Wednesday, June 2, 2021
From our fathers to our mentors and colleagues, we all have men in our lives whom we appreciate for being there when we need them. This month, the Jackson Free Press pays tribute to men from the metro who give back to their communities or otherwise have endeavored to better the city we call home through their arts, careers and service.
Adrian J. Austin
When Adrian J. Austin enlisted in the U.S. Navy shortly after his graduation from Callaway High School in 1994, he had his eye on the Montgomery Bill, a program that provides tuition assistance for GI's. "I was in Army JROTC (in high school)," Austin recalls. "But it seemed like the Navy was a better fit because it offered money for college."
Twenty-seven years and three mobilizations later, the U.S. Navy has given Austin a career and an education, as he studied at Hinds Community College before finishing his business-administration degree at Belhaven University. "It's all been rewarding," Austin says of his time in the armed forces. "I've seen the world, but I missed my family."
Now part of the Naval Reserves, Austin makes it a point to prioritize his family and his hobbies, one of which is barbecuing on his new barrel grill. "I've been tinkering with it," Austin admits. "The family enjoys it. I've put everything from baby-back ribs to asparagus in it, and it's my relaxing time. I actually get a lot of pleasure out of it when I'm not having to smell chemicals and can smell cherry wood or mesquite."
Austin's family, which includes his wife, his 17-year-old and two stepchildren, enjoys sampling his slow-cooked offerings during their weekly Sunday lunch.
"We're a blended family, but we get along very well and love each other hard," he says. "We have a great support system, and we cherish the time we have together."
The veteran also donates his time to his local faith community at New Horizon Church off Ellis Avenue in south Jackson.
"I've been blessed," Austin says of his experience with the church. "One way is by giving and the other is by the camaraderie of the love I've received. It's wholesome." —Taylor McKay Hathorn
Christian Vance studied criminal justice at Jackson State University, and he says that his time in the classroom taught him a vital lesson that he uses each day as a member of the Jackson Police Department: Creating an atmosphere of peace is essential.
"It's a historical fact that countries and empires expand during turmoil," Vance remarks. "But people thrive academically, economically, artistically and culturally in times of peace."
This belief informs and transforms his work on the police force, as he notes that "arresting bad guys" is only a small part of his job description. "We do a whole lot, as far as settling disputes between neighbors and responding to alarm calls, and we respond to traffic accidents," Vance says. "We're the glue. We don't have job descriptions, so we do what needs to be done."
The Murrah High School graduate tries to maintain his peace-building efforts when he's off the clock as well, serving as a coach for the police department's "Pals" basketball team and working with The Firm Foundation, a local nonprofit dedicated to mentoring young people in the metro area.
"We have community nights and put together career fairs for middle-school kids so they can meet people in the field they aspire to be in," Vance says of his work with the foundation, which often partners with the John & Vera Mae Perkins Foundation and the Boys and Girls Club on Capitol Street.
"With COVID, we had to fall back a little bit with those activities, but most of our week-to-week work is character building," Vance adds. "We want to change their perspective on themselves and their community and on what it means to be effective."
Vance and his wife, Alla, who is a teacher at McWillie Elementary School, focus on character development in their own home, too, raising four children who all attend Jackson Public Schools. —Taylor McKay Hathorn
When Kinoy Brown suffered an injury that kept him away from his job at Nissan North America in Canton, he grew restless as he recovered at home.
"I started going live on Facebook," Brown says of his attempts to curb his own boredom. "It was all for jokes and laughs to get everybody's day started, but I looked back one day, and the crowd had grown, and people started taking the show seriously."
Tired of the early-morning wake-up calls that his social-media shenanigans required, Brown attempted to end the show once he returned to work. The requests for more entertainment kept coming, however, and eventually, a state lobbyist contacted him to encourage him to continue.
Brown was still uncertain, but after his mother passed away from complications of COVID-19 in April 2020, he knew that the old adage was true: The show must go on. "She was such a big giver," Brown reflects. "After she passed, I promised myself that I would keep the show going in her memory."
The show has now expanded to a full-scale talk show—dubbed KBRS—which Brown hosts from his car. The show is available on Facebook and YouTube and has also grown beyond its initial comedic scale, and the man who's fondly known as the "Kenny Stokes of Canton" now uses his digital presence to promote community activism.
"I got a call from Blackburn Middle School, and they were having problems with kids' hygiene," Brown recalls. "I got thousands of donations of deodorant, socks, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and we presented that school with two truckloads of items. People know I'll do the right thing with whatever they give me."
Cantonians trust Brown with their economic success, too, as Brown currently serves as the chairman of the Canton Municipal Utilities Board and holds a seat on the city's Chamber of Commerce. —Taylor McKay Hathorn
Haywood Hannah's lifelong love of music paved the way for his receipt of two college scholarships—first to Holmes Community College and then another to Jackson State University, where he travelled the country as part of Opera South and a performing choir, all while earning a degree in music education.
"The best part of my time there was that I got to meet so many people," Hannah recalls. "I met the news anchor Carole Simpson, and I also met (Olympic athlete) Jesse Owens. It really impacted me to meet a star like that before he passed."
Hannah then decided to make it his life's mission to help develop rising stars in his own community, teaching music lessons and working as an educator and principal in Attala, Holmes and Leake counties.
While living in Attala County, Hannah organized the Attala County Youth Mass Choir, with whom he recorded the first of his three gospel albums. "I kept that going for about 10 years," Hannah says of his involvement with the program.
"Once I accepted a call to the ministry, I fell away from that, but now that I'm retired from education, I'm writing music and recording again."
That call to become a leader within the United Methodist church is what originally brought Hannah to the metro area, as he now pastors Greer Chapel in Flowood, although he acknowledges that he has done work within the larger denominational conference as well.
"I've been able to perform and be part of different activities," he says.
Despite his continuing engagement with his music and his commitment to his parish, the JSU and Mississippi State University graduate does cherish his semi-retirement, which allows him to spend more time with his family. "Family is a priority for me," Hannah concludes. "The thing that I enjoy most about being retired is being part of my grandchildren's lives." —Taylor McKay Hathorn
Devin Winsett spent a year teaching English as a second language in Mexico after his graduation from Millsaps College in 2016, but watching the presidential election later that year brought him back to the United States by way of New Orleans. "I realized I didn't belong in Mexico," Winsett says of his cross-continental move.
"Everything I'd done before that was about working on socioeconomic inequality in the U.S., and I wanted to get back to that."
During his time as a public charter-school teacher in the Crescent City, Winsett realized that he particularly enjoyed the "on the ground" aspect of his work with students, saying, "I was interested in what was getting in the way of kids learning in the classroom. I started asking questions like, 'Why is a kid crying in the hallway?'"
After a stint as a case planner for a residential group home in Brooklyn, N.Y., Winsett was firmly convinced that his original dreams of academia were a thing of the past, and he enrolled in the Master of Social Work program at Jackson State University and accepted a post in workforce development at Refill Jackson, which equips young people ages 18 to 24 to find meaningful employment.
"I didn't plan to do social work in the context of workforce development, but the more I'm in this context, the more that I see it's a good context," Winsett reflects. "But it takes many contexts to make positive change in an area."
Winsett believes, though, that Jackson is ripe for positive change.
"I think that Jackson's greatest strength is its community and the people there. I think the best form of change that social workers can enact is to empower the folks that live here to become the best versions of themselves by erasing the barriers they face, whether through individual change, community organization or state-level policy changes." —Taylor McKay Hathorn
Ryan Porter spent a large portion of his life as the owner and operator of Ranco Transmission Service, but he noticed that all of his customers were unhappy. "Nobody really wants to buy a transmission," Porter says with a laugh. "But people are happy when they buy a home."
Hoping to bring that same joy to metro-area residents in search of a home, Porter began investing in real estate. "I really fell in love with the industry," he recalls. "And from there, I realized that I really enjoyed watching people buy a house."
The Florence High School graduate learned these early lessons at the knee of Billy McKee, the owner of McKee Realty in Flowood, but he eventually realized that he wanted to open his own brokerage.
Next Home Realty, a California-based real-estate company, helped make those dreams of an independent brokerage come true when Porter opened a Brandon-based branch of the nation-wide franchise. However, his first month in business was March 2020, coinciding with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississippi. "It was kind of scary for a little bit," Porter admits. "But we made it, and we have 20 agents right now with more coming on in the next few weeks."
Porter attributes some of Next Home Realty's success to its "fresh, exciting brand," as the company works with firms who have designed for Tiffany & Co., Visa and the NFL, and he's glad to bring such strong marketing to the metro area.
"Jackson is special to me for a lot of reasons," he says. "It's our hometown, and if you don't take care of your surroundings, you won't take care of anything. Overall, it's easy to see the good in Jackson. We have a lot of cool and unique things here."
He also believes that two of Jackson's best features are his two daughters.
"I just thought I had the biggest heart, but their hearts swallow mine," Porter concludes. —Taylor McKay Hathorn
Bobby D. Brown
When Bobby D. Brown started teaching at Lanier High School in 1996, he only expected to stay for two years—just enough time for his then-girlfriend to finish college. "Needless to say, I fell in love with the profession and out of love with her," Brown says with a laugh. Twenty-five years later, his love for students in the Jackson Public School District has remained true, as he is now the principal at Jim Hill High School.
Brown always refers to the thousand students at the south Jackson high school as "scholars," which he says is a carefully selected term. "I think it's significant because all of us have God-given talents that provide us with the ability to learn," Brown states. "If you're a person with a thirst for learning, you're a scholar."
He estimates that 95% of his student body would meet that criteria, which he believes bodes well for their futures.
"We foster an environment where students can look at things from an introspective standpoint to see how their lives can blossom and what they can do to create a future they desire," he says. "If they empower themselves, it will move them from one place in life to the next."
Watching students throughout the district advance into bright futures has been a key inspiration for Brown, who recently watched a child of his own graduate from the Jackson public school system.
"What's made me stay in JPS is that the children you see once were me," Brown reflects. "We have a population who were similarly situated as I was when I was growing up in a single-parent household living at or below the poverty line. I had a desire to do more, and a lot of scholars throughout the city come to school bright-eyed and ready to do more." —Taylor McKay Hathorn
Jonathan Haynes got his start as a singer at 6 years old, and 12 years later, the young performer landed his first record deal. "Singing has always been a passion for me," Haynes says of his early days in the entertainment industry. "I grew up singing in the choir."
Gospel music remained a primary focus for the Gulfport native even during a stint in the nursing program at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, and he realized upon his graduation that he was meant to pursue a career in the music field. "I loved (nursing school), and I always wanted to help people," Haynes reflects now. "But I didn't start nursing when I got out, because I knew there was something else for me."
That "something else" was a career on the road, singing and sharing his talents with audiences around the country. Eventually, though, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic ground his travels to a halt. "It was very hard," Haynes acknowledges. "I started losing money because I'm usually on the road making money."
Haynes credits God for the inspiration to start other business ventures during the forced lapse in his musical career, and he started Songbird Productions to help other musical artists on their path to success. He also began Jonathan Haynes Ministry, LLC, which provides consulting services for those interested in investing in stocks and bonds.
"It was hard at first, but it's all about social media and word of mouth," Haynes says of his fledgling businesses. "But after three or four months, business was booming, and it's still booming."
The 25-year-old has no plans to slow down, as he says that he is planning to launch a fragrance and candle line in the coming months, along with putting out new music and penning a chapter in an upcoming inspirational novel. "I don't stop," Haynes concludes.
"There's always more for me to do." —Taylor McKay Hathorn
Wesley S. Prater
Wesley S. Prater always knew that he wanted to work and live in his home state, but his pursuit of higher education—and his passion for public health—took him around the country before seeing him land in his hometown of Jackson.
After graduating from Jackson State University, Prater moved to New Haven, Conn., to seek a master's in public health at Yale University, later working at the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families in Washington, D.C. Prater would eventually earn his Ph.D in public health at Ohio State University before moving back to the Magnolia State and accepting a position here with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
"I grew up here, and I feel like I understand Mississippi and understand the disparities in health, education, employment and poverty," Prater says. "My passion has always been improving the lives of others, and to do that, you have to address not only health disparities but disparities in early childhood education and race, and you have to create systemic and policy changes to do it."
He sees Mississippi as fertile ground for making such sweeping changes, citing the recent change of the state flag as a positive example of successful local activism. "I'm encouraged by our youth," Prater says. "And being a father of two Black daughters, everybody wants to make sure their children have the opportunity to succeed and thrive."
The St. Andrew's Episcopal School graduate believes that the work of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is vital for continued change in the state, saying, "The Kellogg Foundation understands the issues and has been working for 90 years to address them. It's really all about working with folks on the ground who work in our communities."
COVID-19 has not derailed these grassroots efforts, as Prater lauds the work that community organizers have done over the last year. "It's been inspirational for me," he says. "Our partners have really doubled down to make sure that Mississippi is an equitable place to live."
Visit wkkf.org for more information. —Taylor McKay Hathorn
Just as Endre Matthews wrapped up his career at Mississippi Valley State University, a recruiter from Life University visited the Itta Bena campus and changed his life trajectory, as the Indianola native had previously been applying to physical therapy programs.
"When I found out I could do physical therapy as a chiropractor and still be a business owner, it worked out for me," Matthews says.
After spending four years earning his doctorate of chiropractic, Matthews returned to his home state and opened Matthews Chiropractic Clinic in the capital city in 2002. Two years later, he opened a second clinic in his hometown, and he divided the time between the pair of practices for 14 years, when he decided to give the Jackson location his undivided attention.
"It's extremely meaningful to be able to help the Jacksonians who come through the clinic doors each and every day," Matthews says of his daily work. "It's great to be able to help people without drugs, medicine and surgery. A lot of patients weren't getting any help anywhere or getting any type of relief for their ailments."
Matthews is well acquainted with his patients' suffering, as he experienced a health scare early last year. "I found out I had a heart condition, and I had been healthy all my life, so the doctors at UMMC said it was something I never knew I had," Matthews remarks. "God sat me down and let me know he was in control, and I'm healed and back better than ever, and the plan continues to go forward."
This grounding in faith is a motivating favor for Matthews' entire family, which includes his wife and three young daughters. "We are a blessed family, and we are driven by what God has done for us and what God continues to do for us on a daily basis," he says.
"I'm blessed all the way around, and I thank him for allowing me to be an outlet to the community." —Taylor McKay Hathorn
Paul Griffin Jones III
Although Paul "Trey" Jones and his wife, Missy, attended different high schools, their respective commencement speakers had a similar message: Mississippi raises some of the best and the brightest—only to watch them leave the state and never return. Jones did not want to become part of that unfortunate statistic, and he moved back to Mississippi after a stint in graduate school in Texas.
"We couldn't get away from the fact that there was a need to take our callings back to Mississippi," Jones says of his decision. Although he had earned a seminary degree while living in the Lone Star State, Jones says that he did not feel called to pastor a church and instead took a position as the director of the nonprofit arm at New Horizon Ministry. He would go on to become the executive director of The Mustard Seed before becoming the CEO of the state's Make-a-Wish Foundation.
"I enjoyed it," Jones says of his 18 years of leadership in the nonprofit world. "But honestly, I was tired of being an executive director. It's exhausting to be the one responsible all the time, and I experienced some professional burnout."
Jones remedied his own exhaustion by taking a position with Habitat for Humanity in Mississippi, providing support to all chapters in the state.
"About that same time, I felt the calling to return to a church," Jones recalls. "It was an odd time, and I really didn't know how to discern (that calling)."
A small church in south Jackson helped Jones through his period of contemplation, as he served as its pastor before accepting a post at a larger congregation in Brandon.
"It was an incredible ride of about two decades," Jones observes. "I got ready to serve a church by learning what was going on in the community and seeing some of its great needs—and its great potential." —Taylor McKay Hathorn