By Maureen Smith
TUTWILER — Sister Maureen Delaney, SNJM, has used a simple philosophy in her almost 30 years at the Tutwiler Community Education Center: listen to what people want and try to help them make it happen. This approach has changed lives in this small Mississippi Delta town.
Sister Maureen has earned a spot as the leader of the U.S./Ontario Province of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. Early next year, she will move to Portland, Ore.
She was working in California in the late 1980s when she heard Sister Anne Brooks, who runs the Tutwiler Clinic, was looking for someone to do outreach work. According to Sister Maureen, Dr. Brooks takes a comprehensive approach to patient care. “I think she tries to treat the whole person – if a person falls down on their porch she asks ‘what can we do to get the porch fixed?’ Whatever the problem is she asks if there a broader problem with them or the community. Can we help that person be more healthy,” said Sister Maureen.
Sister Maureen started her work in the back room of the clinic in 1987.
“What I do is community organizing. I will talk to people about what kind of things they want to have happening,” said Sister Maureen.
Dr. Brooks explained that people didn’t even have a place to gather to talk about ways to make the town better. “Tutwiler at that point was pretty pitiful. There was no inside plumbing, people lived in shacks,” said Dr. Brooks. “There was a lot of need,” she said.
“I thought people were going to say ‘I want housing, I want employment.’ I am sure they wanted that, but the needs were very simple and basic to start with, so that was quite amazing to me,” she said.
The first order of business: a town cleanup. “It was fairly spectacular,” said Dr. Brooks. “There were street vendors selling their wares, a flatbed truck for the mayor to stand on to give a speech, they asked me to speak. Everyone was there, black people, white people, everyone working alongside one another. It was breaking down barriers people didn’t even recognize as barriers,” she added.
The next thing people wanted was a Christmas parade for the town. Again, all Sister Maureen had to do was get people together and offer to help organize the event.
“That project brought the whole town together, black, white, all the people,” said Genether Spurlock, an employee at the center. A nearby town had thrown away their Christmas decorations so Sister Maureen got them and volunteers painted and refurbished them.
“The people wanted to have a Christmas parade. And I thought, ‘A Christmas parade? Ok.’ That’s what I have learned, you take people where they are,” said Sister Maureen. “If that’s going to bring people together, that’s what I’m going to do and that’s what we did and we had a great Christmas parade,” she said.
“People wanted very basic things and what I kept thinking – anything to get people together – to get people to work together, to get a spirit and end up with a product,” said Sister Maureen.
It became apparent early on that Sister Maureen needed more than just a back room at the Tutwiler clinic so the organization repurposed a set of storefronts. The completed Tutwiler Community Education Center (TCEC) has administrative offices, a small kitchen, a community room, a computer lab, music room, fitness equipment and the gym. It operates as a separate organization than the clinic.
In the ensuing years TCEC and the citizens of Tutwiler worked together on a number of civic projects. The phone company needed to run new lines to the town, the river would flood because of dredging issues, the town needed street signs. Sister Maureen, her staff and volunteers took on project after project.
“There is a saying about teaching a man how to fish. Sister Maureen and Dr. Brooks taught us how to fish. They taught us to do things for ourselves,” said Spurlock. “This center has always kept the needs of the people out front,” she added.
Lucinda Berryhill has worked for the center for 23 years. “I knew people and people knew me,” she said. Sister Maureen let Berryhill use her talents to serve her own community. Berryhill drove a van to bring people to medical appointments, and recruited people to come to the center for projects. “I would go find them and they appreciated that,” she added. She appreciates the fact that children who come to the center get more than just a safe place to play. “They come to get education, they learn morals and values here,” said Berryhill.
The programs have evolved as needs and wants have changed. One early request was a playgroup for preschool kids because the Head Start in the area did not have enough slots. As the Head Start expanded, that program dropped off. Today two dozen children aged seven -12 come every day for an after school program. It includes snack, time in the computer lab, group discussions on good choices and behavior and time in the gym. A couple days a week a trio of musicians comes to the center to teach blues music. The kids have gotten so good, they have their own band. They played at the opening of the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale and the rededication of the courthouse in Sumner to honor the memory of Emmitt Till.
Twice a week teenagers come in the evenings to use the fitness equipment and learn life skills. Some of those teens get hired as teen helpers. They assist in the after school care program, learning job skills and acting as role models for their young counterparts. Junior Kayla Reynolds said her work as a teen helper has helped her mature and learn responsibility. She wants to be a social worker and help children when she grows up.
A group of seniors meets at the center, sharing meals and taking trips together. This summer candidates used Tutwiler for a forum so citizens could ask them questions before the election. There is a summer program for children. The center sponsors sports leagues and tournaments for kids and adults alike.
And then there are the quilters. Another legacy that started with one conversation.
Tutwiler resident Mary Sue Robertson invited Sister Maureen to see the quilt tops she made in her home. “Mary Sue lived in a humble shack in the back of somebody’s property that she used to work for. Inside she had piles of quilt tops,” said Sister Maureen. The elderly woman would sell her work if someone wanted to buy them. Sister Maureen wondered if the hobby could become a cottage industry. She and fellow workers Mary Ann Willis and Sister JoAnn Blomme, OP, found more than two dozen quilters in the area and a business was born.
“From the beginning we wanted to help these ladies make money and also preserve the quilting tradition of this area. We started by saying they would get 80 percent of the price and 20 percent would go into the program,” she explained. The original quilters used scrap fabric, including old clothing. Today, they use new fabric, to make placemats, tote bags, cell phone cases and oven mitts in addition to quilts, but they still keep 80 percent of the profit. Fewer women learn the craft from their mothers, so the center has started a class for those who want to learn. Willis is still involved in the quilting program, checking the quilters work, traveling across the country to sell the products and handling the books. “I love to go out and sell their work because I know the more I sell, the more they can work. This might be their income. They depend on it to pay their bills,” she said. The program has also expanded Willis’ horizons. “I would never have gotten to travel had Sister Maureen not offered me the opportunity. I’ve been to some beautiful places,” she added.
Doctor Brooks thinks Sister Maureen has done nothing short of help transform a community, not by giving them things, but by offering imagination and hope. “People’s lives here will continue to improve because they take the initiative,” she said. When people feel empowered, they can take care of themselves and their community. “It takes a person with knowledge, excitement, talent and dedication to strike the match that’s inside everyone’s heart,” said Dr. Brooks.
Good attitudes, she said, are contagious and she believes TCEC will continue to spread the transformation. “There are not enough words to explain or compliment her and not enough hugs to give her as a thank you.”
The board of directors is looking for a new leader, meanwhile, the work continues. To learn more about TCEC or purchase a quilt online, visit www.tutwilercenter.org.
By Maureen Smith