I work for Together For Hope Arkansas, a non-profit associated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s national rural poverty initiative. Together For Hope Arkansas works in Phillips County, which sits right on the Mississippi River, tucked snugly into the river’s Delta, where the pace is slower, and the tea will give you cavities.
The work of Together For Hope Arkansas is mostly focused on youth development and literacy, and our most visible programs are Delta Jewels and Stories on Wheels. Delta Jewels is a mentoring program for teenage girls that teaches job skills and builds community through jewelry design and production. Stories on Wheels is an old school bus that’s been turned into a library and play center to provide literacy programming in the small communities of Lake View and Elaine, several miles south of the county seat of Helena.
We have been revamping the literacy program that we use for Stories on Wheels, and today, I was going to finish it. I was going to put all the pieces together, and connect the highly academic terms we’d learned about in our research (Phonological awareness? Huh?) to something that my volunteers and I could actually understand. It would take a lot of time, a clear mind and a clear desk, and a playlist full of songs that were at once ambient background noise and inspirational energizing hits. I was nearly ready. And then, my phone buzzed at me and a familiar name popped up with a familiar question.
Nikki has been in Delta Jewels longer than anyone. She’s a student at the local community college, and has recently transitioned from being a regular jewelry-producing mentee to a mentor and leader among the girls. She loves sharing life with people, particularly over lunch after class. She’s also the great-granddaughter of Granny Dee, whose southern cooking restaurant is the best in town, and who always has a pitcher or two of the aforementioned tea ready.
Her dear friend Chyna, a former Delta Jewel and current University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Tiger, was in town today, and they wanted Granny Dee’s. On the buffet: pork steak, brown beans, fried potatoes, cabbage, cornbread, and rice pudding. The three of us had not all been together in months.
Today, my plan went out the window. Instead, I ate like it was Thanksgiving. I laughed until my stomach hurt. I experimented with new jewelry ideas and marveled at Nikki and Chyna’s designs. I listened as they debated about what girls should really be looking for in a mate, and told them they were too special for just any guy.
The work I planned for today was important, no doubt. But it will still be there when Nikki goes back to her homework and Chyna hits the road for Pine Bluff. My time with them offered a sweet, needed reminder that my work here is not about programs, it’s about relationships. My primary goal in Delta Jewels is not for the girls to make money, it’s for them to know they are loved, valued, valuable. My goal for Stories on Wheels is not only to help kids learn to read, it’s to empower them to discover their dreams, which only happens when I know them, their strengths, their interests. My job is to walk with people on their journeys, and let them walk with me on mine. To try to love as Jesus did, and to be forgiven when I fail. To offer grace, hugs, and lunch.
Today the Lord reminded me of that. So today I am grateful.
Mollie Palmer is co-director of Together For Hope Arkansas, Helena, Arkansas.