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Willow Hill Center seeks county support
Bulloch officials tell nonprofit group to apply at budget time
Dr. Gayle Jackson, center, director of development for the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center, speaks during the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners' Nov.  14 town hall meeting in the center's auditorium. At left is Dr. Alvin Jackson, the cente
Dr. Gayle Jackson, center, director of development for the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center, speaks during the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners' Nov. 14 town hall meeting in the center's auditorium. At left is Dr. Alvin Jackson, the center's board president, and listening at right is Commissioner Curt Deal. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center is seeking county support, possibly including some funding as an outside agency, for maintaining the center’s museum and operating its educational and youth programs.

Dr. Alvin Jackson, president of the Willow Hill Center’s board, and his wife Dr. Gayle Jackson, the center’s development director, expressed that wish to the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners during a mid-November “town hall” meeting held in the auditorium of the historic Willow Hill School near Portal.

“We are pleased to have the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center called ‘heritage’ as we pay homage to our ancestors, former slaves who founded this school, and ‘renaissance’ as we look for new opportunities to partner in the community, especially for our youth,” said Alvin Jackson.

About 35 people – including all seven elected commissioners and several county staff members, as well as members of the public – attended the meeting the evening of Nov. 14, which also included a public microphone for statements about general concerns.

The Jacksons gave a brief history of the school from its founding in 1874, nine years after the Civil War ended, by four families – last names Donaldson, Parrish, Hall and Riggs – to its redevelopment in the past two decades as a museum and community center. He also pointed out that school’s first building, a repurposed turpentine shanty, had stood on land that belonged to Commissioner Ray Mosley’s great-great-great grandparents and that some of Commissioner Anthony Simmons’ great-great-great grandparents were also among the founding families.

The existing, modern masonry building was the school’s sixth. It was constructed by the Bulloch County Board of Education in 1954 as an “equalization” school. Segregated through the late 1960s, it continued in use until 1999.

Twelve descendants of the founders purchased the school and its nine-acre campus at auction in 2005. Since then, donations and various grants, supplemented by volunteer work, have paid for repairs and a few additions.


Pandemic funds

Special government funding created during the COVID-19 pandemic helped with some of the more recent efforts, as Gayle Jackson acknowledged.

Working with a Georgia Southern University professor, the Willow Hill Center in 2000 proposed building an outdoor classroom pavilion and equipping it with Wi-Fi access as a safer, open-air space for educational programming and after-school learning. The federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, or IMLS, awarded the Willow Hill Center a two-year CARES Act grant of $109,420. This was to cover the cost of Wi-Fi access and computers and two part-time employees.

But rules prohibited using the grant to build structures. So, to build the actual pavilion, the center applied to the Nordson Corporation Foundation, which awarded a $25,000 grant.


Techie Camp

Last summer, the Willow Hill Center worked with the nonprofit organization Tech Corps to host Techie Camp, a new two-week day camp for 25 middle school students, based in the completed pavilion. Students attended for free. Their projects demonstrated what they had learned about things such as animation and computer coding

Now Tech Corps wants to continue working with the Willow Hill Center, which proposes a summer 2023 Techie Camp expanded to four weeks and to include elementary as well as middle school children, Gayle Jackson said.

Nordson and other organizations, from the Georgia Humanities Council to Walmart, have assisted the Willow Hill Center with this and other projects.

The center has upgraded its main building with roof repairs and renovations to the auditorium and the restrooms. The museum houses permanent historical exhibits on African American schools and church life and has amassed a collection of more than 15,000 obituaries and funeral programs, as well as hundreds of hours of recorded oral histories.

As presented to the public in February, the Willow Hill Center has also restored on its grounds the last extant one-room school for African American children in Bulloch County, the Bennett Grove School.

“We want the community to understand that we are of value, that there is so much that our community and especially our young people can gain from being part of this,” Gayle Jackson said. “So we’re looking for the commissioners to look at what  we have done, mainly with resources outside of the community  itself.”

Exceptions, she noted, include the center’s Ten for Ten fundraising campaign, collecting about $10,000 a year in donations. But her husband later said that just operating the facility costs $4,000 a month.

“So I think that great support is there, but some of the grants that we got previously during the pandemic won’t be there,” Gayle Jackson told the county officials. “So we just need to have a conversation about how we may work together, or resources you may know.”

Board of Commissioners Chairman Roy Thompson said the volunteers and donors “have done an outstanding job” and have “a great facility.”

“It pleases us to be able to move out into the community and listen to the community,” he said. “We heard what you said. Everybody wants money, and some we say ‘yes’ to and some we say, ‘maybe next year.’ But we know what you need and we will be getting together and seeing, you know, what we can do.”

When Thompson opened the floor for public comments, the first person to speak was Grant Turner, pastor of Scarboro Grove Missionary Baptist Church.

“My question is, when will there be some information on outcomes?” Turner said. “I know a lot of stuff happens in Statesboro, in town, but in these smaller areas just outside, a lot of times they’re overlooked. … I really believe there should be some serious consideration to providing some support that’s needed.”


Encouraged to apply

County Manager Tom Couch noted that the commissioners and staff receive requests from “outside agencies” as part of their annual budget process. These are usually agencies already receiving funding, but new ones can be considered if eligible, he said. The next fiscal year will begin July 1.

“So I’m thinking maybe in February or March we will probably solicit applications from outside agencies, and it comes with a little package, almost a grant application – who, what, when where, why and how – and I would foresee that that would be our approach,” Couch said.

Sheila Stewart-Leach, a Bulloch County resident retired from a career as a museum director, concluding with the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Macon, also spoke.

“Many art centers, cultural centers and historical organizations struggle to keep their doors open. …,” she said. “The problem as I see it here at Willow Hill is that they can’t be open every day, so they can’t serve a broader public.… For the institution to really have an impact and achieve its potential, it needs to be funded at a level where it can staff itself.”

 She suggested that the hotel-motel tax could be a source of sustainable funding but noted that it is probably “competitive” in regard to which agencies are funded.

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