BILOXI, Miss. -- Nestled in the dense woods along Highway 49 in southern Mississippi is the culmination and fulfillment of one man's dream and legacy. He dreamed of a place where African-American children would not only receive a first-class education, but skills to shape their adolescent minds into productive, socially conscious and highly educated young adults.
Dr. Laurence Clifton Jones started The Piney Woods School in 1909, with 40 acres of land and a log cabin, both donated by a former slave. For 98 years, thousands of students from various racial backgrounds have shared the dream of the man who moved to Mississippi from Iowa , with his college diploma, a Bible and $1.65 in his pocket. Jones envisioned a community for his young pupils where the nature surrounding them would play just as vital a role as the books they used in their classrooms.
Nearly 100 years later, approximately 250 students are enrolled. Piney Woods students have furthered their education at colleges around the globe, including Ivy League institutions and military service academies.
When Hurricane Katrina's 150-mile wide span reached the school, damaging some of the historic campus buildings, the situation looked bleak. The first and second levels of the academic building flooded and sustained water damage, while the auditorium suffered roof damage. The Sunshine Early Childhood Learning and Development Center, a center that provided childcare services to faculty, staff and the community, also flooded.
Jones' dream was threatened but undeterred. After ensuring the safety of their students, faculty and staff opened their doors to the surrounding community and used their available facilities as a public shelter.
"The safety of our students, staff, and faculty as well as providing a safe haven for the community is part of the enduring legacy at The Piney Woods School," says Preston Lee, Director of Physical Plant.
In Katrina's wake, community spirit and southern hospitality revived throughout Mississippi as neighboring counties and towns reached out to help their fellow man. Braxton mayor Mable Everett arranged to have the Mississippi National Guard deliver water, ice and other supplies on two occasions for campus residents.
Piney Woods applied for a Public Assistance grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA obligated nearly $200,000 in federal funds to remove debris from the campus, for emergency protective measures, and to repair storm-damaged roads.
"The FEMA grant will help us restore the damaged structures. With the grant, we can continue to give a sense of hope to the students and greater community," said Dr. Reginald Nichols, current president of Piney Woods School , who assumed his post in July 2006. "If something were to happen to Piney Woods, I think it would have a devastating effect on the community. The FEMA grant will enable our school to continue the legacy established by Dr. Jones."
The school re-opened its doors Sept. 19, 2005, when all but 15 students returned to campus and the business of fulfilling the vision of their founder. Students performed community service by serving meals to displaced families that temporarily relocated to the Jackson area. They also donated clothes and non-perishable foods to families on the Gulf Coast.
Fifty-two students walked across the commencement stage the following May, to the cheers of family and friends and armed with a unique secondary education. Nichols says the resolve shown by the students and staff following Katrina is commendable. But he reminds others that considering what all Dr. Jones endured to make his dream a reality, there was no other alternative.
"We've always rallied around challenges at The Piney Woods School and have overcome and grown through them. The students inspi...