MSU to lead community improvement initiative

Mississippi State will begin directing the Appalachian Community Learning Project in 2015, and the leadership transition has already begun.

New York State-based The Rensselaerville Institute, along with the federal-state Appalachian Regional Commission, began ACLP more than 15 years ago as an initiative to show community volunteers how to improve their towns.

During 2013 and 2014, the university's John C. Stennis Institute of Government and Community Development is working alongside the two organizations to provide ACLP participants with local assistance, leadership and resources.

Many Magnolia State neighborhoods already have benefited from the "Community Sparkplugs" initiative, which allows teams of local volunteers to develop results-based plans that enhance their communities, said Joe Fratesi, project director at Stennis.

Recently, representatives of TRI, ARC and MSU met with groups from Brooksville, Bruce, Columbus, Lamar, Louisville, New Albany, Ripley, Scooba, Shannon, and Vardaman to begin the 2013 Community Sparkplugs program. Each group developed a specific community enhancement idea into a results-based plan, and the volunteers presented their proposals to the ARC, which then awarded each $3,000 mini-grants.

All 10 communities have a similar goal -- to improve their economic outlooks, neighborhood assets and quality of life. How each chooses to achieve their goal is entirely up to them, Fratesi said.

"This program is about investing in people," he continued. "It's very much a partnership with everybody; we're investing in leaders -- the 'sparkplugs' -- and we're investing in their ability to get results," he said. "So much work goes into the selection process to make sure that we're investing in the right people."

Each group has committed to a specific project, with the seed money used to attract additional resources, to be completed in six months.

"The participants had to start setting targets that met one of the ARC's goals, things such as an increase in the number of people with approved health or healthy behaviors," he explained. "They also want to increase the number of students with improved academic performance, and they want to increase the number of people utilizing recreational or cultural opportunities."

Fratesi said at least 70 percent of the rural communities participating in ACLP should meet or exceed their goals. Of that number, he estimated that 70 percent should continue past the initial six-month timeframe to continue or expand the initial projects.

Beyond helping the communities stay focused on their targets and providing them appropriate resources when challenges arise, Stennis representatives work with community development leaders to complete TRI's required documentation process. TRI representatives also have assisted throughout to ensure the transition process is smooth.

Fratesi said the local sparkplugs groups should be successful in lighting flames and fanning the fires of enthusiasm, dedication and funding needed to improve their respective communities.

For more about the Stennis Institute and its services, visit

Leah Barbour | University Relations

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