Wayne Howell is wearing a smile and bouncing with enthusiasm as he mingles among the teenagers who are busy running saws, nailing wood together and spray-painting boards. Volunteers are working alongside them helping with their project to build cornhole boards.
These are children who have grown up in Williamson County neighborhoods with deep economic struggles, where drugs, crime and gangs have existed from generation to generation. With the help of Franktown Open Hearts, they find their saving grace.
Franktown Open Hearts was founded by Howell and formed as a faith-based nonprofit 13 years ago. “This is something God told me to do. God told me to teach them what I know,” said Wayne. Children ages 8-18 are given an outlet for recreation, mentoring and learning life skills.
There are 30-50 kids in the program at any given time showing up after school, weekends and through the summer months for activities that range from computers, reading and Bible study to jewelry making, cooking, auto repair, woodworking, fishing and, a big favorite, basketball.
Projects like building cornhole boards demonstrates their “marketplace ministry.” People have ordered and paid for these boards which covers the cost of materials, the bus driver and meals. What is left over is then split for each child based on the time they have put into the project. After 10% is given to God, the remaining profit is split, half as pocket money and the other half put into a savings account. The child receives the money in the savings account once they graduate high school. An indispensable learning opportunity about saving, tithing and business that prepares them for adulthood.
Alexis and Angel are working jovially side-by-side; their friendship kindled through Franktown. Alexis, 15, has impressive career plans. “I want to be a mathematician and find new formulas to solve problems. I also love helping kids that are mentally challenged. I work with them in my school.”
Angel, 13, whose older brother also came through this program, wants to be a lawyer. When asked about Wayne, “I love him, I love his craziness,” she said.
Sawdust scatters through the air as Johntavious Waters skillfully cuts the lumber. This is one of his favorite activities. “It’s fun, we get out of our home and meet other people; we can’t get in trouble,” said Waters.
“It’s reward-based. Everybody is welcome, but you have to earn the right,” said Howell. “We had one kid that could have been in the NFL, instead he’s incarcerated.”
Many of these kids gleam with goals, while others struggle with a lack of confidence. Chris Barnhill, Executive Director, has offered them many reassuring talks. “I want them to feel like the world is my oyster and I can do anything.” He adds, “They should experience what affluent kids get to experience, but, they’re lacking resources, opportunities and encouragement. Give them these three things and she can be a star.”
Franktown operates at various locations. They often meet at the Franklin Housing Authority or 4th Avenue Church of Christ, though today, they’re at a barn where the property owner kindly opened his doors.
“The key element keeping us from going to the next level is we don’t have a place. It would have to be special facility,” said Barnhill. “We rely on the generosity of our community.”
Franktown’s mission to give Williamson County’s inner city youth hope and the education and vocational tools to positively impact their lives has resulted in many success stories.
One in particular comes to mind for Wayne – Timmy Wilson.
“I call him my son, he calls me Pops. He started coming around when he was 8, now he’s 24. His dad died when he was 11, that hurt him real bad. Then his mom died when he was in 10th grade. He was left to his own.”
“Timmy was raised on Franklin High School football,” said Howell. After some college, he went to work and is described as “a real salesman.”
“I’ll tell you how dedicated this kid is. He was dating a girl who loved horses. He wanted to get over his fear of horses so he learned to ride. Then he took this girl out to go ride and that’s where he proposed to her. Timmy wants to be what God wants him to be, a good man and a good father. He broke the mold with the support of Franktown.”
Franktown will be putting on the wedding.
“We’re open to everyone. But, we are faith-based, we teach Christ. That is the message they hear. What it comes down to is love,” said Howell.