GRANITEVILLE — As trains rumbled past, Christ Central Ministries celebrated the grand opening of its new Hope Center facility on Hickman Street on Monday.
S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley was the special guest for the event, which attracted around 300 people, including a host of area leaders and politicians.
“I think Graniteville is showing exactly what happens when you have a strong community that goes through a challenge and comes out on the other end as a survivor,” said Haley to the media following her speech. Her speech stressed the importance of volunteerism, and it received a standing ovation from the crowd. “Seeing what Graniteville's future looks like really makes me smile, because what Christ Central has done with the Hope Center is going to lift people up with the opportunities they deserve to have.”
The sound of the trains going by during the celebration was both eerie and fitting. In January 2005, there was a train crash nearby during which poisonous chlorine gas was released. Nine people died, and the tragedy devastated the community.
The Hope Center is located in a building that many people considered useless following the disaster. But after renovations costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, the brick structure is now the home of a culinary arts school. Nursing assistant, carpentry and forklift operating classes also will be offered there.
“We want to get people trained and employed quickly in entry level jobs,” said Judy Floyd, who is Christ Central's director locally.
In addition, the Hope Center has a medical wing, where people can receive dental care, eye exams and health screenings. There also is a mentoring wing, where at risk elementary school children will get help.
“It's wonderful to see a vision become reality,” Floyd said.
The estimated cost to renovate the Hope Center's building is $875,500.
“Because of volunteer labor, we've only had to spend half of that so far,” Floyd said.
About 75 percent of the project has been completed.
“We're not sure how much the final cost will be because we're not finished yet,” Floyd said.
Tonya and Scott Shipes, former missionaries in Africa, are the co-directors of the Hope Center. They moved to Aiken last summer and have worked hard since then to get the multipurpose facility up and running.
“It's been a dream, and God has made it happen,” Tonya Shipes said. “Now we're here for its birth, and it's pretty awesome.”
Kevin Hopper described his reaction to the Hope Center in one word: “Wow.”
When the 2005 train crash occurred, Hopper was working in a mill in Graniteville not far from the scene.
“We didn't know what was going on because we were so used to safety drills,” he said. “But then they came through and told us that there had been a train wreck. We looked, we saw it and it was like, 'Oh, no.' I lost my job and my house; my family was broken. I lost everything.”
Christ Central, which is an all-volunteer, cross-cultural, cross-denominational Christian organization, helped Hopper get back on his feet. Today, he is the food service manager for Christ Central Institute in Wagener.
“I want to come down here (the Hope Center) to work,” he said. “When I went inside and I saw it, I told Scott (Shipes), 'Oh, my Lord, this is God's place.'”
Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.