By MIA BASS
Driving south on Highway 280 past Greystone, it’s hard to miss a bright red awning that reads, “Life is a vapor.”
Behind the awning is not just a shopping spot but a ministry that supports schooling, healthcare and athletic activities for children in Kenya and other parts of Africa—all relying on the hands and hearts of the people from the 280 area.
The store is run by manager Steven Palmore, but it isn’t heavily staffed. Instead, it depends on the spirit of volunteerism in the 280 area. Six volunteers come in on a regular basis; two work in the store daily. During the school year, high school students also cycle through in order to help.
“Seeing God’s hand in every step the store has taken is inspiring,” Palmore said. He came into the Vapor family about a year ago, but Kim Thrasher, an associate at the thrift store, has been a part of Vapor since the very start. She actually knew Micah McElveen, founder of Vapor Sports Ministries, before the accident and before the vision for Vapor.
The Vapor story
McElveen was injured and became a quadriplegic at age 14. After regaining use of his legs, he was able to play collegiate soccer for four years. His love of soccer led him on a month-long trip to Kenya. It was a common bond, kicking the ball between one another.
This was the trip that sparked the vision for Vapor Sports Ministries.
McElveen believed he could minister to kids in these impoverished countries by connecting with them over the game of soccer. He set out to raise leaders within these communities and create ministers as well as soccer coaches. McElveen began one center in Kenya while living there for a year, and his mission evolved into building 40 centers in 40 slums across Kenya and Africa by the year 2017. There are currently three operational centers in Kawangware, Ngong and Togoville, with plans to open four more in 2012.
A section of the Highway 280 store is devoted to educating shoppers on the work that is ongoing in Africa. A flat screen and sound system broadcast Vapor’s vision when you walk in the store.
And it is a team of 280 residents and Alabamians who make much of the international ministry possible.
When the Vapor team needed a headquarters four years ago, they received hospitality only an Alabama resident could provide. McElveen came to Sylacauga to visit his uncle and met David Pursell, who owns Farmlinks Golf Course. Pursell gave Vapor much needed office space as well as housing accommodations for all employees. That number has grown over time to 10.
The ministry has also reoriented the goals of people like Vapor’s Vice President of Finance Daniel Roberts. “Our one goal, whether it’s thrift stores or how we raise money, is to make disciples,” said Roberts. He says that there will always be elements to running a business, but the goals change when you’re surrounded with fellow believers. Roberts admits he was one of those who graduated with an accounting degree and a goal of making the most money possible.
“I landed a dream job out of college and learned from the best Christian businessman I know,” Roberts said. It was through his boss that he had his chance meeting with McElveen. Roberts left the bank to spend four and a half months in India. He knew he had to call McElveen once he got home.
After the man who was originally hired to open the store was unable to be there for opening day, Roberts took the reins on September 23, 2009. “I was there to stay,” Roberts said.
A community ministry
It’s that sort of passion that is evident to those who frequent the thrift store. Church groups including those from McElveen’s home church, The Church at Brook Hills, come together to volunteer—from sorting donated items to folding jeans. But this isn’t a one-way process. While Vapor’s primary purpose is to benefit the ministries abroad, they also support local people traveling oversees for mission trips, give back to the churches and help the community as a whole.
After seeing the way the 280 and greater Birmingham community reacted and supported the ministry, Roberts and the Vapor team decided to open another branch of the thrift store in Columbus, Ga. and have plans to open another store the first of next year.
Vapor has helped with funds to send people overseas on mission trips. Most recently, Vapor helped when The Church of Brook Hills partnered with a church in Pratt City to assist 60 displaced families affected by the April 27 tornadoes. “Vapor is providing the resources toward stabilization,” said Brook Hills Local Disciple-Making Pastor Keith Stanley. Vapor provided these 60 families with vouchers to use in the thrift store to reestablish some feeling of normalcy.
The next time you’re driving down Highway 280 and have a little extra time, stop by Vapor to shop, donate, check out the handmade Kenyan bracelets or a sponsor a child. You can learn more about out what Vapor is doing overseas or fill out an application to volunteer at the thrift store at www.vaporsports.org.