Officials cut the ribbon at the Robert W. Harrell Jr. Physical Health and Education Center on Tuesday. From left are incoming advisory board chairman Jay Butler, Councilman Charles Parr, Corps Officer Jim Shiels, Mayor Linda T. Johnson, Robert Harrell, Divisional Commander John R. Jones; Corps Officer Susan Shiels and George Birdsong.
Officials cut the ribbon at the Robert W. Harrell Jr. Physical Health and Education Center on Tuesday. From left are incoming advisory board chairman Jay Butler, Councilman Charles Parr, Corps Officer Jim Shiels, Mayor Linda T. Johnson, Robert Harrell, Divisional Commander John R. Jones; Corps Officer Susan Shiels and George Birdsong.

Salvation Army unveils new building

Published 10:46pm Tuesday, September 17, 2013

More than 200 guests gathered Tuesday afternoon for the official dedication of the Robert W. Harrell Jr. Physical Health and Education Center on Bank Street.

The Salvation Army building will host programs for children and seniors from the surrounding community. Located next to the Suffolk Corps’ headquarters, it includes a gymnasium, computer room, classrooms, exercise machines, space for the annual Toys for Tots distribution and more.

The naming of the building after Harrell was a surprise for most in attendance, including Harrell himself. A sign with his name on it was unveiled during the ceremony.

Amid a standing ovation, Robert Harrell stands to get a better view of the sign naming the Salvation Army’s Physical Health and Education Center on Bank Street after him. The namesake was a surprise to most in attendance, including Harrell himself.
Amid a standing ovation, Robert Harrell stands to get a better view of the sign naming the Salvation Army’s Physical Health and Education Center on Bank Street after him. The namesake was a surprise to most in attendance, including Harrell himself.

“That’s the best-kept secret in Suffolk,” Harrell said to no one in particular when he saw the sign. Tears welled in his eyes as he stayed seated on the front row while the crowd gave a standing ovation.

Harrell, the chairman of the project, personally raised much of the $3 million that was donated to get the building off the ground and help fund its first months of operations. He has been a Salvation Army volunteer and board member for many years.

“I was floored,” Harrell said. “I had no clue. I was too busy trying to get everything done.”

Guests spoke about the life-changing effect they believe the programs run from the building will have in the area, remembering the former Birdsong Recreation Center that used to serve the community a few blocks away but was torn down more than a dozen years ago.

“To me, today is just such an exciting day,” Mayor Linda T. Johnson said. “Today shows that this community always finds a way. Lives will be changed and things will be different because of each and every one of your efforts.”

Numerous partnerships have been formed to put the building to its fullest use. The Bon Secours Care-A-Van will make regular visits to serve people who cannot afford or are not able to get to a doctor or other medical care.

Harrell estimated that alone would save the community about $400,000 a year by keeping people out of the emergency room.

Interns from Paul D. Camp Community College will teach computer in the computer gymnasium, and in exchange the college has been given room to teach college-level courses, Harrell said.

A basketball court in the Birdsong Gymnasium will cater to kids, and exercise equipment geared toward seniors but open to anyone will be available.

Harrell said he believes helping even one child break the cycle of poverty will have a measurable effect on the community.

“The greatest enemy in the world today is hopelessness,” said Salvation Army Lt. Col. John R. Jones, the Virginia Division Divisional Commander. “This building stands here today to proclaim there’s hope in Suffolk. We have this hope in Jesus Christ.”

Former Suffolk Corps Officers Cal and Irene Clatterbuck returned from their retirement in South Carolina to be a part of the ceremony. They were in charge when the concept of the building first came into being.

“It’s people helping people,” he said. “You didn’t invest in a building; you invested in people. I see people coming here for a better life.”

Current Suffolk Corps Officer Jim Shiels said the building will help the Salvation Army meet its mission.

“We believe that God is going to hold us accountable for each one of those mouths that need to be fed,” he said.

Delegate Chris Jones, representing the Greco Foundation, one of 19 foundations that gave to the effort, said the programs hosted in the building will help members of the community.

“But for the grace of God, it could be us that don’t have a meal tonight or a pillow to lay our head,” he said.

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