Desire and determination in the delta: Mississippi moves toward the promise of hope
The sights, sounds and stories of the Mississippi Delta region are easy to romanticize.
Cotton fields and catfish farms spreading across an alluvial plain. Neighbors socializing on wide wooden porches, cooling off with glasses of sweet tea. A society that fought hard to overcome the stains of slavery and segregation. A fondness for the blues. Fried pickles and comeback sauce.
Indeed, the flavors of the Delta are bold and enticing. But the Delta is one of the most impoverished regions in the country.
The Mississippi Delta stretches hundreds of miles across the northwest part of the state between two rivers. On average, residents there are less healthy and have less formal education. The kinds of forces that tear vulnerable families apart and send children into the foster care system are all too common: substance abuse, mental illness and domestic violence.
Images of despair dominate the landscape. Children raised in houses so run down they appear to be falling into themselves. Long-abandoned storefronts with broken windows, suggesting shattered dreams.
Everyone in the community has a role to play in uplifting vulnerable children and families.
Yet the pieces are in place to build communities of hope in the Delta. Change will come because a variety of community partners – the Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS), the state Supreme Court, philanthropy, local government, school districts, universities and churches – are working together to ensure that the current generation of children have opportunities to achieve success that many of their parents and grandparents never had.
Hope for children and families is taking root in various places – in a school that itself has made the honor roll, in new homes built with the dignity of the family in mind, and in a little library that opens a large window on the world.
And hope has become the guiding light of MDHS, which recognizes that everyone in the community has a role to play in uplifting vulnerable children and families.
Casey Family Programs is proud to stand beside MDHS as a partner in its efforts to make Mississippi a better place to raise children – and to be a child.
“Hope, more than anything, is the concept that drew me to the social work profession in the first place,” said Lori Woodruff, deputy administrator of MDHS’ Division of Family and Children’s Services. “To help somebody believe that things can change and change for the better is what this work is all about.”
Ingredients for change
Cut off from the rest of the Delta city of Greenwood by two rail lines, a creek and a derelict cotton compress, the historic Baptist Town neighborhood is an island unto itself.
Shotgun-style houses, some on the verge of collapse, line dusty roads. Young parents clutch the hands of their children as they cross to the opposite side of the tracks to buy goods. Some families have lived in Baptist Town for generations and have grown protective of their neighborhood. But that doesn’t mean they are resigned to having their children grow up with little or no hope for better futures.
“The residents are satisfied to some degree because it has been this way so long and this is the only life they know,” said the Rev. Calvin Collins, pastor of New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, which has congregants from Baptist Town. “But I sense there’s a stirring now, especially among the young people.”
For vulnerable children, the most direct pathway to hope is a quality education. In Baptist Town, that path leads to Bankston Elementary School. Bankston was named a 2011 National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, a prestigious designation recognizing schools with high student achievement or where the achievement gap is narrowing. Bankston teachers have benefited from professional development funded through the Foundation for the Mid South, a regional philanthropic organization that uplifts the Delta in various ways.
With its inherent contradictions, Baptist Town has been the subject of many sociological and anthropological studies. Over time, residents have grown resentful of outsiders who arrive with big plans and false promises. Collins said the result is a functional inertia caused by too much talking and not enough doing.