When traveling to a new destination, I like doing some reconnaissance of the area to get a feel for the community. Kevin was at the wheel and I was riding shotgun with my iPhone in hand, reading up on all things Mississippi. I had never really spent any significant time in “The Magnolia State” and was eager to learn something new. There was a reason we were bringing the Bird Chevrolet truck filled with clothes and household items to Morton, Mississippi. We knew people were in need. But we had no idea until we saw it for our own eyes.
I’ve traveled interstate 55 a hundred times to Springfield, Illinois for various meetings. For the most part, everything looks like back home until you get south of St. Louis. The corn fields start to disappear and other crops begin to appear. The sun feels stronger and the air is so much heavier. Once we made the bend around Memphis and crossed the state line into Mississippi, the change in scenery was jarring.
My recon informed me that Mississippi was the poorest state in the country. High school graduation rates were just over 60% and the average yearly income for someone in Morton is less than $16,000. The population has changed dramatically in just the past few years. A significant increase of immigrants from Central America have been relocating to the community, taking jobs at the COUNTLES food processing plants. (Tyson, Koch Foods, Williamson Poultry, to name just a few we noticed)
I’ve never seen so many mobile homes. The ground was barren. Yards became parking spaces for cars. More often than not, 10-15 people occupied one home.
You got the feeling that it wasn’t just the people who were struggling. It felt like everything in the state was feeling the weight of the poverty all around them. I wondered how anyone could keep their head up. It reminded me of when I lived and worked in East Los Angeles. The community was impoverished and the kids we were serving knew only what they saw in front of them. And what they saw was a struggle that most people can’t imagine. I remember always thinking about how amazing it would be for these young men and women to escape their reality for just a weekend and visit Farley, Iowa. I wanted them to see and know that life isn’t this hard everywhere….I so badly wanted to bring them home.
Our community had been so very generous to the residents of Morton, Mississippi. Nearly a hundred garbage bags were filled with clothes. Boxes were filled with books and household items. An impact was sure to be made. No question.
It wasn’t enough though. Not nearly. How were free clothes and household knickknacks going to help these people, I wondered. I asked our contact person this very question. To be clear, I wasn’t questioning the effort. The donations were needed. We could have driven a semi full of clothes into Morton and not properly met the need.
The employees and volunteers of the Excel Community Center knew this too. This is why they spend every waking hour not on collecting clothes, but on education and community building. They know how critical it is for each child to receive a quality education and how armed with a high school diploma, they can rise above their surroundings and realize success and independence.
I think they also need to know they are not alone in their struggle and that people are out there that support them; people they don’t even know or may never see again. Don’t we all want that for ourselves?
I know I do.