“We need three things: partnership, relationships and fellowship. “
Brody Rice’s words resonated with the cadence and conviction of a seasoned minister at a recent community action and advocacy meeting in Starkville. Her ready smile and neat khakis topped with a tucked-in shirt and sports coat completed the effect.
But Rice is actually a 15-year-old ninth grade student at Armstrong Junior High School.
He was one of 20 Armstrong boys who visited the Memphis Zoo this month. Rice was impressed with the trip.
“They have outdone themselves,” he said. “We got full VIP status from the moment we got off the bus. We didn’t have to queue for anything.
“Full VIP status” is not something the traveling boys were necessarily used to. Many of them had never left the area before, let alone visited a zoo.
Students attended the trip for free, thanks to donations made by a variety of churches, businesses and individuals. A similar trip is already planned for the students on July 7.
Sammy Shumaker, the school resources manager for the Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District, helped plan the outing.
“Three women from Arkansas stopped me as we were leaving the zoo,” Shumaker recalls. “They said they watched the boys all day, from the time they got off the bus until the time they left. They were impressed with the children and gave them many compliments.
It was the best validation Shumaker could have hoped for.
The trip was part of a larger movement by Starkville law enforcement, ministers, community leaders and other citizens to create positive change for the region’s youth.
The effort began in late 2020, when Starkville Police Chief Mark Ballard appealed to all in the city asking leaders to come together to help stem the rising tide of crime – many of which are related to guns – in the city.
Starkville Community Church pastor Joseph Horan answered the call. He now helps lead the group.
“We started with a handful of leaders,” he said. “We call ourselves the One Step Initiative, the idea being that we can all take a step to change things for the better. We are leaders and community members who want to see change and build relationships.
They started meeting in February 2021. They met once a week at first, then every two weeks.
“Now we meet once a month; we want this to be sustainable, ”said Horan.
The group seeks to support families and young people through a variety of programs and within several existing systems.
Ballard calls the approach “holistic”.
For its part, the police department is working both to improve living conditions in Starkville and to provide for appropriate consequences for crimes committed by minors.
“We are working on the application of the code,” he said. “We see environments that would be shocking to the souls of most people. All we have to do is shine a light on it to create environments we’d be proud of. “
To that end, the Starkville Alderman Council recently voted to condemn and demolish three apartment buildings in Brookville Garden.
Ballard is also working to reserve a room in a juvenile detention center to accommodate serious juvenile offenders.
“When we have six or seven kids who aren’t being treated properly,” Ballard said. “It affects 70 to 80 other children.”
The problem has been exacerbated by the lack of space available in nearby juvenile detention centers.
“Lowndes County Juvenile Detention told us they had no room at first. They can only accommodate six children at the moment. We want to partner with other neighboring counties to upgrade the facility to accommodate 20. The building can hold that much, ”Ballard said.
“We could maybe save this child before he is tried as an adult at 15,” he added.
The group also seeks to support young people in other ways. In addition to the trip to the zoo, members started a parenting support group for adults and a leadership skills class for young people. Others are working to create a boxing program. The group is planning a mentorship program that will begin this fall at Armstrong Junior High and Starkville High Schools.
Reverend Ronnie Tucker helps lead the parenting support group.
“We want to help parents with their skills. … It’s about empowering parents, ”Tucker said. “It’s open to anyone in town, any part of town, any religion and any kind of parent… foster parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents.”
The group meets every second and fourth Saturday of the month at Peter’s Rock Church from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Lunch and babysitting are provided. No registration is necessary, but interested parents can call Emerson Family School for more information.
The Leadership Academy, led by Lee Davenport, teaches life skills, including how to resist peer pressure and how to deal with anger. Davenport said the academy recently graduated its first two students.
“We had a student who saw people nearby with whom he had an altercation,” Davenport said. “He knew there would be problems, so he asked for security. We called Chef Ballard, and they came, so nothing happened. It’s one of the things we teach, “Call before you act. “
This same idea is at play in the boxing program that the group seeks to launch. He received equipment and was offered two locations. He is now working on securing insurance for the program.
“Our message is’ Don’t be stupid. Think about it, ”Ballard said. “We hope boxing brings us back to a real skill set, a real strength.”
The heart of the group lies in the relationships that develop across racial, socio-economic and regional boundaries, Horan said.
“In my wildest dreams, the parts of our community that have been separated for so long would build trust and relationships through this group,” he said.
Meetings are open to everyone. The next one is at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, July 26, in the First Baptist Outreach Building at 210 S. Jackson St. Those interested in more information can contact Joseph Horan at [email protected] or Latasha Key at [email protected]
“We have systemic issues – crime, racism, economic issues,” Horan said. “We have to start talking about it. “