WAYNESBORO, GA – (The True Citizen)
With approval to rezone the 5.83-acre tract of land that formerly housed Girard Elementary School on May 14, Ruby Lee Carter was finally able to check off one item on a long list of priorities necessary to bring the old Girard Elementary School building back to life.
During a scheduled meeting of the Burke County Board of Commissioners, which marked the first zoning hearing in Burke County history, commissioners unanimously approved the project with three of the four members of Carter’s group, WG3.0 LLC, present.
This is not simply a business proposition for Carter, but a longtime dream made reality – or, at least, one step closer to it.
Ultimately, in addition to preserving the facade and central walls of the school building, she said the plan is to create a mixed-use facility that will include a dollar store, a senior citizen’s center, a beauty and barber shop, an automotive information center, a fitness center and a substation for the Burke County Sheriff’s Office, a first for Girard, as well as possible office rental spaces.
Early on in the rezoning process in December 2018, Burke County Sheriff Alfonzo Williams wrote a note for Carter to give to the planning commission, expressing his desire to partner with her group and establish a local sheriff’s office presence for the people of Girard.
As a whole, Carter and her partners said they hope the refurbished structure will serve as a hub for community life, because nothing approaching a community center exists within Girard.
Besides working with the Department of Natural Resources to draft a Heritage Grant proposal promoting the site’s historic importance, Carter and her partners are using the acreage, for the time being, to host local events, like a community carnival to be held on June 29, in order to raise funds for the project.
“The idea came about because all of us are the grandchildren of the Rev. Woodrow Givens Sr., who owned the Preacher’s Sandwich Shop here in Girard many, many years ago,” Carter said. “And I guess it’s in our blood to always give back to the community.”
Peggy Dykes, one of the four partners, all first cousins, said that long before Carter gathered the family together to discuss her vision for Girard Elementary School, she would often pass the dilapidated building with sadness when returning home from Savannah, where she now resides, remembering what the structure once was and the fond memories it inspired, wishing something could be done with it one day.
Once the cousins began discussing the idea, they all four realized they’d each shared similar feelings as they watched the building grow into ruin since the last students left its door 33 years ago.
Dykes, then in third grade, said she was among that last group of students still in attendance when the doors to the school were finally shuttered in 1986. Her cousin, Jerrie Givens, also one of the partners, was a member of the last class of eighth-graders to graduate from there.
At first, Givens and Scotty Sims, the fourth partner, both said they questioned the possibility of saving the remaining structure, thinking only a complete demolition would make the area developable. Carter was unfazed. Even without a professional assessment, she had a deep belief that the structure was salvageable.
“Well, everything had tumbled down around it,” said Carter, explaining her logic. “Storms come, and storms go, but it’s still standing.”
They were not fully convinced until contractor Daniel Wooten was consulted by Carter. Wooten, who’d constructed Carter’s own home, had a reason for believing the structure viable even before the first on-site inspection – he’d already done a similar project by renovating the old Cousins Elementary School and repurposed it as an apartment complex a few years ago.
For her and her partners, Carter said, Girard Elementary was more than a school, but also a special point of pride for the community.
She recounts how upon matriculating to what was then Sardis-Girard-Alexander High School, her social studies teacher proclaimed, “I don’t know who y’all’s teacher was over there at that elementary school, but she taught y’all some stuff!”
Carter said that her and many of her Girard Elementary School classmates came to the high school answering questions the other students could not, all because the teachers at Girard Elementary had already covered those lessons the year before.
In the room that was the cafeteria, where the main entrance to the school still leads, a banner hung over the stage spelling out the school’s motto, one the teachers, strict as they were, deeply impressed upon their students, preparing them for the future ahead: “All The Light of Knowledge Brightens Our Pathway to Success.”
As part of Carter’s Heritage Grant proposal, she is working on making the case for the historical significance of the old Girard Elementary School building. In doing so, she has included several photos from her eighth grade graduation, Class of 1981. She is dressed all in white, a corsage pinned to her dress, the other students equally well-dressed, the young men in suits and ties, as if going to prom, and in the background the banner and its message of hope and encouragement are clearly visible.
While Carter acknowledges the journey ahead is long, she has faith her project will be seen through to its completion. As her cousin and fellow business partner Scotty Sims said, pointing to Carter and her diligence throughout this process, “You got to have a vision to do something, and that comes from God.”
This story first appeared in The True Citizen.