- Associated Press - Sunday, June 26, 2016

NEWPORT, Ark. (AP) - More than 80 volunteers from four Texas churches tore out walls, built a wooden stage and painted inside the old Calhoun Street Church of Christ building near the White River in Newport on June 13.

Others cleaned the church grounds and a basketball court in the searing heat.

Inside, several children ate lunches provided to them and received haircuts while the work continued.

It’s part of an ongoing process begun last year by Phil Brown, 44, a former television producer who grew up in Newport, aimed at helping restore a once vibrant Jackson County community knocked down by violence and crime.

He envisions holding mentoring programs for children in the old church, along with providing meals, games, educational assistance and other activities in a safe environment.

“We want to make our children feel loved and important,” Brown said. “They often don’t get that at home. They may not have many positive figures in their lives.”

He said shootings and violence among youngsters over the years in the town of 7,771 were the catalyst for his work.

“I’m not saying the streets around here are all bad,” Brown said. “We know where that happens. I just want all the kids safe and away from any problems.”

Brown, who moved back to Arkansas from California in 2013, created his organization I’m Making a Difference last year to help his community. Last summer, workers cleaned brush around the former W.F. Branch School, a school for black children from 1891 to 1970.

Brown attended pre-school classes at W.F. Branch and graduated from Newport High School in the late 1980s. He became a television producer for family programming and an entertainment promoter in California in 2004.

His organization also provided food for the elderly, assistance for shut-ins and after-school mentoring programs for youth.

This year, he purchased the Calhoun Street Church of Christ building, a separate building once used by the church for classrooms, and 15 acres of land around Calhoun Circle, Jones Street and Lester Street.

“This is not a black organization,” Brown said. “It’s a kid-community organization.”

The 88 volunteers, who came from the Central Texas Conference Youth in Mission in Midlothian, Texas, spent a week refurbishing the church building into a community center, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (https://bit.ly/28WHrIs ) reports.

Plans call for having several classrooms, including a computer center, a large area with a stage for plays, and a dining area for feeding children breakfasts and lunches.

The volunteers, senior high school students from four churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, spend a week each year helping other church programs in Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas, said Paul Hall, a representative of the Central Texas Conference Youth in Mission.

“The kids do this each year,” Hall said. “We stay at a church and work somewhere each week.”

The Newport School District provides meals for students when school is in session. Superintendent Larry Bennett said 85 percent of the district receives free or reduced lunches during the school year.

“We’ve got to have something to occupy children’s minds when they are out of school,” Bennett said. “If we can get more adults involved with kids, the better.”

“Once they leave the campus, they need more,” Bennett said. “That’s why (Brown’s) program is so important.”

Brown hopes to have the community center ready for children by early this week. He is funding his work with private donations, volunteer work and money he makes through his entertainment promotion business. He also opened a downtown Newport restaurant, and proceeds from it will pay for I’m Making a Difference programs.

He also has a Facebook page at IMAD Community Organization and a Go Fund Me site for donations. Brown can be contacted at (870) 664-6643.

Arkansas State University-Newport indicated it will provide computers for Brown’s center, along with instructors. The Newport Police Department also said officers will eat with the children to show them police are “human,” Brown said.

“It may not be very big, but it’s huge to me,” he said of his program. “We have kids lining up here to get in for breakfast at 6:30 each morning. That’s why we do this.”

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Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, https://www.arkansasonline.com

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