Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
Just a few years after the end of World War II when Americans were trying to rebuild their lives and establish a sense of normalcy, Wayah Valley Inn was built on a hill overlooking Wayah Bald and flanked by dramatic mountain ranges. The expansive white-painted, 13-guestroom, 11-bathroom inn with on-site restaurant had no central heat, so it served only as a summer resort for people from all over the United States who desired a view and fresh mountain air.
After about 20 years in business, Wayah Valley Inn was purchased in 1970 by Jay and Sally Fesperman who decided to transform the inn into a restorative way station for struggling and/or weary business executives. According to the couple’s daughter, Tracy Fesperman Collins, her busy, working parents came originally to Franklin seeking sanctuary themselves. However, the Fespermans determined quickly that a greater need than respite for business people on the hamster wheel of success was a place for weary pastors and missionaries and their families. The Wayah Valley Inn became the Inn of the Last Resort.
In 1980, Larry and Susan Pons joined the Fespermans in the ministry, which by that time had reached thousands of people globally that simply needed, “a place to furlough, rest, get family in order, learn, regroup, and more,” said Larry. “Pastors and missionaries give so much, but who gives to them? The Inn – which became Christian Training Center International (CTCI) in the 1990s – is set up to serve.”
Rooms can accommodate around 50 people. Some are for families; others for couples. Common areas inside the inn are situated for activities, worship, relaxing, and more. And the grounds include a multi-recreation court, a pavilion, a playground, amphitheater, “prayer” trails, benches for sitting and taking in the view, and more. Weddings and other events have also taken place on the 40-acre property. A modern cabin, donated by Larry and Beth Rymer, serves as accommodation for guest speakers.
Jay Fesperman died in 1992, but his wife, Sally, 94, still lives next door to the place where she worked for at least a half century and continues to visit regularly. When her father died, Collins, who had moved away from Franklin, moved back and worked for CTCI for 23 years, retiring four years ago. One memory that impressed upon her was how “hungry” people were for biblical truth, especially in the 1970s. She said, “The inn would have Thursday night Bible studies and cars would be lined up down Wayah Road.”
The Pons live in a home just up a drive behind the inn, though they lived inside the inn for eight years and raised their four children on the property.
“We came here to work, teach, council,” said Susan. “Everyone who works here wears many hats.” Currently the full-time staff at CTCI includes 14 people, from grounds maintenance to childcare to marketing and meal preparation. Zoe Hudgins, a Johnson and Wales culinary graduate who plans and oversees meal preparation for three meals daily at the inn, was 16 years old when she first participated in programs at CTCI. Then she became an intern. Currently, the 24-year-old is a full-time resident and employee of CTCI.
Besides just retreat opportunities at CTCI, there are various and ongoing programs, courses, and internships that were established in the early days of the Fespermans’ influence and have been continued as well as tweaked by the Pons and their 15-person board of directors. Summer internships involve character building, mental and physical challenges, and a taste of what day-to-day ministry involves. Heroes Week is a summer program for teenagers that is similar to the full summer internship but is a more condensed version. Heroes Semester is a full 10-week intensive.
Everything offered at the interdenominational, 501(c)3 nonprofit center revolves around biblical truths regarding relationships, servanthood, and personal discipline.
“These programs are some fun, some work … a balance, but they all revolve around life skills and spiritual growth,” said Larry. “Young people might learn how to balance a checkbook, responsibly use credit cards, bake bread and learn cooking basics … practical aspects of life.” There is a wood shop and tool shed on-site for utilitarian purposes and for teaching skills in those areas.
CTCI also offers one-on-one counseling for individuals, families, and couples, as
well as leadership programs and a Train to Reign Family Training Program, which – according to Susan – is about “strengthening and restoring family relationships. Upcoming program dates are Oct. 25-Nov. 7, Feb.-March 6, 2021, and June 10-19, 2021. Or, individuals can take 10-week or two-week life application courses at CTCI in such areas as home maintenance and carpentry, culinary skills, business and leadership basics, and outdoor and survival. The latter includes basic camping, first aid, and more.
“There is something going on all the time,” said Larry. Even during the pandemic, activities have been online, virtual, and in-person with limitations.
“Challenging” activities incorporated into some of the programs, especially for teenagers and young adults, include night river hikes and rappelling. Plus, a Sunday fellowship opportunity is attended by people staying or working at CTCI as well as some local residents. An average of 60 people attend regularly.
“We are not designed as a recovery center for something like addiction,” said Larry, “but we have been able to be a place of healing, restoration, and change for those who have been on the front lines and have been wounded. We are here to get people on track or back on track.”
Nikki Corbin, one of the Pons’ children, oversees marketing for CTCI. She said her upbringing was “unique,” explaining, “When I came home from school, the majority of my friends that I played with were from England, Ireland, South America, Asia, etc.”
She also witnessed time and again how lives were changed.
“Growing up, I learned to recognize the ‘look’ in an individual’s eyes. I could tell if there was sadness or brokenness. I may not have known their story, but I knew their reason and purpose for being at the ministry was far greater than my mind could imagine. But what I loved and still love more than anything, is after a few weeks of participating in our programs and learning how great the love of our Lord is, their eyes start changing. It is almost like you see the sparkle come back. Even at a young age, I could begin recognizing healing and transformation taking place in their life. Their posture becomes more upright. They’re smiling. They’re experiencing only what God can do through the atmosphere created at this ministry.”
Susan said the board has a transition plan in place when she and Larry are unable to oversee CTCI, but they do not plan on retiring until they must. For 40 years, the couple has experienced “total hopelessness turned into joy and contentment … miracles, really,” said Larry.
Small Town Benefits
The Pons are native North Carolinians and childhood sweethearts. They believe CTCI’s location in Franklin is ideal for several reasons: natural beauty and outdoor opportunities, affordability, and community support.
“We raised our children here,” said Susan. Nikki, married to Scottie Corbin, general manager for the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts, resides in Franklin, while her siblings, Ellie, Corby, and Chan are scattered in Ohio, California, and South Carolina. The Pons also have eight grandchildren.
“This community here is so family friendly, and when the kids were growing up, we were plugged into PTO, sports, all kinds of things,” said Sally.
“Many people in our local area do not know what it is we do,” said Corbin, about CTCI, “… but big and great things are happening every day here.”
Ongoing for local and seasonal residents of Macon County are grief counseling and parenting instruction, volunteer opportunities – “always, for various needs,” explained Larry – and help with marital issues. “We do a lot for locals in the way of family and individual counseling,” he said.
“People not familiar with the center have so many misconceptions,” said Larry. “The big white inn is a mystery. But we are a training center, equipping people locally and all over. It’s given us a very full life,” said Larry. “An unexpected life and a life that will continue until the Lord wills it, but a very full life.”
To date, CTCI has accommodated over 100,000 people from more than 100 countries. The Pons said the board plans to expand, “Lord willing,” as there are ongoing “ideas, visions, and dreams,” said Larry. “We will have to see.”