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Willow Hill completes open-air classroom; seeks other support
Ribbon-cutting ceremony slated for Sept. 10
willow hill
Asher Smith, a student in the pilot "after school" program the Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center hosted in its new open-air classroom pavilion in July, plays the Jumping Tower Stacking Game during recreation time. (Photo courtesy of the Willow Hill Center)

The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center, on the historic Willow Hill School campus near Portal, isn't holding a festival this September but has moved forward with completion of its "COVID-Safe Outdoor Classroom" to accommodate its grant-funded after-school program.

In September 2020 the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, or IMLS, awarded the Willow Hill Center a two-year grant totaling $109,420 for its "Closing the Digital Divide in Rural Bulloch County" proposal. The grant paid for expansion of the center's Wi-Fi service to provide wireless broadband access outside in the parking area, plus the purchase of desktop computers for an improved media center inside the building and laptop computers children can check out. The grant also covers wages for some part-time employees.

But rules of the IMLS grant prohibited its use for new construction, so the Willow Hill leadership had to seek other funding to fulfill the original plan of adding an open-air classroom. In February, the Nordson Corporation Foundation awarded the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center $25,000 for this purpose.

To fulfill its plans and make continued use of its enhanced facilities, the center needs other, local support, said its board president, Dr. Alvin Jackson.

"To continue the services that we are providing it's going to require continued funding because the grant is only for two years," he said. "So we need volunteers to work with students in the after-school program, we need community and

corporate partners to help fund the project, donation of school supplies for students."

Heritage & renaissance

Interviewed on a recent Saturday, Jackson, a Willow Hill Elementary and Statesboro High School alumnus whose medical career has included service as health director for the state of Ohio, talked about the meaning of "heritage" and "renaissance" in the center's name.

The original Willow Hill School was founded in 1874, nine years into their freedom, by former slaves for their children. That commitment to community action and the value of education formed the core of the heritage he and other descendants have sought "to talk about and to respect and to honor" as "the spirit of Willow Hill," Jackson said.

Dr. Alvin Jackson, Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center board president, talks about the center's mission and need for support while seated in the new
Dr. Alvin Jackson, Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center board president, talks about the center's mission and need for support while seated in the new "COVID-Safe Outdoor Classroom" pavilion. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

But use of the word "renaissance" was equally intentional, as the Willow Hill Center's supporters recognized that they would "have to continue to rethink and make changes" for the center to remain "pertinent for the community as a whole," he said.

Wearing a facemask, Jackson sat at one of the sturdy, thermoplastic-coated metal tables in the fully built, nearly finished classroom pavilion. Covering as much ground as the regulation-size basketball court it replaced, the pavilion is a modern "pole barn" structure, with wooden posts and beams but a metal roof and trusses. The posts have been cemented in through the pavement that was previously the court surface.

"Here we have a pandemic, the worst we've seen in a hundred years, since 1918, and our schools, our economy all closed down, but the needs of the students don't change in spite of what was happening" he said. "So this was another opportunity for us to reinvent ourselves in a way, ... to then say, OK, learning is still needed, so can we then provide learning in a safe environment so that students will continue to grow."

For other goals

The outdoor classroom pavilion was originally proposed for an old basketball court surface behind the former school. But some power lines that crossed it

would have needed to be moved, at a cost of about $10,000 plus requiring permission from neighboring property owners.

So the still usable basketball court at the front of the campus was instead sacrificed to become the outdoor classroom. This was a cause of chagrin to children and teenagers who, seeing the roof go up, at first thought they were getting a covered basketball court, Jackson acknowledged. But the center's leaders have plans to restore a basketball court to playable condition behind the building.

The pavilion structure was built earlier this year. New Beginnings Community Fellowship, pastored by Elder Emory Hagins, then used the pavilion for some worship services, also on the idea that these would be more COVID-safe outdoors. New Beginnings had used the Willow Hill Center's auditorium for several years.

Then the Willow Hill Center, also working with New Beginnings Community Fellowship, conducted a pilot "after-school" program with learning activities for children in July.

Electric power was connected, but ceiling fans remained to be installed, and a project to extend Wi-Fi service to the pavilion was slated for the week after Jackson was interviewed.

Ceremony Sept. 10

The center has a ribbon cutting ceremony planned for the pavilion with the Statesboro-Bulloch County Chamber of Commerce for 4 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10. Some other activities had been proposed for Sept. 11, but the COVID-19 resurgence has put the Saturday plans in doubt, Gayle Jackson, Ph.D., the Willow Hill Center's development director, said last week.

The Willow Hill Center has a donation program called Ten for Ten, encouraging supporters to give $10 a month for 10 months, although some simply give a single, $100 gift, Alvin Jackson noted. Information on donating can be found at The center's phone number is (912) 800-1467.

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