3 Inspired People
Story Carmen K. Sisson | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini
Jackie Edwards, West Point
It’s an eclectic vision: Gardeners, brides, mental health patients and museum visitors, all sharing the same bit of earth. It’s a patchwork quilt of needs, but once you’ve met Jackie Edwards, it all makes sense.
As executive director of Community Counseling Services in West Point for 21 years, salvation has become her specialty, whether she’s repurposing a derelict building, refinishing an antique chair or giving a child the emotional tools to thrive.
Throughout West Point, Edwards has purchased empty buildings and brought them back to life — not only to serve her agency’s purposes, but also to benefit the city, from a client-centered art gallery to a client-staffed donations center. Her efforts landed her on the local economic-development board as president.
For her, it all fits together. Healthcare, mental health, historic preservation and industrial progress improve quality of life. The more she gives to the community, the more the community gives back to itself.
Edwards’ latest project is sprawlingly ambitious. Under her guidance, CCS purchased the long-dormant, 184-acre Mary Holmes College campus, and renovations are underway.
Some space will be used to run CCS, which offers outpatient counseling and day treatment programs for mental health and retardation patients, children and the elderly. In the main building, there will be a museum. The gym will be rented for basketball tournaments and reunions. There will be a wedding chapel.
As Edwards walks through the atrium, she points out the now-empty library. Thousands of books were donated to schools across northeast Mississippi. She walks outside to a lush vegetable patch and rose garden where CCS employees are spreading fertilizer. Eventually, plots will be available to the community.
“When I get up in the morning, I have a job that allows me to make people’s lives better and get paid for it,” she says. “I never get up in the morning not thrilled to go to work.”
Pam Rhea, Columbus
Every day, Pam Rhea navigates troubled waters. People in pain, people in need. No matter how much she does, or how many she serves, there is always more to be done.
If she has free time -— a rarity — she finds new ways to fill her calendar. She knows people see her deacon’s collar and think she has all the answers. She knows it isn’t true, but she tries not to let them down.
The journey from strict Southern Baptist to ordained Episcopal deacon, Northeast Mississippi’s first female to hold the title, wasn’t easy. There were a few tears along the way. But instead of shaking Rhea’s faith, they made her more certain of her calling.
Her office is an oasis of calm — a haven at St. Paul’s Episcopal in Columbus — but she spends little time there. A deacon’s job is a mission in motion, serving as the eyes and ears of the church, bringing faith to the world and the world to the faith.
When Rhea saw people in need, she helped found Loaves and Fishes feeding ministry, but there are different types of hunger, she realized. There is the gnawing ache for companionship. Compassion. Someone to listen. She signed up as a chaplain at Baptist Memorial. She’s organizing a retreat for women with breast cancer. Mid-sentence, she wonders aloud how children are faring in the aftermath of the April tornadoes. She vows to check on them.
The “hounds of Heaven” are always baying. “We’ve got to get busy,” she says. “We’re just given one shot here on earth, and we all have something to offer. God has put us here to take care of one another. I’m not special, but I keep trying to do what I can.”
“La La” Evans, Starkville
Shhhhh… don’t give away the secret. Just watch. Let go of reality. Forget the cares of the world. You’re in La La Land now, so enjoy the show.
It’s raining, and the rain makes Charles “La La” Evans’ 78-year-old bones ache sometimes, but he doesn’t let that stop him. As he marches through his front yard in Starkville, he kicks his legs high, yelling, “Watch this!”
He used to roller skate, but he gave it up three years ago after he fell down and injured his knee while trying to teach neighborhood children to do a reverse figure eight.
Life is all about fun. It’s all about color. It’s all about love, he says.
It’s all about love. And Evans loves people.
As a child, he happily stood on two “Co’ Cola” boxes to shine shoes in his father’s shoeshine parlor. Though he was only eight, he didn’t mind the work. He liked chatting with customers.
There, amid leather and wax, he learned the charm and diplomacy that enabled him to overcome the racial tensions of 1961 to become Starkville’s first black mailman.
After 30 years with the postal service, Evans retired, but he has never been one to hold still for long. He took a job driving a shuttle for Mississippi State University. Now, he’s retired again, looking for a new project.
He remembers when his yard was a showplace. People stopped to see it. High schoolers held parties there. Now, horse figurines cavort among French marigolds. Rubber ducks rest among Asiatic lilies. Admittedly “junky but creative,” Evans’ penchant for dumpster treasures has led to an eclectic mélange.
He frowns for a moment, then grins.
“I think everything you do is art,” he says. “It’s beautiful to me.”