HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. — If you’re from around here, you know Doug Friedlander is not.
Born in New York City and reared on Long Island, Friedlander is Jewish and vegetarian and has a physics degree from Duke University.
But here he is, at 37, living in a roomy white house in this hard-luck Delta town of 12,000, and he is not alone. Friedlander and his wife, Anna Skorupa, are part of a gradual influx of young, university-trained outsiders flowing into the Delta’s shrinking communities, many of whom arrived through Teach for America and stayed beyond their two-year commitment.
Friedlander is now the ambitious director of the Phillips County Chamber of Commerce. He frets over the kudzu that is devouring abandoned buildings. He attends Rotary Club meetings — where he sidesteps the lunch offerings for carnivores — organizes workshops to modernize small businesses and pushes tourism and development of a deteriorating downtown along the banks of the Mississippi.
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The mechanization of agriculture, lost manufacturing and a legacy of poverty and racism have taken their toll on the Delta, but Friedlander is thrilled to be here. He left his job at a software company in North Carolina’s Research Triangle nine years ago, taking a two-thirds pay cut, to “make a bigger difference.”
To that end, “this is the most fertile soil on Earth,” said Friedlander. “If I were in New York, I would be a leaf at the end of a branch at the end of a tree — in a forest.”
Friedlander arrived in 2004 to teach science at Central High School in West Helena. He was one of 71 Teach for America corps members in the Delta; currently, about 300 members fan across the region’s classrooms each year, mostly in Arkansas and Mississippi.
In towns such as Helena-West Helena, a former agricultural hub and river port, they find some of the most devastating poverty in the country: shacks on cinder blocks; schools with nearly all students on subsidized-lunch programs.
Segregation is a fact of life. Private “white-flight academies,” as some locals call them, are common, which leaves public schools overwhelmingly serving a poor, black student body.
“I just knew when they left my classroom, it was an uphill battle for so many of my kids,” said Greg Claus, who is from Ohio and taught art at a public junior-high school from 2008 to 2011. Now an assistant to the mayor of Greenville, Miss., he has seen the names of some former students on the police blotter. Several more are already parents.
Teach for America is competitive, drawing top graduates accustomed to success. “For most, this is the hardest challenge they’ve ever met,” said Luke Van De Walle, 33, an alumnus from Indiana who has settled in the city with his wife, Jamie, and their two children. “They put a lot of effort in, and they get chewed up by 25 third-graders.”
Still, some former members say they have never felt so satisfied.
Michelle Johansen, 37, arrived from the University of Michigan in 1997.
Since then, she has become a volunteer manager of the Cleveland, Miss., farmers market. She works part time at Habitat for Humanity, is an adjunct at Delta State University and is married and a mother of two.
“I don’t want to leave,” Johansen said. “The work I’ve been able to do in the Delta is fulfilling.”
She does wish there were a Target in town. And a movie theater. There is no place to get brunch. But, she said: “There’s something about the Delta that’s very special, and if people are open to it, they will be captivated by it.”
Matty Bengloff, 28, is captivated. He grew up in an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Now he owns an inexpensive three-bedroom home in Cleveland, and a hip new yogurt shop, Delta Dairy, with his fiancée, Suzette Matthews.
“The barriers here are low,” said Bengloff. “You can be really entrepreneurial. Everyone is eager to help.”
Bengloff, who is Jewish, found what locals call a “church family,” led by a retired rabbi who commutes from Memphis once a month. Just as many of the temple regulars are Christian as are Jewish, just because they like the diversity of experience, and, added Bengloff, “The rabbi is great.”
Some longtime residents initially resented the inflow of Teach for America members with fancy degrees and backgrounds. Those troubles have largely eased over time. And the truth is, the Delta needs people.
“It’s good having highly educated folks coming back,” said Chuck Roscopf, a lawyer. “My kids, my friends’ kids — they’re all gone. They’re in Dallas or just about anywhere else, but they won’t come back.”
Teach for America entered the Delta in 1992, when it sent a few dozen corps members to Helena-West Helena and Marianna, Ark. The numbers and geographic reach expanded steadily but exploded in 2009 because of an influx of funds from the state of Mississippi and the Walton Family Foundation.
The organization estimates that, over those years, about 250 corps members have stayed on after their two-year commitments were over. Some have remained in education; others found jobs in private industry and community organizations.
They have started education-based nonprofits, such as Mississippi First and the Sunflower County Freedom Project. Friedlander and Skorupa, with other Teach for America alumni, were founding board members of a new Boys & Girls Club in the city.
The city even has its first director of an advertising and promotion commission, Julia Malinowski, 27, from Seattle.
Word is spreading beyond the Teach for America crowd.
Recently, graphic designers opened a firm, Thrive in Helena, after living five years in Brooklyn, where “about 200,000 people were trying to do what I wanted to do,” said a co-owner, Terrance Clark.
He has had enough work in the Delta to hire two interns from Midwestern design schools this summer. And Clark has recruited a group of friends from Indianapolis to come to Helena to work on community projects under his company’s 501(c)(3) umbrella.
Clark, Malinowski and the rest work together in a chic business incubator downtown.
The space is airy and open, with interior brick and a glass conference room — sort of like what you would find in Brooklyn.