Hospitals might be the only place where life is seen in its extremes. Happiness and sadness coexist in hospitals. Deaths and births happen simultaneously. Helena, Ark., is also a place where death and birth happen on nearly a daily basis. And while physical deaths and births happen here, I’m focusing more on the death and birth of dreams.
Helena is situated the 12th poorest county in the United States, as measured by a percentage of people living below the poverty line. What was once quite a town in its heyday now features a downtown that appears as though mortar shells were dropped on half of it. Once-regal houses can be bought for a steal. The factories are closed and jobs are scarce, especially ones that pay a decent wage and allow someone to save some money.
This is all made more depressing by the fact that Helena sits in the shadow of Tunica, Miss. Drive through the gambling and casino capital of the South to get to Helena, and just after you pass the last casino, the roads get a little bit worse, the landscape is no longer dotted with new structures and flashy billboards, and just by crossing the river, it’s like you’re in another world.
The dreams that die in Helena each day are plenty. A woman has to miss work to take care of a sick child, so she gets fired. Her dream of a better life with steady work now has to be buried. Another young woman did well in school, but soon saw no reason to go, as she lacked support from teachers. She now sells drugs. Her dream of being valued for her mind is dead. There’s a man who used to work at the factory. The factory left because it was cheaper to move it, so he’s jobless. His dream of a happy retired life in the same town he was born in is dead. A young man got a job at the new Wal-Mart. He doesn’t have enough money to open a bank account yet, so he has to cash his check at a liquor store. The fee for that means he essentially worked one full hour last week just to have access to the money he earned. His dream of having enough money to better his own life died.
More dreams are killed everyday. Mothers’ dreams for their daughters and sons are murdered when these young people see the potential income to be earned by selling crack in a small town. Racial tension kills the dream of building an equitable future in Helena. And the dream of attending college is shot down by an underfunded and inadequate public education system.
Helena’s dreams are clearly on life support at best, and continue dying each and everyday. Thank God for those who are willing to come in and give birth to new dreams.
Educational options like KIPP and other organizations like New Hope and Open Hand have given birth to new dreams for countless individuals in this forgotten county. Micro-enterprise and social entrepreneurship have been introduced into the local vernacular.
As such, women who once sold drugs now make earrings and realize they can earn more by diving into a passion of fashion and jewelry then they could by hustling dope. This tiny co-op of earring makers allows women to purchase the materials needed and make beautiful jewelry, which they can then sell at a profit. A percentage of the profits goes to the nonprofit organizing the endeavor, a percentage goes to the group co-op fund, and the women get the rest. Some can make as much as $20 an hour. Talk about a new dream, born and now walking, getting ready to run and grow as fast and as big as ever.
There’s the manufacturing enterprise that’s getting off the ground, aiming to be the only green-certified maker of insulated wall panels in the Delta region. It puts people to work and is producing a usable product that is safe for the environment. There are the bookcases you can buy that will also provide for a bookshelf full of books to a needy family in order to promote literacy in the community. There are the community gardens that provide much needed organic and nutritional vegetables to those without access to proper diets.
At first glance, when you look at Helena, you’ll see a lot of dreams that are dying. But if you stick around long enough, you’ll see just as many dreams being born.
Sam Davidson is executive director of CoolPeopleCare, Inc. This column appeared originally on his blog.
Sam Davidson is an entrepreneur, speaker and writer who has co-founded four companies, including Batch and Cool People Care.