- Associated Press - Monday, January 5, 2015

GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) - In Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, the Prophetess Anna makes a brief appearance. The elderly widow did not make the journey to Bethlehem on the night the baby was born. She encountered him inside the temple, where her only gift to him was to offer her thanks. The Bible only mentions her in three verses, but once she met Jesus, she talked about him to anyone who was willing to listen.

In Pastor Audra Singleton’s life, Anna was the name of the pregnant young girl who sat across the assistant principal’s desk from her. Anna was unmarried and unwanted; even the clothes she wore were borrowed. Thrown in the trash at birth, she was passed among relatives until she ran away. Police had found her sleeping in an abandoned house. She had nothing to call her own except an unborn child that she called her “little seed,” and she feared even that would be taken from her.

Singleton wanted nothing more than to bring Anna out of the situation she was in, but Anna left as quickly as she had come. Still Anna’s story helped to inspire Singleton in her ministry to the poor, a ministry she named Project Anna. And in the decade since, Singleton has not stopped telling Anna’s story, one that is not so different from her story.

Before Singleton became a wife and mother, a pastor, a school administrator and founder of a nonprofit ministry, she too was unwanted and unloved. Rejected by her mother, Singleton did not learn until she was an adult that she had been conceived in rape.

“I just knew that (my mother) didn’t want very much to do with me,” Singleton, 46, recalled, “even though I lived with her.”

The hugs Singleton remembers from childhood came from the women at her church. She had to rely on girls on the school bus to help her comb her hair. Her mother did not seem to care if young Audra brushed her teeth or went to school unkempt and without proper clothes. Audra was picked on nearly every day.

Things were even worse at home, where Audra was abused by her stepfather. While she prayed for deliverance, she became shy and withdrawn to avoid revealing her family’s shameful secrets.

But Audra had gifts that could not be hidden. English teacher Jean Arthur Hammond could see that Audra was creative and intelligent.

“She’s very special,” Hammond, 72, said in a telephone interview from her home in Columbus County. “… I think God calls everybody from the womb, but I believe Audra heard.

“She had a strong constitution and a certain level of fearlessness that most kids don’t,” she said. “I saw an exceptional strength in her.”

It was Hammond who saw seeds of greatness in young Audra. She told her that she was beautiful and that God loved her and had a plan for her that was different from the life she had known. Her encouragement helped Audra summon the courage she needed to confront her abusers. When her mother chose to remain with her husband rather than retain custody of her daughter, Audra entered foster care at age 15.

“It wasn’t a nice situation, but I wasn’t going through the abuse that I was going through at home,” Singleton said. “I just endured what I had to because I knew I’d be turning 18, and then I could leave.”

Singleton envisioned going to school to become a doctor and then serving as a medical missionary to Africa.

“That’s all I ever dreamed about,” she said. “I wanted to be the next Mother Teresa.”

But with no mother to guide her, Singleton struggled to understand how to achieve those ambitions. Though she was a straight-A student and an athlete, a school counselor suggested she should not consider a four-year college because she could not afford to attend.

Remembering how she had taken a high school trip to Greenville for a quiz bowl, Singleton applied to East Carolina University. She enrolled as a pre-med major, but because she was naive about the workings of financial aid, she never applied for assistance.

Singleton found that all she had saved from her part-time job at Burger King simply was not enough. She remembers the day she learned she needed to pay a $25 dissection fee for biology lab. A pizza delivery worker found her crying in the lobby of Tyler Hall and saying she didn’t have enough money to buy a dead cat.

“I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here; this place is too big for me,’” Singleton recalled. “He gave me $25 for the cat. I’ll never forget that.”

Still, Singleton knew she could not rely on charity to get her through college. She joined the Army Reserves to help fund her education and celebrated her 19th birthday at boot camp at Fort Jackson, S.C. By the time she returned to campus in the fall, she decided to become an English teacher. Following a tour of duty in the Persian Gulf War, she went to work at Wellcome Middle School, where she received the Channel One National Teacher of the Year Award in 1999. A year later, she received a Principal Fellows scholarship to ECU.

Singleton went on to become an assistant principal at South Central High School, where she began a mentoring program for girls who were faced with problems that went far beyond those that could be found in their textbooks.

“I could identify so much with so many of their situations,” she said. “That’s one thing that drives my passion. … I know what it’s like to keep secrets and you’re hurting on the inside but you can’t trust or you can’t find a safe place. That’s really tough.”

She began to nurture growth and development in girls like Anna, who was pregnant at 15. Singleton worked to teach the young women to accept and respect themselves as well as to set and pursue goals for their lives. That effort, initially called Sister to Sister, was the beginning of Project Anna.

“I had been looking for a name,” Singleton said. “I was asking God, ‘What am I going to name this?’ because there is Sister to Sister everywhere.’”

When she considered naming her ministry after Anna, a friend reminded Singleton of the New Testament prophetess by that name.

“She dwelled in the temple, and they said she was a teacher of young women,” Singleton said. “So that’s how I came up with Project Anna, and Anna also means ‘favor’ and ‘grace.’”

Injuries she suffered in a car accident forced Singleton to leave the school system in 2007, but the work of Project Anna continued and even expanded, from mentoring to health and nutrition.

“From working in the school system, I know if there’s food insecurity in the house, it’s a lot of trouble,” Singleton said. “It’s going to be domestic violence. It’s going to be child abuse.”

In November of that 2007, Singleton and her husband, Joseph, opened the first food pantry in Falkland, where Joseph served as a pastor. Project Anna began offering health screenings, along with food and medical supplies and drew support from the Vidant Health Foundation.

Still, sometimes the ministry seemed to struggle financially in many of the same ways as the people it served. Just before Christmas 2012, Project Anna received a gift of property on Skinner Street, where the ministry and Grace International Worship Center is now located.

The property is surrounded by razor wire and is not visible from a main thoroughfare, but Mary Ward had no trouble finding it. She came one Sunday with a friend who was down on his luck, and she’s been coming back ever since.

“It’s wonderful; we love it,” Ward said following a recent worship service that she attended with her daughter and granddaughter.

“The blessings that we get from here are just amazing,” she said. “If it weren’t for this place, my family wouldn’t be eating.”

Since Gloria Cannon began coming about a year ago, Project Anna has given her more than food and clothing. The Singletons have encouraged Cannon to work toward becoming a certified nursing assistant.

“She changed my life,” Cannon said. “They have encouraged me to do a lot like change my life and start going back to school … (to) improve myself.”

Kahla Hall, director of the community benefit grants program with Vidant Health Foundation, said Project Anna recently helped a local student who had not planned to attend college to apply for and receive a scholarship.

“That probably wasn’t an original intent of her program,” Hall said, “but her intent was to help people wherever their needs are.”

In 2011, Project Anna began working to meet needs in Ghana, Togo and South Africa. Singleton has extended an arm of support to schoolchildren there by providing such things as shoes, clothing and supplies through an outreach called Christmas Every Day.

“(The people) said, ‘Oh, pastor, when you send things here, it’s just like Christmas,’” Singleton said, explaining the name.

The ministry to Africa has been a gift for Singleton as well, not only fulfilling her longtime desire to serve there but also introducing her to Afi Puplampu, a woman she considers to be her “spiritual mom.” While Singleton’s relationship with her biological mother has remained distant, she believes her friendship with Puplampu has helped to take away some of the pain from her childhood.

“We are healed as we go,” Singleton said, “when you give of yourself to others or you help someone else coming out.

“I promised God, ‘If you ever bring me out of this situation, I will always say thank you by bringing someone else out,” she said. “That’s why I always say Project Anna, this is my gift to God. This is my gift back to God.”

For more information about Project Anna, visit www.audrasingleton.org.

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Information from: The Daily Reflector, http://www.reflector.com

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