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Finding Jewels in the Arkansas Delta

By Michele Learner
July 2009

Each week, a dozen girls gather around the dining table of Ben and Leonora Newell in Helena, AR. While they pray, chat, and eat, they create beautiful handmade bracelets, earrings, and necklaces.

Welcome to Delta Jewels, an innovative business co-op in one of the nation’s poorest counties. About four out of every 10 residents of Philips County live in poverty. Nearly half of the children – including the girls of Delta Jewels -- live in poverty.

“We need to create sustainable jobs in poor communities. Small businesses and entrepreneurs play a big role in that,” says Ben Newell, a staff member of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. “There’s a growing realization within ministries in the United States that in the end, it’s jobs that make the biggest difference.”

Despite the recession, Delta Jewels racked up $25,000 in sales from May 2008 to May 2009. Each girl in the co-op earned between $1,000 and $1,500. In major chains, workers are paid only 35 cents for every $10 piece of jewellery. At Delta Jewels, the girls get half of the sales price for every piece they create. They also tithe 10 percent of their income, with the girls choosing where the money goes. They have given to the burn unit at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in nearby Memphis. They want to eventually raise enough money to build a well in an African village. The rest of the profits go to marketing and supplies.

“If your 11-year-old can earn $1,000 while at the same time learning skills for her future, it can be a big help,” Newell said. The girls’ income goes to help with family expenses and to college savings accounts.

A network of mentors, volunteers, trainers and members from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship provides support for Delta Jewels and other entrepreneurs in low-income communities. Ben and Leonora Newell not only host Delta Jewel’s production, they also handle most of the marketing for the co-op.

It was through Wanda Kidd, who used to run a jewellery business in North Carolina, that Delta Jewels got started. She raised the capital for the co-op and does much of the purchasing of supplies. Kidd trained the Delta Jewels girls and helped start two other jewellery co-ops in Kentucky and Florida.

“We try to emphasize with all the kids that even though our community is considered challenged, and people come in and give you food and lots of attention, that doesn’t mean you don’t have something to contribute,” Newell said. “You are a worthwhile person who can make the world a better place.”

The Newells’ work in Arkansas is part of Together for Hope, a 20-year CBF initiative in the 20 poorest U.S. counties. The counties are distributed among seven states; counties with majority African American, Latino, white, and Native American populations are all represented.

“This two-decade commitment means that we’re going to figure things out together with people in the community,” says Jeremy Lewis, manager of Together for Hope. “We have to work together in relationships that are real-life. We aren’t guests dropping in for a visit.”

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