Growing a Grassroots Organization in the Delta

    • October 16, 2015

Originally Posted: March 1, 2002
Last Updated: October 16, 2015

Position at the time of Award: Executive Director, Boys, Girls, Adults Community Development Center; Marvell, Ark.

Current position: Same as above

I think the most important thing about leaders is that they want other people to do something. It's not the idea that I want to lead. I want other folks to lead. And a leader to me is a person who would do something positive to impact another person's life. And I am determined to do something positive to impact other people's lives. I believe that most people can do what I do. And you see, people say that I lead, but mostly, I've got all these young people that work with me, that do things that make me look good. So let me just be honest. I try to give them an opportunity.—Beatrice Clark Shelby

As an advocate for the poor and powerless, she has quietly sought change in her small community. She seems to derive strength for the challenges that lie ahead from the children and families whose lives she has touched.—Administrator, Save the Children Foundation

Because of her leadership, Marvell is becoming a better place for all of its citizens. Kites rise against the wind, not with it. Mrs. Shelby excels against obstacles and risks.—Superintendent of the Community Schools

In her previous 14-year career as an alcoholism counselor, counselor coordinator, and director of the neighborhood service center in Marvell, Ark., Beatrice Clark Shelby was no stranger to misfortune. Working from 1967 to 1981 for Mid-Delta Community Services, an Arkansas Community Action Agency (CAA), Shelby had witnessed up close—through her clients' alcohol abuse—the area's intractable, often interwoven social, economic, and health woes. Marvell lies at the gateway to the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest areas of the United States. In 1993, more than half the town's residents were African American and the median income was just over half that of Arkansas a whole.

Building on a volunteer self-help approach. In 1978, a small group of concerned parents in Marvell, seeing the need to provide a positive climate and increased opportunities for their children, founded the Boys, Girls, Adults Community Development Center (BGACDC). A grassroots community organization, BGACDC built on a volunteer, self-help approach, operated on annual donations of $10 from its members, who numbered around 300. The only additional funding they had was a $10,000 commitment from the national Save the Children Foundation, contingent on BGACDC finding and supervising sponsored children.

Shelby, a member of the founding group and a member of the board of directors, never saw herself as cut out for a leadership role in the organization. "I went to a few of the meetings, but then I got married the following year, and I basically forgot about it," she remembered later. In 1982, however, Shelby was offered an unpaid position as BGACDC's first coordinator. "I still laugh when I reflect back on Mrs. Jackson's asking me to come to work and they did not have any money. It was understood that I would be paid when money was raised."

Giving up a paycheck. Shelby accepted the offer, giving up the paycheck she had received for 14 years to take on a full-time, non-paying job. She took the job because she felt strongly that the hopes of the entire community resided in the future of the children, and because she knew that the organization had begun to drift because of a lack of leadership, with squabbles threatening its very existence. With extended family and low rent, she and her husband felt they could survive on his salary alone for a period of three years, and a $10,000 financial commitment from Save the Children gave her hope that further funding could be found. Two years later, her faith was vindicated when a she was able to get a grant from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation that included a small staff stipend.

From that time on, 1984, the position became permanent. More than 30 years later, Shelby is still there, the backbone of an organization that has become an integral part of the community. As of September 2015, BGACDC had 19 paid employees (swelling to almost 50 during summer programs), a $500,000 annual budget, and a host of facilities to serve the local population. Its mission now reaches well beyond children—to help low-to moderate-income residents of the Marvell school district improve the quality of their lives by providing social, recreational, educational, health, housing, and job opportunities.

Knowing its mission. When Shelby first started, BGACDC had no paid staff, and operated out of two small rooms. "They didn't own their own building," she recalls. "But they knew their mission. They knew they wanted to make a positive difference in children's lives, and they were dedicated to doing that." Within a year of her coming on board, BGACDC's board of directors developed a 10-year plan, with technical assistance from Save the Children. It became Shelby's responsibility to implement this plan. She began by developing a core management team. Over the years, this team expanded its capacity, developed its abilities, and initiated a host of new programs and projects. Many of the staff members had once been on the welfare rolls themselves and were former recipients of BGACDC's services.

Starting with education. When Shelby took over the reins, BGACDC had one modest volunteer program. It consisted of a weekly recreation event overseen by volunteers where students—especially young males—were provided with a healthy and safe environment for after-school activities. In 1983, Shelby implemented her first major initiative: a multi-faceted educational program. She focused first on education because at that time Marvell's schools were completely segregated, with the town's private school overwhelmingly white and the public school uniformly black.

Shelby quickly began partnering with the school system, recruiting retired teachers and motivated students to help as volunteers with BGACDC's educational efforts.

The program that began to take shape included after-school care for children ages 5 to 15, with structured study time and homework assistance using the peer-tutor concept, with an emphasis on self-esteem enhancement and social skill improvement. For the community's younger children, BGACDC adopted an established program called HIPPY (Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters).

At the same time, Shelby was working hard to expand BGACDC's funding base with a focus on paying staff and finding a building to house BGACDC's activities. Under her leadership, in 1982 an abandoned hosiery factory was purchased and converted into BGACDC's multi-purpose community center.

After the purchase and opening of BGACDC's building, a day-care center was added by stages to the mix of educational programs as was a summer day camp to provide healthful, constructive activities for youth when schools were closed for the season. Shelby also worked diligently to aid the school system and the citizens of Marvell in passing a needed tax increase for the public schools.

Next, health. Having accomplished this much, Shelby next turned her focus to the health of the community's children. BGACDC had originally housed a county-run satellite health clinic that provided basic health services to families, including pre-school immunizations. But when the roof of its temporary quarters collapsed in 1982, the health department suspended its operations. In order to reopen the satellite clinic in BGACDC's new building, Shelby sought and received support from local businesses, churches, and individuals. In 1984, the health department staff resumed the weekly clinics. In 1991, the Kellogg Foundation gave funds to renovate the clinical area, and to contract a family practice physician to provide a broader range of primary care services to children at BGACDC, augmenting its regular clinic hours. (September 2015 update: The clinic is no longer in operation.)

Shelby's health care drive did not end there. She recognized that in an impoverished environment, the practical implications of youth development meant that health had to be promoted in its broadest sense, with focused programs to prevent unwanted pregnancy, alcohol and drug dependency, crime, and the like.

As a first step, in 1986, BGACDC opened a restaurant (Best Food in Town, or BFT), to provide healthful, affordable food to staff, children, and adult clients, as well as the general public.

In 1990, two more key health programs started and augmented BGACDC's activities.

  • The first was Mothers Too!, a parental outreach program for pregnant and parenting adolescents, where outreach workers provided transportation to prenatal clinic visits, offered a continuing source of social support to young women, and helped ensure that available services, such as WIC and GED (General Education Diploma) classes, are utilized.
  • The second program was called DAD (Dealing with Adolescent Development). This program provided positive male role models to young black males ages 8 to 18, the majority of whom are from single-parent, female-headed households. The program offered education on a broad range of subjects not usually covered in school, including sexual responsibility, work ethic, health, hygiene, and conflict resolution, leavened with field trips and other recreational activities.

And then, housing. Affordable housing was another problem in the community, and one that Shelby saw as integral to the overall health of its citizens. So, in 1988, she tackled the highly charged task of trying to build public housing for Marvell's elderly and poor. The prospect of public housing going up in their neighborhoods provoked strong opposition from some in town, but Shelby persevered, and in 1993, the BGACDC Manor opened, containing 39 units of safe, centrally located, low-income housing for Marvell residents who were most in need.

From the beginning, a key feature of all BGACDC's efforts has been involving people who are being helped in helping others.

Many of the volunteer and paid staff had come up through the ranks of BGACDC's programs themselves, giving them that much more of a stake in BGACDC's success. The grassroots, volunteer nature of the programs allowed them to be run on a shoestring budget, a vital feature in those early years.

Winning a Community Health Leader award. For her signal efforts on behalf of her community, Beatrice Clark Shelby was nominated for the Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leadership Award. In 1993, she became one of the award's first group of recipients. Shelby used the $100,000 stipend to build staff and board capacity through workshops and classes in such areas as leadership, computers, the Internet, marketing, bookkeeping, grant writing, and management.

The award paved the way for further funding of BGACDC by regional organizations including Arkansas Better Chance, East Arkansas Private Industry Council, Arkansas Power and Light Company, the Foundation for the Mid South, and the United Way of Phillips County. The award also established Shelby as a nationally recognized figure, which has made dealing with local officials and organizations easier and smoother.

Shelby also served on the advisory board of Turning Point: Collaborating for a New Century of Public Health, a National Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which works with states to help them improve the performance of their public health functions.

Since the award. Shelby has expanded her efforts at BGACDC. The organization started with three brick houses, which they sold for $50,000 each. As of 2015, they managed some 60 rental units.

BGACDC also started several other new programs. These included Common Ground, a state-funded youth violence prevention project; The Delta Initiative, a state-funded project that provides youth-leadership development training, supervised recreational and cultural awareness activities, and an internship program, all established with the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff; and the Parenting Leadership Project, a pilot project implemented to provide services to 50 children and their families.

In January 1996, a youth center was opened, with the school system agreeing that BGACDC's could use its gym. The program's effort, called Saturday Activities, provided year-round recreation activities to Marvell youth. Besides organizing recreation for about 50 young people, it uses the weekly event to share educational information on practical topics, including AIDS prevention.

As of September 2015, BGACDC was serving more than 250 low- and moderate-income residents of the Marvell School District each month.

Programs included after-school activities for children ages 6 to 14; a summer day camp with an emphasis on reading; a school-to-work project for youth 15-18; adult education and training activities, and a lending library that focuses on books on self-improvement, leadership development, and aspirational biographies.

BGACDC also expanded its funding base, helped by Shelby's skills as an advocate for those she serves, and by the prestige of the Community Health Leadership Award. Funders and partners have included the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Save the Children Foundation, Phillips County Health Department, Arkansas Department of Health, Delta Health Education Center, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and Vanderbilt University.

Program outcomes have included increased prenatal/postpartum care; increased immunization rates; decreased dropout, teen pregnancy, and teen violence rates; and increased referrals to and participation in parenting support groups, HIV/AIDS awareness, and parent outreach. The staff of BGACDC did a "show and tell" about their activities for 19 of the 40 White House Fellows (these are young scholars identified as future leaders in their fields with sponsored internships at the White House). Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala led this visiting group.

Shelby believes that leadership is not an inborn trait, but something that comes with strong belief and hard work. "People say I lead," she says modestly, "but mostly, I've gotten all these young people that work with me to do things that make me look good. I just try to give them an opportunity."

Clearly, she takes great joy in her work and in seeing her efforts come to fruition. "Young people I've worked with have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, professors, and successful business people," she says proudly. "It's a good feeling knowing they've become independent, productive citizens who are contributing to their communities."

Postscript. As of 2015, Beatrice Clark Shelby is still the executive director of Boys, Girls, Adults Community Development Center. She reports that she has "launched her most ambitious program yet, focused on people of parenting age, 18 to 39, the group that will be critical to producing a generation of healthy, self-reliant citizens.

"We're trying to get them to the table, so that they can really understand that they need to actively participate in all areas of their children's lives. Right now, that group—young parents—is the one that is missing when it comes to community involvement. Leadership is their baby, too."

RWJF perspective: The Foundation recognized the first 10 RWJF Community Health Leaders in 1993—unsung and inspiring individuals who work in their communities, often among the most disenfranchised populations, to address some of the nation’s most intractable health care problems. The last round of leaders was chosen in the fall of 2012. The program closed at the end of 2014. For more information, see the Special Report.