Program continues to ‘Keep Hope Alive’

 Some members of the Keep Hope Alive Advisory Board go over plans for this year's event. They are (L-R) Mary Kelley, Pennie Quinn, Belinda Rice, and Gavis Mosley.
Staff Writer

The public sees their arrest reports and pictures in headlines and give law enforcement quiet applause for getting a suspected criminal off the streets. The victims of those crimes take a quiet breath of relief.

But often forgotten are another set of victims, the children of those arrested, often so young they have no way to grasp what is going on around them or why or how it is about to dismantle their lives.

That is the root of Keep Hope Alive, a unique program started 23 years ago by someone who understood better than most -- Willie "Gator" Johnson, a convicted cocaine dealer who was locked up in the Clay County Jail.

Johnson got help from the sheriff and people on the outside for the first Keep Hope Alive effort in 1994. The idea was to make sure no child, not just children of inmates, went without something at Christmas.

In many ways, the gift went beyond toys. Instead, the greater gift to children was community support and the message that even when bad things happen to those around you, the community was there with love and hope.

"The name says it all. It can make a difference," says Ramirez Williams, Clay County Sheriff's chief deputy and a long-time volunteer and now board member with Keep Hope Alive.

In fact, Williams played Santa Claus one year.

"The kids already have been asking about it. With so much going on in the world, it's important to keep Hope Alive, even on the smallest levels. It's really a blessing to have this opportunity to be a part of something like this," noted Belinda Morton Rice, another Keep Hope Alive Board member.

Williams was starting out as a deputy when 'Gator' Johnson still was in jail and in the early years of his ministry.

"I saw the change it made in 'Gator' even while he was in jail. I saw how he wanted to make a change in children, how he tried to show them there was hope, that the community did care and was for them," Williams explained.

"The mission has grown since then. As a member of law enforcement, we arrest people who do wrong, but we also realize there are other victims who need to know there are alternatives. I see a lot of kids who have come to the program and gone on to play sports, gone on to get their educations and are doing real well in the community. I believe it's a real positive thing," Williams continued.

Members of the Keep Hope Alive board are asking businesses and the community to donate gift cards. Organizers also will accept cash which they will use to buy gift cards.

"The gift cards make it easier for the families. The community really can make a big difference by helping," explained KHA board member Belinda Morton Rice. "We started doing them four or five years ago and found it made it easier for families to get the things they need, whether it's food or clothes or something else, things we might not know about

From 2-4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 9 at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in West Point, as many as 100 kids will celebrate the season with Santa, friendship and those gift cards.

"We make sure every kid leaves there with a card. More than that, we want them to leave with the feeling the community, that we care about them and are there for them," said KHA board member and Clay Chancery Clerk Amy Berry. "It's special for the kids, but it's also special for the volunteers."

"We have always helped each other as a community. We know the same thing will happen this year," echoed Pennie Quinn, whose mother, Pat, was the driving force behind the program for many years before she passed away last year. In fact, she died a short time before last year's event, prompting it to be canceled.

Bringing it back makes this year's event all the more special.

And it will not only pay tribute to 'Gator' Johnson but also to Pat Quinn and her efforts,  from rounding up volunteers to prodding the community into making donations.

"We just knew we really needed to keep it going and bring it back this year," Rice said.

For Penny Quinn, this year's event is bitter sweet because her mother won't be there in person. But she knows she will be there in spirit.

"It's really an honor to be able to continue her legacy of giving to the community," Pennie Quinn said. "It'll be a little sad standing there that day without her. But I know she'll be smiling. It'll be a very proud moment for me to know we have been able to keep it going. She's going to be pretty proud, too."

During its peak, the KHA event included a dinner and dozens of bicycles were among the items given away.

Organizers would like to get it back to that point one day. But for now, the focus is on taking care of every child who attends.

"This community has a big heart. It's always shown it. The community, churches, businesses, everyone," Berry said. "We know that heart will come through again."

St. Paul Missionary Baptist is located at 805 Fifth St. South just south of Center Street in West Point. Anyone wishing to volunteer or make a donation can call Rice at 662-295-1457, Berry at 662-295-1029 or Quinn at 662-605-0523.