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Center Point fills unique role in education
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Center Point’s mission isn’t intended to turn out preachers, but it happens as a happy by-product to some of the students who take released-time courses in religion.

Whit Martin is an example. He began taking courses at the center on Elephant Trail across from Gainesville High School as a sophomore and took everything he could. "I was called when I was 16," and it contributed directly to his decision to pursue the ministry, he said.

Martin said he was able to ask questions about his own faith and learn about other world religions. He found answers to different questions that he couldn’t find anyplace else. He was encouraged to talk with others and to God about religion.

Yet, "Center Point was never about indoctrination ... it was very open, a safe place to learn," he said.

Martin, son of Greta and Wesley Martin, grew up in First United Methodist Church, one of Center Point’s sponsors. He graduated from Gainesville High School in 2000, attended two Christian schools and is about halfway through Asbury Theological Seminary’s master of divinity program while serving as associate pastor of Redwine United Methodist Church in Hall County.

Center Point began four decades ago as a place where students could earn high school credits for courses in religion off the public school campus. Thousands of students have attended over the years, said David Smith, executive director.

But its role in the community has expanded. In 1985, director Joyce Hayes, Gainesville High principal Curtis Segars and the Rev. Steve Brown collaborated to form Adolescent and Family Counseling Services, which two years later began receiving funds from United Way. The emphasis was on education and prevention, and involved other schools in the county.

In 1994, Gainesville schools’ Chuck McDonald suggested the center apply for a United Way priority needs grant to establish a mentoring program, and the Greater Hall County Mentor Program today is in its 15th year. In 2001, the center broke off its Building Greater Kids initiative, and the next year all the programs were folded into the umbrella organization, now called Center Point.

But its pioneer program, which began as the Christian Education Center, remains as popular as ever with three classes a day and 20-25 students per class. In addition, students can take Center Point classes via computer online for credit.

The expanded role resulted in an expanded building and an expanded staff, six full-time, four part-time and seven master’s-level interns. The budget runs about $450,000 with funds coming from individual donors, United Way, client fees, grants and the sponsoring churches and other agencies.

From the original four church sponsors, First Presbyterian, Grace Episcopal, St. Paul United Methodist on Washington Street and First United Methodist, other churches have contributed. They include Antioch United Methodist, Chestnut Mountain Presbyterian, Pine Crest Baptist, First Baptist on Green Street and St. Michael Catholic.

Other supporting agencies and organizations include the city of Gainesville, the district health agency, city and county schools, Hall County Asset Initiative, Jackson EMC, Junior League, Prevention Services and Programs, Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, United Way and Twenty to Life Sunday School Class.

The success of the mentoring program has resulted in a constant need for more mentors, especially men, Smith said. When the program began, Center Point set a goal of 40 mentors for 40 students in schools all over Hall County. It ended up with 80, and last year 564 students were in the program.

School counselors praise the program, some saying they don’t know what they would do without Center Point’s mentors.

Other community programs have evolved from Center Point, Smith said, citing Teen Pregnancy Prevention as an example. "We’re heavy on prevention; we look at more than one aspect (of a student) ... we’re looking at the general health and well-being of our children," he said.

Personally, he said, "Nothing has been quite so fulfilling. I asked the Lord to put me on the front lines, and He did. It’s been the greatest blessing."

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on