Randy Jackson can still recall how he dreaded walking across the trestle bridge as a small boy on his way to the Phillis Wheatley Community Center. Getting to the former location on Broad Street was worth it, though. He also hasn’t forgotten the teamwork skills he learned in basketball practice or how it felt to overcome his fear of water with swim lessons.
Now PWCC’s executive director, Jackson doesn’t have to look far to see the organization’s influence on generations of individuals.
“(Board Chair) Ray Lattimore, (Vice Chair) Debra Rice, (Programming and Artistic Director) Nyroba Leamon and myself are all products of PWCC. It had a profound impact on our lives, allowing us to become self-sufficient,” he says. “There were people who gave their lives to say ‘You can be whatever you want.’ We have to do the same. We cannot lose our focus on making a difference in the lives of children.”
Now advancing into its second century, PWCC collaborates with other non-profits and agencies to bring life-changing services to residents, like the Upstate Returning Citizens Program with Greenville Technical College and jobs programs for young people and adults with Goodwill Industries of Upstate/Midlands SC.
WYFF films its CommUnity Conversation on the campus. A senior fitness program, basketball camps, and other programs promote health and wellness for people of all ages.
For children, there’s a SHARE Head Start program, and after school care and summer day camp provided by Greenville County Parks, Recreation and Tourism. The Phillis Wheatley Repertory Theatre has nurtured scores of talented students over its long history, and will present its spring production in May, accompanied by the Greenville County Youth Orchestra.
In the two years since Jackson took the helm, PWCC has gained financial stability, overcome challenges and responded to expanding needs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, the center provided groceries for more than 2,500 families, distributed over 250 boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables and partnered with Upstate Circle of Friends to serve over 5,000 hot meals. Food distribution has scaled back but the organization is setting up an emergency food pantry to meet ongoing needs. With the help of generous donors, the nonprofit refurbished its commercial kitchen, which serves several programs.
“Historically, the community center has been a venue where politicians met with constituents, and sororities, fraternities and other groups held events,” Jackson says. “Rather than having caterers, they can have food prepared in-house, generating funds, allowing the center to achieve self-sufficiency.”
Jackson estimates 700–1,000 people come through the center each week.
“I’m excited about where we are going,” he says. “We can’t be everything to everybody; we’re just trying to make a difference in the lives we touch.”
“The Phillis Wheatley Community Center has made great strides in the last two years to ensure its legacy of service continues well into the future,” says Bob Morris, president of the Community Foundation of Greenville.
CFG has re-committed to funding minority-led nonprofits in 2021 for a total of $100,000 as it did last year in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Phillis Wheatley received a $25,000 unrestricted grant last year and will receive $12,500 this year. No amount of money can change history, but Jackson believes investment in underserved individuals and communities, along with honest conversation, can change the future.
“‘Underserved’ has no color or race attached to it,” he says. “When I look at systemic racism, it doesn’t matter what policy or procedure you craft until your heart changes; that’s when you start to see some of these ‘isms’ disappear. It has to be transformation from the inside out, not from the outside in.“