STARKVILLE, Miss.--Ten Northeast Mississippi community volunteers explained how they improved quality of life in their respective hometowns at the recent Appalachian Community Learning Project Results and Learning Celebration, organized by Mississippi State University.
ACLP is a partnership among MSU's Stennis Institute for Government and Community Development, Mississippi Development Authority, Appalachian Regional Commission and The Rensselaerville Institute of New York. The results-based grant initiative offers leadership, assistance and resources for community stakeholders--"sparkplugs"--who want to improve their hometowns.
Volunteers from Amory, Artesia, Ashland, Belmont, Calhoun City, Center Ridge, Eupora, New Albany, Shannon, Starkville, Walnut and Winona were selected to lead change initiatives in their communities.
After they were selected, ARC provided $3,000 grants supporting the results-based proposals submitted by each community's sparkplugs. For the next six months, they worked to implement their plans, with guidance and leadership from Stennis Institute representatives with TRI assistance.
The diverse group of ACLP participants recently gathered in Amory to share what they accomplished and learned. Each team met many of its goals and agreed its respective efforts will continue in the next year.
"What stands out to me most is the 'I think I can do this' attitude from all these sparkplugs. Today is all about, 'Yes, I can.' We're being positive about what you've done and where you're going," said Joe Fratesi, Stennis project director, about the teams' work and progress.
Projects and results included:
--Amory, "Old Armory Reborn." By renovating and reopening the armory, sparkplugs hosted 2,174 people and generated an additional $8,734 at downtown events. They established a Quarterly Concert Series, an Amory Arts Council and an Amory Community Theater, all held in the renovated armory.
--Artesia, "Dollars for Scholars." After volunteers implemented an ACT tutoring and preparation program for eighth- through 12th-graders, several increased their composite score to 18 or higher, and a few students scored 23 or higher. Participants' math and science subscores tripled, and volunteer tutors developed effective teaching strategies.
--Ashland, "The Bestest of the Freshest." When organizers created a Benton County farmers' market, more than 1,000 people shopped there over a 14-week period, which generated $10,672 in revenue. Not only did local restaurant sales increase by 25 percent on market day, but also a committee was formed to restore and preserve the Benton County Courthouse.
--Belmont, "Saturdays in the Park." Through expanding family-oriented activities in CC Schook Park, sparkplugs attracted 1,241 people and generated more than $8,800 in revenue. The Belmont Promotional Association was reestablished, and more people are visiting the community.
--Calhoun City, "Walkabout Wednesdays." Following the addition of seating in the farmers' market lot, the average number of weekly visitors increased from 80 to 170. Community advocates recruited more than 20 new volunteers and increased neighborhood awareness of the market.
--Center Ridge, "Miss Ruth's Babies' Concession Stand." After the April tornados touched down in Dean Park, sparkplugs decided to renovate the concession stand and dedicate it to a local woman who ran a childcare facility before she died in the storm. The renovated concession stand generated more than $3,500 in additional revenue, and visitors increased from approximately 699 to almost 2,000.
--Eupora, "Down on Dunn." By organizing family-friendly events at the BLY Theatre and Art Park, volunteers increased downtown merchants' sales by more than $10,000. Close to $1,000 was generated from concessions and ticket sales for the theater. Donations have outfitted the theater and park with a new sound system, Christmas lights and downtown landscaping.
--New Albany, "I FolkArt NA." When volunteers developed a folk-art program for youth and seniors, a new regional organization was created to focus on promoting and providing arts education for disadvantaged youth. Also, a Union County Student Art Sale program began, and an Art Park was added to the Art House.
--Shannon, "Hot Spot Summer Camp." After they identified students reading below grade level, community sparkplugs designed tutoring and other assistance initiatives to boost reading-proficiency scores. Eighty-two percent of the students participating in the program increased their scores.
--Starkville, "UNITY in the CommUNITY." As the teen-led movement to unify Starkville High School, Starkville Academy and Oktibbeha County High School students gained traction, the 74 students participating served close to 1,000 volunteer hours. The students also are forming relationships and smoothing the transition to a consolidated city-county school district in fall 2015.
--Walnut, "Destination Downtown." When sparkplugs landscaped an empty lot to create a park in the downtown and began holding events there, more than $12,500 additional revenue was generated, and a new July 4 celebration was created to honor veterans. Also, five new or previously existing events relocated to the park.
--Winona, "Staying Alive on Powell." Through a wellness program for senior members of the community, more than 30 participants began exercising for at least an hour per day, and many of them began eating healthier meals each week. New drinking fountains were installed in Unity Park, and the basketball court was renovated.
"At least 12,425 lives have been impacted; 12,310 utilized recreational or cultural opportunities, and 14,101 volunteer hours were logged," said Jeremy Murdock, Stennis research associate. "Our estimate of the total economic impact, with the numbers we have now, is $152,102.