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College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

UM Student Helps Out in Delta

Chelsea Caveny, senior in public policy, lives the life that many consider to be normal for a college student at the University of Mississippi. She goes to class, studies, works and socializes on the Square.

But when Caveny was a freshman she met with her advisor who told her about a philanthropy project located in the Delta. The project is called the Sunflower County Freedom Project, and helps children in the poverty-stricken Mississippi Delta by teaching them to read better and instructing them in history and public speaking.

The project’s LEAD Center is located in the town of Sunflower, which has a population less than 1000 and is about 150 miles south of Memphis.

Sunflower has a median family income roughly half the national average, while the teenage pregnancy rate is roughly triple the national average, according to the Census Bureau.

The local public schools in the area struggle with providing their students with a sufficient education. The average ACT score in Sunflower County is 16.3, nearly 25 percent lower than the national average, according to the project’s website.

“Nearly 41 percent of students will leave high school without earning a diploma,” their website said. “Compounding these already daunting problems is the difficult truth that the Mississippi Delta continues to be one of the most racially segregated and racially charged regions in America.”

Caveny said she has had an interest in helping Mississippi since she was young, and after hearing about the project agreed to help her advisor. She decided to go to Sunflower County the next weekend.

“The first time I drove through the town I thought to myself ‘what am I doing here?’” Caveny said.

“It was obvious the people knew I didn’t belong there.”

She said she had heard of the Mississippi Delta but did not know the level of extreme and recognizable poverty in the area until after her first visit.

After that she said she drove there every weekend and worked with the children on Saturday mornings.

“I kept going back because of the sense of village I felt on my first visit. It was a sense of community that felt natural because I had grown up at the center of a village of aunts and grandparents,” she said.

Caveny said she became involved quickly with the organization, taking on different roles such as fundraiser, speech teacher and friend. However, despite the teaching she did, she became a student of the community.

“I would always stop at Ms. Downey’s (a Sunflower resident’s) house for a cup of lemonade, and it was on her couch that I learned the history of the Civil Rights Movement in Sunflower County,” she said.

“It was during these times that I learned about modern Sunflower County and the harsh reality of life in a poor and still segregated Mississippi town.”

After becoming more involved with the project, Caveny moved to Cleveland for the next summer where she would commute to Sunflower County every day. She became the organization’s first intern.

“Chelsea is the most outstanding, well-rounded person I have ever been around,” Caroline Campbell, Caveny’s roommate, said. “She is a best friend to these children and will always go back to visit them. The Delta has changed her outlook on life dramatically and now holds a very special place in Chelsea’s heart.”

Because of Caveny’s work in the Delta, she has won several awards.

She was the first person at the University of Mississippi to win the Mitchell Scholarship and is also a Truman Scholar.

The Mitchell Scholarship is sending Caveny to Ireland to earn her Master’s of Arts in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism.

from the DM by Hallie Huerto