cheek make the program attractive when writing grants.

Mollie Melvin then spoke with us about Hands on Newton and The Learning Center. Hands on Newton is the baby of the organizations we learned about Thursday, only being in existence for two years. The organization matches volunteers with projects and in the small time they have worked in the community, volunteers have logged more than 9,000 hours of community service on projects such as the community gardens at the Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter and Turner Lake Park.

Being a newspaper editor, literacy is something near to my heart. The Learning Center offers a bevy of programs that promote early childhood reading skills as well as programs advocating literate parenting. Children who are read to by their parents generally have higher grades in school and parents who read to their children tend to take a greater accountability for their own education and career success, according to Melvin. The Center always accepts gently used books to redistribute in the community. I also was excited to hear that volunteers are working to bring the Dolly Parton Imagination Library program back to Newton County.

Our class then visited the Community Food Pantry and took a tour of the homeless shelter. I often take my overstuffed kitchen pantry for granted. We stocked Food Pantry shelves with items our class donated and even with 20 people doing this, it was a daunting task.

Homeless shelter director the Rev. Clara Lett took us on a tour of the immaculately clean facility. I was glad to hear that the shelter does not merely offer warm food and a comfortable bed, but also GED classes and transportation to college and technical level courses for residents.

Newton County Habitat for Humanity President Jeremy Shearer then met us at the homes purchased by the city of Covington for renovation with Neighborhood Stabilization Program grant funds. Habitat is partnering with the city for renovation on the eight town homes in Walker’s Bend for quick and inexpensive repair work. Shearer said he hopes the homes will be ready for families to move into by the end of the year — a remarkable turn around time.

Director of the Washington Street Community Center, Bea Jackson, welcomed us to the center for lunch and a tour. I was amazed at the number of programs the center offers children — everything from Scouting to performing arts programs — on a shoestring budget. Children who attend the after school tutorial program and fitness program on Fridays often come back to the community to volunteer as teenagers and young adults. Newton Mentoring Director Margaret Washington also spoke to us about the program she runs for students in our community. For those of us with busy schedules, Newton Mentoring only requires a one-hour a week commitment. For one hour during school, adult volunteers spend time with a student. Washington said mentees have shown improved grades as a benefit of the program.

We ended our day at Project Adventure. The facility is often misunderstood and, therefore, is branded with a bad reputation. Yes, the children the facility cares for have gotten in trouble with the law or have drug problems, but most of them have either been abandoned or abused by their parents or guardians. The staff helps the children learn to express their emotions in a healthy manner and deal with grief and anger and teaches life skills from how to make a bed to how to apply for a job. Six students under Project Adventure’s care spoke with us about what they were like before and how the center has helped them. Every one of them had a goal, whether is was to simply finish high school, joining the Navy or becoming a minister.

Going home Thursday night, I basked in the glow of my Christmas tree — surrounding by wrapped gifts, sleeping pets and a loving husband. I went to sleep with a full heart — thankful that I am in a position to help others.

Jennifer T. Long is the editor of The News and a member of the 2009-2010 class of Leadership Newton County.

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