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100-year-old school becomes ministry dream center

Brooke Atchley is so excited, she's breathless. She's telling story after story of how volunteers, local businesses and neighbors are stepping up to transform a former school into a ministry center.

"It's really very much a grassroots, organic kind of thing," she says, "and the community support for this is just crazy."

Elk Garden School Community Ministry has received a total $125,000 in grant money -- including an $88,000 "Global Health" award from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries -- to provide a myriad of ministries:

  • community garden
  • cooking classes
  • Narcotics Anonymous
  • thrift store
  • fitness classes
  • after-school program
  • walking track
  • senior care
  • computer lab

Atchley, who serves as a United Methodist "Church & Community Worker" for the Holston Conference's Tazewell District, says the community started thinking about how to use the old Elk Garden School when it closed in 2012. The school was built in 1916 and had a longstanding relationship with Elk Garden United Methodist Church.

The project really took off when Holston Conference challenged its 164,000 church members to give $10 and 10 hours of service per person in 2015, an initiative to help local children in poverty, Atchley said.

"That was pivotal and really got people to thinking, 'We can do this,'" she said. "People would come by and tell me their dreams for the building. My job was not to tell them what to do but to help their dreams become a reality."

A master plan was developed, involving renovation and ministries to serve the northern part of Russell County, including Elk Garden, Lebanon, Honaker, and Belfast, Va.

"The rate for free or reduced school lunch here is 60 percent," says Atchley, "but we think it's higher because a lot of people don't report it."

The school board approved the plan and in October 2015, Holston's Tazewell District signed a three-year lease on the building, with an option for a two-year renewal and "first refusal" on purchasing the property.

There hasn't been a quiet week in the 100-year-old, three-story building since, Atchley says. She estimates that 200 volunteers have been on the grounds to help the building get ready for its new ministry.

Several individuals and businesses have donated supplies, including the woman who had equipment delivered to create a "mobility garden" for people using walkers or wheelchairs.

Her next challenges include finding funding for a new playground, Atchley said. "There isn't a public playground within a 45-minute drive." 

Other needs include volunteers who are skilled in plumbing and work crews who could help build the playground, a greenhouse, or a picnic shelter. Atchley said she would also be grateful for church groups who could lead Vacation Bible School.

Annette Spence, editor. The Call, Holston Annual Conference

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