Red Bird Mission evolves as it serves E. Ky

QUEENDALE, Ky. — Darkness falls fast at the Red Bird Mission as the sun drops behind the mountains around the isolated campus in Eastern Kentucky, tucked into a remote corner of Clay County at the intersection of Bell and Leslie counties.

On a recent evening, outside the Red Bird firehouse, an ice cream social was underway for volunteers who traveled from four states to help local people weatherize and repair homes and fix up buildings at the mission, which functions as a small town in the remote, impoverished region. Nearby, Red Bird volunteer firefighters were refueling a truck used on a run earlier that day.

Susan Sellers, with a church group of 15 who traveled from southwest Georgia to provide volunteer work at the mission, spent the day helping fix a roof on a local home, an experience she recounted over a spaghetti dinner that evening at the dining hall.

“We all feel like we are so blessed,” she said. “We just wanted to come and lend a helping hand.”

Ninety-five years after it was founded, Red Bird, supported by the United Methodist Church, continues its efforts to advance the health, education and welfare of people in the region through its Christian school and array of programs, heavily supported by donations and volunteers.

In an era of declining coal jobs, scarce resources and a rapidly changing economy in the region, Red Bird remains more committed than ever to the community, Executive Director Kari Collins said.

“Our role here is probably as critical as its ever been,” said Collins, a Wisconsin native who came to Red Bird in 1977 as a volunteer fresh out of college. “It definitely has evolved and been driven by the needs of the area.”

One of the Methodist church’s largest such missions, Red Bird — named for the river that flows through its campus — includes a school for students grades K-12 that Collins describes as the “cornerstone” of the operation.

But it has expanded over the years to include a pre-school, medical and dental clinics, services for pregnant women, adult education, job training, a food pantry, a clothes and infant supply closet, thrift store, senior services and even potable water, 25 cents for five gallons, for the many people in the region who lack clean drinking water. Over the years, its campus in Clay County, a mix of modern buildings and cabins spread over 150 acres, has replaced its original mountain school and hospital in nearby Bell County.

Red Bird reaches about 10,000 people a year through its services and programs, from infants to senior citizens, or from “cradle to grave,” said Tim Crawford, director of development.

Yet outside the region, apart from the national network of Methodist churches that support it, Red Bird is not as well-known, said Tracy Nolan, the mission’s director of community outreach.

“So many people in Kentucky don’t even know Red Bird is here,” said Nolan, speaking from her office in the mission’s former hospital, which closed in 1986.

Beyond poor

Red Bird relies on support from Methodist churches as well as a far-reaching network of individual supporters throughout the country, many of them graduates of the Red Bird School.

Among them is Leonard Lawson, 77, a Bell County native and a 1958 graduate of Red Bird school who built a Kentucky business empire in asphalt and highway construction.

As a mountain boy and one of eight children, Lawson said he would have had limited opportunities were it not for the education he received by walking several miles each day to Red Bird, the closest school to his family’s three-room house. He said his family was beyond poor.

“We were very, very, very poor,” he said.

Now wealthy from his business career, Lawson has become a major donor to Red Bird, including helping finance the construction of a new school building in 1983, which bears a sign honoring him and his wife of 58 years, Bonnie. Lawson, who met his wife while the two were high school students at Red Bird, said he didn’t seek any recognition for their part in financing the school.

“I didn’t want them to put our name on anything,” he said.

What Lawson does want is for the school to prosper and to continue to reach students in some of the poorest parts of Kentucky.

“It means a lot to me personally and for all those kids who might not have had a shot in life,” he said.

Jackie Moody, of Irvine, California, and a 1967 graduate of Red Bird school, said she joined the board to try to do her part to ensure the success of the mission and the school, which nearly closed in 2010 because of financial troubles.

“That was devastating,” said Moody, of the school’s near shutdown. “That was the year I got involved.”

The school has since rebounded through efforts of the board, staff, donors and alumni. Of the 231 students enrolled, about 40 live in small dorms on campus and include international students from seven countries.

On a recent afternoon, the Red Bird basketball team was warming up for practice in the gym as principal Mike Hensley watched from a doorway.

The school provides a college prep curriculum, with nearly all of last year’s graduating seniors going on to college, he said. Enrollment continues to grow, with an increase in inquiries from international students. Hensley praises his faculty, some of them Red Bird graduates who returned after college to teach.

“It’s great,” Hensley said of Red Bird school. “It’s wonderful.”

In the library, students Harley Howard, 16, and Ashton Bowling, 12, were studying with the aid of computers and internet access upgraded through a $20,000 donation from a Methodist women’s fund, Crawford said.

The students, both from Leslie County, said they like the school and feel fortunate to attend.

“I love it,” said Ashton, a seventh-grader. “It’s small. It’s private. There aren’t a lot of bullies here.”

With the school in sound shape and enrollment growing, Moody said the board now is looking to the mission’s overall finances as the 100th anniversary approaches in 2021. The board is working on a “21 by 2021” campaign  with a goal of establishing a $21 million endowment that would secure Red Bird’s future.

Meanwhile, Moody, who owns a medical equipment business with her husband, said the board is focused on running Red Bird as economically as possible. The mission operates on an annual budget of about $5 million and has about 90 employees, making it one of the area’s larger employers.

“You’ll never find another organization that is run so efficiently,” Moody said. “We don’t have waste. We can’t afford waste.”

Clipping coupons

In the dining hall, two volunteers were busy clipping and sorting labels from soup cans and tiny coupons from cereal and other food boxes, collected by the thousands from Methodist churches all over the country. Each carries a value of points and over the years, Red Bird has redeemed them for items including 30 vans (1.6 million points each), gym equipment and new lockers for the school.

The work is tedious but Janet Cummings, visiting Red Bird with a group of volunteers from Cheviot United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, said she doesn’t mind because it helps the school.

“People collect these and send them in from all over the country,” she said.

Red Bird rotates groups of volunteers throughout the year who come for a week to assist with projects ranging from coupon clipping to construction projects and upgrading homes in the community for low-income or elderly residents. Last year, about 2,700 volunteers participated in the program known as the work camp.

Some return year after year, taking vacation time or unpaid time to put in a week of volunteer labor. Dale Norrod, having dinner with the church group from Georgia, said he plans to return next year.

“This was my first year here and I’ve been so pleased,” he said. “If the good Lord gives me the strength to come back, I want to do it.”

‘It will happen’

Collins, the executive director, is looking ahead after having spent much of her adult life involved with Red Bird since she first arrived 39 years ago as a volunteer. She married the school’s then-principal, O. Taylor Collins, a Red Bird graduate, who eventually left Red Bird for other education jobs.

Many years later, Taylor Collins would return to Red Bird, brought back as executive director in 2010 as part of the successful effort to save the school. When he died in 2015, Kari Collins was hired to replace him.

She said she shares her late husband’s goal that good education is the best way to improve life for those the mission serves.

“Education is the key,” she said. “It’s important that we provide quality education, the absolute best quality education for the folks who live here.”

She said she’s optimistic about the $21 million endowment.

“I believe it will happen,” she said. “I’m not sure how it’s going to happen. But it will happen.”

Contact reporter Deborah Yetter at (502)582-4228 or at dyetter@courier-journal.com

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