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Community Positivity and Love During a Very Uncertain Time

In times of great distress, sometimes the best and worst can be reflected by people, but thankfully, there are many in the community that are reaching out in so many generous ways. It is very refreshing and inspiring to see how many organizations and individuals in the city of Laurel and other Mississippi cities and counties are reaching out a helping hand to their fellow man during this distressing time that has come about with the spread of Coronavirus.

Although the images of people in fear fighting over survival supplies fill the media, not enough attention has been given to those that are willing to volunteer and offer support and comfort during this very heart-wrenching time, but that is changing as Our Mississippi Home hopes to focus on the positivity and optimism that is being brought about by the state. As Mississippians and Americans, we need to focus even more on positive news and generosity, and we hope to shine a bright light of hope on these amazing individuals and organizations that have stepped to the forefront at this time. It so encouraging to see the love of these communities and citizens has arisen during this crisis.

Paul Kirkley, founder of the very popular and constantly growing gyms throughout many counties in Mississippi, Fitness Depot, wanted to contribute any way that he and his facilities could to help everyone in the community. He is providing free hand sanitizer, which has become a rare commodity in the country, to anyone that needs it. He has barrels of not just standard sanitizer but non-acidic “hospital grade” sanitizer in front of all the Fitness gyms in Laurel, Ellisville, Columbia, Picayune, and Meridian.

He has upgraded from being known as “Lysol Paul” to bring stronger, more effective sanitizers free of charge at all the Fitness Depot locations, and they will even provide curbside service when needed. They have hundreds of gallons that they can mix up, and Kirkley wanted to ensure that the sanitizer was available to everyone. His generosity has aided and continues to aid many, especially the elderly, which get first access to the products. Everyone is invited to stop by the locations to fill up on this essential need, and sanitizer bottles are provided if the individuals do not have their own containers for a fill-up.

“As silly as it sounds, all my great ideas come while I’m asleep,” Kirkley said. “With that said, I can only give the good Lord credit. I woke up Friday, March 20, with the idea. Scheduled a conference call with my entire team. We located the resources together by mid-morning, and Saturday we gathered and filled bottles. As we were filling spray bottles outside our Ellisville location, traffic began to form and I knew then this wouldn’t be enough. I didn’t know my next step until I woke up early Sunday morning with the idea of pump barrels. We located all resources Sunday morning since the church wasn’t gathering, and the new idea was tangible by that night. Since then my brother/ sister gyms located all across America are doing it as well, and that’s an awesome feeling!”

His heartfelt mission is to help everyone that he can, especially the elderly. Foremost he wants to ensure their safety during this time, but he has too much respect for his elders than to give them specific orders.

“A lot of my elderly are staying safe and remaining home, while others choose to continue gym use and being social. I’ve never been one to tell the elders what to do,” he said with a laugh. “I have as much disinfectant as they want or need to properly clean their homes.”

It is so important to Kirkley and his team to be there for the communities and gym members because that is where his heart is.

“We are a community gym! We want to grow as large as we can, but we also want the inside of our doors to feel like Cheers!,” he said. “Every location has a goal of two social events a month. Whether it’s handing out waters at a race or volunteering blood drives. Without the community, Fitness Depot is nothing. It’s because the community we can survive COVID-19, and make it something positive!”

For updates on news about the new hours and helpful fitness and nutrition tips on staying fit during this devastating time, you can visit or the gym’s Facebook page.

The Laurel School District has taken the forefront to ensure that children ages 0 to 18 do not go without a healthy meal every day by offering free “Grab and Go” breakfasts and lunches at the Laurel High School and Laurel Middle School locations. While taking necessary precautions of a face mask, many sewn by Assistant Principal Kristin Walters, and protective gloves, the teachers and administrators have handed out lunches to the students between the hours of 11 am to 1 pm, Monday through Friday on a first-come, first-served basis.

Lunches are given for free but the students must be in the cars to receive the meals. Cars have begun lining up before 11 am, and it is a steady stream of traffic. Meals are distributed in a drive-through format from teachers and administrators. This alleviates some of the pressure from parents as they are assured that their children will get a nutritious meal every day.

The program was spearheaded by Child Nutrition Director Leander Bridges, II, and Superintendent Dr. Toy Bridges, and other school officials.

“We had been monitoring the situation before our Spring Break started and had an idea that schools would probably not be meeting the next week, but we wanted to make sure that our children were taken care of,” Leander said. “We had done some research on how other school districts throughout the country were approaching the situation, and we decided that the ‘Grab and Go’ meals would be the best way to make sure that our children were provided for during this very uncertain time.”

The love the Laurel School District has for the youth in the community is evident and of extreme importance to administrators and staff. It was important that they continued to provide for the students even though classes were not in session.

“It’s of huge importance to make sure that our children receive a nutritious meal every day,” Leander said. “We will be here and available as much as we possibly can for our students and community during this time. We are always here for our children and the community at large.”

To keep children engaged and active during this time, the Lauren Rogers Museum in Laurel has also stepped up to help the community. They are providing an artistic outlet for budding artists and families that are seeking ways to keep their children occupied and entertained. The museum is offering free “Grab and Go” Art Projects from Tuesday to Friday from 9 am to 4 pm. Activities are located in front of the museum and can be picked up so that students can express themselves artistically during this very uncertain time. New projects will be introduced each week and will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis. For more information, you can visit the Lauren Rogers Museum Facebook page or

Although the museum is closed at this time, the exhibitions can still be viewed virtually. The work of Chloe Darke, is shown in the “Contemporary Connections: Mastery in Metal” exhibits that feature the unique way that Chloe approaches her exquisite creations by forging metal through various heatings and design processes and has created a style that is all her own. To view this exhibit visit

It is so inspiring the way my hometown of Laurel has united in such heartfelt and supportive ways to support and engage the community safely during this very devastating time. These are just a few of the enlightening ways that Laurel and other counties in Mississippi have together and shown such an outpouring love and support.

If you know of any other activities or community services that are being offered, please feel free to share. We are all in this together, and Mississippi will stand strong and supportive during this uncertain time.


Written by Judy Smith

Judy Smith has been a freelance writer and photographer for several magazines and publications around the South, including Social South Magazine, Our Mississippi Magazine, DeSoto Magazine, Deep South Magazine, Country Roads Magazine, among others. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and Paralegal Studies, Master’s of Science in Mass Communications, and PhD in Communications at the University of Southern Mississippi. And Judy Smith is proud to forever be a Mississippi Girl.


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