ALBANY, Ga. -- Willie James Thompson Sr.'s work with the Faith Outreach Ministry he started with wife, Janice, in 1989 was all about dreams.
Thompson dreamed of finding ways for career criminals to stop the cycle of recidivism. He dreamed of offering the area's homeless population a haven where they might get a new start at life. And he dreamed of making sure the children of the area's less-fortunate had a chance at a normal life.
The Faith Community Outreach Ministry and the Faith Community Outreach Center, both vital elements in the local battle against homelessness and helplessness, are vital byproducts of Thompson's dreams. Sadly, though, they also now serve as Thompson's legacy.
The man who was lovingly called "Mr. T" by children he taught in the Dougherty County School system, by inmates he ministered to in local jails and by the hundreds of lives he touched on a daily basis through his ministry passed away April 9, leaving a huge void in the ongoing fight to end homelessness.
"Our job's not finished," Janice Thompson, Willie Thompson's wife of 45 years and the director of Faith Community Outreach Center, said Wednesday morning. "Willie left some dreams unfinished, and I'll keep working until I see his dreams come to fruition.
"Willie was in the relay, and he took the baton so far. It's now left to the community to take it to the finish line."
Willie and Janice Thompson started Faith Outreach Ministry in 1989, and through it they ministered to inmates in local jails. Eight years later, in October of 1997, the Thompsons opened the Faith Community Outreach Center in an effort to meet some of the needs of the inmates they ministered to.
"The redundancy of inmates going through the jail system inspired us to look for answers why that was happening," Janice Thompson said. "What we found out was that, basically, when inmates did their time, they typically went right back to their old habits.
"We thought the best way to help them get a fresh start at life was to get them away from those familiar places."
The Thompsons were both school teachers when they married in 1965. Willie was also a minister, and Janice was a minister's daughter who'd had the "seed" planted at an early age.
The couple recognized a growing need in the community when they visited the homes of their students.
"When we went into those children's homes, we saw the dilemma of how having parents in jail affected the children," Janice Thompson said. "It was a difficult thing to commit to, but we decided we'd try and do something to help. We started the jail ministry, and while Willie stayed in the school system, I built the foundation of our ministry."
The Thompsons' ministry became something of a framily affair, as all six of their children got actively involved. Two of their daughters would eventually carry on the family work by becoming certified jail ministers.
With the development of Faith Community Outreach Center, the Thompsons and a staff of volunteers started the work of helping members of the community turn their lives around.
In its 13-plus years, the center has provided shelter, has fed the hungry through its soup kitchen, has offered parenting classes to shelter residents, has collected and distributed clothing and other necessary items, has collaborated with Albany Technical College to help residents obtain GEDs, has collaborated with the local parole board and with community-service agencies, and has provided internship opportunities for Albany State College, Darton College and Albany Technical College students.
Now, Janice Thompson is left to carry on the ministry's work without her life partner, without the man about whom she said, "Our minds were like one; I have no doubt God put us together."
But she's determined to do that, to carry his dream forward.
"We've had hard times before, and we're facing difficult times now," she said. "We applied for several grants but received only one. We're operating on one grant and the donations of the community, and we have so many needs.
"But our mission is not complete. My husband was determined that he would see his dreams fulfilled. He was here to make a difference, and I know he did. But I can't stop now. I won't quit working until our mission is accomplished and his dreams come true."