Originally created 09/13/99

Home front: Woman founded Augusta Christian Schools



Leila Havird wanted the answers to life.

She left home in 1944 to study Christian education and missionary work at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. "It was the first time in my life I could make decisions on my own," said Ms. Havird, who entered the school at age 23.

She returned to Augusta five years later and got reacquainted with old friends. "I just thought all girls got married and that is what would happen to me," but the right person never came along, she said.

One night during a Bible study and dinner with friends, someone hurriedly came to talk just to Ms. Havird. The friend asked: Would she take over a three-year-old ministry, Child Evangelism Fellowship of Augusta?

"I told her I didn't have a burden for children -- which has always been a joke since then," Ms. Havird recalled. After prayer, she believed she found direction in a Scripture passage -- Matthew 18: 1-6 -- which ends "whoever welcomes in my name one such as this little child, welcomes me."

Three weeks later she accepted the director's job, a post she held for 50 years until she retired in May.

Child Evangelism involved about 900 Augusta children in the summer of 1998. The Warrenton, Mo.-based organization was founded 60 years ago with a mission to reach children with the Gospel.

It is best known for its summer 5-Day Clubs and Good News Clubs, which meet during the school year. The ministry is staffed by 40,000 volunteers and 700 paid workers in 140 countries.

Child Evangelism in Augusta worked in public schools until the early 1980s. At its peak, the ministry reached 13,000 children a week.

Ms. Havird used the trunk of her car as an office until someone donated a house on Lumpkin and Jordan roads to the ministry in the mid-1970s.

Child Evangelism -- although barred from public schools today -- continues in homes, private schools and day cares.

"Little children are so responsive. I believe they understand far more than the average person realizes. They are wide open and not contaminated with things of the world," Ms. Havird said.

"Leila was convinced that little children could believe in the Lord Jesus Christ," said Georleen Wallace, a ministry teacher for 10 years.

Ms. Havird's exposure to public schools convinced her that Augusta needed a Christian school.

"In 1949, she started praying that somehow a Christian school would be birthed in this community," said Bruce Buckholtz, headmaster at Augusta Christian Schools.

Ms. Havird and some friends prayed for nine years for a school. Druid Park Bible Church, where she was a member, approved a kindergarten class for the fall of 1958.

"She was in charge of this fledgling school. She was the inspiration and the founder," although others were involved, Mr. Buckholtz said. Ms. Havird is the school board's only lifelong member.

Eight children attended the first year. Today, there are 800 enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade. The 26-acre campus on Baston Road is the school's second.

The first, on Golden Camp Road, burned down in 1971. No one knows what caused the fire, Mr. Buckholtz said. The school's board met the night of the blaze. Someone opened the door to the hall and discovered the fire. Board members escaped unhurt through a second door out of the room.

"I rarely saw her get discouraged. She believed that prayer was the key to success and accepted whatever answer the Lord gave. If something didn't work out, she was confident that the Lord knew what he was doing and would direct it however he wished," said Jenkie Hatcher, a volunteer teacher who has known Ms. Havird for about 27 years.

Ms. Havird was one of 10 children. Several brothers and sisters, including her, vacationed together during the summers. Every Sunday she would get all the children and adults together -- at least 28 people -- for Sunday school.

"They thought they were going to get by without Sunday school," said Connie Skalak, a sister.

But Ms. Havird would go through the lessons for nieces and nephews and later for great-nieces and great-nephews.

"Then if any of us adults just happened not to believe like we ought, Leila would get us back on the straight and narrow," she said.

Some complained, "`We can't even take a vacation because Leila is here and she wants us all to know Christ as our Lord and Savior," Ms. Skalak said. "We do thank you and love you for it."

REACH

Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 orvanorton@augustachronicle.com.