The Mount Ellis Miracle

What would bring hundreds of people from around the country together for a Sabbath at Mount Ellis Academy in the middle of October? It wasn't camp meeting or alumni weekend. It was a miracle — the miracle of a little Adventist academy winning a $500,000 grant from Kohl's department stores by finishing ninth out of all the schools in the nation on a Facebook contest. Oct. 16 was not only a day of celebration but also one of recommitment to young people and to Adventist schools everywhere.

You see, the failing water and sewer system at MEA was under scrutiny by state authorities, and $600,000 was needed to repair it. So when Gwen Emmerson, Montana constituent, alerted the school that Kohl's was going to give away $500,000 to each of the top 20 schools in a Facebook vote, school officials decided to go for it. With every school in the nation eligible to compete for the grant, it seemed improbable a small Adventist academy in Montana would have a chance. But the skeletal summer staff at the school ignored the odds and launched an all-out effort to spread the word. The phenomenon that followed could fill several books with stories. Here's the highly condensed version:

Despite entering the contest a month late, Mt. Ellis vaulted into the top 100 schools in less than three days. Cracking the top 100 captured the attention of the local media in Montana, and the school began receiving almost daily radio, newspaper and TV coverage all over the state. Dozens of local businesses came on board, promoting the school's cause to all of their customers. Volunteers across the country contributed hundreds of hours, passing out fliers and canvassing university students. Mount Ellis started receiving votes from places like Pakistan, England, Italy, Denmark and Bahrain as foreign student alumni worked to gain votes in their home countries. Students on campus began making daily video sketches for posting on YouTube and Facebook, suggesting ways to get more votes. They even asked Oprah to vote.

Heading into the final week, MEA was still in the top 20 schools, but just barely. At the point when it seemed like the school had peaked and was in danger of falling out of contention, the worldwide Adventist Church rallied like a family for one of its own. Adventist universities asked their students and staff to vote. Churches, large and small, made appeals. Ministries like ADRA, 3ABN and the HOPE Channel spread the word. North American Division administrators sent out communiqués asking all churches and schools to vote for MEA.

The response was overwhelming. Votes rolled in by the thousands. Sister academies dropped walls of provincialism and competition with many, not only encouraging their students to vote, but also appealing to their alumni. MEA students and faculty marveled at the massive wave of support for their little school. Other top schools were riding a wave as well. On the final day of voting the outcome was still very much in question with schools closing fast from behind. With five hours to go, an impromptu prayer meeting took place in the school chapel. Students, staff and parents put the results in God's hands and vowed to be grateful in victory or defeat.

In those closing hours, a deluge of votes poured in. As voting closed, MEA had jumped from 17th place to 10th. Interestingly, the school received its 144,000th vote at the very moment voting was to end.

Shortly after voting concluded, Barry Curtis, Mount Ellis pastor, posted this on his Facebook wall: "What can we agree on next?" Indeed, think of what can happen in our churches and schools — from the smallest to the largest — when we agree and pursue impossible things with passion. Mount Ellis never could have accomplished this on its own. This was a family thing. A family that included, but was not limited to, our worldwide church.

After a long process of validating votes and project approval, MEA was officially declared the ninth-place school and a $500,000 grant recipient. Work will begin on the new water and sewer infrastructure in the spring. In light of this unprecedented windfall, the Montana Conference executive committee called a special session to discuss the tithing ramifications and voted unanimously that the conference should pay a tithe from non-tithe discretionary funds.

It was amazing to see people from all walks of life — from the governor's office to next-door neighbors — coming together for this contest.

MEA is grateful to all who voted and for God's goodness in allowing this unforeseen blessing, but the story doesn't end there. Multiple North Pacific Union Adventist schools not only supported the MEA effort but, as noted on this page, they also did very well in their own right.

December 01, 2010 / Perspective