A sense of place is a deeply understood concept in the South. The Piney Woods School, a private boarding school for black boys and girls, 21 miles south of Jackson on Highway 49, epitomizes place for its students and those who work there to make sure the education provided is pertinent, academically and practically.
The Village Elders Summer Camp, a two-week program for campers and senior citizens who serve as their mentors, touches lives. Its inspiration came about when Dr. Charles H. Beady Jr., Piney Woods' president, was on a flight in 1996, sitting beside an older lady. As they talked, she shared memories of her grandfather. Dr. Beady soon realized how lucky he was to be listening to one of the few people who remembered firsthand conversations with a former slave who had endured the horrendous voyage known as the "Middle Passage." He decided to seek senior citizens to share their life experiences with Piney Woods students.
This year's camp has 14 campers and 21 Village Elders. Jacksonian Ivory Figures, who will be a 9th grader at Jim Hill High School, said she's learned several practical skills from the elders, including how to sew and to bake. Ronnie Pierce, a high school sophomore from Cleveland, Ohio, told me he'd been studying money management and the Bible as well as baking. He's enjoyed fishing, too. Village Elder Major James Davis, from Mendenhall, said that Pierce and many of the other youngsters had impressed him with the fact that they not only have an idea of what they want to do with their lives, but they also have a back-up plan.
This is the first summer as a Village Elder for the retired Army major, who graduated from Piney Woods in 1962. For 10 years, he has taught Red Cross first aid and CPR classes in the summer as a way of giving back to the school. Major Davis discusses with the students what he's learned about life, from his own experiences, while fishing or playing checkers. One point he makes is the importance of being a "literate shopper," one who will get the most for the money spent plus one who can withstand the advertising onslaught that encourages spending, not saving.
Another point Davis likes to make with the campers is the importance of good manners, especially when dealing with adults. "It's OK to act foolish with other kids," Davis said, "but you want to act in a respectable manner around adults because adults can help you," going on to explain the importance of a good reference in securing the job of their dreams. The Village Elders summer camp is a good program for the students, Davis believes, although the elders might not be able to tell right away how much of what's been discussed gets through to the students. He's certain that they will pick it up later when it's needed.
Dr. Beady told the audience at the luncheon held Friday, July 16, at the Jackson Marriott to honor the Village Elders that the program goes a long way toward proving that old African adage, "It takes a village to raise a child," but that no village is complete without its elders.