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Willow Hill Festival this weekend
Prayer, a Globetrotter and history Saturday; Gospel music Sunday
Willow Hill file 2016
In this photo from the 2016 Willow Hill Festival, Dr. Alvin Jackson, Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center, left, points out to fellow Willow Hill School alumnus Bearneas Dukes Lanier that she is pictured on a t-shirt when she was the reigning Miss Willow Hill. The 2018 festival is set for Saturday and Sunday.

Pastor Larry D. Cone will lead Saturday’s prayer breakfast, and Harlem Globetrotters veteran Larry “Gator” Rivers will demonstrate some fun basketball moves in the afternoon, during the first day of this weekend’s Willow Hill Heritage Festival near Portal.

Saturday’s activities begin with 8 a.m. bicycle rides through the countryside before the 9 a.m. breakfast. An afternoon filled with activities related to health and exercise and a presentation about the first century of African-American churches in Bulloch County will follow. Then Sunday afternoon brings the Gospel Extravaganza with faith-powered music. It’s all based at the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center, inside and on the grounds of the historic Willow Hill School.

This is the eighth consecutive year that the center has hosted a Labor Day weekend festival.

“We’ll have all kinds of things dealing with health, staying active for healthy bodies, and it will also be fun,” said Dr. Gayle Jackson, development director for the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center.

Prayer breakfast

Besides being pastor of Gay’s Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Millen, prayer breakfast keynote speaker the Rev. Larry Cone is a Willow Hill alumnus. He attended school there when it was Willow Hill Elementary.

Two special guests from a younger age bracket will also have a part in the breakfast program. Mariah Martinez, 11, from Dublin, will be speaking on “African-Americans in a Time of War,” and Ameerah Muhammad, 7, author of “Veronica and the Unexpected Days at School: A Story of True Friendship” will conduct a book-signing, Jackson said.

The morning will finish with door prizes and a cake raffle.

Then the festival activities for families start at 1 p.m.

Dr. Alvin Jackson, president of the Willow Hill Center board, is scheduled to speak on the history of African-American churches in Bulloch County, 1863-1963. Some of the Heritage and Renaissance Center’s leaders are descendants of former slaves who founded the first Willow Hill School for their children in 1874, so documenting and preserving the area’s African-American history is a key part of the center’s mission.


Basketball initiative

Also in the afternoon, Rivers, who played 16 years for the Harlem Globetrotters exhibition team and remains active as a coach and mentor, will work with local children to demonstrate some unusual basketball moves.

Rivers, from Savannah, is now a member of the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center advisory council and is helping generate support as the center seeks to restore the basketball court on the grounds, Gayle Jackson said.

“Now the community is working with us to get something there so the children will have some place to play, and we’re still working on raising money for a walking trail,” she said. “We’ve cleared some off some of the area on the Willow Hill grounds for the trail.”

A game between a Globetrotters Legends squad and Portal Panthers and Willow Hill alumni is slated for Nov. 17 in the Portal Middle High School gymnasium. It will serve as a fundraiser both for Willow Hill’s court and for uniforms for Portal players, Jackson said.

Another of the center’s youth initiatives is a cycling club, whose members will lead Saturday’s morning ride and are preparing for potential Bicycle Ride Across Georgia, or BRAG, participation.


Other activities

In addition to Rivers’ basketball demonstration, a youth soccer clinic is slated for Saturday afternoon during the festival.

Other scheduled activities include a 1950s-style “Price is Right,” game and Zumba, yoga, home exercise and healthy eating presentations. East Georgia Regional Medical Center personnel provide free health screenings, and there will be a “Drug Free World” presentation.

The festival also offers free food for youth, face painting, a bounce house, a water slide and food and merchandise vending, states the press release Jackson provided.

Additionally, researchers from the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University will be conducting surveys again around noon. Two academic papers based on the research into health needs of Willow Hill and Portal-area residents have been published so far, and researchers are exploring the possibility of bringing a mobile clinic to Willow Hill on a regular basis, Jackson said.


Gospel Sunday

Sunday the festival will continue with the annual Gospel Extravaganza beginning at 2:30 p.m.  Pastor Frankie Owens and the Rev. Jean Owens of the Word of God Fellowship are hosting this year’s singing event. Meanwhile, buffet-style meals provided by Touch of Class Catering, owned by Annette McCray-McDuffie, will be available beginning at 1 p.m. Sunday. Plates are $10 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under.

For prayer breakfast tickets or further information, call the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center at (912) 865-7154 or visit or the Center’s Facebook page.

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