A Man And His Mission

By | December 6, 2017

Micanopy Pastor Chris Stokes wants to honor his late mother and son with ‘a Christmas present to the community’

The 2,000-square-foot trailer is propped up on cinder blocks, its guts composed of concrete and dust. It doesn’t look like a place where children might soon laugh and do homework, smile and play video games.

Or where the elderly can learn to use the internet or receive medical checkups. Or where a diverse community can congregate. But that’s what Chris Stokes, the man behind Micanopy’s Willie Mae Stokes Community Center, envisions.

“It may not look like much now,” he said, “but if you could only see what I see.”

The center held what was billed as a grand opening on Saturday, though some organizers described it as more of a “house warming.” The project isn’t finished yet. That’s clear by the lack of interior, carpeting or restrooms inside the portable. But outside, Stokes’ vision was starting to appear.

This is going to happen. So really, the push now is for this program to be a Christmas present to the community.

The town’s children chased each other with wiffle balls, dressed up as firefighters and threw foam footballs around. Their parents enjoyed the company of each other and of the organizations in attendance. And everyone else who gathered at the four-hour event had the opportunity to gorge on free hot dogs, hamburgers and baked beans while waiting for the silent auction and raffle to end.

A child smiles for the camera while wearing firefighter gear at Saturday's grand opening. (Ethan Bauer / WUFT News)
A child smiles for the camera while wearing firefighter gear at Saturday’s grand opening. (Ethan Bauer / WUFT News)

The event – and the center — was the culmination of a year of work led by Stokes, a Micanopy native and pastor at the town’s New Beginning Christian Worship Center, and his executive board. Work that, admittedly, was sometimes overwhelming. Permit after permit. Inspections. Funding. And, as a result, stress.

There’s also been opposition to the center. Some say it doesn’t meet any real needs. Others are concerned about whether Stokes, who is black, envisions a black community center or a community center for all. Stokes has addressed both publicly, but he tries not to think about the problems and criticisms, the setbacks and delays. He’s focused on success instead.

“This is going to happen,” he said. “So really, the push now is for this program to be a Christmas present to the community.”

From the ashes

There was no one moment when Stokes realized he wanted to start a community center. But if there was a moment that might be called the center’s birth, it came far from the lush oak canopy and weathered wooden homes of Micanopy, about 17 miles north, near Gainesville Regional Airport.

Stokes worked there at Gainesville Job Corps. The company used to house SIATech Gainesville Charter High School, but the school moved to a new location in 2014. It left a trailer behind, and Job Corps wanted it gone. Stokes volunteered to take it.

He moved it to Micanopy and dropped it across the street from his church. He originally planned to transform it into a dining hall for the members, but he changed his mind. He’s not exactly sure why, but he decided a community center was more in line with the church’s goals.

“Our motto has kind of been community first,” he said.

Stokes grew up in the community he wants the center to serve. His mother, Willie Mae, raised him and his eight siblings as a single parent working at a crate factory in the town that time forgot. Until she died on July 4, 2011, she was well-known for feeding people on Thanksgiving, for singing at funerals and for being a reliable pillar in the community. As Stokes put it, “They knew us as Miss Willie Mae’s kids.”

“She was a very influential woman in this town,” Micanopy Mayor Virginia Mance added. “Spent her life doing good in this town and is remembered as such.”

Micanopy Mayor Virginia Mance speaks to the crowd of about 30 at the beginning of Saturday's grand opening while Chris Stokes looks on next to her. (Ethan Bauer / WUFT News)
Micanopy Mayor Virginia Mance speaks to the crowd of about 30 at the beginning of Saturday’s grand opening while Chris Stokes looks on next to her. (Ethan Bauer / WUFT News)

Her picture has hung in the town council’s chambers since her death, Mance said, alongside other influential people from Micanopy’s history. Lavada Stokes-Bradshaw, one of her children, said she just had a charisma about her. She said that trait was passed on to Pastor Stokes.

“She’d be overjoyed,” Stokes-Bradshaw said when asked what Willie Mae would think if she could see the event. “She’d be very happy. I’m sure she would’ve cried all day. And I know she’d be very proud of Chris and what he’s been able to accomplish.”

The community center was delayed because of Stokes’ struggles. He had surgery earlier this year to remove a tumor on his prostate, which left him bedridden for a month.

When he was ready to return to work, his 17-year-old son, Sean, died in an ATV accident. The latter still inflicts pain daily — hourly — but he’s using the community center to fill the void. He hopes to — no, he will make Sean proud by creating “Sean’s Corner” once the center is running, where kids can come and engage in one of Sean’s favorite pastimes: Playing video games.

He also hopes to continue his mother’s community legacy with her namesake organization. The idea to name it after her, though, wasn’t his. It came from Lisa Jones, who is now the center’s secretary and grant writer. Stokes originally petitioned his church to help with a name, and it came up with the Micanopy Community Resource Center. Jones emailed him and suggested naming it after his mom instead, which the church was thrilled about.

The sign in front of the Willie Mae Stokes Community Center, located at 356 N.W. Sixth Ave. in Micanopy. (Ethan Bauer / WUFT News)
The sign in front of the Willie Mae Stokes Community Center, located at 356 N.W. Sixth Ave. in Micanopy. (Ethan Bauer / WUFT News)

The new name also gave Stokes new motivation. Which is why it was Friday — not Saturday — that brought him the most joy this past weekend. Before people cycled on and off the grounds of the community center and filled the parking lot across the street, he was able to plant the sign with his mom’s name.

“That’s my mom’s name,” he said, “and one thing I’m going to do is make sure my mom’s name is attached to something that succeeds.”

Not without controversy

The center is free to anyone who wants to participate in its programs, so its funding comes from grants, sponsors and donations. Dell Computers is one of the most prominent and important. It pledged $22,000 worth of laptops, desktops, printers and other technology, but one phone call put that in jeopardy.

Stokes has no idea who, but after he announced the donation, someone called Dell and tried to get the donation revoked. Stokes brought it up at a town commission meeting on Oct. 10. The anonymous caller accused the center of being an illegitimate organization, per town meeting minutes, with a lack of community support.

The caller also said the building that will house the center was condemned, and that the services promised were already being provided.

Mance called it unfortunate, and commissioner Joe Aufmuth called it disgusting. Stokes said the Dell representative called him very upset about his supposed misrepresentation of the project. Stokes assured him the caller was lying, and the donation is still expected to arrive on Dec. 12.

That isn’t the only source of controversy Stokes has dealt with. The biggest obstacle, he said, has been convincing people the community center will be for the whole community rather than his church members or the town’s black residents, who form just over 20 percent of the population.

That concern brought out some ugly racial tension. Stokes said he’d never been called a racial slur before he started trying to build the center. But he said those concerns are only held by a few, and Mance agreed.

“The one or two people that did call me that name,” he said, “I don’t think they speak for the whole community.”

Harbor Community Bank, the Micanopy library and others pitched tents outside the community center on Saturday. There was also a DJ and a silent auction. (Ethan Bauer / WUFT News)
Harbor Community Bank, the Micanopy library and others pitched tents outside the community center on Saturday. There was also a DJ and a silent auction. (Ethan Bauer / WUFT News)

There are also concerns about what the center will provide that the community doesn’t already have. Because as Mance pointed out, there are programs in place. There’s tutoring and internet access available at the town’s library. A soccer program is starting lessons in the coming months to meet a need for athletics. But Mance said it’s never a bad thing for folks to have more options.

“Sometimes less is more,” she said, “but sometimes more is better.”

While the center wants to serve everyone, including helping elderly residents learn computer skills and provide medical checkups with the closest hospital — UF Health Shands — about 15 minutes away, one of its major focal points is the town’s children.

“Kids here don’t really have much going on for them,” said Kathleen Barnes, manager of Harbor Community Bank in Micanopy and treasurer of the community center.

Stokes took it a step further.

“There are no opportunities, really,” he said. “Kids are out there unsupervised. So there are things to do, but nothing supervised.”

In pitching the center, he gave the town council — which supports the creation of the center — an example of kids running up tree trunks outside town hall after school as an example of an activity that could go wrong. And Librarian Naomi Baxter said even though some programs are offered at the library, more are needed.

“It seemed like for kids, after school there really wasn’t much for them to do,” she said. “They would crowd into our tiny little library and use up all the computers and take up all the tables and still run out of space.”

The center hopes to fix the overflow by providing tutoring and resources with its all-volunteer staff. It also wants to address the lack of athletics with basketball, soccer and even chess. The center already held tryouts for its basketball team, nicknamed the Eagles, last month.

At the end of the day, I don’t care if you’re republican or democrat, black or white. If there’s a need, I wanna be able to provide.

Athletic director Jiana Bradshaw, who wore a sparkling community center T-Shirt to the opening, said the sports programs, along with the center as a whole, could give Micanopy something to be proud of.

“For the longest, it’s just been antique shops,” she said. “That’s the only thing Micanopy is synonymous for.”

Stokes, with help from her and the rest of his staff, wants to change that. 

“At the end of the day, I don’t care if you’re republican or democrat, black or white,” he said. “If there’s a need, I wanna be able to provide.”

Coming Soon

Stokes couldn’t attend all of Saturday’s festivities, which also included a small petting zoo and massages. After making opening announcements, he left for a funeral.

He returned about three hours later, still wearing his button-down white shirt and yellow tie. He walked over to every tent, up to every person and shook their hands. He hugged the children. This, he thought, was the vision.

Black and white, young and old, all the attendees were just people in that moment, enjoying the event together. Now he just needs something to bring them back again.

The biggest remaining hurdle is installing a septic system and functional plumbing, which Stokes said will cost about $8,000. He’s still trying to find the money. But carpet will be installed this week, he said, and air conditioning should soon follow. The goal is to have all of it done in about two weeks, just in time for the town’s kids to enjoy over their winter break, which begins Dec. 20.

The yellowish building doesn’t look like it could be ready in two weeks. Even on the outside, it doesn’t look like much of a destination. But Stokes need only look across the street for a blueprint of what’s to come.

Kenzie Stokes, 16, Chris Stokes’ son, is instructed by Micanopy Fire Chief Jesse Modican on Saturday. Children of all ages were allowed to try on firefighter equipment at the unveiling. The New Beginning Christian Worship Center stands in the background. (Ethan Bauer / WUFT News)
Kenzie Stokes, 16, Chris Stokes’ son, is instructed by Micanopy Fire Chief Jesse Modican on Saturday. Children of all ages were allowed to try on firefighter equipment at the unveiling. The New Beginning Christian Worship Center stands in the background. (Ethan Bauer / WUFT News)

His church also doesn’t look like much from the outside. It’s a small, white building with plain blue carpeting and modest decor inside. But on Sunday, when the congregation sings “Come Like a Rushing Wind” and its people stand and sway as one, that’s what matters. That unity. That celebration with each other.

That’s what Stokes wants the Willie Mae Stokes Community Center to be. For his church community. For the Micanopy community. For everyone.

‘Today, you saw what I see,” he said near the end of the event. “Today there was life in that building. There was life on that street. There was life in that community. And that’s what I wanna produce every day.”