COLUMBIA — God told Luticha Griffin to build a school.
In 2003, after having cared for children in her home, Griffin founded the Shalom Christian Academy and Day Care.
Two weeks later, she died of unknown causes at 52. That's when her brother, John Fonville, stepped in.
Fonville hadn't planned on being active in his sister's business. A licensed cosmetologist, he was planning to open a barber shop with his wife, Elaine, a Stephens College graduate who majored in fashion.
But with his sister's death came a responsibility he knew he couldn't ignore.
“I'm just trying to finish what she started,” Fonville said. “Not many people get to do what God says to do. But he said start, and she did.”
For Fonville and his wife, keeping the school and day care open for the past six years has not been easy. Since it opened, the business has rented a string of local homes and relocated four times.
From its first location at 305 Ridgeway St., the school moved to 203 Sexton Road, then split off the day care, which ended up at 111 Benton St. The two combined in a third move to 105 Wall St. and finally to 2811 Flora Road last July.
Now, after years without a permanent facility, Shalom Christian Academy and Day Care is building a more spacious, permanent home.
The new center, which will be located at 312 Ridgeway St., will have six classrooms and hold a maximum of 80 students in grades K-12. The construction is expected to be completed by mid-January or early February.
A $100,000 contribution from the city's Community Development Block Grant funds made the building possible. Tired of moving from house to house, Fonville applied for the city grant in 2005. After purchasing the land and receiving a $260,000 bank loan, the school broke ground on Aug. 26.
“It's been a struggle, but we didn't tell a lie,” Fonville said. “This is happening right before our very eyes.”
The school and day care center will have more space, additional grades and a more central location. It is more than just a construction project; the center will eventually reach out to the community.
“Because the day care has later shifts, more parents with night jobs will be able to drop their kids off,” said Tom Lata, community development coordinator for the city of Columbia. “They're located in a lower-income area, so in some cases it will benefit the community for parents who can walk to the new location.”
The latest move to the smaller, more remote Flora Road property prevented the center from serving students in grades K-12. With more area in a bigger building, Fonville said the staff can teach higher grade levels throughout the day in separate rooms.
“Being able to set up an actual classroom will help us facilitate better learning,” said LaQuita Liebig, a teacher and the day care's director. “We can finally have circle time and spread out on the floor and not be on top of each other.”
An employee of Shalom since it opened, Liebig has seen firsthand the effects each move has had on the business.
“Every time you move, you take the chance of losing kids and parents,” she said. “We've been affected negatively, but we always come back out of it with a good, strong hold.”
A day at the day care
On a recent Wednesday, teacher Tara Foster sat on the hardwood floor with six enthusiastic toddlers as they chimed in to the chorus of “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round.”
On a typical morning, Foster, who works the opening shift, begins the day with “Morning Glories,” reading a Bible story and later supplementing the lesson by showing a video to the children. She also teaches them numbers, shapes and colors with flashcards and exercises.
As the kids transition into “No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed,” David Fonville, John's brother, prepares a meal of ham, sweet potatoes and green peas in the adjacent, cramped kitchen for the children's lunch.
He has been volunteering for the school and day care since it opened and said he thinks a permanent location will help build trust.
“People will see that we're not any kind of gypsies,” he said. “Parents will know you're stationary and putting in roots.”
“Who's got their shoes on?” Foster asks as an array of hands shoot up and grins spread across the kids' faces. They seem to know the drill by now: Stand in single file and wait for their teacher to lead them through the back door, down the deck stairs and into the fenced play yard.
Up the stairs on the deck, Elaine Fonville, John's wife and the facility's director, washes the plastic play equipment with a wet rag. A former fashion designer, Elaine went back to school to get an associate's degree in child development.
Putting down roots
Elaine said the move to the Flora Road location necessitated significant downsizing at Shalom. With a previous average of 60 kids when the school and day care operated from two separate locations, the present space now serves 20 to 25 children.
She said she expects the new building to open the door for more opportunities.
“It brings more lives we can touch,” she said. “Because we work with families, we can introduce them to Christ and be able to do better at what we do.”
At the site on Ridgeway Street, John Fonville surveys the school construction, a shiny gold cross swinging from the chain around his neck. He is aware of the skepticism he's encountered after claiming since 2004 that a new center would be built.
But he has never doubted the dream, and he brims with enthusiasm about the future.
“We get a chance to input good into the kids' lives for their future,” he said. “We plant the seed. Other people may come along and water it, but we still get to watch it grow.”
Finally, after years of setbacks and struggles, the once weed-filled vacant lot at 312 Ridgeway is being transformed from a vision to a permanent reality.
“Good things come to those who wait,” Fonville said. “We had to be persistent, and by the grace of God, we are where we are now.”