By Rachel Baldauf
The hallways of Partners in Ministry’s building in Laurinburg are covered in inspirational sayings: “Put first things first.” “Begin with the end in mind.”
When Executive Director Melba McCallum first dreamed the idea for the nonprofit in 2003, she couldn’t have known all that it would grow to become. Today, the group runs an afterschool program for about 300 students, provides college and career mentorship to young adults and helps renovate run-down houses in the community.
The Partners in Ministry campus, located at the former site of an elementary school, houses a community garden, a food pantry, a thrift store, a maker’s lab complete with 3D printers and a recording studio where students can create their own songs.
Though Partners in Ministry has grown significantly, McCallum said she always had a clear end in mind: help young people in Richmond, Robeson and Scotland counties break the cycle of poverty and bring change to their communities.
“We wanted to start with kids,” McCallum said. “We wanted to be able to have them be the change agents.”
McCallum first had the idea to create Partners in Ministry while working as the vice president of continuing education at the North Carolina Community College System. While recruiting students, McCallum saw that many were academically unprepared for college.
“Why are they unprepared?” McCallum asked herself. “And what do we need to do to prepare them so that at least when they come to the community college system, they can get in?”
When McCallum retired in 2005, she became a deaconess of the United Methodist Church and got to work creating Partners in Ministry. The group began by writing grant proposals in McCallum’s Rockingham home and received 501(c)(3) status in 2008.
“We started out with zero dollars,” McCallum said.
The early days of Partners in Ministry were spent talking with members of the community about the issues they face.
“We sat down and talked to school officials, we talked with the county commissioners, we talked to the political folks, we talked with parents. We brought those folks to the table,” McCallum said. “These are real issues. How do we address these issues?”
Partners in Ministry’s first youth program was a cohort of 20 students who met twice a week for nine weeks. Because the group didn’t have a building at the time, they met in various churches and community centers throughout Richmond, Robeson and Scotland counties.
“We decided to train them on what it looks like to be in poverty, and how you can prevent yourself from being a statistic,” McCallum said.
The group looked at data about school dropouts, food insecurity and lack of housing in its communities. The first cohort started the community garden, thrift store and food bank that Partners in Ministry still run today. At the end of the program, students were encouraged to pick a younger student to mentor. Ninety-nine percent of the students in the cohort graduated high school and went to college, McCallum said.
“It was exciting. Lord have mercy, it was so exciting,” McCallum said. “It was like, ‘Why has nobody thought of this?’”
As the group grew, it received funding through United Women in Faith, a UMC ministry, and The Duke Endowment. Still, the early years of Partners in Ministry were powered by volunteers.
“We had to start out very early on without funds because you had to have a track record of how you’re going to do stuff,” McCallum said.
Only two volunteers came to one of Partners in Ministry’s first home renovation projects. “I was so disappointed, and I was so apologetic,” McCallum said.
At the end of the day, one of the volunteers told McCallum that he had spent his time working on the roof with another man.
“‘That man was having major problems in his life, but I spent time on that roof ministering to him,’” the volunteer told McCallum.
She saw that as a sign.
“Let me tell you, God has been all over this project from the very beginning,” McCallum said.
By 2010, the ministry had outgrown the fellowship hall in Gibson where participants had been meeting.
The first bid the organization placed on its current property was only $1,000, McCallum said. Though it was forced to bid higher, McCallum said the group was able to purchase the property for “little to nothing.” Today, Partners in Ministry is debt-free.
When McCallum got the keys to the property, she walked through each room with a friend and prayed over it. The property had been completely gutted when the elementary school left.
“It was a mess, but you’ve got to see God’s vision,” McCallum said.
Today, the campus looks very different. Colorful drawings and school projects cover the walls. Classrooms are equipped with interactive whiteboards. If you visit around 3 p.m. on any Monday through Thursday, you’ll hear the chatter and laughter of hundreds of students as they stream into the building. Shortly after, you’ll smell the full-course meal each participant receives.
Still, Partners in Ministry is quickly outgrowing this space as well, McCallum said. The children eat their meals in classrooms because there’s no space for them to all eat together. The floor of the auditorium is filled with stacked pallets of food for the food pantry. One classroom has a makeshift science lab crammed into the back because there’s no room to put it anywhere else.
“We’re on top of each other,” McCallum said.
After the COVID-19 pandemic, the group began fundraising for a $3.5 million, 21,000-square-foot Community Education Center on campus. The center will include a gymnatorium and a workforce development training center. McCallum hopes to break ground by February, and construction is expected to take a year.
The group has already raised a significant amount, but McCallum said it still needs another $1 million.
Two decades since McCallum first dreamed of what would become Partners in Ministry, she said she has no plans of slowing down.
“Folks will say, ‘Why are you working?’ I’m not working. This is a ministry. God has called me to do this,” she said. “If I didn’t do this work, what else would I do? Go home and do what?”