Special to Find It In Fondrenâ„¢

When Bill Scruggs took on a role in the corporate office of St. Dominic’s Health Services in 2007, then corporate vice-president Barry Plunkett asked him to go for a ride.

“I thought maybe he was going to tell me he was sick,” Scruggs surmised.

As it turns out, Plunkett was handing Scruggs the reigns to the Phoenix Initiative, a façade housing grant program began two years earlier through the generous donation of St. Dominic’s and a partnership with Fondren Renaissance Foundation.

And what a ride it’s been.

Scruggs, speaking at the ten year anniversary celebration of the program this week that coincided with St. Dominic’s 70th anniversary week, said it’s been a blessing. “It’s not just sticks and bricks, but hearts and minds we’re touching.”

Began ten years ago atop Fondren Corner on a windy spring day, the Phoenix Initiative was a follow-up philanthropic effort of St. Dominic’s who had already pledged $1 million to the neighborhood through Fondren Renaissance. Then-new hospital president hire Sister Dorothea Sondgeroth said the investment was “to insure that Fondren became a healthier place to live and a viable place to raise families.”

Plunkett recounted Sondgeroth’s words from a decade ago: “One of our goals as a health care system is to do what we can to preserve our neighborhoods, promote the concept of value family living and create healthy communities. We do not feel our work is done but we are extremely excited about what we have accomplished. We will remain involved and soon will be sharing more about our newest partnership with Fondren, the Phoenix Initiative.”

St. Dominic’s soon pledged another $250,000, this time to fund Phoenix, spearheaded by then Fondren executive director Camp Best and associate director Mary Jo McAnally. Eighteen applications were made for the three-to-one matching grant in the first year.

“I’m kind of a concrete guy,” said Scruggs, whose background is in behavioral health. “I like seeing things evolve, come about – come alive. With the Phoenix, there’s a transformation taking place. No question about it, I’m still working in mental health on a macro, 30,000 foot level.”

In the early days of Scrugg’s involvement, twelve to fifteen houses received new roofs or windows, exterior wood replacement, paint or other façade repairs.  Around 2010, money was in short supply and the Phoenix Initiative stalled.

By the fall of 2013, Fondren Renaissance organized a meeting with St. Dominic’s. The hospital re-upped their commitment with a caveat, that a partner provide a dollar for dollar match. That’s when area churches, like Fondren Church, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, St. James’ Episcopal Church, Meadowbrook Church of Christ, Broadmeadow United Methodist Church and St. Richard Catholic Church, stepped in. Scruggs says, since that resurgence, the program is working on its 17th project, “still transforming homes, and I like to think lives,” he added.

It’s that same sentiment the churches have latched on to. “They saw a need and the vision and realized they needed to be fully a part,” Fondren Renaissance Executive Director Jim Wilkirson said. “(They’re saying) ‘these are our people, too. These are people we minister to.’ You see that community that wasn’t here ten years ago, and this initiative has truly been a catalyst.”

Wilkirson, Executive Director since 2010, said the Phoenix Initiative has 74 houses in total now under its belt — and new problems. “Great problems,” he enthusiastically clarified.  “We see a neighborhood reinvigorated, two or three houses in an area, and we see no place for kids to play. We looked to the City for money for a park, but there wasn’t any. So we found it and built Fondren Park.”

And now the corporate sector is helping the non-profit find more funds. Larry Ratzlaff, Mississippi President of Origin Bank, who is building a branch on Fondren’s edge in The District at Eastover, presented a check for $12,000 to The Phoenix Initiative.

“We are humbled by coming to the table of a project like The Phoenix Initiative and admire the work St. Dominic’s and Fondren Renaissance has done,” he said. “Phoenix has been a tremendous blessing to this part of community. Origin is blessed to be a part and looking forward to being here.”

Apply for the Phoenix Initiative through Fondren Renaissance by contacting angie@fondren.org, calling 601-981-9606 or applying online.