The Lakota of Bridger, S.D., now have fresh eggs available in their neighborhood at about half the cost, and young women in Helena, Ark., are learning business and leadership skills while earning an income to help their families.
Although the cultures and circumstances are different, these two groups benefit from a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship initiative to improve the lives of people in the nation's 20 poorest counties.
Begun 10 years ago, Together for Hope works for change in the economic and social systems of those counties by working with local agencies, organizations, churches and individuals. The initiative targets one county in both Alabama and Louisiana, two in both Arkansas and Kentucky, three in Mississippi, four in South Dakota and seven in Texas.
In 2011, the 10th anniversary of CBF's 20-year commitment, an estimated 10,500 volunteer units—the number of volunteers times the number of days each worked—served about 54,000 people, according to the initiative's interim director, Chris Thompson of Liberty, Mo.
But the true measure of the success of any program aspect is community, Thompson emphasized.
"We're not a mission opportunity provider," he said. "It's serving and working with the community … in developing programs as the community develops."
The initiative centers on the four "R's" of community development—reciprocity, relationship, reconciliation and respect—and on six core values—local visioning, leadership, project development, long-term sustainability, local experience in education and engagement, and an emphasis on process rather than on outcome.
The approach builds from existing resources, skills and goals in local communities. Residents determine the goals they want to reach, prioritize them and develop appropriate strategies.
"Community is about relationships. We work alongside (people) not for them. Because we are process-oriented, or how we do it, we may not see results for a generation," Thompson explained.
The initiative works to help communities change circumstances that developed over generations. The processes needed to change those circumstances also have to take place over time.
The 20 targeted counties are the initiative's first objective, Thompson explained. But a secondary objective always has been in mind.
"We want volunteers to take those things they've learned in the focal counties and bring those back to their churches, to their areas … to their own communities," he added.
"Churches see the value of asset-based principles."
Volunteers assisted the Bridger Lakota to build a chicken coop and to get the business started. The Lakota community operates and manages it. "They are now empowered to reduce the price of food for the reservation … and now there is a better market," Thompson said.
The young women artisans at Delta Jewels each give a tithe on the sale of their creations and then decide on someone or a project to benefit. They take home 50 percent of the proceeds to help their families, and the remainder is used to purchase supplies to make more jewelry.
Both projects lift their communities. "Poverty is reduced by attacking root causes," Thompson said.
And for Together for Hope, the basis for change always will be relational.
"It's the relationship that's important—to listen and share the person's story and to hear the voices silenced by circumstances. We must be a part, be a presence in people's lives. Sometimes that's a challenge."