Pay before they play

Published 12:14 am Sunday, February 13, 2011

NATCHEZ — Stella Ford, president of the Sadie V. Thompson Foundation, has a simple request that comes at a price — provide a safe place to play for North Natchez’s children and teens.

“When I was in school, we hung out at a place called Mingee’s Café on Martin Luther King Jr. Road,” Ford said. “There were a lot of teenagers who hung out, played music, drank sodas and socialized after school and on weekends. We need a place in North Natchez for kids to come, eat, converse and play instead of hanging out in the streets, getting in trouble.”

The Sadie V. Thompson Foundation, located at what is formerly Sadie V. Thompson High School in Natchez, owns the gym, cafeteria and auditorium that are in need of major repairs.

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The foundation has existed since 2001.

The rest of the building is owned by the AJFC Headstart Center, which has refurbished its portion with state funds.

The foundation is comprised of former students, many who can’t be called “alumni” because the school closed in 1970 by court order when desegregation sent students elsewhere before they could graduate.

Ford said the three parts of the old school were deeded to the foundation, and it’s just sitting there.

“This space can be used for so many things,” Ford said. “And kids are asking me all the time if they can come play basketball in the gym, but we can’t allow them to because it’s just not safe.”

The former school would be a good place for senior citizen activities too, but the main goal of the foundation is to get young people off the streets, Ford said.

“Lots of kids’ parents work, or don’t have cars,” Ford said. “There is not much on this end of town for them. We want this so badly for the children.”

Ford said the space could be used to generate revenue as well by renting it out for special events, and would help the foundation remain self-sufficient.

But first, the foundation must face the cost of renovations, which includes roof repair.

“We want to appeal to area plumbers, roofers, electricians and carpenters who can donate time, labor and materials,” Ford said.

Ford said the 501c3 organization has even sought help from churches, local officials and community organizations with no luck.

“It just breaks my heart,” Ford said. “These are children who want to do something constructive, and we want to provide a safe place for them to grow.”

Ford said after moving back to the area after living away for 35 years, she was shocked at how badly run-down the facility had become.

“When I walk into the school and see what needs to be done, I feel overwhelmed,” Ford said.

The Rev. Leroy White, a graduate of the school and former president of the Sadie V. Thompson Foundation said there is hope for the school, but progress will come slowly.

“There is so much history there,” White said. “That is my school, and I want to see it be vibrant. I learned a lot of great things there and I want it to be around a while.”

White said the foundation was awarded a $100,000 grant to restore the buildings from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History that required a $20,000 match. White said members came up with the $20,000, but they soon realized that it would take around $800,000 just to repair the roof and floor in one section of the property, so they gave the money back to the MDAH for use by another entity.

“It just cost so much more than we anticipated,” he said.

Like Ford, White said he remembers the days when youth had places to go after school and on weekends.

“Our children need to be kept busy,” he said.

Ford said that $10,000 of the $20,000 raised went to an architect, and the rest stays in an account for basic maintenance and upkeep of the property.

Ford said she is disappointed that Natchez officials seemed more concerned with tourists and the downtown area than the taxpayers living in North Natchez.

“We plan on being more involved in the political scene and­ campaign for candidates who are interested in supporting North Natchez,” Ford said. “We didn’t realize how crucial that support is until we asked for it and couldn’t get it. This is not for us, it’s for the children.”

Ford can be reached 601-334-0572. Letters and donations can be sent to the Sadie V. Thompson Foundation at PO Box 2238 Natchez, 39121.