Oconee Outreach Opportunity rebuilds homes, impacts lives


Years of prayers have been answered for members of one local church in Whigham.

And Whigham resident Josephine Jackson says that a “miracle” has happened.

Jackson’s home and Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church caught the eye of Rev. Garth Duke-Barton last summer when he visited Whigham prior to moving to the community.   

Upon seeing the historic church, which had fallen into disrepair, Whigham-Springhill Charge pastor Rev. Duke-Barton said that he knew he needed to find a way to fix it.

“I saw the church and felt like I needed to go and talk with the pastor and see if we could get involved and help them with the church.  I tracked her down and asked if we could help and she said, ‘Please!’”

The church, on the National Register of Historic Places, is a significant building in Grady County’s history.  At one time, it was a school for the black community – the only black school in Whigham.  In the past it hosted recitals and plays, but hasn’t been used by church members in more than four years.  With the sanctuary in dire need of major repairs, church members have been meeting next door in the church’s small fellowship hall.

Josephine Jackson’s home sits 100 yards behind Whigham United Methodist Church but can’t be seen because of high bushes.  A church member who knows Jackson knew she was in need of help.  Not able to afford to have her home repaired, Jackson, who cares for her two grandchildren, was living with a leaky roof, a broken front porch and other structural issues.

Her home is now repaired, and soon members of Ebenezer A.M.E. church will again be able to worship in their sanctuary, all because Rev. Duke-Barton, a team of volunteers and the Oconee Outreach Opportunity stepped in to help.

Begun by Rev. Duke-Barton seven years ago in Sandersville, Oconee Outreach Opportunity started with 35 people working on four homes; since then, the mission project has grown to two locations, and more than 300 workers have repaired 60 homes.  Roughly 1,000 people, both volunteers and homeowners, have been impacted.  This summer, 150 volunteers traveled to Sandersville and Whigham from near and far – some as far away as Huntsville, Ala., Charleston, S.C. and North Georgia – to rebuild homes and lives.

“This is a mission project locally targeted to reach the poor,” Rev. Duke-Barton said.  “It teaches our youth that there are people who live in poverty within their own towns or areas.  It gives them an opportunity to learn new skills, work with youth and adults from various backgrounds and to grow closer to God.”

Growing up in South Carolina, Rev. Duke-Barton worked with local mission teams rebuilding homes of people in poverty, and says the time he spent volunteering was influential and impactful.
“I came into ministry because of missions.”  

When he moved to Georgia, he didn’t find anything like what he experienced in South Carolina, so he decided to start Oconee Outreach Opportunity.  

Volunteers pay $180 for their week of mission work, and are provided with meals, a t-shirt and the materials to complete the project.  The impact the week has on their lives, though, is priceless.

“It was hard work,” said volunteer Abigail Finn, the 15-year-old daughter of Hand Memorial United Methodist Church pastor Rev. Michael Finn.  “As we got closer and closer to being finished … it was worthwhile.  It made me realize that I take advantage of everyday things, like a working roof and a clean yard and things like that.”

They’re impacting the lives of those they help, too.

“Mrs. Jackson told one of our volunteers that in the 30 years she has lived in Whigham nobody has ever offered to help,” Rev. Duke-Barton said.   “She was just overcome with emotion at the thought that somebody was willing to help.”

Rev. Duke-Barton says that the poverty that exists in the community is now being seen by many who never knew it was there.  

“One of our youth … was working on Ms. Jackson’s trailer and said, ‘I had no idea there was poverty in Whigham.’  It’s impacting youth because they’re suddenly seeing poverty, and it’s impacting those who have poverty because they’re suddenly seeing people who are willing to help.”
Volunteers spent the week of May 29-June 5 sprucing up Jackson’s trailer, repairing the roof, clearing the yard, installing insulation and building a new front porch.  The church, while not yet ready to host worship services, has now been weathered in and is protected from the elements.  Work will continue, Rev. Duke-Barton said, as soon as they receive the go-ahead from the county inspector.  

“My real hope,” he said, “is that we will see the need to do both international missions as we’ve done – to places like Haiti, South America, Central America and Africa – they need our help, but there’s still poverty right outside our doors, too, and we need to do that, as well.”  

--By Kara Witherow, South Georgia Advocate editor

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