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.

Plenty is happening close by, though. A gradual redevelopment of downtown Greenwood has occurred over the past decade due to investment from Viking, the high-end kitchen appliance company headquartered in town. But much of the development – an upscale hotel and spa, a prestigious cooking school, top-chef restaurants, an independent bookstore, clothing boutiques and antique stores – is lost on the families of Baptist Town.

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Building coalitions improves the lives of vulnerable children and families.

“When you are on the lower end of the educational and social strata, you’re worried about paying your light bill and your water bill, and having a place for you and your children to stay,” Collins said. “If your house is still falling down, then nothing has changed for you.”

Bridging the gap between downtown Greenwood and Baptist Town is an ongoing challenge. The city is set to embark on a public works project called Linear Park, a two-mile greenway and bikeway along an unused rail line that will connect Baptist Town and downtown. The city also has plans to develop a Baptist Town community center and to beautify the entrance of the neighborhood.

Whether those projects will build hope for the children and families of Baptist Town is anybody’s guess. Collins said he thinks a project to rehabilitate owner-occupied houses in Baptist Town, one property at a time, could turn the tide.

“We’ve got to make sure when we renovate or change, it’s still Baptist Town,” he said. “We want to connect to Baptist Town’s past but don’t want it to remain stuck in the past. We can keep the shotgun houses, but they’ve got to have decent roofs on them.”

No lack of spirit

The Mississippi Delta region lags behind the nation in many quality-of-life indicators related to economics, education and health, according to statistics compiled by the Foundation for the Mid South.

About 28 percent of all people in the Delta were living below the poverty line between 2006 and 2010, compared to about 14 percent nationally. Delta families earn about $20,000 below the national median household income, and the unemployment rate of 10.9 percent is 3 points higher than the combined average for Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana – the three states that the foundation serves.

Quality education for children is paramount to end the cycle of family poverty, yet only about two of every three ninth-graders in the Delta graduate from high school, compared to 92 percent nationally. Health outcomes also are discouraging. The life expectancy of a Delta resident is four years shorter than the national average, which may relate to the fact that one of every three adults is considered obese (compared to one in four nationally). Only about half of the Delta’s population has access to healthy foods via grocery stores, produce stands or farmers markets (compared to 92 percent nationally). To compound matters, one in four Delta adults are without health insurance, compared to about one in eight nationally.

The economic, education and health conditions in the Delta contribute to a high number of teen pregnancies (ages 15 to 19). In the Delta, 76 of every 1,000 teenaged girls give birth, compared to the national benchmark of 22 per 1,000.

Despite the dispiriting statistics, there is no lack of spirit in the Mississippi Delta.

“There is a tremendous desire that Mississippians have to help people who need help,” state Supreme Court Justice Randy Pierce said. “So we need to channel that desire and take advantage of that tremendous heart. Believe me, the people will respond.”

Pierce co-chairs the state Commission on Children’s Justice, a 25-member panel that brings together stakeholders from all three branches of government to develop recommendations for improving services to children and families – primarily those who come into contact with the court and child welfare systems.

“The commission looks at issues from 30,000 feet, but real change occurs on the ground at the community level,” Pierce said. “Each community needs to take responsibility for the children it is blessed to watch over. The role of government is that of facilitator – to make sure children are protected and their best interests are served.”

In the Delta, philanthropy also is a key partner in building hope. The Foundation for the Mid South directs its investment in four areas: K-12 education, health and wellness, community development, and wealth building. Ivye Allen, foundation president, said the role of philanthropy is “to be a catalyst in helping communities move forward and become the determiners of their own destinies.”

A hint of what could be

The Common Cents Warehouse Outlet once sold housewares, electronics, tools, apparel and shoes. Today, the forsaken storefront is a time capsule along the near-vacant business district in the tiny Delta town of Itta Bena.

Behind shards of broken window glass are toppled chairs, buckled ductwork, overturned plastic buckets, and grime. Downtown Itta Bena gives visitors “a sense of what it used to be, a hint of what it could be, but a reality of what it is,” said Aisha Nyandoro, a Foundation for the Mid South program officer who works in the Delta.

But flying in the face of Common Cents are signs that Itta Bena is a community on the cusp of hope.

Real change occurs on the ground at the community level

One risk factor for child neglect or endangerment is the condition of the home in which the family lives. The foundation set out to improve family living conditions by investing $213,500 in the dream of an inexperienced local developer to build the first quality rental housing in Itta Bena in several decades. By forming a nonprofit community development corporation, the developer was able to leverage the foundation’s investment with $2 million in federal and state housing funds. The result is the 22-unit Valley Apartment Homes, which opened in 2009.

Surrounded by fields and protected by a security gate, the solid three-bedroom apartments rent for an average of $518 a month, about $200 less than the lower quality rentals in town. Word of mouth created a waiting list of families with children in no time flat.

“We took a leap of faith on this project,” Nyandoro said. “With most of our community partners, we are taking a chance. As a result, we do a lot of handholding. We will invest to help our partners acquire the skills they need to become leaders in the community.”

Not far from the apartments, the Itta Bena Public Library operates as a triumph of community collaboration. For families on the brink, libraries are more than warehouses of books. They are community meeting places that can tear down the walls of isolation and introduce opportunities.

When the Greenwood library system shut down the branch in 2001 for lack of funding, meaning the closest branch was 22 miles away, the mayor at the time rallied the community to reopen it. The Foundation for the Mid South contributed $50,000 toward a renovation, and the library – complete with four Internet-ready computers loaded with resumé-building software – is now funded as a line item in the town’s budget.

“We have citizens who cannot afford computers at home,” current Mayor Walter Parker said. “This place is a godsend. It’s a safe place for our children. The things they have to worry about outside they don’t have to worry about in here.”

The library is small, but the number of books available to Itta Bena residents is not, thanks to a partnership with the local college. Mississippi Valley State University has made its more extensive book collection available through an exchange. All local residents have to do is go online to check out a book from the college library and it will be delivered to the Itta Bena library.

Making families whole again

In every Delta community, children are suffering because their families are suffering. In Mississippi and all over the country, child welfare systems have come to understand that to truly address the needs of a vulnerable child, they must also address the needs of the struggling family.

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Families are best served in the context of communities.

That is why the Mississippi Department of Human Services is reaching out to help build healthy communities that can support strong families. “It’s better to work on keeping families whole versus putting pieces back together,” Woodruff of MDHS said.

Yet no single government agency can be held responsible for the welfare of a community’s children. That task rests with every person and institution within that community. Only with that kind of widespread support will communities of hope be built.

Healthy communities – communities brimming with hope – can nurture families like Dequita Johnson and her 3-year-old daughter Aaliyah Brooks, who live in the Delta town of Greenville.

Johnson suffered a brain injury at 7 years old when a car hit her as she crossed a street. Pregnant as a teenager, Johnson backed off her medications and experienced psychotic episodes as a result. After Johnson gave birth, the episodes continued and the state took Aaliyah into custody at 3 months old, placing her in foster care.

Today, mother and daughter are being reunited as a family. Johnson is managing her health with the support of the county mental health system and other caring people, including members of her church, MDHS caseworkers, a grandmotherly neighbor and Aaliyah’s loving foster mother. Johnson believes that without the community surrounding her with hope, reunification would not be possible.

“I’ve worked hard to reach this point,” Johnson said. “I am doing my best to be a good mother. I’m happy and Aaliyah is happy.”

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