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At the center of Arkansas Delta’s fight against poverty and division: an 85-year-old swimming pool

North Helena Park is deserted, save for a midday chorus of cicadas and one lone pickup truck parked outside the pool house. A stone’s throw east, the Mississippi River levee looms 20 feet high, sloping through parched, brown grass to an expanse of delta post oaks, a blistering tennis court and the crown jewel — an 85-year-old swimming pool the size of a small parking lot. At first glance, the white-washed pool shed appears undisturbed, but through the breezeway pool manager Earnest Womack is neck-deep in a jam: the pool has sprung a leak. To repair it, he will have to pry through yards of concrete and Depression-era piping. Worse, he only has two weeks until 150 kids flood the front door for the start of swim camp, the long-awaited highlight of Together for Hope Arkansas’s year with Helena’s children.

For now, only Womack inhabits the pool house and takes a seat in the shade. He peers through a two-tone pair of retro frames. The glasses, coupled with his soaring stature, make first impressions downright stately – the kind of stately that can still rock a candy-red Central High School class of ’85 t-shirt. His peppery beard reveals just enough gray to confirm the shirt’s authenticity. Nonetheless, Womack grew up at this pool. He was born in Helena, and, like most members of Phillips County’s black community, learned as a child to live almost seamlessly below his family’s federal poverty threshold.

“It’s a weird thing to grow up poor,” Womack says. “You don’t actually know it while you’re going through it, because everybody in the community is pretty much going through the same thing you are.”

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Earnest Womack was born in Helena, worked as a lifeguard at the Helena pool since age 16, and now works as pool manager, partnering with Together for Hope to offer Swim Camp to Helena’s children and youth.

The situation is the same with kids in Helena today, he explains. Except for one major difference – the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a Nixonian public works law that employed Womack and 300 of his high school peers during summers in Helena. In fact, the 1973 U.S. Congress enacted CETA as an extension of the nationwide, Depression-era Works Progress Administration, which built the Helena swimming pool in the 1930s. Because of CETA, Womack took a job at that very pool during high school and began a nearly 30-year career as manager and lifeguard instructor.

“Man, you just don’t know how that impacted my household,” he says, shaking his head resolutely. Despite his family’s low income, Womack’s CETA job allowed him to buy his own school clothes, go where he pleased and “just be able to enjoy some of the normalities of life,” he says. Now that public works projects are virtually antique, Delta kids need something to focus on, he says, something to move toward with discipline, something that will open up a new world of ideas. That’s why, for nearly 20 years, Womack has partnered with Together for Hope Arkansas as they seek the development of Helena’s youngest and stoke their imaginations for what lies beyond the limitations of poverty. And for the better part of that 20 years, it all took place at a swimming pool.

That’s the trick of rural development with children, says Janee’ Jones Tisby, director of TFH Arkansas. “It can literally be whatever you want it to be. As long as you execute, you can take kids to Spain, start a sports program or anything in between, and, nine times out of ten, the community responds with a resounding ‘Yes!’” That’s because “anything is going to be better,” Tisby says, especially in a remote town where the median household income remains less than $20,000, one of the lowest in the nation. Ultimately, children and teenagers in poverty lack opportunity, Tisby explains, not merely to have wealth, but to access more overlooked resources that help make a kid well-rounded — “whether it’s lots of books on their level at home and at school or just being able to find their passions, like playing soccer or a different kind of extracurricular, or going to the doctor when they’re sick or just sitting in their classroom and focusing because their basic needs are taken care of.”

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The opening of Freeman Playground marks the start of summer for Together for Hope.

While TFH Arkansas engages each of those needs, the first and last words on everybody’s lips are “swim camp,” where a year of child development crescendos at the Helena pool for two weeks of swim lessons, lifeguard training, and water aerobics for all ages. Yet, more than a refreshing dip, the chlorine waters have become a kind of microcosm for Helena youth’s battle with the limitations of poverty, a kind of proving ground for developing focus and imagination, Earnest Womack says.

“Kids learn by examples, and when they are part of something positive, they naturally follow those things,” says Womack, who has trained a generation of teenagers to be lifeguards at the Helena pool.

First, kids want to overcome their fear of the water and learn how to swim. Then, they can barely wait to become a teenager and undergo lifeguard training. All the while, teenage alumni of swim camp can move deeper with Together for Hope’s Camp Go, a cohort for learning leadership skills and shadowing volunteer staff. Womack recalls the Hampton brothers, who grew up attending swim camp, became lifeguards and are now off to college – often an unlikely destination for young people in Helena. Swim camp, he says, can help children and teenagers break through the short-sightedness of poverty by inspiring them to work toward a long-term goal.

“Through the impact of the discipline of those things,” Womack says, “they learn how to have a focus on something and then be able to go toward it and not lose that focus. Sure, there will be things that shake you along the way, but hey, the goal is to get where you’re trying to go. Most of them do.”

But no matter what, Womack laments, some fall through the cracks. When young people start to believe that the limitations of poverty are their own, he explains, they begin to choose destructive paths, namely those that involve drugs or violence. Just two weeks ago, a group of siblings who grew up in TFH’s swim camp got into a scuffle with a suspected adversary at Franklin and Elm Street. As the fight escalated, one of the siblings pulled out a gun and opened fire, leaving 22-year-old Dominic Otey dead in the middle of the street. It’s difficult, maybe impossible, to understand why some sell out for violence, Womack says, but the impact of poverty is strong.

“That’s a tragedy to me,” he says, casting his eyes to the floor. “They had the same opportunities, the same community, but they just go different paths.”

After all, Womack admits, why would Helena’s black community, especially teenagers growing up in poverty, trust that any outsider has their best interest at heart? It’s no secret that black folks in Helena carry 96 percent of the poverty. Even Womack himself was wary when TFH field personnel Ben and Leonora Newell first came to Helena in 2000 searching for ways to help local children grow. The Newells began at Helena’s north end, a neighborhood formerly deserted by white families and left tattered for much of Helena’s black community.

Kate Hall, member of Hayes Barton Baptist Church in North Carolina and the original architect of swim camp, accompanied the Newells during that initial summer and recalls hosting their first camp in a half-burned-out armory. They quickly tired of sweeping broken glass and charcoal, Hall says, so they wandered a few blocks over to North Helena Park where the swimming pool laid vacant. Apart from having no swim instructor, the pool cost $1 for entry, which wasn’t in the budget for many north Helena families.

When Hall first approached Womack at the pool, he seemed more than slightly unimpressed by 12 white “nice little do-gooders who are going to be out of here soon,” Hall says, laughing. On the contrary, Hall tenaciously brokered a deal with Womack to allow the TFH team into the pool area every morning, where they would hand out dollar bills for entry and teach children to swim. Yet, even to Hall and her team, the audacity of swimming in a mostly black public pool was unmistakable. One morning, while Hall was supervising a shallow-end game of ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ for preschoolers, a 4-year-old black girl suddenly shifted her gaze toward the deep end.

“Miss Kate,” she pleaded, “they’s white people in this pool.”

“You’re right,” Hall replied.

“Miss Kate,” she repeated, looking curiously up at Hall, “You’s white.”

“You’re right,” Hall answered, this time with a grin.

“Miss Kate,” the girl appealed once more, “my momma says white people and black people aren’t supposed to play together.”

“Do you know what?” Hall said. “This week we are gonna have so much fun playing together in this pool and that’s what this is all about. We’re just gonna all have fun together.”

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A mural atop the Mississippi levy in Helena, Arkansas. Despite carrying a 43% share of Helena’s poverty by age, Together for Hope is investing in children, Helena’s best hope for breaking the cycle of generational poverty.

The acute role of swimming pools in Jim Crow segregation was not lost on Hall and TFH, nor on Helena’s black community as swim camp took form. Since the Depression-era wave of investment in public swimming pools, exclusive access to those pools – especially in the blistering heat of mid-summer – was a hallmark of white supremacy in the United States. While millions of white Americans created a culture around swimming, cities reserved a mere fraction of public pools for black Americans, who still today are half as likely as a white citizen to know how to swim. Subsequently, black children aged 5 to 14 experience three times as many unintentional drowning deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Together for Hope was treading in sensitive waters, yet Hall began partnering with Womack to offer a unique form of power to Helena’s black youth. Within two years, swim camp took full form, featuring two four-day weeks with eight lessons per week for children 12 and under. In the evenings, teenagers swapped in for their own lessons and water aerobics. Hall even began teaching adults, many of whom were resolved to be able to swim with their children. As more learned, the north Helena community began to reclaim the pool and surrounding park as their own, all while Together for Hope covered the pool’s operating costs and offered free admission. Soon, walls came down, Hall says, and relationships at the pool modeled a new level of trust for children and teenagers.

“Poverty divides people,” Hall says, “but it’s really something to see these kids begin to form relationships with us, people of a different color, and open up conversation.

“You indeed are trying to teach a child a skill, but for you to effectively do it, that child has to build a certain amount of trust in you. Ultimately, for children to grow and learn from other people, they have to understand there will be people in their lives that they can trust that maybe they distrusted before. It’s a huge thing to open their eyes to that, but they began to trust me and I felt some of those barriers breaking away. I feel that every time I get in that pool.”

Back at the pool, Earnest emerges from the breezeway to ready his wheelbarrow. He’ll have to mix new concrete if he wants to fix the leak. The sound of steady trickling water echoes from the deep end as the pool steadily fills. Today, it’s only halfway full and the arctic-blue paint lining the pool’s surface is visible for the first two feet at least. Womack’s close friend Kate won’t join for another two weeks, so, for now, he soldiers on, determined to have the water ready for a new batch of swim campers. This year, like the last several, a grant from the Helena Health Foundation will support the pool’s operating costs for the remainder of the summer, so his work is cut out for him. Still, it’s a small price to pay to see the next generation of Helena’s children step nervously into the water.

Womack still runs into former campers at the grocery store, and they almost always take a moment to relive their poolside antics from years ago. Now, if he could only remember all their names, he says with a laugh. Either way, as children pass through the gate for the first time, prepared to trust and open themselves to a new kind of power, his hope lies with Helena’s youngest, he adds.

“My hope, always, is to see the little children when they get here, to be able to impact them in a way that they would not go down the pathway of violence but would always try to do the right thing even when nobody is looking. Being able to help, to share, to give good guidance and direction, being able to even mentor some of these kids – those are the things that give you a glimmer of hope.”

Read more in the Arkansas Delta series:

At the center of Helena, Arkansas’s fight against poverty and division: an 85-year-old swimming pool

Imagination is the greatest threat to Delta poverty, Together for Hope Arkansas says

Phillips County, Arkansas: Backwater Rising

Photo Gallery: Arkansas Delta

Video: Rosie Moss

Video: Janee’ Tisby on Volunteers

Video: Janee’ Tisby on Poverty

Video: Earnest Womack on the Pool

Video: Earnest Womack on Poverty

 

Related commentary at baptistnews.com:

Survival mode | Jason Coker

Reimagining churches as full-time partners with those in poverty | Laura Rector

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

With little opportunity for youth and children — or almost anyone else — Christian community builds chances from the ground up

Hope blooms in the Arkansas Delta, thanks to ministry team

 

Like the rising river of the Arkansas Delta, the persistence of poverty still looms just over the levee, threatening to wash young people down paths of violence, drugs, food insecurity, unemployment, and early death. That’s why Together for Hope is committed to growing the gifts and dreams of Helena’s children as they seek to interrupt cycles of generational poverty and instill lasting hope in the Delta’s youngest.

This series in the “Resilient Rural America” project is part of the BNG Storytelling Projects Initiative. Has the United States forgotten its countryside? What strength and resilience may yet be stirring outside our city limits? In “Resilient Rural America,” we attempt to answer these questions when we visit these unique communities to examine the singular nature of poverty in rural America and tell the stories of development among its courageous and resilient people.

_____________

Seed money to launch our Storytelling Projects initiative and our initial series of projects has been provided through generous grants from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. For information about underwriting opportunities for Storytelling Projects, contact David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher, at [email protected] or 336.865.2688.

 




Imagination is the greatest threat to Delta poverty, Together for Hope Arkansas says

The day finally arrived. Janee’ Jones Tisby and her 5th-grade class were en route to Memphis’ dazzling Pink Palace Museum. After months of hard work in the classroom, they would leave the Mississippi Delta behind and revel in a literal mansion full of the Mid-South’s rich cultural and natural history. The van was abuzz as it pulled through the roundabout, adorned with a centerpiece of ruby red tulips, and its passengers beheld the 84-year-old estate for the first time. The facade of pink Georgian marble sparkled in the morning sun, as if to announce the wonders inside, where visitors can witness the Canyon Diablo meteorite, count the vertebrae in a giraffe’s neck and meet Stan, the 40-foot Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton.

As Tisby’s class filed into the main lobby, Stan the T-Rex greeted them from atop the brass-plated escalator. Tisby stepped on the escalator to proceed upstairs to the first exhibit, but nobody followed. Pandemonium had enveloped the entire lobby behind her, and the commotion was coming from her students.

“What is going on?” Tisby begged from the second floor. “Let’s just go upstairs!”

Suddenly, it hit her. Her students had never seen or ridden an escalator before. Some were terrified. Some were beside themselves with glee. Most continued taking ride after ride, as Stan and his mansion of wonders took a backseat to the marvels of mechanical moving stairs.

“It seems small and silly,” Tisby explains. “But it’s a perfect illustration for the lack of opportunity that children in poverty face.”

“Telling 5th-graders in the Delta to imagine a better future is like telling them to imagine the ocean when the biggest body of water they’ve seen is a catfish pond or a river. You can take that analogy on and on. It’s so much harder for a child to say, ‘I want this’ or ‘I can do this’ when he or she can’t see it and it seems like it’s really far away. That escalator is really tiny, but it illustrates to me how difficult it can be for a kid to dream into what he or she actually wants, or even know what to dream in the first place.”

Tisby’s initial three years in the Mississippi Delta with Teach for America led to nine more in the region surrounding the Mississippi River – known by locals in both Mississippi and Arkansas simply as “the Delta.” In 2016 Tisby, her husband Jemar and son Jack settled in Helena, Arkansas, as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship named her director of Together for Hope Arkansas, part of CBF’s nationwide rural development coalition. For the last two years, Tisby has been refining a nearly 20-year relationship with the Helena community and partner churches across the United States. Together, they continue to engage in asset-based development among Helena’s children and teenagers, who carry a 43-percent share of Helena’s poverty by age.

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A relay race at the opening of Freeman Playground and the Free Little Library.

Whether in Mississippi or Arkansas, Tisby explains, developing the Delta’s youngest is ultimately about expanding their imagination for what lies beyond the limited view of poverty. Today, that view is obstructed by a host of systemic inequities in Helena, including a median household income of only $21,000, one the lowest in the country. What’s more, black and African-American residents, who comprise 76 percent of Helena’s population, experience 96 percent of its poverty. That leaves most of Helena’s children with limited or simply no access to predictable meals, health care, extracurricular activities and educational resources outside of school. While families rarely overcome poverty by sheer will, Tisby explains, it is infinitely more feasible to interrupt the cycle of generational poverty by empowering young people with education and imagination for a different future. At the end of the day, kids don’t recognize their own poverty, so how could they dream of more without first seeing it?

“Anytime it’s possible, we want to take kids outside of the Delta and show them something else,” Tisby says. “Whether it’s going to Memphis or Little Rock or even something smaller, like showing them Stringtown Farm or the Mississippi River – just showing them more. Even in a place like Helena, that doesn’t have a ton of museums or things like that, there are assets that we really try to explore.”

That said, if TFH spends a few days each year exposing Helena’s children to the wider world, it spends every other day bringing the wider world to Helena, Tisby says, and that begins with books. “You can dream into so much more by reading, and that’s why literacy is so important to us.”

For nearly two decades, TFH has been circulating children’s books throughout Phillips County through Stories on Wheels, an enormous yellow school bus furnished with 3,000 books, games, crafts and a reading area. In addition, Together for Hope pairs community volunteers with students in nearby Lake View, Elaine and Helena’s own Eliza Miller Elementary to provide tutoring and supplemental reading programs. Whether it’s Henry and Mudge books or the increasingly popular non-fiction genre, Tisby says, “seeing kids who could not stand to read but who are now just obsessed with books is amazing.”

Down at Helena’s Freeman Playground, last night’s storms have cleared and a hive of volunteers are preparing for the opening of Helena’s first “Free Little Library.” Misti and Will Staley, who moved from Brooklyn to Helena a few years ago, acquired a grant for the playground’s construction just north of the town square. In fact, the Staleys chose Helena in part because Will grew up volunteering with Together for Hope through his childhood church in Little Rock. Clamoring through an amplified megaphone, Misti calls for a handful of children to grab hold of the giant wooden scissors, as Will positions the red ribbon in front of the Free Little Library. He sneaks a pair of Fiskars from his pocket.

“Alright, help me count down from three,” Misti calls to the crowd. “Three, two, one, it’s officially open!”

With a quick snip of the ribbon, Helena’s first Free Little Library opens to children who can now retrieve and return books at their leisure from the oversized mailbox just off Market Street. It’s one more step in the slow work of building imagination, Tisby says, but the Staleys represent an asset even greater than mere books and playgrounds. Field trips and literacy are crucial in developing dreams, but they don’t live and breathe like Together for Hope’s 170 annual volunteers, who travel from states as far away as North Carolina just to spend a week with Helena’s children. Some have made the trip 18 years in a row.

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Helena’s children can take and leave books at their leisure from the Free Little Library on Market Street.

“One of the biggest things, and we particularly see this in the summertime during camp,” Tisby says, “is building a relationship with someone year after year who is from somewhere else, and hearing about that place and what they do – just being able to learn from folks is so extremely helpful in expanding horizons.”

Jaylen Randolph grew up participating in Together for Hope. More than the programs, he says, he was transformed by relationships with adult volunteers, who not only invested in his life but opened their own lives to him. Randolph was born in Helena, attended Central High School, and says he was none the wiser about his community being a “bad place.”

“Helena, for me, was always a safe haven and I used to never want to leave because it was always my comfortable place,” he says. As he grew older, however, he began to open his eyes to the reality of poverty and how it defeated so many of his friends and neighbors.

“Being in all of that ‘negative’ just made me want to be positive and try to help uplift my community and bring it back up,” he explains. “That’s my main mission. I want to go back home and help build my community back up because people are always talking about how Helena is this and that, but they don’t want to put in the work. That’s one thing I want to fix.”

Until then, Randolph is pursuing a biology and pre-medicine degree at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and says Helena helped build the man he is today. Since age 9, Randolph could barely wait to attend TFH’s swim camp each year. He even snuck in at 13, past the normal age to attend but before he could become a volunteer. As soon as he turned 16, he immediately applied to be a group leader and mentor for younger campers throughout the summer. Soon, Randolph was accompanying tutoring teams to nearby Lake View and even volunteering after school at TFH’s offices at Delta Fellowship Church. What’s utterly baffling, he says, is that his most meaningful moments were spent with TFH’s mostly white volunteers from partner churches outside Helena.

“I’m gonna be real with you – I’ve never seen a group of people outside of my race and color love people that are my race and my color the way they do,” he says, suppressing a laugh. “Every time they come now, they’re so happy to see Helena and I never really understood why they love it so much until now.”

One Sunday morning, a volunteer team from Wilmington, North Carolina, was attending worship with Randolph’s home congregation, the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, just across North Helena Park from the municipal swimming pool. As the worship service came to a close, the pastor stood at the front altar for his customary post-sermon call. “Bring someone up you don’t know,” the pastor implored. Jaylen knew exactly who to bring: Angie Graham, one of his favorite volunteers. As he escorted Graham to the front of the sanctuary and faced the congregation, he let out a gasp and yelled clear to the back wall.

“I love me some vanilla!”

Graham turned to Randolph and grabbed his hand. “I love me some chocolate!” she exclaimed, as the congregation erupted in laughter and applause.

“I’ll always remember that,” Randolph says through a smile, “and every time we see each other we always greet each other by saying that.” Now a junior at UAPB, Randolph is studying to become a pediatrician. He wants to make sure that the children of Phillips County, some of the most vulnerable in Arkansas, are healthy and safe as they develop. For the time being, Randolph will settle for volunteering yet again with Together for Hope during his summer break.

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Together for Hope relies on more than 170 volunteers each year as they develop the imagination of Helena’s children.

Back in her office at Delta Fellowship Church, Janee’ Tisby prepares for Randolph and nearly 200 more volunteers to descend on their favorite home away from home this summer. Of course, not every child who engages with TFH will continue to college or even overcome the mindset that poverty often instills in their minds. “It’s really hard to see kids becoming more reserved and beginning to doubt their strengths, to doubt the positives they bring,” she explains. The goal, she continues, is to remain thoughtful and responsive to wherever a child is on his or her journey of imagination. Poverty will surely take its toll on a child’s confidence and vision for a bigger future, even on his or her ability to make small strides along the way.

But ultimately, Tisby says, setting high expectations is absolutely crucial for children growing up in poverty. “Our kids need to know that we believe they can achieve, that we believe they can do what they need to function, in a classroom or wherever.”

“At the same time, it’s also important for them to know that we will partner with you and help you get there, and what you need may be different from what someone else needs or even most kids need, and that’s okay. But when they see that we doubt it, they lower their expectations for themselves. So we want to make sure we have really high expectations because they really can reach them.”

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As they collaborate, Helena’s mostly black community and Together for Hope’s largely white volunteer base speak often of the uncommon trust between them.

 

Read more in the Arkansas Delta series:

At the center of Helena, Arkansas’s fight against poverty and division: an 85-year-old swimming pool

Imagination is the greatest threat to Delta poverty, Together for Hope Arkansas says

Phillips County, Arkansas: Backwater Rising

Photo Gallery: Arkansas Delta

Video: Rosie Moss

Video: Janee’ Tisby on Volunteers

Video: Janee’ Tisby on Poverty

Video: Earnest Womack on the Pool

Video: Earnest Womack on Poverty

 

Related commentary at baptistnews.com:

Survival mode | Jason Coker

Reimagining churches as full-time partners with those in poverty | Laura Rector

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

With little opportunity for youth and children — or almost anyone else — Christian community builds chances from the ground up

Hope blooms in the Arkansas Delta, thanks to ministry team

 

Like the rising river of the Arkansas Delta, the persistence of poverty still looms just over the levee, threatening to wash young people down paths of violence, drugs, food insecurity, unemployment, and early death. That’s why Together for Hope is committed to growing the gifts and dreams of Helena’s children as they seek to interrupt cycles of generational poverty and instill lasting hope in the Delta’s youngest.

This series in the “Resilient Rural America” project is part of the BNG Storytelling Projects Initiative. Has the United States forgotten its countryside? What strength and resilience may yet be stirring outside our city limits? In “Resilient Rural America,” we attempt to answer these questions when we visit these unique communities to examine the singular nature of poverty in rural America and tell the stories of development among its courageous and resilient people.

_____________

Seed money to launch our Storytelling Projects initiative and our initial series of projects has been provided through generous grants from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. For information about underwriting opportunities for Storytelling Projects, contact David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher, at [email protected] or 336.865.2688.




Phillips County, Arkansas: Backwater Rising

True natives of Phillips County, Arkansas will attest that the “Arkansas Delta” isn’t a delta at all. It’s an alluvial plain. Over the last 12,000 years, the imposing Mississippi River and its tributaries deposited deep layers of soil, gravel, and clay carried from slopes as far away as the Rocky Mountains to the west and the Appalachians to the east. Today, the rich loam of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain — some of the world’s most productive farmland — is also extremely dense, flat and poorly drained. Hazard mingles with fertility, as the threat of flooding looms. And like the muddy shores of the Mississippi, the Delta’s storied African American communities have always confronted both the abundance and the peril of life in the Delta, hoping to God that the levee holds.

Willard B. Gatewood, Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas, called the Arkansas Delta the “deepest of the Deep South,” for, in its fertile soil, cotton thrived and with it, slavery. Black slaves comprised the majority of the Delta’s population throughout the mid-nineteenth century. Following the Civil War, freepeople established their own communities and culture along the river, though white landowners proved reluctant to surrender the bigoted power they had exercised for so long. Thus, sharecropping and tenant farming became a way of life for most, but by the second half of the 20th century, mechanization had all but replaced human farming labor in Phillips County. When the Mohawk Rubber Company closed in 1978, vast unemployment set in for the long haul.

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Helena and other communities along the Mississippi River confront the beauty and the danger of existing in a flood plain.

Today, Phillips County’s mostly black families now contend with a complex and all-too-familiar relationship with the Arkansas Delta — a place where sharecroppers lived in segregation yet built a bastion of black culture. In the county seat of Helena-West Helena, black and African American families comprise 76 percent of the population and shoulder 96 percent of its poverty. Furthermore, Helena’s median household income of $21,000, remains less than 40 percent of the national median, leaving its high population of children and teenagers to contend with little access to health care, steady meals, extracurricular activities, and education resources.

Still, you will not find a more loving, tight-knit and dedicated community than Helena’s, says Janee’ Jones Tisby, director of Together for Hope Arkansas, part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s rural development coalition. For nearly 20 years, Together for Hope (TFH) has cultivated an unshakable relationship with the Helena community and partner churches across the country as they engage in asset-based development among children and teenagers. With a precise focus on literacy and leadership development, TFH continues to build children’s imaginations for what is possible beyond the limited view of poverty. Every June, that work culminates in the wildly-popular Swim Camp, where children and teenagers not only learn to swim but learn to pursue leadership through lifeguarding, volunteering and interning with TFH.

Children take center stage, Tisby says, but the kinship that has formed between Helena’s black community and mostly white “outsiders” who come to volunteer is equally staggering. In fact, most partner churches and volunteers consider their annual visit to Helena the highlight of their year, says Kate Hall, member of Hayes Barton Baptist Church in North Carolina and the original architect of Swim Camp. Rather than see only poverty and lack, she says, the wider Together for Hope community has come to know Helena as a place of beauty and strength, full of old friends.

Even so, like the blues songs born in the Delta’s muddy waters, it’s easy to get lost in the sultry tune of kinship and forget the lyrics that bear witness to black oppression: “Backwater rising, Southern peoples can’t make no time / I said, backwater rising, Southern peoples can’t make no time / And I can’t get no hearing from that Memphis girl of mine,” sings Blind Lemon Jefferson, one of the fathers of blues music.

Like the rising river, the persistence of poverty still looms just over the levee, threatening to wash young people down paths of violence, drugs, food insecurity, unemployment, and early death. That’s why Together for Hope is committed to growing the gifts and dreams of Helena’s children as they seek to interrupt cycles of generational poverty and instill lasting hope in the Delta’s youngest.

 

Read more in the Arkansas Delta series:

At the center of Helena, Arkansas’s fight against poverty and division: an 85-year-old swimming pool

Imagination is the greatest threat to Delta poverty, Together for Hope Arkansas says

Phillips County, Arkansas: Backwater Rising

Photo Gallery: Arkansas Delta

Video: Rosie Moss

Video: Janee’ Tisby on Volunteers

Video: Janee’ Tisby on Poverty

Video: Earnest Womack on the Pool

Video: Earnest Womack on Poverty

 

Related commentary at baptistnews.com:

Survival mode | Jason Coker

Reimagining churches as full-time partners with those in poverty | Laura Rector

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

With little opportunity for youth and children — or almost anyone else — Christian community builds chances from the ground up

Hope blooms in the Arkansas Delta, thanks to ministry team

 

Like the rising river of the Arkansas Delta, the persistence of poverty still looms just over the levee, threatening to wash young people down paths of violence, drugs, food insecurity, unemployment, and early death. That’s why Together for Hope is committed to growing the gifts and dreams of Helena’s children as they seek to interrupt cycles of generational poverty and instill lasting hope in the Delta’s youngest.

This series in the “Resilient Rural America” project is part of the BNG Storytelling Projects Initiative. Has the United States forgotten its countryside? What strength and resilience may yet be stirring outside our city limits? In “Resilient Rural America,” we attempt to answer these questions when we visit these unique communities to examine the singular nature of poverty in rural America and tell the stories of development among its courageous and resilient people.

_____________

Seed money to launch our Storytelling Projects initiative and our initial series of projects has been provided through generous grants from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. For information about underwriting opportunities for Storytelling Projects, contact David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher, at [email protected] or 336.865.2688.




Photo Gallery: Arkansas Delta

Helena Arkansas 4
A relay race at the opening of Freeman Playground and the Free Little Library.
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All photos taken in this photo gallery are by Lesley Ann Tommey.

Storytelling ProjectsLike the rising river of the Arkansas Delta, the persistence of poverty still looms just over the levee, threatening to wash young people down paths of violence, drugs, food insecurity, unemployment, and early death. That’s why Together for Hope is committed to growing the gifts and dreams of Helena’s children as they seek to interrupt cycles of generational poverty and instill lasting hope in the Delta’s youngest.

Read more in the Arkansas Delta series:

At the center of Helena, Arkansas’s fight against poverty and division: an 85-year-old swimming pool

Imagination is the greatest threat to Delta poverty, Together for Hope Arkansas says

Phillips County, Arkansas: Backwater Rising

Photo Gallery: Arkansas Delta

Video: Rosie Moss

Video: Janee’ Tisby on Volunteers

Video: Janee’ Tisby on Poverty

Video: Earnest Womack on the Pool

Video: Earnest Womack on Poverty

 

Related commentary at baptistnews.com:

Survival mode | Jason Coker

Reimagining churches as full-time partners with those in poverty | Laura Rector

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

With little opportunity for youth and children — or almost anyone else — Christian community builds chances from the ground up

Hope blooms in the Arkansas Delta, thanks to ministry team

 

This series in the “Resilient Rural America” project is part of the BNG Storytelling Projects Initiative. Has the United States forgotten its countryside? What strength and resilience may yet be stirring outside our city limits? In “Resilient Rural America,” we attempt to answer these questions when we visit these unique communities to examine the singular nature of poverty in rural America and tell the stories of development among its courageous and resilient people.

_____________

Seed money to launch our Storytelling Projects initiative and our initial series of projects has been provided through generous grants from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. For information about underwriting opportunities for Storytelling Projects, contact David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher, at [email protected] or 336.865.2688.




Video: Janee’ Tisby on Poverty

Storytelling Projects

Like the rising river of the Arkansas Delta, the persistence of poverty still looms just over the levee, threatening to wash young people down paths of violence, drugs, food insecurity, unemployment, and early death. That’s why Together for Hope is committed to growing the gifts and dreams of Helena’s children as they seek to interrupt cycles of generational poverty and instill lasting hope in the Delta’s youngest.

Watch the interview with Janee’ Tisby on Poverty:

 

Read more in the Arkansas Delta series:

At the center of Helena, Arkansas’s fight against poverty and division: an 85-year-old swimming pool

Imagination is the greatest threat to Delta poverty, Together for Hope Arkansas says

Phillips County, Arkansas: Backwater Rising

Photo Gallery: Arkansas Delta

Video: Rosie Moss

Video: Janee’ Tisby on Volunteers

Video: Janee’ Tisby on Poverty

Video: Earnest Womack on the Pool

Video: Earnest Womack on Poverty

 

Related commentary at baptistnews.com:

Survival mode | Jason Coker

Reimagining churches as full-time partners with those in poverty | Laura Rector

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

With little opportunity for youth and children — or almost anyone else — Christian community builds chances from the ground up

Hope blooms in the Arkansas Delta, thanks to ministry team

 

Like the rising river of the Arkansas Delta, the persistence of poverty still looms just over the levee, threatening to wash young people down paths of violence, drugs, food insecurity, unemployment, and early death. That’s why Together for Hope is committed to growing the gifts and dreams of Helena’s children as they seek to interrupt cycles of generational poverty and instill lasting hope in the Delta’s youngest.

This series in the “Resilient Rural America” project is part of the BNG Storytelling Projects Initiative. Has the United States forgotten its countryside? What strength and resilience may yet be stirring outside our city limits? In “Resilient Rural America,” we attempt to answer these questions when we visit these unique communities to examine the singular nature of poverty in rural America and tell the stories of development among its courageous and resilient people.

_____________

Seed money to launch our Storytelling Projects initiative and our initial series of projects has been provided through generous grants from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. For information about underwriting opportunities for Storytelling Projects, contact David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher, at [email protected] or 336.865.2688.




Video: Earnest Womack on Poverty

Storytelling Projects

Like the rising river of the Arkansas Delta, the persistence of poverty still looms just over the levee, threatening to wash young people down paths of violence, drugs, food insecurity, unemployment, and early death. That’s why Together for Hope is committed to growing the gifts and dreams of Helena’s children as they seek to interrupt cycles of generational poverty and instill lasting hope in the Delta’s youngest.

Watch the interview with Earnest Womack on Poverty:

 

 

Read more in the Arkansas Delta series:

At the center of Helena, Arkansas’s fight against poverty and division: an 85-year-old swimming pool

Imagination is the greatest threat to Delta poverty, Together for Hope Arkansas says

Phillips County, Arkansas: Backwater Rising

Photo Gallery: Arkansas Delta

Video: Rosie Moss

Video: Janee’ Tisby on Volunteers

Video: Janee’ Tisby on Poverty

Video: Earnest Womack on the Pool

Video: Earnest Womack on Poverty

 

Related commentary at baptistnews.com:

Survival mode | Jason Coker

Reimagining churches as full-time partners with those in poverty | Laura Rector

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

With little opportunity for youth and children — or almost anyone else — Christian community builds chances from the ground up

Hope blooms in the Arkansas Delta, thanks to ministry team

 

This series in the “Resilient Rural America” project is part of the BNG Storytelling Projects Initiative. Has the United States forgotten its countryside? What strength and resilience may yet be stirring outside our city limits? In “Resilient Rural America,” we attempt to answer these questions when we visit these unique communities to examine the singular nature of poverty in rural America and tell the stories of development among its courageous and resilient people.

_____________

Seed money to launch our Storytelling Projects initiative and our initial series of projects has been provided through generous grants from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. For information about underwriting opportunities for Storytelling Projects, contact David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher, at [email protected] or 336.865.2688.




Video: Janee’ Tisby on Volunteers

Storytelling Projects

Like the rising river of the Arkansas Delta, the persistence of poverty still looms just over the levee, threatening to wash young people down paths of violence, drugs, food insecurity, unemployment, and early death. That’s why Together for Hope is committed to growing the gifts and dreams of Helena’s children as they seek to interrupt cycles of generational poverty and instill lasting hope in the Delta’s youngest.

Watch the interview with Janee’ Tisby on Volunteers:

 

 

Read more in the Arkansas Delta series:

At the center of Helena, Arkansas’s fight against poverty and division: an 85-year-old swimming pool

Imagination is the greatest threat to Delta poverty, Together for Hope Arkansas says

Phillips County, Arkansas: Backwater Rising

Photo Gallery: Arkansas Delta

Video: Rosie Moss

Video: Janee’ Tisby on Volunteers

Video: Janee’ Tisby on Poverty

Video: Earnest Womack on the Pool

Video: Earnest Womack on Poverty

 

Related commentary at baptistnews.com:

Survival mode | Jason Coker

Reimagining churches as full-time partners with those in poverty | Laura Rector

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

With little opportunity for youth and children — or almost anyone else — Christian community builds chances from the ground up

Hope blooms in the Arkansas Delta, thanks to ministry team

 

This series in the “Resilient Rural America” project is part of the BNG Storytelling Projects Initiative. Has the United States forgotten its countryside? What strength and resilience may yet be stirring outside our city limits? In “Resilient Rural America,” we attempt to answer these questions when we visit these unique communities to examine the singular nature of poverty in rural America and tell the stories of development among its courageous and resilient people.

_____________

Seed money to launch our Storytelling Projects initiative and our initial series of projects has been provided through generous grants from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. For information about underwriting opportunities for Storytelling Projects, contact David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher, at [email protected] or 336.865.2688.




Video: Earnest Womack on the Pool

Storytelling Projects

Like the rising river of the Arkansas Delta, the persistence of poverty still looms just over the levee, threatening to wash young people down paths of violence, drugs, food insecurity, unemployment, and early death. That’s why Together for Hope is committed to growing the gifts and dreams of Helena’s children as they seek to interrupt cycles of generational poverty and instill lasting hope in the Delta’s youngest.

Watch the interview with Earnest Womack on the Pool:

 

 

Read more in the Arkansas Delta series:

At the center of Helena, Arkansas’s fight against poverty and division: an 85-year-old swimming pool

Imagination is the greatest threat to Delta poverty, Together for Hope Arkansas says

Phillips County, Arkansas: Backwater Rising

Photo Gallery: Arkansas Delta

Video: Rosie Moss

Video: Janee’ Tisby on Volunteers

Video: Janee’ Tisby on Poverty

Video: Earnest Womack on the Pool

Video: Earnest Womack on Poverty

 

Related commentary at baptistnews.com:

Survival mode | Jason Coker

Reimagining churches as full-time partners with those in poverty | Laura Rector

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

With little opportunity for youth and children — or almost anyone else — Christian community builds chances from the ground up

Hope blooms in the Arkansas Delta, thanks to ministry team

 

This series in the “Resilient Rural America” project is part of the BNG Storytelling Projects Initiative. Has the United States forgotten its countryside? What strength and resilience may yet be stirring outside our city limits? In “Resilient Rural America,” we attempt to answer these questions when we visit these unique communities to examine the singular nature of poverty in rural America and tell the stories of development among its courageous and resilient people.

_____________

Seed money to launch our Storytelling Projects initiative and our initial series of projects has been provided through generous grants from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. For information about underwriting opportunities for Storytelling Projects, contact David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher, at [email protected] or 336.865.2688.




Video: Rosie Moss

Storytelling Projects

Like the rising river of the Arkansas Delta, the persistence of poverty still looms just over the levee, threatening to wash young people down paths of violence, drugs, food insecurity, unemployment, and early death. That’s why Together for Hope is committed to growing the gifts and dreams of Helena’s children as they seek to interrupt cycles of generational poverty and instill lasting hope in the Delta’s youngest.

Watch the interview with Rosie Moss:

 

 

Read more in the Arkansas Delta series:

At the center of Helena, Arkansas’s fight against poverty and division: an 85-year-old swimming pool

Imagination is the greatest threat to Delta poverty, Together for Hope Arkansas says

Phillips County, Arkansas: Backwater Rising

Photo Gallery: Arkansas Delta

Video: Rosie Moss

Video: Janee’ Tisby on Volunteers

Video: Janee’ Tisby on Poverty

Video: Earnest Womack on the Pool

Video: Earnest Womack on Poverty

 

Related commentary at baptistnews.com:

Survival mode | Jason Coker

Reimagining churches as full-time partners with those in poverty | Laura Rector

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

With little opportunity for youth and children — or almost anyone else — Christian community builds chances from the ground up

Hope blooms in the Arkansas Delta, thanks to ministry team

 

This series in the “Resilient Rural America” project is part of the BNG Storytelling Projects Initiative. Has the United States forgotten its countryside? What strength and resilience may yet be stirring outside our city limits? In “Resilient Rural America,” we attempt to answer these questions when we visit these unique communities to examine the singular nature of poverty in rural America and tell the stories of development among its courageous and resilient people.

_____________

Seed money to launch our Storytelling Projects initiative and our initial series of projects has been provided through generous grants from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. For information about underwriting opportunities for Storytelling Projects, contact David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher, at [email protected] or 336.865.2688.