The Talkingtons and the Hope CenterMature Living in the Southeast Magazine
by Mary Ann Ellis
From the very inception of the Hope Center, the main focus has been giving opportunity to at-risk children. So many children suffer because of choices someone else made. Consider a girl who lives with lots of people in a rented trailer and doesn’t even have a bed to sleep in at night. In the faint pre-dawn light, she rises and digs through the dirty laundry on the floor to finds the cleanest of her dirty clothes. There may be running water or there may not be that particular day, but she does what she can and goes outside to meet the bus to go to school. Once at school, the other children laugh at her, but she’s there nonetheless. This child and others like her are the core of the Hope Center.
Vernon and Angie Talkington started the Hope Center in 1998 and celebrated their 15th anniversary in October. Both of them were born in Illinois and had lived there all their lives until they came to Douglas.
“I’m the kind of person who likes everything planned carefully before I venture,” Vernon said, “but this project surely didn’t work out that way.”
Vernon had been taking a sabbatical from the ministry for a year. An acquaintance in Douglas heard that the Talkingtons were planning a vacation to Panama City and invited them to come through Douglas for a visit. When they arrived, they found a revival meeting going on in a tent and a missionary from Mexico speaking. When Vernon and Angie attended, the missionary invited them for breakfast the next morning.
“I see a lot of the same things in Oak Park that I see in Mexico,” the missionary told them. “I see so many children with needs.”
“That conversation ruined our vacation,” Vernon said. “I couldn’t get it out of my head. God didn’t speak to me in a burning bush. I just increasingly felt the need to come here—not to build a church as we’d help to do in other places—just to come. I’ve always heard the old adage, ‘Until God speaks loudly, stay busy,’ so that’s what we did.”
Vernon had spent 27 years in the ministry back at his home on the southern tip of Illinois near Kentucky, Missouri, and Indiana. When he first met Angie, he was not yet a minister. That didn’t happen until 1980 when he was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister.
Vernon said, “Some people think that what we did was a quantum leap of faith, but I’m just a man. My faith isn’t that strong. You know the prayer, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.’ I just knew we had to come here. God showed me an opportunity to live out the sermons I’d been preaching all those years.”
The Talkingtons had no plans to start an after school program either. It just happened. They were working in the old building they’d acquired and children were outside doing homework. They just invited them inside and it all began.
When they saw basic needs for food, clothing, and sometimes rent and/or utilities, they tried to help. The ministry is faith-based and has never taken a penny from government programs. From the very beginning, God provided wonderful people to help.
One day Vernon was out front with a rake and hoe trying to remove cactus from the front yard, where it was running rampant. No grass grew out there and the yard was a mess.
“I probably looked like I didn’t know what I was doing, and it’s because I didn’t,” he laughed. “I stood there with my rake in hand and watched a gentleman driving up in an old beat up truck.”
With a big beautiful smile, he stepped out of the truck, stuck out his hand, and said, “I’m Arliss Burch and I’m here to help.” For the next fifteen years he helped constantly, right up until he died about four weeks ago.
They lost another valuable and wonderful board member in December, 2012—Dick Worrell. Both he and Arliss Burch were retired professional men who embraced Angie and Vernon as well as their work from the very beginning and became a part of the family.
“Don’t forget Mary Lee Daniel,” Angie said. “Every fall, she was determined that each child have a new book bag for school and worked hard toward that goal. She died recently, and we were sure she was calling down to us to see about those book bags when school started. We could almost hear her voice.”
The Hope Center is located in the Oak Park area of Douglas, Georgia. The Oak Park area is a distressed neighborhood much like those found in a larger population. It is an inner-city situation, but in a smaller population. Three out of every ten calls to the Coffee County 911 Center are from the Oak Park area. Oak Park has the highest rate of criminal activity in the county, especially violent crimes and drug related offenses. Many of the families the Hope Center is involved with live in extreme poverty (less than $6,000 a year), and 85% of the children live in a home without a father.
According to the Georgia Council on Child Abuse, a child is a victim of abuse every 30 minutes in the state of Georgia. Oak Park community is no exception. Everyone is affected by the lives of children who come from homes with emotional, physical and material deprivation. Children who rank lowest on gauges of social well-being come from such communities as this.
Most of these children live in rented trailers. Their parents pay $75.00 a week, many times taking half of their monthly income to live in a trailer with a market value of $500. Invariably the trailers have inadequate septic and water systems. In general disrepair, this community has few streetlights and few paved streets. For a child to reach his full potential in such an environment is very difficult, to say the least. The Hope Center staff tutors on a continual basis many kids who are struggling to keep up in school. Hope Center does everything possible to ensure that children are safe, fed, educated and living in adequate housing.
“When we first got here, we were going to juvenile court with kids constantly. Pregnancy was common in girls as young as 12 and 13,” Vernon said. “Now we’re attending the graduations of the first groups that came to us fifteen years ago. We haven’t had any one from our program with a teen pregnancy or any one in juvenile court in the last six years. That’s gratifying.”
The program at the Hope Center has rules and kids must follow them to participate in the program. If they get into trouble at school or on the bus, then they are in trouble with the Hope Program. Real life requires rules; so does the center.
Recently Vernon was asked to serve on a panel at South Georgia College to discuss the effects of poverty on at-risk kids. Also on the panel were a psychiatrist and a Salvation Army official, among others. Everybody agreed that most of these children suffer because of other people’s bad decisions. All too often Vernon can see the light go out of the eyes of kids as young as nine. The light is replaced by hopelessness. The purpose of the Hope Center is to keep that light burning in the eyes of as many kids as possible.
The center has a junior staff of nine or ten older kids with B averages or better. They help in the kitchen, clean bathrooms, and mop floors after hours and are paid a small salary for their work. They are also held accountable for the quality of their work. Someone checks behind them and the consequences are drastic for poor work. If the work is not good, they are not paid. If they must be warned three times, they lose their jobs. Such is the real world. In this program the kids learn work ethics. The Work and Learn program has been one of the most successful of their programs.
The older children in the program also serve as teachers for new ones as they come in.
“We often see an older kid take a new one aside and tell him, ‘We don’t act like that here. It’s not allowed,’” Vernon said.
Angie added, “I’ll put our kids’ behavior up against anybody’s when we take them on field trips. They are exceptionally well behaved.”
Though the main purpose of the Hope Center is to give spiritual and moral guidance to young people, Vernon and Angie, aged 61 and 59 respectively, have an understanding of their social needs as well. If people are hungry, you feed them. If they need clothes, you provide them. If they need housing, you help them. If an adult doesn’t know how to read, you teach them. Most people are not looking for a hand-out, but a hand up. Many times it is as simple as showing someone how to go from welfare to the work place, or from being a high school dropout to being a graduate.
In addition to the programs already mentioned, the Hope Center offers drug and alcohol prevention counseling, parenting classes, an eight-week summer program with hot meals, field trips, Christmas sponsorships, choir and drama classes, laundry facilities, hot evening meals daily, conflict resolution classes, and GED classes. They carefully screen applicants and much paper work is involved. For example, when a parent signs his child up for a Christmas sponsorship, they check to see that the child is not already on another Christmas list. They want to reach all the children without duplication.
Vernon and Angie Talkington and the staff at Hope Center solicit prayers and financial support from the community and from anyone who wishes to help. With a limited budget and volunteers, they strive to bring a message of hope to those who struggle with the basic needs of life. Their rewards are myriad though. They live on Mahogany Road right behind the Hope Center and among the people they serve.
“We can’t minister to people we’re not willing to live with,” Vernon said. “so we moved in. Three times we’ve moved children from the community in with us and fostered them for a couple of years while parents worked out some problems. This is by far the hardest and the most rewarding job I’ve ever done. I learned to pray in this place. I just thought I knew how before. It’s been my salvation.”
In addition to his work at Hope Center, Vernon serves as pastor at God’s People Baptist Church on Bowens Mill Road across from Quail Hollow. Every thing taught at Hope Center is biblical. Josh, Angie and Vernon’s son recently came to serve as Director of the After School Program. The Talkingtons have another son, Christopher, who lives with his wife Jessica and their two children, Wesley and Sarah, in Tampa, Florida.
Pong Holton, a local architect and artist, painted a mural on the wall of the Hope Center. Actually, he adds to it on a regular basis. It shows many of the children who’ve passed through there, along with Angie and Vernon. Expressively, it captures the spirit of the place—a place for hope, for smiles, and for a boost upward that so many children may not be able to find elsewhere.
For more information on the Hope Center and to contact the Talkingtons, go to hopeoutreachcenter.com. They’re always looking for God to send them new helpers.