Hope Springs Eternal: Nonprofits Show Progress in Slowing Helena's Decline

by Kate Knable  on Monday, Apr. 2, 2012 12:00 am  

Julia Nordsieck of Southern Bancorp Community Partners on Cherry Street in Helena.

The future of Helena-West Helena is unclear, but area leaders agree that nonprofit organizations have helped alter the Phillips County seat's three decades of unswerving decline.

Since the 1980s, Helena has seen a steady stream of factory closings and job losses and an exodus of residents who could afford to move. In their wake, they left blighted buildings, a countywide poverty rate above 32 percent and police corruption that allowed a drug culture to operate with impunity.

(Click here to read a related story on Helena after Operation Delta Blues).

(Click here to read a related story on some Helena natives' thoughts on their town's future.)

With some 70 alleged or confessed criminals out of the picture, a lively nonprofit community has even more latitude to continue work that Mayor Arnell Willis calls "pivotal" for the city's economy and quality of life.

"In the absence of them, it would be pretty deplorable living conditions," Willis, who has been mayor for one year, said of the nonprofits.

Willis listed quality-of-life amenities as examples of nonprofits' contributions to Helena.

The Boys & Girls Club that opened in 2006 has brought affordable child care; the Delta Area Health Education Center provides health education and fitness opportunities, courtesy of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences; and the Walton Family Foundation created educational choice by funding the chartered KIPP Delta Public Schools.

Southern Bancorp of Arkadelphia has assisted in finding or providing funds for a variety of projects, ranging from the KIPP schools to feasibility studies for local businesses, through its do-gooder arm, Southern Bancorp Community Partners, and its Delta Bridge Project.

Teach for America, a privately and federally funded organization that sends non-traditionally trained teachers into troubled public schools, has funneled energetic young outsiders into the Delta since 1991.  And many of the Teach for America teachers who've come to Helena have chosen to stay in the area and become community leaders.

One of them, Tim Schuringa, is now senior community development officer for Southern Bancorp Community Partners in Helena. "I don't think there's a more exciting community development effort going on," Schuringa said of his work.

U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, a lifelong resident of Helena, said nonprofits haven't saved the Helena area - and he's not sure what a complete turnaround would look like - but they've done important work.



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