Excel, Inc. was founded in Okolona, Ms. in 1988 with the purpose of furthering education, promoting community building, encouraging community service and fostering healthy lives. From its beginning, Excel has been committed to racial, religious and economic inclusiveness at every level: leadership, planning and participation. Initially, Excel was jointly sponsored by the National Council of Negro Women and the Catholic Church. However, to broaden the base of community involvement and to implement its goal of inclusion, this sponsorship soon broadened beyond either group to form a new entity. The Excel Advisory Board is comprised of people reflecting the diversity of the Okolona community in race, economy and religion. Sister Liz Brown serves as Excel’s executive director.
Children’s Learning Program
Excel began as a summer learning program for children grades 1-6. The program was held at Okolona Elementary School. In the first summer, summer registration closed with 60 children and more than 100 volunteers to participate in the five-week program focused on reading and math. This program has been held each summer for the past 25 years and now includes instruction in reading, math, science, art, music, creative writing, swimming and field trip opportunities.
In the fall of 1988, Excel started an after-school learning program for children grades 1-6. The program was held on the second floor of what was then the Robin’s Nest (currently Excel’s One of a Kind store). In 1989, Excel was able to rent space on Fleming Street from St. Theresa’s Catholic Center. As the children grew older, the program expanded to meet their needs and currently serves students grades 1-12. The program continues and offers help with homework, assistance with areas of special need, self-esteem building activities and enrichment. Another learning opportunity for children is Excel’s school vacation activities during Thanksgiving, Christmas and spring breaks. In 2011, the Catholic Diocese of Jackson deeded the Fleming Street property to Excel.
One of a Kind Resale Store
In 1994, Excel opened a resale store to respond to the need for affordable clothing and household items. The store is operated entirely by volunteers who donate their time to sort and display items, serve customers and do whatever else is needed. The Okolona community and people from around the county have been generous in donating items for resale in the store. Income from the store provides a source of funding for Excel’s learning programs.
Service to the Adult Community
As Excel provided learning programs for children, other needs became apparent. The first was educational support for young people who dropped out of high school. Excel, in partnership with Three Rivers Planning and Development (Workforce Investment Act) initiated an education and job readiness program for participants ages 14-21 from Chicksaw County who have not completed high school. Because of the age and income constraints of the Workforce Investment Act program, Excel responded to frequent requests from adults beyond the age of 21 who had not completed high school by establishing the Excel Adult School.
Another need that surfaced was for activities for senior citizens. Excel developed a Senior Club, which sponsors a variety of functions such as socialization programs, health-related programs and birthday parties. An exercise program for people with arthritis (PACE) emerged and local people were trained by the Arthritis Foundation to lead the program.
In 1988, Excel responded to the need for a community center with the purchase and renovation of a 9,000 square foot department store at 230 West Main Street in downtown Okolona. Renovation was primarily accomplished through volunteer labor. In a year’s worth of Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings, local volunteers gathered to work on the building. Periodically volunteer groups from Iowa, Wis. and other places committed a week’s worth of service as well. With their help, the building was dedicated in may 1999.
In addition to Excel-sponsored programs, the Commons has space available for weddings, family reunions, funeral dinners and other social functions. Over the years, the Commons also hosts Boy Scout groups, AA, grief support groups, cancer support groups and Mission Okolona Food Pantry meetings.
The Commons Addition
Within just a few years of opening, the demand for new programs and more space caused the Excel Board of Directors to seek ways to expand the facility. In 2002, Excel was able to purchase the building to the east of the Commons from Mr. Harvey Fischer who was retiring from the hardware business. From January to May of 2003, more than 100 volunteers worked to renovate the building, creating space for Excel’s Adult School, a second classroom, a computer lab, office and meeting space. The second floor is a large open-space exercise room available for drop-ins and group exercise. Excel’s friends from Justice for All in Rock Valley, Iowa, were the primary volunteer contractors on this project.
Upon the death of Annie Reiffers in 2005, her family deeded her property of residence to Excel. With the assistance of volunteers from the United Way and from Madison, Wis., the residence was demolished. Volunteers from Green Bay, Wis., constructed a play area and gazebo in the park.
The Next Steps
In 2008, Louise Cole, the Mayor of Okolona, approached Excel about partnering on a HUD Grant to build downtown apartments for the elderly. The grant made it possible to purchase an adjoining hardware store from the Bank of Okolona that was in foreclosure and disrepair. Since a second adjoining building was in the same condition, the bank offered it to Excel as well. The buildings contain apartments, a coffee shop, senior center, meal site program and children’s clinic.