Ozark County’s Tailgate Ministry built from foundation of compassion and service
Sometimes the most impactful projects seem to swirl together of their own measure, taking those involved along for the ride as it unfolds in unexpected ways.
Isabella resident Arthur Fortin says the Tailgate Ministry project in Ozark County has been a bit like that for him and the others involved.
What started as something as simple as Fortin taking a 7-year-old boy fishing has blossomed into a full-blown construction charity.
The members of the Tailgate Ministry now have their sights set on a big goal of creating a community of tiny cabins to help fill a need of affordable housing and a community center.
A project born of heartache and bad circumstances
Fortin says the charity was born when God brought together the lives of a few souls who were in the deepest trenches of heartache. Fortin and his wife Norma were two of those people.
The couple had moved to Isabella in 2016 and purchased the Wing & Fin Resort after the unexpected death of their 33-year-old son Shane. Hoping the change of scenery would help them heal from the pain, the Fortins threw themselves into the business and their life in the Ozarks. But no matter what they did, there was no way to close the gaping wound brought forth from losing a child.
“When he died, I just carried an emptiness around for six years,” Fortin said. “…right up until God put a special young lady in our lives.”
The young lady he refers to, who has asked to remain unnamed in this article, was also fighting a series of difficult life battles and circumstances at the time, leaving her and her two children in a desperate spot.
It was October 2020 when the paths of Fortin and the young lady crossed. It was on a day when Fortin had come to Thunder Bay Resort in Isabella to pick up 7-year-old Skylar Clark before a kids fishing tournament that they were going to enter. Clark lives at the resort with his parents Ashley and Roger Clark, who run the Thunder Bay Resort.
“I went over to the pool and I saw Skylar and two other children playing there. And then there was this bright light next to them. The only way I can describe it is that it was God’s spotlight. I stepped to the side a bit to see and got a glimpse of a young lady sitting there watching the kids,” Fortin said.
He asked about the young lady when he went inside, and the Clarks told him that she was working at the resort but was struggling deeply.
Fortin went outside and asked the young lady if she’d be willing to talk. She agreed, and the two dove into a deep conversation about the challenges they were each facing: Fortin losing his son and the young lady losing her way.
A few days later, that same young lady drove up to the Fortins’ resort and asked for a job. She was hired that day.
“Were we looking for an employee? No. But after hearing her heart-wrenching battles, we decided to help by giving her a job,” Fortin said. “She helped us paint the resort cabins and conduct normal resort maintenance.”
Taking her under their wing
The young lady, who was a similar age as their son, immediately found a way into the Fortins’ hearts. They took her under their wing and began helping her plan for her future.
“I asked her about her schooling. She didn’t have a high school diploma. During my next fishing tournament, we made it a point to help her achieve her graduation. We donated our share of the tournament money to her account, allowing her to obtain her diploma,” Fortin said, expressing thanks to the Fishers of Men tournaments for making that possible. “Then I sat her down and asked, ‘What do you want to do for a living?’”
The young lady and the Fortins discussed several options, and a constant theme soon emerged.
“The one thing that came up every single time was that she wanted to help people. So, we kind of just started down a road of helping people,” he said.
Finding ways to help
Fortin and the young lady began delivering boxes of food to those who needed it in the community. It didn’t take long for their list to grow to 10 or more people who needed help.
Through the deliveries, they met a lot of neighbors and community members and got to know them. Those friendships led to a level of trust that allowed the food recipients to reveal other desperate needs they had. Fortin and the young lady helped in those ways too when they could.
“We were fixing water lines in the dead of winter, fixing people’s vehicles so they could go to church, getting them firewood… if they needed it and we could provide it, we did it,” he said.
Most of the help was done without payment from people with no financial means of hiring someone for those jobs. But the feeling Fortin and the young lady got from helping people was payment enough.
They continued to do what they could, keeping their hearts open to where God led them.
“Then all at once, I guess God shifted gears and said we were supposed to be carpenters,” Fortin said. “We’ve done a lot of carpentry work ever since.”
Fortin’s background in construction and tenacity derived from a career in the Air Force paired with the young lady’s heart for service was just the fuel needed to make a huge impact on the community.
Repairing homes and hearts
It was at that time that the Tailgate Ministry began.
The pair’s first project was for a community member who they’d brought food to through the winter. The woman was living in a storage shed-type cabin that had been installed on a piece of property and hadn’t been finished out.
“The cabin was installed and tied down, and that was it. There was no bathroom, no shower, no sink. She was roughing it there for awhile,” he said. “We’d delivered food and stuff to her a few times. One day [the young lady working with me] asked me if the woman had heat. I said, ‘I don’t know. Go ask her,’” Fortin said.
When the woman confided that she didn’t have a way to heat the small cabin, Fortin and the young lady took the project on as part of the Tailgate Ministry, insulating the structure and donating a heater.
After the cabin was properly insulated and heated, the pair decided to continue the efforts, finishing out the cabin into adequate living quarters with indoor plumbing, bathroom and other necessities.
Through the process of helping others, the Fortins and the young lady became close. Next, the couple helped the young lady find and purchase a home for her and her children.
They initially looked at a home on Highway 95, but it needed work and wasn’t at a price point the young lady and her children could afford.
It was instead purchased by another couple, who asked the Tailgate Ministry to help repair the home.
“It needed a lot of repairs, and the only way they could purchase it was to have the repairs done first,” Fortin said. “They bought most of the materials, and they had a couple relatives put the heat and air and plumbing in. But me and [the young lady] did all the painting and carpentry work including pulling all the floors up and putting new ones down.”
Since that time, the Tailgate Ministry has developed into quite the busy endeavor, and Fortin and the young lady now split their time between working at the resort and working as carpenters for Tailgate Ministry.
Fortin says he pays the young lady a good salary for the work she completes, giving her a steady job and source of income to provide for her children. She also is continually learning construction skills that she will be able to use in a future career if she chooses.
The pair take on both traditional construction jobs for those who can pay for their services and donated labor for those in desperate need of something and are often not able to pay anything.
“It’s a balancing act. You have to keep some paying jobs to keep enough money for the ones that aren’t,” he said.
Fortin said at the time of the interview, the pair was working on three jobs. One was a paying job. One was a donated job. The other was a paying job, but Fortin said, “I know the real reason why we’re there. We were put there, and it wasn’t an accident,” he said.
‘Stepped up to the plate’
As the Tailgate Ministry continued to take hold and grow, Fortin began giving updates on the project to his fellow congregation members at Theodosia United Methodist Church. It was there that Isabella residents Margie Peyton and Judy Schnable found a real interest in the project.
“He’d get up on Sunday mornings and talk about this thing they were doing, and you really don’t process it at first,” Schnable said. “But one day I told Margie, I said, ‘I really listened to Art today, and he’s really stepped up to the plate. We’ve had sermons about how to really love people and how to give back to your community - and he’s stepped up and found ways to help these women and other people in the community.’”
Margie and Judy had been going through their own transition in life, and they wondered if the Tailgate Ministry might be the perfect fit to help them with a project they’d considered.
“I used to live on HH Highway. We moved here in 1984, and it’s been one heck of a ride. My husband passed about five years ago and I’ve lost my oldest son,” Schnable told the Times. “Every year it got more difficult to maintain the houses. I had a guest house too. So, I decided to sell. I sold that property in June of last year,” Judy said.
At that time, Judy told her friend Margie that she’d likely have to move back to St. Louis, although she didn’t want to leave Ozark County. Margie, who’d been living alone in a decent-sized home, suggested that Judy move in with her.
She took Margie up on her offer and moved into the home that summer.
That’s when the Tailgate Ministry came in.
A garage turned apartment
After hearing Fortin discuss the project at church again, the women decided to ask him and the young lady if he’d consider looking at a detached shop building at Margie’s house that was being underutilized for storage. They wondered if it might be converted into an apartment for Judy.
“It was just chaos out there. If Margie had something she didn’t want, she didn’t want to toss it in the landfill so she’d toss it out here,” Judy explained. “It was just a basic, old garage. Cinder block and paneling on the walls, concrete floors and stuff everywhere.”
Fortin and the young lady came out and bid the job, and Margie agreed to finance the project.
After a few months, the 742-square foot garage was completely renovated into an attractive apartment with several special touches.
“[The young lady] did most of the work. Art was teaching her how to pour epoxy, lay floors, put up walls, lay tile, paint… I mean it’s just been a beautiful journey,” Judy said. “The kitchen transition was out of this world. There was a harvest gold stove, avocado green and yellow striped wallpaper. The walls were nothing but cinder blocks. So [the young lady] did the tiling and Art and her worked on the bead boards, floors… it was so much fun to see it all come together.”
During construction, the young lady noticed that Judy’s dachshund Izzy had a hard time jumping up onto the bed. So, she created a custom-painted dog ramp that now sits at the base of the bed and trained the dog to use it.
Judy and Margie say they’re thrilled with the end result.
“It was amazing how it all came together. We just kept looking around and thinking, ‘How did this happen?’ And I think without the Tailgate Ministry, it wouldn’t have,” Judy said. “The whole thing just fell into place, and it afforded me to stay in the Ozarks, which I love.”
Margie and Judy said one of the best decisions they made to hire the Tailgate Ministry.
“It was great that [the young lady] was learning a trade and getting better at it through the whole process. Art actually instructs her as he does something new. He’s very patient and kind and is such a great teacher,” Judy said. “He really finds people in the community who needs help, and he helps when he can. He is just a very Godly man.”
...To be continued next week.