Joshua Jackson, W&L
Joshua Jackson, a member of Washington and Lee University’s Class of 2016, explored his interest in business as an intern with Thrive in Helena, Ark., as part of the 2013 Shepherd Internship Program.
I threw on my shoes, grabbed my sandwich, and raced out to the car. This was me on a typical day, half awake and rushing out of the house to embark on the early-morning drive to West Helena. Every day is a twenty minute drive from residence in Marvell to our work sites in Helena-West Helena Arkansas. It was strange at first—going so far from home just to go to work—but my commutes to Helena, filled with acres upon acres of growing corn, beans, and rice, quickly became a part of my daily routine.
As I enter Helena, the city greets me with kudzu-covered mountains, Civil war monuments, and historic buildings at every corner, showing me the rich history and culture that still exists in the city. I make my way downtown and onto Cherry Street—the heart of the downtown community. Every day I was reminded of how downtown Helena was once a thriving location where people could listen to the live blues music that flowed through the streets and entered storefronts. However, now it simply seems abandoned. Eighty percent of storefronts were now home to spider webs and “For Sale by Owner” signs that were left behind by store owners in the early eighties. It was hard to believe these very same businesses were major revenue contributors to the city before the closing of a large-scale factory and a huge demographic exodus in the late seventies caused a dynamic shift in the city.
Before going to work, I would often visit the levee overlooking downtown. For two months, I contemplated how to help this quaint little subset of Helena, settled alongside the Mississippi River, regain what it once held. While interning with Thrive Center, I did a variety of tasks I thought I could do to be most useful. Thrive was a multi-faceted organization that focused on marketing and design, entrepreneurship, and community empowerment. My duties ranged from meeting with various business owners to straighten out the logistics of their businesses, to developing Thrive’s Impact Project Program that would allow individuals to move to Helena and greatly influence the community. Some days I met with Rick to discuss his car business plan and model, and on other days I spoke with community leaders about the future of their beloved city and how to improve it. Even though my daily tasks were ever changing, every day I showed up at 310 Cherry Street just as excited as the day before. It wasn’t the work that gave me this excitement. It was being able to witness just how much of a positive impact this organization was having on the individuals of this community. With eight businesses established under their purview, Thrive had increased downtown business revenue by more than 250% in just three short years. But Thrive was bringing something much more than revenue to this community. They were bringing hope, cohesion, and inspiration that will continue to reverberate throughout this community going forward.
After two months of researching, brainstorming, and developing various projects at Thrive it was time to leave. As I got into the car and pulled from in front of Thrive’s studio, I decided to take one more walk up to the levee. As I approached the levy, I looked back on the summer and part of me felt that I had done what I initially set out to accomplish, and another part of me felt that I didn’t do enough. For a city like Helena, staying only two months was not enough. Helena needs dedicated individuals willing to hook into the community and create a lasting impact. Reaching the very top, I noticed the sunlight bounce off the glass of the storefronts I had been introduced to only two months prior. The glimmering sun illuminated many of these storefronts causing me to take a second look and on that second look I didn’t see empty storefronts anymore. Instead, I saw storefronts filled with opportunity. Then averting my vision, my eyes locked on to the kudzu covered mountains that greeted every morning as I entered the city. Despite the unfortunate economic downturn, Helena—once a booming hub of blues culture and economic vitality—is not a lost cause. In fact, it is the exact opposite of lost; hope and opportunity are very present in this city. This was very thing I thought as I looked out on the levee and over the city one last time.