Communities throughout the Arkansas Delta often battle against a rising tide of economic woes. As factories close and labor-intensive jobs leave small towns, populations dwindle in many rural cities.
For decades, outside investments from banks and charitable organizations helped stimulate marginal growth, but most of the heavy lifting necessary to revitalize communities must be done by the people who live there.
In downtown Helena, a building that was once a post office is now a hub for various programs that provide important services to women and families.
Gracie Gonner is the founder and executive director of the Family Center, a multi-service nonprofit organization founded in 1997 that provides emergency shelter and essential services for women and children fleeing domestic violence.
Gonner says the organization soon began offering additional support to area residents in need. Whether a family had fallen on tough economic times, or lost everything in a house fire, the Family Center became a way station for people to get counseling, clothing, furniture, and even information on housing and health services.
“A couple of years ago, we opened a foodbank and we’re real proud that as soon as the ground dries up we will be breaking ground for a new building,” said Gonner while in her office at the Family Center. “We recently submitted a grant to the [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] to provide some housing for homeless people.”
Gracie Gonner grew up in Helena and remembers a time when every building was filled and people could find what they needed in her hometown, rather than always having to go to the big cities of Little Rock and Memphis. After leaving Helena to attend college, Gracie returned to help alleviate poverty.
“If people would come back and invest into the community, I think that we would be able to do many things, but people think that Helena does not have anything to offer,” Gonner said, as she walks past several offices inside the Center. “Well, I’m here and I believe there is a lot to offer here…I believe all of us have gifts and talents that we can bring to the table.”
A few blocks away from the Family Center, businessman Joe Griffith is surrounded by music memorabilia inside the Delta Cultural Center.
Griffith is from Monroe County, Arkansas. He lives close to Holly Grove and has a farm off of Highway 49. He used to own farmland in Phillips County that was sold not too long ago. Griffith says Helena –West Helena still needs industry.
“We had several companies here over the years when I was younger that left and it has just devastated eastern Arkansas,” Griffith said. “We’re hoping, praying, and working very hard to try to bring something similar back.”
Griffith is a member of the Sonny Boy Blues Society, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote and preserve the cultural heritage of Delta Blues music through educational programs and live music events. He’s also a member of the Delta Cultural Center’s advisory board and says new advertising and promotion efforts to bolster tourism are getting people more interested in the Delta.
“I love the Blues, love the Delta, and I’m glad to be involved down here with a lot of the projects going on,” said Griffith. “My lady friend is in the real estate business and she has definitely had a fine year last year. We noticed a couple of businesses that are coming in and they are buying property and homes for their employees, which is a good and positive sign.”
Businesses are starting to reinvest in Helena-West Helena and nonprofit organizations are expanding services, in some measure due to widespread revitalization efforts that are part of the Delta Bridge Project. That community-led initiative outlined various socioeconomic ills and possible remedies to bolster growth in Phillips County. Since 2011, over 100 jobs have been created through new investments in Helena Harbor; the advent of two chemical companies; the creation of a biodiesel production facility; and the arrival of a wholesale distributor of hardware, plumbing, and electrical supplies.
“Malcolm, my great-grandaddy got off the plantation and came to Helena in 1861 and from that time on my family has been there,” said Judge Brian Miller.
Miller has a seat on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. Though Miller works in Little Rock during the week, he lives in Helena.
“[Helena] is in my DNA, it’s almost like it’s stamped on me,” Miller said. “Everything I have from this federal judgeship, to the Arkansas Court of Appeals, to being a lawyer, to being on corporate boards of banks… all comes from me being in Helena.”
The courthouse in Helena has some workspace for Miller on the days when he’s not working from his chambers in Little Rock.
Miller says in an area where you have so much poverty there are going to be a lot of problems. Though the list of ills is long for Phillips County, Judge Brian Miller says hardworking people throughout the Arkansas Delta are transforming their communities through the Delta Bridge Project and smaller efforts by local entrepreneurs.
“Phillips County, for its population, has a little more crime than it should have, far more poverty than it should have, and the education levels are lower than what they should be,” Miller said. “We are a people who divide by race and by class, but at any moment you can see any of us sitting around drinking coffee together and talking. Although there are a lot of us who have given up, there are a whole lot more of us who have not and we want to see our community come back.”
Back at the Family Center, Gracie Gonner confesses providing important services to residents can be tiring, but somehow each day she says she manages to muster up the courage to “fight the good fight.”
“I finally realized that when one has a calling on their life… the Lord gives you energy, but I can guarantee you when I get home in the evening and I lay my head on the bed I go immediately to sleep,” Gonner said. “It is passion that drives one and energizes one and also seeing how you’ve helped someone.”
Over the course of the journey in Helena-West Helena, residents often said their city needs more jobs that offer decent salaries. Community leaders admit minimum wage is just not enough to help people, because it still puts many families at the federal poverty level.
In the meantime, the Family Center and other nonprofits in the Delta region are helping neighbors get the support services they need to become productive members of society.