POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 29, 2010:
Rockin' the Westies
Productive Left Tulsans striving to improve their community
Pastor Willard Jones. One-Man Construction Company. Here’s a guy doing it for the community. But some riversiders prefer wringing their hands and pointing fingers. (
The Rev. Willard Jones, pastor of the Greater Cornerstone Church, figures his part of town has been forgotten long enough.
"I think all of west Tulsa has been written off by the city of Tulsa at times," he said. "Even in Vision 2025, what did west Tulsa get? Maybe something for Route 66, but what did the people get?"
Since becoming pastor at Greater Cornerstone 14 years ago, Jones has labored mightily to make life better for the people in the vicinity of his church, 5610 S. 41st W. Ave., situated in the South Haven neighborhood. When he arrived, the area was rife with drug and gang activity, while homicides were not uncommon in nearby Schlegel Park.
"They had control of this community," Jones said of the gangs that once roamed the streets. "People were afraid. People were moving out."
The new minister -- a telecommunications executive who had been convinced to take over at Cornerstone despite a $35-a-week salary and a congregation of only five people -- made his presence felt in a hurry.
First, as a board member of Tulsa Habitat for Humanity, he got that organization to engage in a massive home-building effort in his neighborhood that has resulted in almost 100 new houses being constructed in the area. Now, instead of absentee landlords and weedy, overgrown lots, South Haven boasts dozens of families who own their own homes and are deeply invested in improving the neighborhood.
Then, after law enforcement authorities began a concerted effort to rid the neighborhood of its booming drug trade, Jones convinced his church to start buying up the surrounding lots after they were confiscated. Eventually, Cornerstone purchased almost four acres, tearing down a number of crack houses and clearing the land.
Those efforts have yielded some impressive dividends. Jones' church now regularly boasts an attendance of 250 to 300 people and is planning to expand its sanctuary to a vacant lot on the south side to accommodate all those new worshippers.
"This church is packed on Sunday mornings now," he said. "You better get here early."
Yet, even with all that positive change, Jones knew it wasn't enough to have a major impact all of west Tulsa, where nearly one in five households is below the poverty line and only 8.8 percent of residents are college graduates. He founded a new nonprofit organization -- the Greater Cornerstone Community Development Project -- independent of the church and began to reach out to neighborhood residents, quizzing them about what they thought the area needed.
It quickly became apparent that South Haven -- which draws its name from its status as the neighborhood to which many north Tulsans were relocated after their Greenwood homes and businesses were destroyed in the race riot of 1921 -- didn't have any kind of community focal point, a place where residents could gather and feel safe, such as a school, a library or any other large public facility.
Jones realized a facility that could meet many of those needs could be a difference maker in South Haven. So he convinced the members of his church to turn over a plot of land just northwest of Cornerstone on West 55th Place to the GCCDP and set about trying to raise support for the project he had in mind -- a large community center that would house a variety of social-service organizations, as well as provide recreational and community gathering space.
"This is not a rec center -- I can't stress that enough," Jones said. "This will be home to social services, educational services, vocational services and recreational services. We are not reinventing the wheel; rather, we are providing the space for these agencies to come in and do what they specialize in."
Jones also emphasized that the community center will not be affiliated with his church or any other.
"This has nothing to do with any church," he said. "There will be no proselytizing."
It didn't take Jones long to get plenty of others to buy in to his vision. The board at GCCDP -- for which he serves as executive director -- is filled with some of Tulsa's more prominent citizens, and so the budget for what began as a relatively small project at $1 million quickly ballooned to $3 million, then $5 million and now $7 million.
The planned 20,698-square-foot facility already has drawn a number of partner programs, including Domestic Violence Intervention Services, Goodwill Industries, Camp Fire USA, the state Department of Human Services, Family and Children's Services, A Pocket Full of Hope and the Association Centers for Therapy. Additionally, Oklahoma State University will operate one of its Bedlam Clinics on the site. The $7 million price tag includes a building endowment and a program endowment designed to help make the project self sustaining.
A total of $5.2 million already has been raised toward that goal, but project supporters find themselves at a bit of a crisis as October approaches. If the final $1.8 million isn't raised by Oct. 14, the GCCDP will lose out on a total of $2.25 million in matching funds from a number of foundations, including the Mabee Foundation.
"I've done all that I know to do," Jones said. "I'm exhausted. I'm losing sleep. I'm up at night, pacing the floor. As of Oct. 1, we're facing the 11th hour. If this doesn't happen, I will feel like I will have let a lot of people down, that I have started something I can't finish. This would be heartbreak to me.
"But I'm not giving up, that's for sure," he said. "Somebody told me the hardest part was going to be raising that last part. Nobody ever told me this was going to be easy."
The proposed community center has attracted some broad-based support. Jones said that in addition to a number of foundations that have pledged money for the project, corporate donors have emerged, along with other churches and members of the public. A kickoff party for the capital campaign was held Aug. 12 at the Mayo Hotel's Crystal Ballroom, and Jones termed that event a great success. But additional help is needed -- and fast.
Jones said he and other project supporters have paid another round of visits to those who already have provided financial support for the project, asking them to dig a little deeper.
"Some of them have promised more, some have said they are considering giving more," he said. "We have some irons in the fire. I'm not standing still hoping it will fall from the sky. So I do have some degree of confidence it's going to get done. If I have to find a way to go on every (TV and radio) station in Tulsa on the 12th of October and make an impassioned plea, I'll do it."
Maybe just one, influential alt weekly covering the story here will do the trick.
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