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An Arkansas based bank invests in people. Part of Southern Bancorp’s mission is to revitalize rural communities. They say it’s working, but they have a long way to go and in some areas, time it running out.

Southern Bancorp is a billion-dollar bank, first funded by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. Its mission is to revitalize rural communities. A recent investment of $11 million by the Kellogg Foundation is intended to help.

Southern tackles poverty in several ways. It invests in education and communities. In fact, Southern says, in 24 years it’s made more than $2 billion of loans, in high poverty areas. Today, its work continues.

Clark County Daycare Director A.J. Porter makes her rounds.
A head count shows 90 of the center’s 100 kids are here.

Her next stop is the kitchen; with two staffers out sick it’s time for her to lunch. “This is what I do everyday. I’m a director but I’m also like involved with everything that’s going on in the classroom,” says Porter.

The childcare center opened last spring. Locally-based rural development bank Southern Bancorp paid for the million dollar facility with federal grants. It’s daycare for working parents and a place for kids to learn skills for kindergarten, things outlined in a community plan for economic growth.

Porter says the family atmosphere is a bonus.

“We tell our kids we love them everyday, plus we have foster grandparents that are actually coming here just to help us rock the babies,” says Porter.

The plan is to eventually stay open 24 hours. The idea behind the 24 hour daycare facility is just one of many Southern is working on with the community in its efforts to revitalize Clark County.

County officials, though, say the need for 24 hour care has dropped as companies down the road in the Industrial Park cut shifts.

When Southern first set up shop in downtown Arkadelphia in the mid 80’s, CEO Phil Baldwin says most of the store fronts were vacant then over the years it bought a lot of the buildings, restored, and now most are opened for business.

“We think if we can get good education, find good jobs for people that the poverty rate will go down,” says Baldwin.

In Arkansas, Sothern’s non-profits run programs in rural Phillips and Clark counties.

“We could do this in West Little Rock, but West Little Rock doesn’t need this, but the Delta does.”

They’re trying to chip away at poverty by reducing the rates of high school drop-outs, and unemployment plaguing those areas.

“So what our hope is that eventually we strategically be located in enough counties that we can change the entire Delta region from Memphis down to New Orleans,” says Baldwin.

The Clark County Child Care Center is part of the plan. Southern says it’s more than a daycare. It can help bring in industry, it’s a job for Porter and the staff, and a place that educates children.

“When I come in here they just put a smile on my face so I look forward to getting up and coming to work, so no complaints,” says Porter.

Southern Bancorp has branches throughout Arkansas and Mississippi. Other achievements include helping start a Boys and Girls Club in Phillips County, which is has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the state. Since that Boys and Girls Club opened two years ago, not one girl in the program has gotten pregnant.

Some more good news for Clark County on Friday: Drumco Incorporated announced 95 new jobs at its Arkadelphia plant.
The company provides remanufacturing services for industrial packaging.

Southern Bancorp’s original board of directors back in 1986 included some big names in Arkansas, including Hillary Clinton, and Rob Walton who’s now chairman of Wal-Mart.