A lot has happened since the first basketballs bounced on the then-new surface at the St. James Sports Center 15 years ago.
But the center thrives, a hub of activity in Holmestown and a success story that isn’t about to end anytime soon, say its biggest fans.
“This is God’s building, man,” St. James Sports Center Director Ernie Walthour said. “It’s going to be here when they put my coffin in the ground. It’s going to be right here, it’s going to be growing and it’s going to be moving kids in the right direction.”
Walthour, a 1985 graduate of Bradwell Institute and a member of the Liberty County Athletic Hall of Fame, estimates the center already has helped thousands of children since he left a job with Fort Stewart Youth Services in 1996 to become the facility’s one and only director to date — and it’s most public representative.
Under his watch, the center has expanded both its facilities and what it offers to the community. Now, the basketball court is surrounded by a weight room, a game room, a study hall and a place to feed kids. All are funded through private sources, the St. James’ supportive 125-member congregation and the United Way.
Fees for summer camps and after-school programs are nominal, and “we scholarship in a whole lot of kids,” said Pastor Marvin Kelly, who started the center along with his father, Bishop Ernest Kelly.
“We don’t turn people down,” Pastor Kelly said. “We need some funds coming in to operate, but we don’t want to see a kid left behind because they don’t have the money. The object is not to get rich. The object is to help the community.”
It’s a community that stretches beyond Holmestown. First Presbyterian Christian Academy’s basketball and soccer teams play their home games at St. James. And St. James’ facilities also are shared with the Hinesville Gators and the Liberty County Recreation Department.
As the program has grown, so has the need for more facilities, Walthour said. A baseball field and track are on the way, and a second basketball court is on the priority list.
“That’s our biggest need,” Walthour said. “We really need another court becasue a lot of people are using this one now.”
Jay Osteen, an attorney and member of the St. James Sports Center board of directors, said plans are under way for the second court. He credits the Kellys with having the vision to start the center and Walthour, who uses basketball to reach kids, for much of its success.
“Basketball is one of those things these kids really enjoy,” Walthour said. “It is a way to keep them focused and, a lot of times, they know it’s a way out of where they’re at. It makes them want to keep their GPAs up and pass their SATs because they have to if they want to play basketball.”
His AAU teams, the Coastal Crew Rebels, compete around the country and they’ll go to New York this winter.
But college coaches also come to St. James, since Walthour has established a track record of helping talented kids “get to the next level.”
But it’s not all fun and games. There’s book work, too. Education is stressed at the St. James Sports Center, Walthour said, and the center has both a computer lab and a tutoring center under the leadership of Alfreda Golden.
“Academics are the most important thing we do at the center,” Osteen said. “Our after-school program is set up to help the public school student succeed in public school … and so they’ll have grades that are high enough for them to seize the opportunity, if they want to, to go to college.”
Other key members of the sports center family are Sabrina Mims, who works with the after-school program and summer camp; Alfred Golden, Nate Golden, Larry Golden and Tony Johnson, who “keep the place looking beautiful,” Walthour said; and Sarah Atkinson, who is responsible for feeding everyone.
The reason for all the work can be found in the Bible, according to Pastor Kelly, but it boils down to something pretty simple.
“There’s a need,” he said. “If we follow the pattern of Jesus, Jesus always went where there’s a need. If there’s no need for something, then it’s a waste of time. You have to go where the people have need.”
Kelly someday envisions expanding St. James’ outreach programs to include helping senior citizens and a prison ministry.
For now, hundreds of kids a year are involved in at least one of the center’s various programs. Both Walthour and Osteen expect that number to continue to grow. They believe the St. James Sports Center will continue to find the resources it needs to do its job.
“The foundation we started with for the first 15 years was much smaller than it is now,” Osteen said. “The foundation we have now is so much larger, so we have a larger foundation to build on now. That bodes well for us influencing and helping many more kids than we did the last 15 years.”
The key is putting kids first, he said.
“You have to have the right people on your team who have a heart for kids,” Osteen said. “That’s No. 1, because you don’t get rich in this line of work.”
Pastor Kelly said that his first idea was to build a playground. But after discussing it with his father, they decided to build a gym instead — and that led to so much more than basketball.
“We’re not trying to indoctrinate kids, but to show God to them,” he said. “We’re trying to show them there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things, and that if you work hard, you can be successful.”
The effort has borne fruit, supporters say. Through Walthour’s basketball program alone, the center has helped approximately 100 student-athletes get college scholarships, Osteen said.
“A lot of those kids are doing well in college,” Pastor Kelly said. “A lot have grad-uated already and are doing very well.”