TERRE HAUTE —
The first two times Bill Felts was asked to serve as executive director of the 14th and Chestnut Community Center, he declined.
He had retired from a 30-year career in banking and was fulfilling his dream of being a preacher.
But the third time he was asked, “I felt it was God saying, ‘This is where your ministry is to go.’”
Eleven years later, he continues in his role as the center’s executive director and he continues to have a positive impact on young people.
On Tuesday, the Terre Haute Rotary Club presented Felts with its annual Paul Harris Award, which goes to a non-Rotarian. Criteria include volunteerism, acts of goodwill and initiatives that greatly impact underprivileged individuals in a positive way, said Rotary member Neil Garrison, who introduced Felts.
In Felts’ 11 years as the center’s director, “he has worked tirelessly to help those in need in one of our more challenged innercity neighborhoods,” Garrison said. The center sponsors programs and services to meet the educational, spiritual and physical needs of children, teens and adults.
Among its programs are the Grumbling Tummies Cafe; summer and after-school programs for ages K-12; a clothes closet. adult training and tutoring; and a “Moms Matters” support group.
Felts told Rotarians he was honored to receive the Paul Harris Award. “It’s a real group effort, what we do at 14th and Chestnut,” he said.
When he began there, “It was pretty rough,” he said. “Over the years, it has turned into a great big family.” Those who use the center “lean on each other and give each other a lot of support.”
He described some of the center’s successes, noting that several who attended the program have gone on to college. Four young people who grew up at the center are now part of the staff.
Many qualify for the 21st Century Scholars program. “We really push education with these kids,” Felts said.
He’s also started a program to help young people build character and leadership, which also will prepare them for the workforce.
The center now has “second generation” kids — the kids of adults who once used 14th and Chestnut themselves.
Felts noted that numbers have jumped this summer, and the center is averaging about 100 kids per day. Many are attending camps at Indiana State University and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. “We work to expose them to the university atmosphere so they will want to go,” he said.
Felts, who will be 67 next month, said he is excited about going to work at the center each day. “The difference you see in the children is so very rewarding,” he said.
Felts has been pastor of Salem United Methodist Church in Vermillion County since the late 1990s. He grew up in Anderson and came to Terre Haute to attend and graduate from Indiana State University with a degree in education. In addition to a career in business and banking, he served in the Army Reserve for 12 years as a combat engineer.
When he started at 14th and Chestnut, the center was already in operation but it was struggling, and “they needed some of my business background,” he said. He also had a large network of contacts from his banking days.
At the center Tuesday, some of Felts’ employees — who formerly attended the center as children — talked about the positive influence 14th and Chestnut has been in their lives.
“It kept me off the streets and out of trouble,” said Elzie Pittman, 24, whose 5-year-old son, Jamarion, now goes there. “Now, it’s giving my son a place to go and have a good time.”
Pittman mentors children at 14th and Chestnut.
Arielle Craig, an Indiana State University student and intern at the center, also used to go there when she was younger and her mom was at work. Her cousins and siblings have gone there as well.
“It’s been a big part of my life,” she said. Felts “keeps me on the right path.” The center is a safe place to take children when parents are busy. The children learn life lessons, make friends and have a place to eat, Craig said.
At 14th and Chestnut, Felts believes he has brought together all the skills he has gained in the military and banking and also as a pastor.
He hopes that through his work there, he’s been able to touch lives and point children in the right direction to success.
“I hope my legacy is not just an epitaph on a tombstone. I hope it’s the fact that we touched a child’s life and it affects generation after generation,” he said.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.