“There’s nothing in Sledge to do,” said one youth.
“It’s boring,” said another.
Welcome to Sledge, Miss., population about 500, one of five towns in Quitman County, where most students in the school system live below the poverty line — $22,000 annual income for a family of four — and where more businesses are shuttered than open.
Two of Sledge’s young residents, 12-year-old Jasmine and 14-year-old Toneca, heard the voices of their peers.
| ||A boy works on homework at the resource center, with the Internet at his fingertips.|
“They didn’t have any resource or anything fun to do,” says Toneca. “Sitting around every day, listening to the smaller ones’ conversations about their town, I knew something needed to be done quickly.”
As it happened, ChildFund was at that moment working with its area affiliate, the North Delta Youth Development Center, to implement a Parent Education and Mentoring Project in Quitman and Tallahatchie counties. The Quitman project would be sited at the southern end of the county in Lambert, where North Delta offers programs including after-school tutoring, college counseling, adult computer classes and other services.
Meanwhile, a few miles to the north in Sledge and with their friends’ voices in mind, Jasmine and Toneca considered their town library, which had been closed for a year. An idea hatched.
The pair approached Palestine Harper, a Sledge resident who they knew cared a great deal about the needs of children in the community. She arranged for the girls to meet with Robert Jamison, North Delta’s executive director.
“We had heard of the things he has done for many people in the community,” says Toneca.
Jamison remembers Toneca, an honor student at the high school, as having been very direct in that October meeting. “She said, ‘Y’all always do something for the lower end. Why don’t you do something for the north end? We don’t have no place to study at. We don’t have nothing up there.’”
| ||Jasmine reads to some of the younger children.|
Jamison, who happened to know the mayor of Sledge, brokered a meeting. “We went to the mayor and we put him on the spot right there,” he says with a laugh. “He said, ‘We’re not doing anything with [the library], but the town can’t afford to pay anybody to be there and run it.’ I said, ‘If I can work out something, could we be there?’”
The mayor told Jamison he would need to get permission from the town’s board of aldermen, which he did. “They were thrilled that somebody was willing to come in and help out,” he says. ChildFund sanctioned the site change from Lambert to Sledge, as well. More than 60 sponsored children live the community.
Soon after, Jamison attended a meeting of the local youth council at the old library. “The kids would tell me, ‘Look at the outdated books we’ve got.’ Some of them were from 1970. ‘Look at this computer system,’” he remembers. “I said, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’”
ChildFund helped outfit the center with updated books and equipment as well as educational toys — puzzles, games, puppets and more. “That was a sight to me, to see those little kids playing,” says Jamison, his voice warm as he remembers the first days after the center’s opening in November 2010. “To see these little kids enjoy being in a place where they can learn and have fun and be safe.”
At an open house last December, community members were enthusiastic for the revived oasis for children. Since then, several parents, former teachers and elders in the community have agreed to volunteer at the resource center.
In addition to new books, toys and Internet access, the center offers activities including reading circles for children ages 2 through 6 and family circle meetings. Both Jasmine and Toneca are regular helpers, and Palestine Harper now works as a community mobilizer, helping coordinate the center’s operations. More activities, including a summer enrichment program, are in the works.
Toneca sees a brightening in the children around her. “They walk through the double doors each day knowing they have people who don’t mind helping them,” she says, noting that children have shown improvements not only in their academics but in their attitudes.
“Me being a product of this area, I know the challenges,” says Jamison. “I am so proud of them. I am so proud of them.”
There’s something to do in Sledge now.
Editor’s note: Flooding from the late-April storms prompted the evacuation of several families in Sledge. Many of the parents work in casinos in Tunica, the county adjacent to Quitman and on the Mississippi River. Jamison reports that those casinos are now closed indefinitely, which leaves many Sledge families without income.
He also reports that the flood waters are “about a football field away from the resource center,” which remains open, and “three steps away from our community mobilizer’s house” ... and rising.