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

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.

"We've played a definite role in stabilizing the community," said Miller, 45, who serves on the board of Southern Bancorp Community Partners.

Promising Signs
Here's evidence of newfound stability: The population of Phillips County, which is still less than two-thirds its 1980 level, actually grew by 4 percent from 2009 to 2010, according to data tracked in Mississippi State University's Mid-South Delta Data Library.
The 2010 Census found 21,757 residents in Phillips County, 12,282 of them in Helena, which merged with West Helena in 2006.

The pause in population decline is one of several recent changes suggesting to local leadership that, while Helena may never return to its pre-1980 prosperity, the town still may be on the cusp of a healthy upswing.

"I think we're on the verge of a renaissance," said Doug Friedlander, executive director of the Phillips County Chamber of Commerce. 

Friedlander, 35, arrived in Helena in 2004 with Teach for America. The New Yorker taught in the Helena-West Helena School District for three years and then decided to transplant to the town long term.

"This area is the most fertile place on earth," Friedlander said. "It's a land of opportunity for people who want to make any difference."

Some people stay in Helena because they're afraid their work will unravel once they leave; others stay because opportunities abound for young people to step into key leadership roles, Friedlander said.

"It's too darn exciting. ... This is a place where a few people can make a big difference," he said.

He and other community leaders named nonprofit organizations that have migrated to Helena, bringing services with them, as other harbingers of a hopeful future of holistic revitalization.

Thrive, for example, is a nonprofit branding and marketing firm that is working to provide services and training to entrepreneurs. The organization opened up shop in Helena in 2009.

Another, Accion, is a nonprofit microlender based in San Antonio that opened a Helena office last October. Accion's loan officer for the Delta, Nathanial Owen, said the lender offers loans from $500 to $250,000 to small-business entrepreneurs

"There is a gap in the financing options that are available, especially in these more rural areas," Owen said. "We want everyone to rise together. That's certainly what Accion's about."