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Posted: April 13, 2013 6:56 p.m.

Henderson named chair of Nelson Heights center board

County Commissioner J.C. Henderson was named chairman of the new Nelson Heights Community Center Board of Directors at its inaugural meeting Tuesday, while community activist Christine Young-Brown was named director.

The board was formed earlier this month by the county’s Board of Commissioners to run the Nelson Heights Community Center, located at the intersection of Laseter and Puckett streets in the historic black Nelson Heights neighborhood.

Brown, who has a master’s degree in public administration from Troy University, is an active community volunteer, serving as president of the Newton and Rockdale county chapters of the Southern Christian Leadership Council and working with the Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda in Atlanta.

She will not officially take over as director until July 1, when the board assumes official administration of the center.

In addition, Kenny Williams was named vice chairman and Ariel Minter was named secretary and treasurer.

Other board members include Forrest Sawyer, the Rev. James Russell, Alberta Benton, county Chairman Keith Ellis, Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston and Covington Councilwoman Ocie Franklin.

Ellis said the county is still working on its overall budget, which will include an as of yet undetermined amount of funding for the center.

The center has been receiving $32,000 annually for the three years it has been operating.

Besides election of officers and discussion of the budget, the only other item on the agenda was discussion of purchasing a screen and projector for the center.

Henderson said he felt most community centers had a projector and he wanted one so the children could watch movies.

He suggested a local business could donate one.

The board agreed to wait until a budget was approved before looking at any purchases.

Though the board is not an official nonprofit, Henderson said people could make donations out to the Newton County Board of Commissioners.

Built with 2005 SPLOST funds, the center was meant to be a resource for the neighborhood and broader community. Since it first opened, it’s been run by the Washington Street Community Center, an education nonprofit known for its signature after-school tutoring program.

However, Henderson felt the center was being underutilized. The center tutored an average of 17-18 students per year and also had a mothers group, according to Washington Street Director Bea Jackson. Jackson said the center faced obstructionists.

Henderson will now have a chance to shape the center into his original vision for the building when he lobbied for it to be placed on the county’s SPLOST list.

He originally hoped the center would be run by the nonprofit Nelson Heights Community Services, a 501(c)(3), Henderson worked with the county attorney’s office to set up.

Board members expressed optimism Tuesday about turning the center into a community resource.

“I think this is a new day with the city and county working together, like when Bill Dobbs was mayor and Jack Morgan (was county chairman); I think this is a great project for this city, county and surrounding areas,” said Sawyer, a longtime community activist. “Nelson Heights will be one of the jewels to show what happens when you work together. The chair and mayor are not afraid to come into our communities; people used to not know where Nelson Heights and Green Acres were.”

Mayor Johnston was not in attendance, but Ellis said he felt the center could be part of the community’s efforts to build up a quality workforce.

“I think the Nelson Heights Community Center can be part of the puzzle for the entire county. We need to improve the workforce, and if we start with the kids here, or with the Washington Street Community Center, (that will help),” Ellis said. “I strongly urge you to think about some adult programs and do strategic planning to make goals where can tell you’ve achieved them at a certain point and bring some plans to this board.”

Brown said she was already working on a strategic plan.

In a follow-up interview, Brown said she wants to get the whole community involved by offering programs for youths, adults and the elderly.

One initial thought is to have a community garden, which could help the elderly teach children about gardening and growing food, while the youth could return the favor during technology classes, Brown said.

She has a particular passion for such organizations, since her mother raised four girls by herself and all four of those children went on to get advanced degrees. Brown was aided by nonprofit groups like the Boys and Girls Club and the Y in Atlanta.

“I know it can work. If it worked 30 years ago for me, I know it can work today,” she said. “Without those community associations, I would not be where I am today.”

Councilwoman Franklin said she’s been to several events at the center and never saw much community participation. She said that needs to change in order for the center to be successful.

“I encourage every parent, every young lady, every young man to get involved, because without the people, it means nothing. You have to get involved and interested and maybe when they see this, they’ll be interested,” she said. “I know there are some more council women, more ministers, more presidents and more first ladies right  out here (in this community). They just have to be found.”

Board member Minter suggested have an outdoor neighborhood reunion celebration to get more people involved and spread the word about the center.

For more information about the center, call Henderson at 770-866-3621 or contact Brown at 404-309-9110 or cyoungbrown@gmail.com.

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