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Willow Hill Center gets $109,420 CARES grant for ‘closing digital divide’ at Portal
Will add parking lot WiFi, laptops kids can check out, computers in media center
W Lanes.jpg
In this file photo, Eugene Lanes, center, gives a tour through the history of the Willow Hill community and the Willow Hill school during a Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Festival. The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center, based in the historic school near Portal, has been awarded a $109,420 grant by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, or IMLS. - photo by Herald file photo

The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center, based in the historic Willow Hill School near Portal, has been awarded a $109,420 grant by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, or IMLS.

This two-year grant was approved to help the Willow Hill Center expand internet access and improve educational opportunities for children in Bulloch County learning at home, as many have done and continue to do during the pandemic. The money comes from a program for museums and libraries authorized by the CARES Act, for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security.

Nationwide, about 1,700 organizations applied for these grants, and the Willow Hill Center was approved as one of only 68 recipients, reported Gayle Jackson, Ph.D., the center’s development director.

“Oh my goodness, I can’t tell your how important that was, to get a grant this size. …,” she told the Statesboro Herald. “Some of the other recipients were like the library system of New York, and I’m just amazed, absolutely amazed at our competition.”

The $109,420 will fund the expansion of Wi-Fi service to provide wireless internet access in the Willow Hill Center’s parking lot and an outdoor seating area, the purchase of desktop computers for an improved media center inside the building and laptop computers children can check out. It will also cover the cost of some furniture items such as outdoor tables and the wages of two part-time employees who will manage the use of the computers and document the services provided, Jackson said.

Student volunteers from Georgia Southern University and those paid staff members will help children with the technology and homework. When the facility reopens, meeting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, the media center’s desktop workstations will also be available to adults for job searches, genealogy research and information sharing, Jackson stated in her announcement.

Her daughter, Nkenge Jackson, M.D., of Savannah, and Associate Professor Heidi Altman, Ph.D., of Georgia Southern University’s Sociology and Anthropology Department, led in preparing the grant application.


Pavilion hopes

Originally, the Willow Hill Center included an open-air shelter, or pavilion, with tables, lighting and fans, as a budgeted part of its grant proposal. The pavilion was to be built on an existing pad behind the historic school. But the IMLS said that this would be considered new construction, which is not an allowed use of the CARES funding.

So, the Willow Hill volunteers removed the pavilion from the grant budget but have kept it as part of the overall concept and intend to seek community support for its construction.

“The Wi-Fi will be reachable in the parking area, and at the same time we’re going to be fundraising for the shelter so that students can work outside. We’re just trying to create the safest environment possible,” Gayle Jackson said.

In other words, outdoor locations with good airflow are considered safer for avoiding the spread of COVID-19 than enclosed spaces.

Jackson suggested that the IMLS grant could also be a bridge to other grants for the Willow Hill Center’s longer-term development as both a museum and a community center with an educational mission.


Supporting partners

For the IMLS CARES Act Grant, the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center submitted letters of support from Superintendent Charles Wilson of the Bulloch County Schools, Commissioner Ray Mosley of the Bulloch County government and Shannon Browning-Mullis, curator of history and decorative arts at the Telfair Museums in Savannah, as well as from Altman, of the GSU Sociology and Anthropology Department.

“Our return to school plan includes identifying and encouraging locations to provide Wi-Fi access to students,” Wilson wrote in his June 8 letter. “Our school district provides one-to-one computer access for all students using Google Chromebooks, but access to the internet is a barrier if schools are closed or if a student needs to learn from home.”

Altman and students from her classes at Georgia Southern have worked with the Willow Hill Center for several years. One project has been to digitize the center’s collection of more than 1,500 funeral notices and death certificates. These provide sometimes detailed information on generations of African American families from the area.


1772 Foundation too

Earlier this year the 1772 Foundation awarded the center a $3,000 grant for equipment and student work hours used for a new phase of this work, which Jackson said will result in a searchable database.

The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center, or WHHRC, is a tax-except 501(c)(3) museum and community center.

Former slaves founded the original Willow Hill School for their children in 1874, creating one of the first schools in Bulloch County for African Americans. The school became part of the Bulloch County Board of Education system in 1920.

Built in 1954 as an “equalization” school, the current facility became a racially integrated school in 1971. After closing the school in 1999, the Board of Education put it up for auction in 2005, and 12 descendants of the original school’s founders purchased the campus and established the WHHRC.

The center’s leaders received word of the IMLS award Friday. Because of previous delays in the grant process, they must now revise the project schedule and so have no immediate timeline, Jackson said. 

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