Foundation lauds Good Faith Fund

For five years, G. David Yarber rented space in Marianna for his income tax service, Pro File America Inc., but that hindered his small business’s ability to grow.

“We were just a seasonal business, about four months of the year,” said Yarber, the president and chief executive officer of the company. “But we had to continue to pay rent on a place that was basically closed, and that was a pretty big burden.”

He credits the Southern Good Faith Fund, a Pine Bluff based nonprofit group, with giving him the business guidance, as well as the financial support, to help his company expand.

The fund lent him $15,000 to purchase his own office space in Marianna, and today his company – which also has an office in West Memphis has 12,000 clients and operates year-round.

Now, the Southern Good Faith Fund is set to expand to help more people like Yarber. In 2007, the fund will begin receiving $500,000 from the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, which announced the award this week as part of National Family Week.

The Casey Foundation, a national advocacy group for poor children and families, will distribute the award over five years. The Southern Good Faith Fund is the first Arkansas organization to receive an award through the Casey Foundation’s Families Count: The National Honors Program. It comes with no strings attached; the Southern Good Faith Fund may spend it in whatever manner it thinks will benefit its clients the most.

The Southern Good Faith Fund helps families in the economically depressed Arkansas and Mississippi Delta regions attend college, buy homes and build businesses.

Angela Duran, president of the Southern Good Faith Fund, said she isn’t sure exactly how her organization will use the money.

“It’s just like something fell out of the sky, so it’s really special,” Duran said. “We’re looking at ways to invest it so that it will payoff in the future.”

An affiliate of Southern Bancorp Inc., the nonprofit fund began in 1988 as a “good-faith” lending organization. It modeled its efforts on the lending practices of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which, along with its founder Muhammad Yunus, won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The Southern Good Faith Fund, like the Grameen Bank, uses small loans, or microcredit, to help lift people out of poverty.

Over the years, the Good Faith Fund has enlarged its mission. Now, its programs include:
– The Business Development Center, which offers training and workshops such as those that assisted Yarber.
– An assets-building program that, among other things contributes $3 for each dollar a person saves for a home in an “Individual Development Account” and matches $1 for each dollar a family saves in a college savings account for its children.
– The Career Pathways program, which counsels low-income adults on how to climb the career ladder. That program has spread to 11 of the state’s 22 community colleges. The Southern Good Faith Fund works directly with the programs at Southeast Arkansas College in Pine Bluff and Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas, which has campuses in De Witt, Helena-West Helena and Stuttgart.

According to its 2005-06 annual report, since 1997, the Southern Good Faith Fund has worked with 511 businesses, graduated 818 people from its Career Pathways programs and opened 200 Individual Development Accounts.

“The main thing we’re trying to do is help people achieve the American dream,” Duran said. “If they want to own their home, we want to help them with that. If they are 35 years old and haven’t finished high school, yet they want to become a registered nurse, we want to help them achieve that. Whatever it is, we want to help people wherever they are to reach that dream.”

Yarber said the Southern Good Faith Fund provides services that are desperately needed in the Delta.

“They do a good job of outreach to the community and making people aware of these opportunities,” he said. ”And I think most people who are looking for help in business would find added value with the Southern Good Faith Fund.

“It’s not just funding; the group also has a wealth of information and direction on how to be successful.”