OKOLONA – Twenty-five years ago this fall Sister Elizabeth Brown saw a need to bring different parts of the community together to address a large number of social concerns.
And with the help of her church, a number of local agencies and numerous volunteers, Excel in downtown Okolona has worked to address problems faced by the young, the old and everyone in between.
“I became the pastor of the Catholic church here in 1985 and after three years I had gotten to know people and seen many of the problems facing Okolona,” said Brown. “We were a small congregation and some of our concerns seemed insurmountable.”
Brown said her background is in education and when three college-aged women volunteered to spend the summer in Okolona the roots of Excel were formed.
“We didn’t want another after-school or summer program and we wanted something that reached across racial lines,” said Brown. “We wanted something for kids, something for the elderly, single moms and for men, too.”
The Okolona chapter of the National Council of Negro Women was approached as were local churches and businesses.
“It all came together and at its core is the fact it brings people together,” said Brown. “There are lots of after-school programs and events for the aged. I firmly believe the reason we have been successful is we bring people – all people – together in this community.”
And the community is being asked to help celebrate Excel’s chipping away at those problems with a formal celebration this fall. Excel volunteers have fanned out over the community to raise funds for this event so as not to take away from services and programs.
Plans are to host a city-wide celebration in Okolona Sept. 27-28.
Sumeka Thomas is one of several seeking support for Excel.
“Excel has always been there for this community,” said Thomas. “I volunteered there as a high school student years ago and have been involved in a variety of projects down through the years.
“Excel works,” said Thomas. “I’m glad to be a part of this and urge people to support it.”
Brown said Excel has always been run on a shoestring and relies heavily on volunteers and individual donations. She said federal workforce grants dried up long ago.
“When we started we didn’t have two nickels to rub together,” said Brown. “But whenever there has been a need, something has blossomed. We’ve tried not to cut corners and we don’t waste anything.”
Excel has a staff of eight and more than 100 volunteers from the community. She said another 70 come to Okolona to do mission work and projects each year.
“If you want to call them programs, our programs are four-fold,” said Brown. “We educate, we build community, we foster volunteerism and we foster healthy lifestyles.”
Brown also pointed to a staff that focuses on serving people.
“We are looking at building downtown apartments for the elderly, we have an exercise room upstairs,” said Brown. “We have reading and education programs in the summer and after-school program in the winter and require parents come to a meeting or volunteer in the classroom once a month. We also teach parenting skills.”
And Brown smiles as she says many of the problems first addressed by Excel can still be found in the community.
“I’m not sure we will ever be finished or solve all the world’s problems,” she explained. “But Excel is working hard at it. It’s been a grand adventure.”
Anyone wanting to donate to Excel’s silver anniversary celebration can call Excel at 447-3008 or Thomas at 447-3555.