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Left high and dry
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Though open for just a little over a year, the h2o Student Center made quite the splash during its run, allowing the ministry to regularly reach out to approximately 2,000 Newton County teenagers and seeing 547 youth recommit their lives to Christ.


Established by Executive Directors Ron and JoAnn Compton with the mission of providing a Christ-centered haven for middle and high school students to hang out at, the h2o Student Center, located in the old Wal-Mart building on Elm Street in downtown Covington, quickly became a popular spot for the county's youth to congregate, shoot pool, enjoy live music and pray.


However, when the center did not bring in enough money through Friday and Saturday night ticket sales to pay Wal-Mart next year's $74,000 rent as agreed upon in the leasing contract, the Comptons had no other choice but to close the Elm Street facility and begin seeking a new home for their ministry.


"The reality is the numbers haven't been there as far as what we charge at the door," said Ron Compton in a phone interview from Panama City, Fla. where he was a leading an h2o beach trip with 40 students.


Compton was quick to add that just because the Elm Street building is now closed does not mean that h2o's ministry is over.


"h2o is not finished just because we closed that facility," Compton said. "We're not through with our ministry of the students."


Since h2o closed the doors of the Elm Street facility June 9, Compton said he has told all of the students to give him 60 days to try and find a new location for them to meet. In the mean time, Compton said all of the teenagers who attended h2o have been given cards with the phone numbers of h2o personnel and volunteers who they can call for guidance and counseling.


"We can continue to be there for them because we have a lot of kids who don't have a church but h2o has become their church," Compton said.


As for himself, Compton said he is still trying to work out God's plan for him and his youth ministry.


"I ask questions. I'm not immune to that just because I've been in ministry," Compton said. "I don't necessarily understand everything that goes on but I am trusting God and he does have a plan."


Compton described the beginnings of the h2o ministry as supernatural. After a well-received block party in 2005, Compton said things just began to come together. Start-up funding to remodel the old Wal-Mart building and pay for the first year's lease seemed to magically appear from donors who told Compton that God had put it into their hearts to contribute to his ministry.


Though several individuals spoke with Wal-Mart on h2o's behalf about lowering the rent payments, Compton said Wal-Mart has not agreed to any changes in the lease agreement at this point. Compton, however, had only good things to say about the Wal-Mart Corporation, which he said had bent over backward in the past year trying to be accommodating, giving the center six months rent free so that h2o personnel could remodel the building.


"Wal-mart is not the bad guy here. They have been more than fair," Compton said.


Like most standard lease agreements, the improvements that the Comptons and other h2o volunteers made to the Elm Street building will remain behind, including a 500-seat auditorium, an acoustic stage, a computer lab and homework center and a multi-purpose gymnasium area.


"Some things we'll have to leave," Compton said. "My sweat, blood and tears I don't mind giving. I did put a good bit of money into the building but I can't put a price tag on those 547 lives."


 Though urged by supporters to explore fundraising options, Compton said that his own personal convictions regarding fundraising for h2o's particular ministry kept him from doing so.


"I am so appreciative and honored by the community's support," Compton said. "At this point it's a weird place for me. I don't know what to do. I just really don't know what God wants right now. I'd rather do nothing than make a mistake."


Sixteen-year-old Newton High student Wes Jackson is one of the many teenagers who will miss having a place to go and hang out on the weekends. Also in Panama City Wednesday for the beach trip, Jackson was among several students that Compton baptized in the Gulf of Mexico during the trip.


"I've been thinking about it for many years and I never had the courage to," Jackson said of his decision to get baptized. "I just decided to do it."


Jackson said he was involved with the center since the day it opened, going there every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.


"I'm still involved with it and I'm not ever not going to be involved with it," Jackson said. "h2o is like living water to me and it just gives me hope that there is something out there for me.


"I will be praying that they will be reopening somewhere else and it will be just as great as it was before," Jackson said.


Newton County grandmother Annette McGiboney also had nothing but praise for the h2o Student Center, which she said filled a much needed gap in the county's recreational options for high school students


"I just feel that something is really needed in Newton County for this age group," said McGiboney, whose two teenage grandsons frequently attended the center.


McGiboney said she will miss having a place where she can drop her grandchildren off and know that they will be well supervised. Having the h2o Student Center as a safe haven for her grandchildren to gather was an answer to a prayer said McGiboney.


"I had really enjoyed it so much. I just feel safe with those people," McGiboney said. "These people are really to be commended."


For his part, Compton said what he will miss most now that the center is closed is regularly ministering to the teenagers.


"The joy of watching them open up is something just beyond description, just seeing the walls come down and see that we loved them no matter what they did," Compton said.

"That's just indescribable, that's the greatest reward for me."