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In honor of Women’s History Month, Rural LISC is highlighting the work of Beatrice Clark Shelby, Executive Director of our partner organization, Boys, Girls, Adults Community Development Center, Inc., in Marvell, Arkansas.
Beatrice Shelby was born the eighth of ten children in Marvell, a small rural community in Phillips County, Arkansas, in the Mississippi Delta region. While growing up in the nineteen fifties and sixties, Beatrice didn’t see the world as it appeared to others – rather, she envisioned what she wanted the world to be. And she has spent the majority of her life as an adult making that vision a reality. For over 50 years, she has been working in Marvell and the surrounding area, positively affecting the lives of her neighbors and their families. Her vision is rooted in the influence of the strong women she saw in leadership roles around her growing up in Marvell, but especially in the influence of her mother, who had a natural sense of community and believed in helping their neighbors in any way she could, even teaching them to read and write.
After graduating from Marvell High School in 1966 and obtaining a secretary's certificate, Beatrice immediately began noticing ways that she could help improve living conditions for her neighbors. And following that natural sympathy, in 1967 she applied for a job at the recently formed Mid-Delta Community Services (MDCS), a community action agency that administered programs to low income, elderly and disabled individuals in a four county area. Among interviewees for the position, Beatrice alone followed up with a thank you card. “I want to hire the young girl who wrote a thank-you card,” said the supervisor, and Beatrice got the job. Beatrice spent a decade at MDCS working to fight poverty and strengthen self-sufficiency in the Marvell area.
In 1977, a new chapter opened in Beatrice’s life when, as a Program Director at MDCS, she was approached by Marvell High School’s Agriculture teacher, Gale Thrower, about supporting his vision of providing recreational activities for youth in the community.
Now a mother and a veteran community organizer, Beatrice recognized the importance of supporting the welfare and all-around development of children, and she immediately rose to Mr. Thrower’s challenge and began to assist him in organizing activities for youth in the local MDCS building, which had only one room that did not leak when it rained. It was a small yet significant step, one that was to set Beatrice on a new trajectory. One year into her youth organizing work with Mr. Thrower, Beatrice became a founding board member of a newly founded community organization, Boys, Girls, Adults Community Development Center, Inc. (BGACDC).
BGACDC was the brainchild of a group of concerned parents who had joined together to build a brighter future for their children. In an area that historically offered few opportunities to its poor, predominantly African American, residents, young people were returning home from college and in need of place to congregate and socialize in a positive atmosphere. Young people also wanted and needed summer employment opportunities. Children in the area were not prepared to enter the public school system due to their lack of both immunization and preschool education. And dilapidated housing stock was very visible and a major concern.
And so, BGACDC was established – a grassroots organization with a mission to improve the overall quality of life for Marvell residents, or, in Beatrice Shelby’s words, “Build community competency by empowering people to help themselves.” Four years later, in 1982, Beatrice became BGACDC’s Executive Director.
Of her first years at the helm, Beatrice recalls, “The Marvell mayor, the local bank president, and the school board president were all willing to work with ‘that girl,’ but most people gave BGACDC three years from the day I took over.” Perhaps not surprisingly to many, today BGACDC serves as the center of community life in Marvell, with volunteers, supporters and staff working together to achieve goals no one had thought possible in 1982.
In 2001, BGACDC became a member of the Rural LISC network of partner organizations. For nearly 20 years, Rural LISC has supported BGACDC in developing a unique and comprehensive set of activities, programs and support services for children and adults. Rural LISC’s investment of nearly $1 million in capacity-building and predevelopment grants has leveraged almost $4 million. BGACDC has built and rehabilitated 86 housing units for low-income families, developed 26,910 square feet of commercial, industrial and community facilities, created or retained 27 jobs, and assisted 50 children with Rural LISC’s ongoing financial and technical support. “LISC has been an asset, resource, and ally,” said Beatrice, “not just of BGACDC and its Board, staff, and volunteers, but of the community members served through partnerships and networks created, assistance provided and skills gained.”
Beatrice’s work has always been guided by her personal drive to always do her best in serving Delta communities, whether as assistant Sunday school teacher at her local Baptist Church, member of the Phillips County Chamber of Commerce, or Executive Director of BGACDC. “I share a vision of my parents and other black people in the sixties,” she says, “that one day our children would become full participating citizens receiving all of the benefits that all other citizens receive.”
That vision has led to a lot of success for both Beatrice and her community. In 2004, she received a Leadership for a Changing World Award from the Ford Foundation. Reflecting on BGACDC’s evolution from providing a handful of services in a leaky building to hosting a broad variety of children and family centered programs in its own community facility, she commented, “Our growth is a testament to how program success builds upon itself when community buy-in is high – no matter how small the town.” She concluded, “I have tried over the years to pass down to my children and my neighbors’ children the things my mother passed to me: faith, family, the need for an education and the desire to fight for social as well as economic justice.”
Forty years of hard work, sacrifice and community engagement for and by Boys, Girls, Adults Community Development Center is no guarantee for tomorrow. This year, on BGACDC's 40th birthday, Beatrice Shelby recognized that reality. “My services have been anchored in prayer, faith and work," she said, "but the future of all the services that we have tried to provide for children and parents depend upon even more prayer, commitment and sacrifice. More than ever, we have to network, partner and collaborate to see that our children grow in stature and knowledge, and that they can overcome the adversities that face them in the Delta and realize their potential.” Beatrice is confident that to achieve her vision for the future of her community, she cannot stop learning and striving to get new and relevant information. “You cannot do today’s job with yesterday’s tools,” she said.
Visit BGACDC's website for more information.