Each year around Father's Day, we honor men in the Jackson metro area who are making differences in our communities. This year's include leaders, policy advocates, south Jackson warriors, creators of welcoming spaces, social-media experts, and more. Meet the 2018 Guys We Love.
John P. Perkins
by Micah Smith
Before entering ministry, John Perkins, pastor of Common Ground Covenant Church, made a name for himself in the food scene. At age 22, he became the executive chef for the Eagle Ridge Convention Center in Raymond.
It was after he and wife, Patrice, got married in 2006 that Perkins says he wanted to be a spiritual leader for his family and turned to the Bible. As he began to fall in love with the scriptures, his grandfather, pastor John M. Perkins, founder of the John & Vera Mae Perkins Foundation, began mentoring him.
In 2009, Perkins began working with his grandfather's ministry, and in 2010, he began leading the Spencer Perkins Center in west Jackson. Then, three and a half years ago, he launched Common Ground with the goal of expanding their efforts in the area.
"It's what we do for the kingdom that's going to last, and the work we do in west Jackson is solely trying to meet Jesus where he's already at work in our neighborhood and in our community," he says.
In addition to promoting local business, arts and education through events such as Community Nights, Thinker's Fair and Taste of West Jackson, the church has a variety of mission-oriented programs, including English as a Second Language tutoring at Pecan Park Elementary School. Common Ground also recently launched a web platform, "Church in Community," designed to share program results and provide tools for others to replicate them nationally.
"We are asking people to get in the game, and I think there are also people who want to do more than stack chairs," Perkins says. "We're finding those people, or they're finding us."
By Marie Weidmayer
Ahmad Thompson, 33, along with Garrad Lee, Michael Milnick, Bradley Adair and Thompson's brother Saddi Thompson, saw a need for a diverse gathering place in Fondren—a place that would be welcoming for all, Thompson says. That idea became The Flamingo.
Thompson, who is originally from Crystal Springs, graduated with a bachelor's in marketing from the University of Mississippi in 2008 and moved to Jackson in 2010. It was around that time that he and Saddi took over their father's construction company, Thompson and Thompson Construction and Roofing, which has been in the Jackson community for more than 25 years. Thompson is the construction manager, while Saddi handles business and marketing.
Since The Flamingo's opening in fall 2017, the venue has hosted everything from art shows to concerts to trivia nights.
"It's a place that's welcoming for all races, genders, gender identities, sexual orientations, religion, things like that," Thompson says. "That's what we want The Flamingo to be—a place where everybody can get together, and we can express people's ideas through art and music and just general congregation without fear of persecution or things like that."
The Flamingo also partners with organizations such as Planned Parenthood to hold events and fundraisers.
"We are able to support causes that we believe in," Thompson says. "The Flamingo gives us a vehicle to allow people to express themselves in a healthy environment."
by Logan Williamson
For Blake Case, it's important to help the community, and he understands the role social media can play in that. Case is currently the manager of marketing and public awareness for the Women's Foundation of Mississippi, which seeks to create economic security for women in the state.
Case graduated from Mississippi State University with a bachelor's degree in social studies in 2013. From March 2014 to May 2017, he served as the social media manager for 42 for Better Schools, which appeared on the November 2016 ballot for public school funding.
He started in his position with the Women's Foundation in September 2017. The organization dedicates itself to funding programs that better the lives of women and girls in the state. The nonprofit also awards grants to programs that aid in social change such as ones that decrease unplanned pregnancies through accurate, evidence-based sexual education. In his position, Case focuses on communications strategy, media relations, digital marketing and more.
He has also contributed to social media for The Parent's Campaign, a public-education advocacy group.
He sees a need for media- and social-media savvy people in the nonprofit and community advocacy sectors.
"We're still trying to catch up to 2018," he says. "There's a limited number of people who know the basics of digital and social media, so I feel like I've been useful. There's a real need in our area for communicators and media-enriched people."
by Amber Helsel
When John Ruckdeschel made the decision during his medical training to be an oncologist, it was not as common as it is today.
"It was a need to do it, and it was different," Ruckdeschel says. "Nobody in the '60s wanted to be an oncologist. There just wasn't a whole lot to do for patients with cancer. There weren't very many chemotherapy drugs, and it was a whole brand new field."
For him, the field represented promise because doctors were just beginning to understand how cancer works.
However, Ruckdeschel did not always plan to go into the medical field. In 1963, he began studying aeronautical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Then, in his second year, he realized he didn't want to go into that field. He decided to take courses for a pre-medical degree to see how he liked it.
"Math was never intuitive for me," Ruckdeschel says. "I had to work at it. Biology and how biological systems and how the human body works, it's all intuitive. Once I know one piece of it, the rest of it just falls into place."
He graduated from Rensselaer in 1967 with a bachelor's degree in biology and then received a medical degree from Albany Medical College in 1971. That year, he also began his internal medicine internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital before moving on to an oncology fellowship at the National Cancer Institute from 1972 to 1975. Finally, he completed his senior residency in internal medicine at Beth Israel Hospital in 1976.
Ruckdeschel, 71, has held positions such as president and chief executive officer of Moffitt Cancer Center and the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, and medical director of the oncology program and services at Intermountain Healthcare. In 2017, he became the director of the University of Mississippi Medical Center's Cancer Institute. Ruckdeschel says that working at UMMC gives him the opportunity to do what he does best: build and direct cancer centers.
"I love being the conductor rather than the violinist or the trombonist or whatever, getting everybody to play together and to work together," he says. "Cancer is a team sport. It really is. It requires teams to take care of people."
When not working, he enjoys spending time with his wife, Angela, and family, and loves to cook, travel and bird-watch.
Ronnie Crudup Jr.
by Dustin Cardon
Ronnie Crudup Jr., executive director of New Horizon Ministries Inc., has been hard at work in recent days fulfilling his organization's goal of making life better for residents of south Jackson.
Crudup, 41, is a lifelong Jackson resident and graduated from Murrah High School before attending Belhaven University, where he received a bachelor's degree in history in 2006.
"My family moved to south Jackson when I was a junior in high school for my father's church," he says. Other than a three-year period in north Jackson, he has lived there ever since.
"I got involved in the south Jackson community because my whole working life has been here, my family is here, and my children go to the local schools. I want the same quality of life found in others parts of town to be here."
The most recent project for New Horizon Ministries has been renovating the Terry Road swimming pool, which Crudup says has been closed for the better part of two years. New Horizon received a memorandum of understanding from the City to work on the pool in April and has since been painting, fixing leaks and providing other necessary repairs.
"We had painted that pool and tried to fix it up a few years ago because it's not far from our center, and our kids used it," Crudup says. "When it closed, and they couldn't use it anymore, we decided to take responsibility for it for both our kids and our community."
He oversaw a project in October 2017 to hire a Nashville artist, who was in town working on other projects, to paint a mural representing the south Jackson community over a formerly graffiti-covered wall at Tennis Center South. He has also been working to demolish abandoned houses and turn the properties into something positive for the community.
"Two months ago, we demolished an abandoned house off of Martin Luther King Drive near Lanier High School, and we recently did another one," he says. "We brought in a local gardener and landscaper named Hazzard Miller to help turn the first space into a community garden, and now residents maintain it and grow cucumbers, watermelon, tomatoes and other summer crops there."
by Micah Smith
Much of D.J. Baker's life has revolved around the connection between healthy food and family, starting when he would help his mother in the garden growing up.
In 2015, Baker chose to leave his hometown of Edmond, Okla., where his family has lived for more than a century, and joined FoodCorps as a service member. The national nonprofit sent him to Mississippi, where he worked to provide children in low-income areas with access to healthy food.
"That was showing kids how to garden and grow their own food, how to prepare food; talking about the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful of food in our everyday world; having conversations about culture, about what that looks like in history and what that looks like now," he says.
While Baker left FoodCorps earlier this year, he has continued his efforts to further nutrition education and sustainable farming here in Jackson. Since June 2017, he has been partnering with farmer Felicia Bell on RD & S Farm, working to grow a diverse, sustainable farm in Brandon. In addition to farming, RD & S offers educational materials, workshops and agricultural consultations.
Baker also works with the Alliance of Sustainable Farms, a Mississippi-based nonprofit that works to connect farmers throughout the state who want to address issues of sustainability. Among other projects, the organization offers a farmer-to-farmer mentoring program, and hosts events to help highlight and introduce local growers to the community.
In February 2018, Baker launched his own company, Esculent, which aims to get more people involved with growing their own food, both through education and the installation of home fruit, vegetable and herb gardens.
"If the concept is growing for community, (you should) allow the communities to grow some for themselves," Baker says. "You're not going to have families that are going to go out and do whole farms for themselves, you know? ... But you can cut grocery costs, and this is an opportunity for families to literally grow together."
by Micah Smith
For eight years before moving to Jackson, Washington native Alan Grove was already building friendships here, where his brother Bryan had moved.
About a year after receiving a bachelor's degree in comparative history with a certificate in sales and marketing from the University of Washington, Grove was working for a video-production startup in Seattle. He had a conversation with one of his Jackson friends, Pastor John Perkins of Common Ground Covenant Church, who was in Seattle at the time, and told him that he was unsure about what to do with his life.
"I didn't know if I wanted to do social entrepreneurship with my life or if I wanted to be a pastor," Grove says, "so in our conversation, he described how he was both."
In May 2015, Grove moved to west Jackson and became the church's operations and production director. While he had almost a decade of connections in the area, he says the first step in getting involved was to ask what he could do.
"I went from a startup video production company to then a church plant, and really, in those environments, you do what needs to get done," he says.
"A lot of it was just seeing the vision or the end goal of the project, and filling in the gaps the best you can, adapting if necessary."
Grove, 26, has helped coordinate many events to promote west Jackson and tackle issues, including the Jubilee Conference, which brought together community leaders in January 2018 to consolidate efforts to fight poverty and provide resources. The church will host a "Community Night" summer series, featuring free events such as the Gospel Explosion on June 14 and Hip-Hop in the Park on July 12.
by Dustin Cardon
Austin Baney, head trainer and co-owner of CrossFit Fondren (3002 N. Mill St., 769-208-6704), first heard about CrossFit in college.
"I didn't use to be an athletic kid growing up, but I later found that fitness was a great personal outlet for my wellbeing," Baney says. "I ... fell in love with their approach to health and fitness in the community."
Baney, 24, was born in Memphis, Tenn., and his family has lived in Madison since 2005. He graduated from Madison Central High School and went on to Mississippi College, where he received a bachelor's degree in social studies education in 2015.
He worked as a social studies teacher at Hardy Middle School in Jackson during the 2016-2017 school year.
During that time, he also worked part-time as a CrossFit trainer at Coyote CrossFit in Madison. He had not considered fitness as a career path until Lewis reached out to him in search of someone to coach classes ahead of CrossFit Fondren's August 2017 opening.
Baney currently handles the center's day-to-day operations, including coaching classes and managing CrossFit's social media marketing.
"I believe that physical health is connected to mental, emotional and spiritual health, and our approach at CrossFit works to help a person as a whole when they come here," he says.
Baney lives in Flowood with his wife, Caitlyn Baney.