From the ashes

A nearly abandoned west Tulsa community center is being reborn, thanks to a faithful few.



This past summer, James Mission moved into the Cornerstone Community Center, located in the west Tulsa neighborhood of South Haven.

When it opened in September 2012, Cornerstone Community Center was 20,000 square feet of pure potential for the low-income west Tulsa community of South Haven.

The Rev. Willard Jones and Greater Cornerstone Baptist, his church of several hundred members, raised $7.2 million in private funds to build the modern, two-story building that offered the neighborhood’s residents a wide range of social services and recreation. Some of Tulsa’s largest foundations and corporations supported the capital campaign.

But less than two years after the center’s opening, Jones was indicted for embezzling nearly $1 million from its coffers. He was sentenced to 37 months in prison and ordered to repay the stolen funds.

In the months and years that followed, the underutilized Cornerstone Community Center reeled from the impact of Jones’ poor choices.

Under the leadership of his former employees and congregants, Rossalyn and Lewis Wilson, South Haven residents still benefited from an after-school program and food and clothing assistance at the center, which also hosted weekend basketball tournaments.

Yet without enough revenue to support the center’s state-of-the-art amenities, the enormous facility nearly went into bankruptcy. Cornerstone Community Center was days from being boarded up.

Fortunately, the center was reborn this past July as the new headquarters for the nonprofit James Mission, which has served foster and adoptive families in the Tulsa area since 2013. Now the center’s staff and supporters are looking to the future and trying to learn from the past.

 

Troubled waters

With rumors of Jones’ embezzlement and his eventual indictment, excitement and progress at Cornerstone Community Center largely screeched to a halt. Funders lost confidence in the project. Most of the agencies that had established an onsite presence at the center — including Domestic Violence Intervention Services, Family and Children’s Services, and Morton Comprehensive Health Services — packed up and left.

The center’s closing seemed imminent, but it would have been yet another blow to South Haven residents. Realizing this, and seeing the facility’s potential, the Tulsa Community Foundation — one of the center’s original funders — worked with the Oklahoma attorney general’s office to become receiver of the property in February 2015, says TCF CEO Phil Lakin.

Phil Lakin

TCF’s scope and its involvement with the center made it a natural fit to oversee the transition of the property to another nonprofit, Lakin says. However, more issues came to light. For example, TCF learned the center sits on 21 parcels of land it doesn’t legally own — a result of land donations and sales that did not follow the proper legal protocols. Lakin says TCF is still undergoing the arduous process to find and transfer the various titles to the Greater Cornerstone entity, a nonprofit separate from the church.

Additionally, there were delinquent bills and overdue maintenance. Lakin says 25 funders, led by a steering committee of five or six funders, committed to sustain the center’s operations to reduce the financial burden for a future nonprofit.

“At one point, it was, ‘Who can give $10,000? Who can give $5,000?’” Lakin says of his petition to funders. Eventually, “All of them were saying, ‘Look, we can’t give any more. We’ve already given more than we could afford to give.’” Since Jones’ indiscretion, TCF alone has given about a quarter-million dollars to keep the facility open, Lakin says.

During this time, “The funders gave us what (money) was left for operations, which wasn’t a lot, and said, ‘Here’s all that’s left. Take care of it,’” recalls Rossalyn Wilson.

In the midst of the center’s legal and financial turmoil, TCF needed to find a nonprofit willing to take over its operations and existing programs. A possible solution came to Lakin at Costco, of all places.

 

The right fit

While shopping at the bulk warehouse in early 2017, Lakin ran into Joey Reyes, husband of Lyndsey Reyes, the executive director and founder of James Mission. The couple, who has fostered dozens of children over the years, started the nonprofit from their Broken Arrow home. James Mission served 1,949 children and 213 adults in 2016 and had grown out of the warehouse where it was operating at East 41st Street and South Memorial Avenue.

Already familiar with the Reyeses and James Mission, Lakin says he told Joey about the community center and encouraged Lyndsey to submit a business plan to the steering committee. A few other nonprofits did the same, but James Mission was ultimately the best fit. “The steering committee was attracted to James Mission based on its leadership, volunteer base, the financial soundness of the institution and their willingness to pick up those programs” currently being run at the center, Lakin says.

In July, James Mission entered into a lease agreement with TCF that allows the nonprofit to occupy the center rent-free for one year. In exchange, James Mission took over operations and expanded its own services literally overnight to oversee the programs facilitated by the Wilsons.

The arrangement is not permanent, and questions remain. “If everything works out and we get all of the real estate issues resolved, do we continue the lease (with James Mission)? What happens?” Lakin says. “There are things both parties need to experience before making that decision. … (But James Mission) is helping to fill a void that needs to be filled right now.”

By moving into the Cornerstone Community Center, James Mission went from a 3,000-square-foot space to one nearly seven times its size. That extra space allowed for an expansion of services, including rooms like these that allow Department of Human Services caseworkers to supervise interactions between children in state custody and their biological parents.

 

A dream come true

Lyndsey Reyes’ eyes shine as she sits behind her desk in what was once the office of Willard Jones. She is still in disbelief that James Mission went from a 3,000-square-foot facility to a building nearly seven times its size. “It’s totally (because of) God that we got this,” she says. “It’s just nuts.”

The extra space has allowed James Mission to expand its services to the foster and adoptive community at the heart of the organization’s original vision. In August and September James Mission hosted two statewide training events for foster parents. The building also made possible a resource Reyes dreamed of for years: a cozy visitation center where Department of Human Services caseworkers can supervise interactions between children in state custody and their biological parents, who are working to get their kids back.

Lyndsey and Joey Reyes

The programs James Mission inherited continue as promised. With the help of the Wilsons, Reyes oversees the center’s after-school program, clothing pantry and food pantry, which is facilitated by Hannah and Benny Cosar of The Building Project. (Previously operating out of Eastwood Baptist Church, The Building Project serves the homeless and relocated to South Haven with James Mission earlier this year.)

In August, James Mission ran its first back-to-school giveaway from the center. This fall, it began an affordable basketball league for area elementary school students. The center also will continue to host basketball tournaments and will expand to host camps and other events, all of which will help generate operational revenue, Reyes says.

This month, James Mission will run its annual Christmas outreach from its new building. In the past, the event allowed parents to receive new donated toys and clothing for their foster children; now all low-income families can apply to participate.

Reyes says she always envisioned James Mission would become a one-stop shop for foster and adoptive families. Now its goal is still the same, just broader: to serve all families in need. She says, “To break cycles, we need to offer full wrap-around services” — an outlook that brings the center’s original purpose full circle.

 

A challenging transition

Although James Mission’s move to South Haven appears to be a fresh start for the neighborhood, those involved say the transition has not been easy. “There was a lot of hurt in the community, a lot of empty promises,” says Reyes, who met some initial resistance from South Haven families. “We’ve had to explain that (the building) is not a community center anymore. Kids can’t just come in and hang out and watch TV. There are major liability issues.”

Reyes says the Wilsons, the center’s stalwarts, were key in helping James Mission gain residents’ understanding and trust. But even Lewis Wilson concedes some initial reluctance. “James Mission had a different vision than we did,” he explains. “They never planned to do some of the things we were doing.”

The process of bringing the center’s existing programs under James Mission’s purview was like becoming a blended family, Lewis says. Both sides were reluctant to change. In the end, a childhood memory helped him get on board with the new leadership. “I remembered back to my youth experience and knowing people who took care of foster kids,” he says. “Sometimes kids at school would tease the kids.

“The first month (after James Mission moved into the center) I probably never smiled, and I didn’t talk too much. But then I started seeing what (James Mission is) doing, and my attitude changed.”

Now Lewis says he is confident in the strides being made by all parties and in James Mission’s long-term success in South Haven. “I’m hoping eventually the funders’ (of the original Cornerstone development) hearts will be touched to help James Mission,” he says. “Now we have someone who is dotting all the Is and crossing all the Ts and trying to do right by the community.”

 

‘Lessons learned’

After all TCF has been through with Cornerstone Community Center, Lakin still keeps Willard Jones’ business card on the bookshelf in his office. “I keep it here to remind me of lessons learned and things we (as a foundation) should have done better from the outset,” Lakin says.

What can be done to prevent something like this from happening again? That’s the question that keeps Lakin, and likely some of the city’s philanthropists, up at night. Although no one could have foreseen his embezzlement, Jones had previous financial problems, which could have been a red flag, Lakin says. He says he strongly believes it is the duty of a nonprofit’s board of directors to keep tabs on the organization’s financials and investigate wrongdoing. But he and the group of Cornerstone funders are now tasked with determining whether broader financial oversight — even oversight of an organization’s board of directors — is the responsibility of the organization’s lead funders, or perhaps something TCF can be hired to perform.

One thing is certain: “The Willard Jones effect is still alive and well” as foundations more carefully scrutinize applications for funding, Lakin says. While that scrutiny is good on one hand, he says it “causes a lot of extra work for nonprofits who have nothing but good intentions.”

 

Moving forward

Through Jones’ indictment, the Wilsons suffered not only a professional loss, but also a personal one. “He was an awesome pastor, and his vision was awesome,” Lewis says of Jones, who was his college classmate and longtime friend. “We still felt like, going into the financial audit, things were going to wash out.” But their faith only went so far.

After sentencing, the Wilsons chose not to communicate with Jones. They say they don’t harbor any bad feelings — just sadness. “Everybody has things they go through in life,” Rossalyn says. “We just pray for him.”

Like the Wilsons, many South Haven residents have forgiven Jones. But they can’t forget. After all, the fruit of his vision can still be seen from their front yards and back porches.

For some, the towering structure might always be a reminder of broken promises. But for those who embrace the work of James Mission, it could be a phoenix rising to offer the neighborhood a second chance at its own rebirth. 

Editor’s note: Willard Jones will be released from prison Feb. 1. TulsaPeople tried to reach him by mail but received no reply. It’s not known whether he will return to Tulsa.

 

Humble heroes

Lewis and Rossalyn Wilson

Despite various health problems, Lewis Wilson, 68, put his heart and soul into his role as Cornerstone Community Center’s facility director.

Before James Mission relocated to the center, Lewis could be found working seven days a week, including 13-15 hours on Saturdays, says his wife, Rossalyn. His duties entailed “camping out” at the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma at 7 a.m. two or three times a week to gather items for the center’s food distribution program that feeds 75-100 families per month.

The fresh produce goes first. “When they open up the warehouse, it’s like, snatch and grab,” Lewis laughs. “Most agencies have five to six people shopping, and they bring their own box trucks.” Lewis usually had himself and a Ford Fusion. (Sometimes, a volunteer, Daisy Polite, would assist with her SUV.)

Lewis also was the center’s kitchen manager, who created quite the reputation among South Haven residents and visiting basketball teams. Instead of traditional concessions, Cornerstone Community Center served up fish, hamburgers and house-made french fries. Lewis even made hearty breakfasts of chicken and waffles, biscuits and gravy and more. As the interim center director, Rossalyn was always behind the scenes, making sure programs ran as seamlessly and efficiently as possible.

Despite their workload, Lewis and Rossalyn say the South Haven youth kept them going. “Their parents know we love (the kids) like our own kids,” says Lewis, who was a substitute teacher in north Tulsa between his retirement from the telecom industry and coming to Cornerstone. “The reason I stayed is because I have a heart for youth. I would rather see them at the center than roaming the street and getting into trouble.”

Under James Mission’s leadership, the Wilsons remain on staff at the center, though their new titles are still being worked out, Rossalyn says. However, they don’t plan on going anywhere. “Parents in the community always tell us how much they appreciate (this center) and what it’s doing for the community,” she says. “I couldn’t leave that.”

Tulsa Community Foundation CEO Phil Lakin is among the Wilsons’ biggest supporters. “Ros and Lewis have done such a great job at the center for so long,” he says. “My hat is off to them for the way they have served that community and how they have loved its people.”

 

History of South Haven

The quiet neighborhood of South Haven is bordered by West 51st Street and 55th Place and 37th and 41st West avenues. Between 1918 and 1920, Tulsa pioneer Oscar Schlegel founded and named the area, which soon attracted a group of early African-American settlers.

In the days following the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, the town became a literal haven for displaced blacks, says Lewis Wilson, and its population swelled. Over the years, South Haven grew into a thriving community and was annexed by Tulsa in 1966.

In the late ’70s and ’80s, the neighborhood became ridden with drugs, says Rossalyn Wilson. Habitat for Humanity eventually built 60-70 homes in South Haven, bringing more stability to the area.

 

Help James Mission

James Mission accepts year-round donations of new and gently used clothing and shoes; backpacks, suitcases and duffle bags; toiletries; food; and baby items. Schedule a donation drop-off at jamesmission.org. For updates on James Mission’s most urgent needs, visit facebook.com/thejamesmission.

When a child is removed from their home and placed into state custody, they can only grab a few things. Loads of Love bags are given to these kids and include a weeks’ worth of clothing, pajamas and other clothing essentials, along with a new stuffed animal, toy and blanket.

 

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