By Maureen Smith
JONEST0WN – How can you save a town in the Mississippi Delta steeped in poverty, facing problems with drugs, lack of education and a lack of access to resources? “One child at a time,” said Sister Teresa Shields, a Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, outgoing director of the Jonestown Family Center for Education and Wellness.
Sister Teresa has done her part in that effort, but her time in the Magnolia state is coming to an end. She is looking back on 30 years in the Mississippi Delta as she prepares to retire back to her home state of Washington and her board searches for her replacement. She said she has been talking to her board of directors about retiring for a while, but had to set a date to make the plan a reality.
She came in 1984 to teach in Clarksdale at Immaculate Conception. When that school closed, she taught in Mound Bayou for a few years. When St. Gabriel School closed, “I still didn’t want to leave so I asked if I could stay and tutor. The (religious) community agreed if I could raise my own salary. So I wrote a grant to Our Sunday Visitor and got $10,000. I thought, that’s easy, to get money. So I did a little needs assessment and started an after school program,” said Sister Teresa.
A preschool followed along with programs to help educate and empower mothers. Helping teenagers transition into womanhood and manhood were the next programs added. Sister Kay Burton continues to work with teens and mothers in the community. Sister Deanna Randall, BVM, who had Montessori training came and helped the preschool embrace that program. In 1994, Sister Teresa led the charge to raise money to build a building for the Montessori program.
Tina Crawford works in the toddler program and drives a bus for the center. “This place means a lot. When I first came, most of the talk in town was about the sisters. They brought so much to the community,” said Crawford. She said the Montessori school offers children a chance to get ahead of their peers. “They are learning on a third and fourth grade level. They are doing actual math in there and actual science,” she explained. “The work is hands-on and the kids can work at their own pace,” she added.
Parent and teacher Lakisha Egans put two of her children through the school. “This program is very valuable,” Egans said. “It opens up another whole door for kids. They need that in a small town. Education is a big issue here in the Delta,” she said. Egans credits some of the success with parent involvement. “The parents are more involved because of how close this community is,” said Egans, adding that the compassion Sister Teresa and her community offer draw people to the center.
Young children are not the only ones served by the center. In 2005, the Jonestown Family Center got a grant for health and wellness and added a fitness center, located in a former nightclub. Director Lady Jackson welcomes all comers with a smile and plenty of encouragement.
Jackson said Sr. Teresa had a good reason to branch into fitness. “She had the vision of fitness center so we can educate not only the mind of the child, but the wellness of the body – getting people to eat right and exercise and take care of their bodies,” said Jackson. The fitness director inspires people with her own story of her journey to good health. “I found out my cholesterol was up and I’m not good at taking medication. That day I came home and I moved my furniture out of the way and I started working out,” said Jackson. She will support anyone who wants to turn their lives around.
She does not use one set program, instead letting people pick the type of exercise they want to try and encouraging them to try several before they settle on what works. “I don’t push what I do on other people, I let it be your choice. You want to walk. I let you walk. You want to ride the bike, you ride the bike. I just want you to do something.” Jackson said she knows of children in her church who suffer from diabetes and obesity and wants to offer an alternative. “Your body is a temple of God. You keep it healthy – you work on keeping it holy,” she said.
Not all of Jackson’s work is related to exercise. She also offers teenagers and young people a safe place to gather.
“I love it. Sometimes people come here – they don’t come to work out, they have a lot of stuff on their mind. They want to talk,” she explained. “A lot of young men come down here to workout and stay out of trouble. The teenagers come and I help them. We talk about their goals, their future in life- where they want to be – what plans have they set in place to get to where they are going,” said Jackson. She encourages the young people to set both long and short term goals and then works with them on achieving the smaller milestones on the way to their ultimate dreams.
During the summers, she runs a program for kids that includes trips to nearby towns and team sports activities. Jackson said one of Sister Teresa’s gifts is being able to find just the right person for each ministry of the Jonestown center. Jackson started in the preschool program, and tried to retire, but Sr. Teresa kept bringing her back until she found the perfect fit in the fitness center.
Both Eagans and Crawford said Sister Teresa’s compassion sets her apart. Crawford said she is always willing to talk to anyone who needs her. Both hope compassion will be a hallmark of the new director for the center.
In 2012 a man from Jonestown broke into Sister Teresa’s home and stabbed and robbed her. “When I was hurt, everyone said they thought that was the end of the community center, but I did come back. I told the board, now is not the time, but maybe in a few years,” explained Sister Teresa. When she returned home after recovering from the attack she hosted a healing ritual in her home, sealing the four corners with oil and hanging up the hundreds of cards and letters she had received while she was away. She knew she wanted to continue the work of the Jonestown center, but also knew it was time to start urging the board to think about succession planning.
Sister Teresa said she would like to see the Jonestown Family Center offer even more to the community. “We need a clinic. We need a bank. We need social services. We need a counselor, we need addiction counseling, so there are many needs,” said Sister Teresa.
Many of the children in the Montessori and Mothers as teachers programs now are the second generation to attend. Sister Teresa leaves knowing that the legacy of education and service has already made a positive impact on this community. “I think there are a lot more people that see another way of life is possible.”
The board hopes to have a new director in place in April or May. The Jonestown Family Center relies on donations to maintain its programs. To learn more about how to help, visit online at www.jonestownfamilycenter.com.