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‘There’s Something in the Air’: A Unified March Toward Healthier Living in Vicksburg

‘There’s Something in the Air’: A Unified March Toward Healthier Living



There is no better symbol of all that Vicksburg, Mississippi is trying to accomplish than the mighty Mississippi River. In 1876, Ole Man River abruptly cut through a narrow neck of land, straightening a horseshoe bend that used to take the waterway right past this historic port.



Today, the residents of Vicksburg are attempting to change course, too—by improving how they stay healthy, shape up, educate children, and grow the economy.

Perched on a bluff overlooking a canal that connects the Yazoo River to the redirected Mississippi, this city of 23,000 in the Mississippi Delta is working hard to make healthier living an easier choice. Efforts include partnerships among groups like Shape Up Vicksburg, the United Way and the Vicksburg Chamber of Commerce with the school district, city, county, and employers, including the largest one, the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center.



The people of Vicksburg want to change how not only they see themselves, but how the rest of the country sees them. This motivation comes from frustration with Mississippi being typecast as poor, unfit and undereducated.

A teacher discusses healthy eating with a group of children.

Vicksburg, Mississippi

Citizens are uniting to focus on core issues like decreasing the obesity rate and improving children's learning environment.

“We want to be what we want to be, not what others say we are,” says Linda Fondren, an entrepreneur and community organizer who started Shape Up Vicksburg to promote a more active lifestyle under the banner, “Walking is cheap, life is priceless.” She understands the challenge: More than 35 percent of the population in Mississippi is considered obese, making it one of only four states with such a high prevalence rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.



Groups have come together to set priorities and focus on core issues like decreasing the rate of obesity and increasing physical activity; raising high school graduation rates and improving the learning environment; and revitalizing downtown Vicksburg to spur economic growth.



“Everyone’s mission is aligning, and we're all moving in the right direction,” says Michele Connelly, executive director of the United Way of West-Central Mississippi. That means she’s at the table when the school superintendent, Chad Shealy, is talking about education initiatives; he’s at the table when she’s talking about helping families achieve financial stability.



“I promise you there's something in the air,” Connelly adds. “There's a sense of excitement about the community; there's a sense of ownership.”



“Walking is cheap, life is priceless.” 

Linda Fondren community organizer, Shape Up Vicksburg


We're All Moving in the Right Direction


  • A tennis player practices tennis drills with her coach.

    Expanding City Parks

    Tennis pro Rick Shields runs drills with his junior tennis team at the Halls Ferry Park in Vicksburg. The city has expanded the park’s offerings, adding walking trails and more tennis courts. Since 2007, Halls Ferry has sponsored a free youth tennis program for players ages 5 to 18, with one-hour classes held three days a week.

  • A woman stands on a balcony and poses for a picture.

    Downtown Revitalization

    Kimberly Hopkins, executive director of the Vicksburg Main Street Program, stands on the second-floor balcony of The Valley apartment building, one of the many residential projects on Vicksburg, Mississippi’s bustling Washington Street. Five years ago, “this block looked pitiful,” Hopkins says. But Vicksburg has revived its historic district, using incentives and tax credits to spur preservation work. New restaurants, shops and housing units — the centerpiece of the city’s redevelopment efforts — are replacing once-vacant buildings.

  • A couple stops to view a mural painted on a flood wall.

    Walk, Learn

    Visitors pause to inspect one of two dozen murals on the floodwalls along the Yazoo River, near Catfish Row in downtown Vicksburg. This one depicts the last of the ferries to transport train cars across the Mississippi. Vicksburg draws more than 500,000 tourists a year, including riverboat passengers and visitors to the Vicksburg National Military Park. The city’s downtown revitalization has included the addition of more walking trails for visitors to learn about the history of the city and its buildings. “Downtown is our heart and soul,” says Hopkins, of the Vicksburg Main Street program. “If downtown is thriving, then the rest of the city will thrive.”

  • A community gathers for a school event.

    Education Equals Health

    Mayor George Flaggs (center-left) and Vicksburg Warren School District Superintendent Chad Shealy (center-right) celebrate the start of the school year at a convocation at the Vicksburg Convention Center. Parents, teachers and students cheered Vicksburg’s designation as a Ford Next Generation Learning city. The national initiative will work with the district to helps students prepare for college and careers. “When you have a healthy community, an educated community, you have a community that can compete on any level,” Flaggs says. “I saw the future of the city today.”

  • A family stands outside with balloons and poses for a picture.

    Every Child a Leader

    Zack Evans, 11, a 6th grader in the Vicksburg Warren School District, stands outside the Vicksburg Convention Center after a convocation ceremony with his mother Monica and sister Zion, 9. At school, Zack has learned how to incorporate the seven habits of The Leader In Me, a schoolwide student-empowerment model, into his life. His mother, a public school teacher, says the initiative helps students understand what it means to be a leader. “A lot of children don’t know,” she says. “It’s a way of explaining, 'This is what we expect you to be now and as you grow older.'”

  • A man speaks to a crowd before a community event.

    Walk With a Doc

    Carlos Latorre, a family physician, addresses a crowd gathered for a Walk With a Doc event at Vicksburg National Military Park. Latorre says being at the park, rather than in a doctor’s office, people feel more able to open up and talk freely with him about health issues. “This is a very relaxed setting, and they have more time to talk,” Latorre says. “We discuss basically any topic from diet to exercise, to ‘I have pain in my elbow, what should I do? What can I do to increase my health?’ No topic is off limits.”

  • A tennis player practices tennis drills with her coach.

    Expanding City Parks

    Tennis pro Rick Shields runs drills with his junior tennis team at the Halls Ferry Park in Vicksburg. The city has expanded the park’s offerings, adding walking trails and more tennis courts. Since 2007, Halls Ferry has sponsored a free youth tennis program for players ages 5 to 18, with one-hour classes held three days a week.

  • A woman stands on a balcony and poses for a picture.

    Downtown Revitalization

    Kimberly Hopkins, executive director of the Vicksburg Main Street Program, stands on the second-floor balcony of The Valley apartment building, one of the many residential projects on Vicksburg, Mississippi’s bustling Washington Street. Five years ago, “this block looked pitiful,” Hopkins says. But Vicksburg has revived its historic district, using incentives and tax credits to spur preservation work. New restaurants, shops and housing units — the centerpiece of the city’s redevelopment efforts — are replacing once-vacant buildings.

2017 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner: Vicksburg, Mississippi

Education Has Become This Community’s
Economic Ladder

A teenage girl stands outside and poses for a picture.

Marin Sherwin, 13, stands outside the Vicksburg Convention Center before a convocation celebrating the start of the school year for Vicksburg Warren School District students.

Thirteen-year-old Marin Sherwin is an effervescent eighth grader who loves cars and wants to grow up to be a mechanical engineer. Ask her what it means to be a leader and she will rattle off seven critical habits, including “sharpening the saw,” shorthand for keeping her mind, body and soul in balance.

“All the habits have a way of changing you, have a way of making things better,” Marin explains.

Students in Vicksburg talk like this. The Vicksburg-Warren School District, with the support of residents, local businesses and the Vicksburg-Warren Chamber of Commerce, has embraced The Leader in Me initiative for all of its schools. The approach, honed by the late author and leadership guru Stephen Covey, is seen not just as a tool to help young people set goals, but a way to start changing the very fabric of the community.

“You’ve got to inspire kids to want to take what they have, form it into something exceptional, and be able to market that in such a way that they feel fulfilled with the rest of their life,” says Chad Shealy, superintendent of the Vicksburg-Warren School District.


“It’s a way of explaining, ‘This is what we expect you to be now and as you grow older,’ and they catch on.”

Monica Evans public school teacher

Educators in Vicksburg are on the frontline of improving the city’s Culture of Health, promoting everything from universal pre-K for young children to better preparation of high school students for college and careers through programs like the Ford Next Generation Learning initiative.

After decades of decline, the metrics are starting to improve. In the Vicksburg-Warren School District, which has 8,500 students, high school graduation rates have increased from 56.2 percent in 2012 to 70.7 percent in 2017, an improvement but still well below the national average of 83 percent.

With The Leader in Me initiative, two of the first 16 schools that have implemented the approach saw a 49 percent decrease in discipline referrals and an 8 percent reduction in absenteeism from 2011 and 2014.

Monica Evans, a public school teacher and mother of two school-age children, says she sees the impact in her classroom. “It’s a way of explaining, ‘This is what we expect you to be now and as you grow older,’ and they catch on.”

Like the rest of the city, the school district has tried to more effectively leverage assets in the local workforce, most notably the elite U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), which has 1,800 employees in the Vicksburg area. Professionals from the center assist robotics teams from elementary through high school; host a solar car competition for students; and lead a one-week summer STEM experience, called Camp Invention, for students in grades 1 to 6.

The district also collaborates with Hinds Community College to allow students to enroll in college courses while still in high school.

And if parents are impressed by what they are seeing in schools, they, too, will be able to participate. Using federal and state funding, the district is creating a 15-month course to help out-of-work mothers and fathers of school-age children train for job opportunities. Poverty, says Shealy, is “the number one issue.”

“Schools are the center of this community,” adds Linda Fondren, an entrepreneur and founder of Shape Up Vicksburg. “If we get the schools right, so many other things...just come together, fit together.”   


2017 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner: Vicksburg, Mississippi

Race, Health, and Unity Converge on a Civil War Battlefield


On an early August morning, already a simmering 80 degrees in the shade, a couple dozen walkers assembled around Linda Fondren, founder of Shape Up Vicksburg, ready to follow her on a 2-mile power walk through the Vicksburg National Military Park. The group included more women than men, with equal numbers of African-American and white walkers.

Seeing such a mixed crowd in the park was not always the case. Fondren, an African-American and veritable Pied Piper of physical fitness known throughout the city for her efforts to get people up off the couch and on the move, recalls being asked point-blank by a former park superintendent, Michael Madell, “Why do so few African-Americans walk in the park?”

To Fondren, the reason seemed obvious: “African-Americans feel that the park glorifies the Confederacy.” And she added truthfully, “Exercise was at the bottom of a long list of priorities for most African-Americans.”

A central theme to the Vicksburg story is the city’s pooling of resources and leveraging of everything at its disposal to improve health. And yet, the largest parcel of open space—an undulating 1,700 acres with 12 miles of paths and 16 miles of roadway for biking—felt unwelcoming for the city’s majority African-American population.

A turning point in the Civil War, the 47-day siege of Vicksburg in 1863 gave Union troops control of the vital Mississippi, leaving 19,233 dead and cutting off Confederate supply routes. Just a mile from downtown, the park preserves the battle lines held by Union and Confederate soldiers.  

Fondren and park officials hashed out ideas for bridging the racial divide that the park represented. Seven years ago, they came up with a walk through the park to mark Black History Month, promoting it as “Our shared history, our shared community, our shared health.”

Rangers led a walking tour past the United States Colored Troops Monument, representing African- American soldiers who fought on both sides of the war, and the Vicksburg National Cemetery, which includes 7,000 black soldiers among the 17,000 veterans who are buried there. The rangers told the story of the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, just across the Mississippi, where African-American troops engaged in hand-to-hand combat to defeat Confederate attackers trying to seize a depot.

The reaction was “unbelievable,” Fondren says. Some participants who had spent their whole lives in Vicksburg had never seen the monument, or even knew that black soldiers were buried in the cemetery. “We want people to look at that history when they go through there as restored self-respect,” Fondren says.

The walk is now an annual event. “If we do not embrace all of our communities, if our communities do not embrace us, we're not going to succeed in what we do,” says Scott Babinowich, chief of interpretation for the military park. “We want to make sure that we're a place that the community feels welcome, that we provide a place where they can explore, that they can exercise, that they can escape the city life.”


A group of people walk in a park.

A Walk With a Doc event at Vicksburg National Military Park. The nationwide program encourages physical activity. Walks are led by local physicians.

2017 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner: Vicksburg, Mississippi

Seeds of Progress: A Community Garden That’s So Much More

A couple water plants in a community garden.

Barry and Sharon Batchelor water their plants at the Vicksburg Community Garden.


A group of children explore a community garden in a farmland setting.

Children from the daycare center Kids R Kids visit with Linda Fondren of Shape Up Vicksburg and members of the United Way at Vicksburg Community Garden.

The Vicksburg Community Garden, a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River, shines as an example of how groups in Vicksburg are working together to capitalize on the city’s existing resources.

It’s a trend in this city. With funding tight for any project—from revitalizing downtown Vicksburg to expanding career-building programs in schools—community partners are pooling financial resources and manpower, as well as reaching across boundaries to align goals and deliver the biggest bang for their efforts.

The community garden started when an agriculture expert from Alcorn State University reached out to Shape Up Vicksburg’s Linda Fondren with an idea: Let’s start a community garden to teach people how to grow their own food and maintain a healthier diet.

Fondren was a logical person to approach. She started a crusade in 2009 to get residents in her hometown to lose weight and to start walking as a first step toward fitness. More than 2,000 people signed a pledge to lose weight and over the course of 17 weeks, they lost a collective 15,000 pounds, roughly the weight of five vehicles.

A community garden could be a classroom on nutritious eating. But they needed the land. Fondren went to the city. “When she calls, we help,” says Marcia Weaver, Vicksburg’s Director of Special Projects. After viewing several potential plots, the group settled on a wide, open spot next to the Vicksburg Municipal Airport. The city agreed to pay for water and to mow surrounding grounds.

The raised beds and garden plots have been growing strong this year. Community members, master gardeners, civic groups and local schools have provided volunteers and supplies to help the garden thrive.

But could the garden be even more? My Brother’s Keeper Inc., a nonprofit that works to enhance the health of minority populations, provided a grant for playground equipment and a walking trail around the perimeter of the property. “Now we have parents coming out and they’re walking and getting involved in the garden,” Fondren says.

Building on the children’s interest in the garden, the United Way decided to establish literacy programs at the site. Why not bring books outside and read to children under the trees?   

On a summer morning in August, they did just that. Under the shade of birch trees, dozens of children of all ages from a daycare program, Kids R Kids, sat on tree stumps listening to Fondren read to them about how a seed becomes a plant. When the story concluded, they took off among the rows of corn and eggplants and searched for ripe red tomatoes to yank off vines. When a small girl couldn’t find one, she picked an orange pumpkin instead.

What once was an unused plot of land now teems with activity, providing more than just a place to garden. In yet another use for the garden and park, young people in the juvenile justice system tend the plots as part of their community service.

Two neighbors who live nearby were intrigued by the land’s transformation and now work in the garden—watering, weeding, seeding, and rotating crops.

“Let me tell you something,” says Sharon Batchelor. “I was raised down here on the river. I’m a river rat. And as far as I can remember, there’s been no growth, nothing to attract the public. And now we’ve met so many different people here.”

Laurel in Top 20 running for Small Business Revolution

Deluxe Corporation announced 20 towns in the running for Season 3 of the Small Business Revolution – Main Street
Communities have a chance to win a $500,000 revitalization Main Street


After thousands of nominations from small towns all over the country, Deluxe Corporation today announced the 20 communities that are in the running for season 3 of the highly acclaimed Small Business Revolution – Main Street series.


On Sept. 28, Deluxe launched the second season of Small Business Revolution – Main Street, featuring the community of Bristol Borough, Pennsylvania and six businesses selected to receive the $500,000 makeover. The series, which airs on, Hulu and YouTube, features marketing and business expertise for small businesses in one small town. Host Amanda Brinkman, Deluxe’s chief brand and communications officer, along with a host of marketing experts from Deluxe, help struggling business owners find their path to success.


Nominations were open from Sept. 28 to Nov. 19, with thousands of communities across the country vying for a chance to be featured in Season 3. Deluxe will gather more information from the top 20 communities before narrowing its list to 10 finalists to visit in the month of January. Eventually, five or six communities will be selected for a national vote to determine the winner.


“There are so many deserving towns that need this boost,” Brinkman said. “Our team decided to announce 20 deserving communities so we can do a deeper dive into their structure and their needs before moving on to the next round. No matter what, each of these 20 would make a great winner for our contest.”


Deluxe, a leading provider of small business marketing and financial services, launched the Small Business Revolution – Main Street contest in 2016, and shared the inspiring story of Wabash, Indiana in Season 1. All eight episodes of Season 2 are now available online or on Hulu.


Following an announcement on December 12 for the Top 10, representatives from Deluxe will travel to the towns in early 2018 to then narrow them down to five or six, who will compete in a nationwide vote when the winner is announced in late February. All announcements regarding season three can be found on




About Deluxe Corporation


Deluxe is a growth engine for small businesses and financial institutions. Nearly 4.4 million small business customers access Deluxe’s wide range of products and services, including customized checks and forms, as well as website development and hosting, email marketing, social media, search engine optimization and logo design. For our approximately 5,600 financial institution customers, Deluxe offers industry-leading programs in checks, data analytics and customer acquisition and treasury management solutions including fraud prevention and profitability. Deluxe is also a leading provider of checks and accessories sold directly to consumers. For more information, visit us at, or


Top 20 Towns:
Aberdeen, SD
Alton, IL
Americus, GA
Amesbury, MA
Bastrop, TX
Brainerd, MN
Bucyrus, OH
Cartersville, GA
Excelsior Springs, MO
Exeter, NH
Farmville, VA
Florence, OR
Glenwood Springs, CO
Laurel, MS
Martinez, CA
Owatonna, MN
Paducah, KY
Palatka, FL
Sanford, NC
Siloam Springs, AR

Hattiesburg Unveils Downtown Photo Gallery Celebrating Bicentennial

Hattiesburg Unveils Downtown Photo Gallery Celebrating Bicentennial


November 9, 2017 (Hattiesburg, Miss.)– As part of Mississippi’s Bicentennial celebrations, several storefront windows in Downtown Hattiesburg are showcasing large-scale photos as part of a public gallery to highlight the stories of local community leaders.  Hattiesburg is one of ten small towns elected to participate in “Celebrating Storytellers”, a statewide project that will create one hundred short stories to commemorate the Mississippi Bicentennial in 2017. 


Blue Magnolia Films, in partnership with Robert St. John, Hattiesburg Arts Council, Visit Hattiesburg, Downtown Hattiesburg and The City of Hattiesburg, facilitated a workshop in October to gather and produce digital stories that shared the importance of Hattiesburg’s community development and cultural vitality in Mississippi.  The photo story series and the newly installed photo galleries downtown create a Bicentennial portfolio for residents and visitors to enjoy. 


            Each participant captured the “spirit” of Hattiesburg uniquely through their own lens, payinghomageto themes that have definedthe cityhistorically, while helping tocast a vision for the future. Several portions of the Hattiesburg gallery will be on display in Jackson in December as part of the state’s official commemoration of the Bicentennial, including the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History.


Hattiesburg Mayor, Toby Barker says, “The Bicentennial is an occasion to honor the diversity of our stories, and pay forward values upon which future generations can build. We are proud of the community leaders who will come together for this week to celebrate our history and help to envision the next chapter.”


            "This is just another aspect of how the arts tells our story, not just through music, dance or theatre, but through the human emotion and experience that’s related to a sense of place,” Rebekah Johnson, Executive Director of Hattiesburg Arts Council said

            Hattiesburg native and restaurateur, Robert St. John, focused his story on the legacy of Coney Island Cafe, a landmark in downtown Hattiesburg for decades. Opened in 1923 by Arthur Fokakis, who immigrated to Hattiesburg from Greece, his son, Arthur Fokakis Jr., took over the business. St. John says the restaurant maintains a “spirit of independence that helps to tell the story of the our community.”


            “The Fokakis establishment has made a huge impression on me growing up. It reminds me of the importance of enduring businesses to connect us with a sense of place and tradition, and knowing where we come from,” St. John said.


            Visit Hattiesburg and Historic Hattiesburg Downtown Association say they will be integrating the large-scale photo gallery into upcoming events in November to complete celebrations of the Mississippi Bicentennial. 


            “Through this project, we have captured the essence and authenticity of our community in a very special way. This large-scale photo gallery and online video series showcase our culture and celebrate our diversity,” VisitHattiesburg Executive Director Marlo Dorsey said.


“We welcome visitors and residents to enjoy these vivid photo galleries in person as we highlight this important bicentennial occasion,” HHDA Executive Director Andrea Saffle said.


            Participants include: Robert St. John (Restauranteur), Rebekah Stark Johnson (Executive Director, Hattiesburg Arts Council), Carey Hudon (Musician), Dr. Richard H. Clark (Founder, Hattiesburg Clinic), HibaTahir (Managing Editor, The Student Printz), Abigail Lenz Allen (Songstress, Hattiesburlesque), David S. Price(Historian), Scott Waldrop (Debate Coach, Hattiesburg High) and Charles Brown (U.S. Army Veteran & Hub Award Recipient)


Local partners have been instrumental in this project including the Hattiesburg Arts Council, Visit Hattiesburg, Historic Hattiesburg Downtown Association, City of Hattiesburg, and New South Restaurant Group.

            The downtown photo gallery will be on display through January.  For more information on the storytellers and their stories, visit

Save the Federal Historic Tax Credit

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan significantly expanded an innovative program to draw investment to the rehabilitation of older properties, now known as the federal historic tax credit. He was so impressed with the program’s success, he made it a permanent part of the tax code in 1986. Actually, nothing is permanent, as Congress is about to change the code. That’s the current dilemma in the throw everything out new tax proposal. Much good about to be thrown away with the some bad. That’s going to hurt the Valley.

On September 14, 1984 at the Conference for Revitalizing America’s Towns President Reagan said this about historic tax credit legislation that encouraged historic preservation and economic development in small towns.

“I’d like to draw your attention to a major innovation that our administration put into effect less than 3 years ago. Increased tax credits for the renovation of older buildings. With that one initiative, we have help send your tax dollars back into your communities. Across America people are getting the message, our tax credits have made the preservation of our older building not only a matter of respect for beauty and history, but of economic good sense. I know your effort will give our towns more restored buildings, more jobs, and renewed sense of pride. And that will be good for our entire nation. But while our country’s muscle may lie in our great industrial cities, America’s heart is in our small towns.”
Water Valley came late to the economic development through historic preservation realization. But we have been on steady (and much noticed) revitalization trajectory since. Thirty-five commercial buildings in the downtown district stock of 110 have been renovated. Ninety new jobs downtown, twenty-six new businesses, and $10 million in private money invested in downtown. The overall effect has helped bring surrounding neighborhoods back, significantly increasing value in town and adding revenue to the city’s coffers.

A major tool in the small town economic development effort, the federal historic tax credit, the very one President Reagan thought so highly of, is about to be killed by the coming tax bill. It is cut off your nose to spite your face move. Not only does the historic tax credit help fix small towns, it returns more money than it costs. The tax credit works like this. First you must fix the building to a certain quality and quantity of work. Then apply for the credit.  And only then can you apply the credit against federal tax you owe. We have used these credits efficiently and effectively in Water Valley.
Since President Reagan delivered these remarks more than 30 years ago over 42,000 buildings have been restored, with $130 billion (that’s right billion) private capital invested, and 2.5 million jobs created. For every dollar of credit, a $1.20 has been returned to the Treasury. It makes money for every taxpayer, a steady 20 percent return on every public dollar spent.

Since that time, the federal historic tax credit has played a critical role in revitalizing small towns and cities, creating jobs, and increasing economic activity, all while returning more tax revenue to the Treasury than it costs.
Congress is finalizing tax reform legislation, but has failed to retain the historic tax credit. It is a major mistake and will dramatically hurt Water Valley and small towns across America.

In March of this year I was in Washington DC advocating in Congress for development in Water Valley. Meeting with Mississippi’s senators and congressmen. There is a bill in Congress that Mississippi wholehearted supports, both Mississippi senators and all 4 representatives have signed on to support this bill (S425/HR1158). This would make the historic tax credit more small business and Main Street building friendly. So, Mississippi still believes in small towns. The current tax cutting measure runs counter to what has been working so well in Water Valley.

Call your senators and representatives and remind them how important this is. They should tell their colleagues. Main Streets and small businesses don’t get much encouragement or incentives like big industries. These credits are proven performers.

Join us in urging Congress to continue this important legacy and keep the tax credit in any reform of the tax code. ACT NOW:

See the short video on YouTube, search “National Trust for Historic Preservation Historic Tax Credit Makes Economic Good Sense”. Water Valley is one of the towns pictured in it.

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