Laura McKillip Wood
A promise to God that went unkept for over three decades ultimately has served to bless thousands of children.
As darkness fell over the mountains of Appalachia way back in 1888, 10-year-old Sam Hurley huddled under soggy leaves in an outcropping of rock. His father had already died, leaving his poverty-stricken family without a provider in a part of the country where life was hard, even for an adult. He had not been in his makeshift shelter long that night when he heard the sound of a mountain lion coming closer and closer. In fear, Sam promised God he would create a place where children would not have to beg for food from neighbors and sleep in forests, if only God would get him through the night.
Sam lived through that night, but he pushed his idea of starting a safe place for children to the back of his head and concentrated on surviving. At the age of 16, Sam worked at a lumber camp, cleaning the main recreation hall, keeping fires going, and preventing fighting between the lumberjacks. Sam was exposed to some rough characters and violent lifestyles. He became a fighter and drinker, and he earned the name “Bad Sam.” He also ended up going into the lumber business himself.
Sam later became a contractor and builder and gained a good reputation in the community. He married Jane Looney, who taught him to read and gave him nine children. Sam and Jane became Christians and eventually joined the Disciples of Christ, becoming influential promoters of the Stone-Campbell Movement in Grundy, Va., their hometown. He also got involved in local politics in an effort to reduce corruption and crime.
MAKING GOOD ON HIS PROMISE
Sam forgot all about his promise to God until one day, a little boy came into his office asking for help. Sam turned him down, but later he left work and saw the young boy sitting outside, crying. God touched Sam’s heart, reminding him of his promise to provide education and shelter to children in need. On April 22, 1921, Sam Hurley’s 43rd birthday, he made good on his promise and opened Grundy Academy, now Mountain Mission School. Their first 16 students were their own children, seven biological and nine adopted. The children and those who attended in the early years paid for their education by working on the farm the school ran, which also provided food for the students. The school grew in reputation among the Restoration Movement churches and became an influential educational opportunity for high-risk children in Appalachia.
Since those days, Mountain Mission School has changed a great deal. Some of this change has occurred because the culture and educational system of the surrounding area has changed. As the public school system grew, the need for private schools like MMS diminished. The residential school began reaching out to areas beyond Appalachia, and it has accepted students from all over the world. MMS educators have taught students from at least 80 other countries and have educated at least 20,000 students. Ninety-five percent of the students who leave Mountain Mission School go on to college, trade school, or military service. The school’s mission, though, is the same as Sam and Jane Hurley’s original one: meeting the emotional, physical, and spiritual needs of all children God brings to them.
A CENTURY OF STEADFASTNESS
This year, Mountain Mission School celebrates its centennial anniversary. When the school was started, 17 denominations had mission schools in the Appalachia area; today, Mountain Mission School is the only one still operating . . . and it remains steadfast in its commitment to its original purpose of offering children hope by providing Christian, industrial, physical, mental, and spiritual training. Thousands of children’s lives have been changed for the better because of the work of the dedicated servants at the school.
A celebration originally scheduled for April 22—the official anniversary of the school—has been postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions. Plans now call for festivities this fall, to coincide with the beginning of the school year—100 years after the original first day of school for students at Mountain Mission School.
“We are celebrating our history of 100 years of rescuing orphaned and at-risk children and providing them with a loving home, an excellent education and an invitation to know Jesus,” says MMS representative Tami Carter. “The faces have changed through the years, but our mission hasn’t. We’re still rescuing kids, raising leaders, and reaching nations!”
Laura McKillip Wood, former missionary to Ukraine, now lives in Papillion, Nebraska. She serves as an on-call chaplain at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Omaha. She and her husband, Andrew, have three teenagers.