In September 2018, Richard Brunson and N.C. Baptists on Mission were looking for a facility in southeastern North Carolina to serve as a base of operations for long-term rebuild efforts following Hurricane Florence when he received a tip that an abandoned school in Duplin County might be available.
Charity Middle School in Rose Hill had sat vacant for more than a year after the school closed its doors in 2017. Despite older parts of the school showing some age and some newer damage and debris caused by recent vandalism, Brunson and others believed the building had potential.
Then there was the name. Brunson kept coming back to the name.
“Charity,” he thought. “It’s perfect.”
Baptists on Mission acquired the building shortly thereafter and now, nearly five years later, the former school now operates as a full-fledged mission camp that not only serves as a launching point for volunteers to share Christ’s love in the area by meeting tangible needs, but also doubles as a hub of community activity, just like it did when school-aged children roamed the halls.
“I always thought, ‘Wow, what a great opportunity,’” said Brunson, who serves as Baptists on Mission’s executive director. “But I don’t think anybody could have envisioned what it’s become.”
But thanks to the vision of Brunson and others, even an abandoned school can graduate to a new purpose.
A vision takes shape
From the outside, Charity Mission Camp still looks very much like the school it once was, even down to the name that still adorns the side of the building – Charity Middle School – in big, bold letters against the brick facade.
“Just this week somebody told me that they love driving down the road and seeing the Charity Middle School sign,” said Tammy Weeks, whose husband Richard serves as director of missions for the Eastern Baptist Association. “We never thought of taking that down.”
Through a partnership with Baptists on Mission, Richard and Tammy Weeks have overseen Charity’s day-to-day operations since the beginning. They live onsite in a converted apartment that was once the teacher’s lounge, and the Eastern Baptist Association’s headquarters is located at Charity. In fact, it was Richard Weeks who gave Brunson the initial tip about Charity’s potential availability.
“Tammy and I have been so blessed,” Richard Weeks said. “Running this facility is not the easiest thing in the world to do. It takes a lot of hours, but when you see the things that happen here, it confirms the vision that we had back in 2018.”
After Baptists on Mission acquired the facility in December 2018, it took about six months to get the building ready to host its first volunteer mission team. Scores of workers and volunteers spent those early days cleaning out debris, installing a sprinkler system, addressing plumbing issues, painting and more, in order to convert the old school into a rebuild center.
Former classrooms were converted into sleeping quarters. The old library was converted into a place where mission teams can now check out tools and equipment. The school’s former kitchen and cafeteria is now a place that feeds volunteer teams that come from churches to serve.
Amid all the renovations to the school, officials took great care to preserve the school’s history and heritage – such as the school colors and artwork in the gymnasium – which went a long way toward building bridges in the local community.
A community hub
Charity first opened as an African-American high school in 1951. When Charity High School integrated with Wallace-Rose Hill High School in 1969, Charity became a junior high and then a middle school in 1975.
In April 2014, the Duplin County Board of Education voted to close three middle schools in the county, including Charity. Just months after Charity Middle School (CMS) closed its doors in 2017, an online petition advocating for the preservation of the school for the community drew more than 400 supporters.
“We, the African American CMS graduates and attendees, are petitioning to keep CMS a historically black site for our community,” the petition read. “If the sale of CMS is made public, it will increase the risk of losing our plight to honor our heritage.”
Keeping Charity an integral part of the community was important to Baptists on Mission leaders from the beginning. Before finalizing the purchase of the property, Brunson and others met with civic and community leaders to assure them of those plans.
“We just wanted to know how we could be a part of it,” said Lena Betha, a graduate of Charity High School and longtime teacher at Charity Middle School who now serves as president of the Charity School Alumni Association. “That was our goal from the beginning. Once we went out and met with them, we felt good about everything. We’re trying to support them, and they’re supporting us, too.”
Today, the alumni group has a permanent meeting space at Charity. Academic and athletic trophies from the high school and middle school days reside in a trophy case, and an increasing collection of yearbooks adorn a nearby bookshelf outside the meeting room.
In addition to hosting monthly meetings, the Charity alumni group holds class reunions and other events at the facility where they once roamed the halls as students.
Having the involvement of the community is important to Richard Weeks, who grew up in nearby Sampson County and has lots of childhood friends in the area.
On Tuesday nights, the old high school gym is open for pick-up basketball. Several players who show up to play are former students that Richard Weeks coached during his days as a high school football coach. One former player, upon seeing Weeks, gave him a big bear hug.
“We’re fulfilling a promise we made at the very beginning that we want this place to be a part of the community,” Richard Weeks said. “For me, the community aspect is really why I think God has placed us here.”
With 62,000 square feet of space on about 20 acres of land, Charity has lots of room to host a variety of events and activities. James Sprunt Community College in nearby Kenansville offers classes for adults at Charity. The annual N.C. Poultry Jubilee Pageant has found a permanent home in the Charity gym each August.
The Eastern Baptist Association holds its annual Pumpkins and Praise Fall Festival the first Saturday in October at Charity, which helps raise funds to build wheelchair ramps in the community. A thrift store and food pantry also operate on site throughout the year.
In addition, thanks to a partnership between the Eastern Baptist Association, the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, Baptists on Mission and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Charity is home to an equipping center where ongoing classes are offered to bivocational pastors, aspiring pastors, church leaders and others.
The equipping center is yet another part of the initial vision of what Charity could ultimately become and what it could offer.
Living up to a name
From its early days as a rebuild center to its current status as a mission camp, Charity is one of five facilities operated by Baptists on Mission that can house and feed volunteers and offer prepackaged missions experiences. In addition to Charity, Baptists on Mission operates mission camps in Shelby and Red Springs, and it runs rebuild centers in Lumberton and New Bern.
For many volunteers, it’s their first taste of missions.
“A lot of people’s first mission trip will be to a place like this,” Brunson said. “We try to make it easy and safe, but we also want it to be life-changing. We encourage churches to bring children and students from their church to a mission camp or a rebuild center so they can experience missions for the first time.
“We also want you to see some things and learn some things that you can replicate when you go back to your own community.”
The Charity Mission Camp can house and feed up to 200 volunteers per day. To date, volunteers have repaired or rebuilt 319 homes since Hurricane Florence. And with plenty of other needs in the community, volunteers and mission teams are living out the word that greets everyone who sets foot on Baptists on Mission’s newest mission camp.
“As God’s people, we should represent the word ‘charity’ greater than anybody else,” Richard Weeks said. “In God’s sovereignty, He gave us this place to do exactly that.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of the Biblical Recorder magazine.)