Combating Poverty in a Rural Setting
By Kyle Desrosiers, SHECP Communications Intern
While issues of poverty exist throughout our country, rural settings can provide unique learning opportunities for college students engaged in poverty studies through programs like the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty (SHECP).
This summer, SHECP interns living and working in Helena-West Helena, Arkansas—where nearly 43 percent of its residents live below the poverty line—have found that the experience can look much different from other internship placements in larger, city environments.
Anna Bushong, Centre College, and Ullunda Veal, University of Lynchburg, are finishing out their eight-week-long summer internships at The Family Center, Inc. of Helena. Bushong and Veal divide their time between client advocacy at the center’s Angels of Grace battered women’s shelter and its food bank and administrative office. Their work has ranged from research and grant writing, to client advocacy for women and children.
Bushong remarked that the most meaningful part of her summer was the firsthand interaction with clients. She recalls an energetic, 5-year-old boy who asked her to read with him.
“He wanted to read ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ with me. I asked him if he wanted to try reading (outloud) and he got very defensive. I later learned he was illiterate,” said Bushong. “He was a bright, happy boy on the surface; yet, he faces barriers that will haunt him if he doesn’t get the attention he needs. Luckily, the Family Center is there to provide for him.”
In addition to administrative work and client programming, Bushong and Veal have experienced a wide array of opportunities while learning to advocate for community members.
For example, Bushong accompanied Family Center employees to the courthouse to help a client complete the lengthy legal process required to file an order of protection against an abusive partner. She remarked on the tremendous privilege and responsibility of working directly with clients.
This level of independence means that interns can observe the direct impact nonprofits have on clients’ lives. These sometimes-challenging experiences teach SHECP interns many lessons.
“I enjoy working with people from different backgrounds with different perspectives, especially people who are from this community. I like getting their input on certain issues and learning how the community has shaped them,” said Veal. “Being down here as an outsider is a unique experience.”
The SHECP interns have a tangible, long-lasting impact on the community they serve, according to Dr. Gracie Gonner, the Family Center’s founder and executive director.
“Our interns have offered so much in terms of tangible services, developing resources, and have also put into motion an expansion to our services with their grant writing,” said Gonner. “They have been a godsend to me and this community.”
Other interns in the Helena cohort report similar experiences of the unique observations they are able to make in a smaller, rural community. Patrick Gorman, University of Notre Dame, spends much of his time in direct collaboration with local leaders and community members. He is a health education intern at the University of Arkansas Center for Medical Sciences (UAMS). There, he has designed and implemented community-focused programming to educate children and adults about healthy living—which can be a struggle for the impoverished.
“The health services UAMS provides here has a significant impact helping people think about their health,” said Gorman. “If you look at the data for the Phillips County area, the health outcomes have drastically improved in recent years. It is rewarding knowing that even if I play a very small part in this, every step is a step in the right direction.”
One intern, Cole Viavattene, Virginia Military Institute, has experienced a different perspective on combating rural poverty. While other Helena interns have learned from their supervisors and clients about local, person-to-person service, Viavattene has engaged in macro community building at the Helena-West Helena-Phillips County Port Authority. The Port Authority takes an approach that seeks to improve the community’s success with industry, infrastructure, and development to create jobs and opportunities.
“I have gotten to observe how people compete to bring business to Helena,” said Viavattene. “With new business comes more jobs, which positively affects the entire community.”
Viavattene is working with the Port Authority on a project to convert a disused school bus shed to a farmers’ market that will provide food access to community members who are in a food desert and would otherwise struggle to access grocery stores due to a lack of public transportation in Phillips County.
“The Port Authority believes that in order to improve investment and increase opportunity, you first need to improve infrastructure,” said Viavattene.
While SHECP interns in Helena might experience a community that is less well-known and more remote than other program cities such as Baltimore or New York, lessons learned can translate into future service vocations.
“I’m interested in a career in medicine and I have learned, from being in Helena, about how to pursue that career in a mindful manner,” said Gorman. “It has taught me how to identify systemic problems related to healthcare that I would not have seen otherwise.”
About the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty: The Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty (SHECP), is a consortium of colleges and universities that are committed to the study of poverty as a complex social problem, by expanding and improving educational opportunities for college students in a wide range of disciplines and career trajectories. SHECP institutions support undergraduates toward a lifetime of professional and civil efforts to diminish poverty and enhance human capability. For more information, please visit ShepherdConsortium.org, or follow us on Twitter at @TheSHECP.