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Contacts

3 E Colt Square Drive, Fayetteville, AR 72703

Info@CommunitiesU.org

479.443.2700

Originally named Flint Ridge Rural Water District (FRRWD), South Delaware County Regional Water Authority (SDCRWA) is in Kansas, Oklahoma, and began on May 19, 2017. The system aims to provide safe, clean water to all its customers in Northeastern Oklahoma.

To say that South Delaware County Regional Water Authority has gone through a lot would be an understatement. The lengthy process goes back to 2012 when some of the smaller communities in southern Delaware County water supply began to have issues with their water treatment. According to the 2020 Aquarius Project Compendium write-up, the communities struggled to address various drinking water challenges that exceeded various Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maximum containment levels (MCL) and water that smelled like rotten eggs. The systems located within an 8-mile radius, west of Siloam Springs, Arkansas, were not meeting current and nor would they meet future requirements. These challenges led to many issues, and the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) issued a consent order demanding that the communities improve their drinking water.

COMMUNITIES UNLIMITED BECOMES INVOLVED

Former Communities Unlimited (CU) State Coordinator of Oklahoma, Phil Ross, began talking to community leaders after the situation came to his attention from Billy Hix, Director of the Office of Environmental Health and Engineering (OEH&E) for the Cherokee Nation. The solution was to get each community involved to pay their costs and build a new treatment plant, but through discussions, that plan changed. Hix said, “The project involved several stakeholders who worked together and utilized the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) to solve various drinking water system challenges through the creation of a regional water system.”

They began to address all the challenges and find a way to provide safe, reliable drinking water in the future. CU got involved in assisting in the facilitation of the early planning of meetings between the communities. CU’s Environmental Services Central Area Director, Karen Conrad, worked on a rate study and a budget for the project. CU communicated with the Cherokee Nation regularly.

"The project started as a dream, but eventually all the pieces started coming together"
Karen Conrad
Environmental Services Director-Central

In 2012, all the major players participated in several meetings to discuss ways to move on. Everyone met in the Southern Delaware County Community Center in Kansas, Oklahoma, and shared their ideas and concerns. The 60 people in attendance put their heads together and started thinking of ways to educate and explain how to move forward. Every community had a board member, so every community had a voice.

A NEW IDEA IS BORN

The meetings continued into the next month and on down the road. They discussed rates, debt costs, operation costs, and how much water they needed. The community wanted to know the answers to these questions. The committees put all the details together. They continued to reassure everyone that they were on the right track. The decision came down to quantity versus quality. Instead of building new plants for all the systems involved, the idea of building one system for everyone in the 8-mile radius to share came up. The idea of all systems working together to build one facility for everyone involved brought a new discussion to the table.

In May of 2012, they met to form a “steering committee”, where they elected one person to decide how they were going to move forward. There were six communities. The discussions went back and forth. Phil Ross attended every meeting.

The next steps marked the creation of the South Delaware County Regional Water Authority (SDCRWA). The creation of SDCRWA moved forward with the construction of a new water treatment plant that will enhance service for its current customers and extend service to other nearby communities experiencing drinking water system challenges. The meetings and discussions continued for several years.

CHEROKEE NATION PLANTS A SEED

According to Southwest Ledger News, the Cherokee Nation put up the seed money that paid for the feasibility study and the engineering for the project. Don Wilcoxin of Flint Ridge, general manager of SDCRWA, said, “We owe a big debt of gratitude to the Cherokee Nation, without them, we would never have gotten this done.”

Since none of the small communities were able to afford the project on their own, the project allowed the SDCRWA to assist disadvantaged communities in getting the grants and loans needed. Many details went into finding the support and funding. The huge project’s financing came from the support and construction costs of several sources:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Development division
Indian Health Service (IHS)
Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ)
Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB)
South Delaware County Regional Water Authority (SDCRWA)

The financial support and cooperation between these various agencies and local governments make this project unique.

South Delaware County Regional Water Authority

The new treatment plant is below Clear Lake Dam in Flint Ridge, near the old location. The water comes from the Illinois River and Clear Lake in the Flint Ridge Community. The new treatment plant can routinely process two million gallons of raw water per day and more if necessary. The plant also has two new water towers in the Leach and Rose areas, as well as an expansion of the raw water intake capacity at the river.

The five Authority Members are representatives from the Flint Ridge Property Owners Association (POA), The Delaware County Rural Water District #11, along with the towns of Kansas, Colcord and West Siloam Springs make up the newly formed South Delaware County Regional Water Authority.

Although everyone involved had their way of doing things at first, the relationships and cooperation of everyone involved led the project to success. The project finished in December of 2019 and SDCRWA now provides safe, reliable drinking water to several disadvantaged communities in northeastern Oklahoma.

COVID-19 CAUSES A DELAY

In 2020, COVID-19 delayed the process, but eventually, South Delaware County Regional Water Authority received the Aquarius Award for Excellence in System Partnership on December 14, 2020. A National Award given by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). South Delaware County Regional Water Authority was chosen from the 32 nominated projects in 25 states. According to SDCRWA, they are immensely proud of it. It reflects the efforts of the members’ demanding work in the development of this authority.

The program acknowledges DWSRF-funded projects for “exceptional focus” on sustainability, and protection of public health and demonstrates an important level of innovation. Participating states submit a project for consideration each year.

The EPA lists three criteria:

  • The project must address the most serious risk to human health.
  • It must be necessary to ensure compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act
  • It must assist the system most in need, on a per household basis, according to state-determined affordability criteria

The complex and long project was rewarding in the end, thanks to the challenging work and dedication of everyone involved.

The towns of West Siloam Springs, Colcord, Kansas, Flint Ridge, a gated community of approximately 600 customers, Leach, Cookson Hills, and Delaware Rural Water District #11 now have safe drinking water from South Delaware County Regional Water Authority.

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Angela H. Brown is the President and CEO of D’Serv Healthy Hair Care. She has been a cosmetologist for more than 40 years and started D’Serv by utilizing her many years of experience to develop products for her clients dealing with hair loss. She had seen positive results with the products she had created and was ready to get them into salons and stores.

Angela connected with Communities Unlimited (CU) through the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce. She worked with CU to develop and execute a comprehensive business plan with financial projections and a marketing strategy, which took her from a concept to a professional product in hand.

“One thing about Communities Unlimited  is they take you through the steps, but they grow you up fast. You are going to have to put in some work, but they guide you with this as well. They are focused on what you need to be focused on, which is launching your product and staying in business”.

Angela Brown photo

Angela Brown

President & CEO

She received a small business loan from CU that funded the initial launch of her line. “Without Communities Unlimited, I wouldn’t have been able to get all these products out,” says Angela, “I would have been unable to make the next move which would be to turn a dream into reality. They have definitely held my hand and given me that platinum service that I actually needed.” She quickly learned she had to keep putting herself out there until she was recognized and remembered.

Angela started with four products and tools and has grown the D’Serv line to comprise 15 products and tools. D’Serv growth includes products and tools for men’s beards and a variety of hair textures. She has expanded her focus to educating people on how to properly care for their hair texture, whatever it may be. The initial four products started in seven stores and are now in over 20. D’Serv provides a treatment system specializing in thinning, balding, restoration, natural hair, color-treated hair and stresses of all kinds. According to Angela, this treatment system gives instant gratification and eliminates 100% of shedding the same day. She is working with connections to sell D’Serv products in the Caribbean, Tanzania and the United Kingdom.

Angela Brown has taken D'Serv Healthy Hair Care from 4 products to 15, including a new men's line.

Angela had added what she calls the Performance Assistance Consistency Coaching (PACC) to train salon employees in every aspect of the D’Serv experience. She wants everyone who encounters any business that sells or uses D’Serv to give every customer the full D’Serv experience from beginning to end. The PACC is designed to ensure every aspect of D’Serv is understood, from inventory to how each product works. She plans to take the model and replicate it in the international markets where she intends to sell her products.

In 2023 Angela will hire a digital marketing company to get D’Serv more exposure online. She knows that she has products that work and needs to get them in front of as many people as possible.

Mulberry, Arkansas, is in the Arkansas River Valley. The city settled around the time of the Louisiana Purchase. The town got its name from early settlers because of the large mulberry trees lining the riverbanks. According to Mulberry’s History – The City of Mulberry, Arkansas, the city suffered heavily, despite only a few battles nearby. In 1876, things started to improve when the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad began. Thomas A. Carter bought the land that is now on Main Street. The town continued to have issues due to the Great Depression, flooding and the stock market crash of 1929. However, Mulberry pulled through because of The Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the city began to prosper again after World War II.

Mulberry, AR participated in a 3 year Community Sustainability program with CU

The residents of Mulberry enjoy outdoor recreation, and Mulberry has several facilities that provide year-round water sports, fishing, and hunting. The Mulberry River attracts people from all over for canoeing, kayaking, swimming and tubing. Farming has always been a big business in Mulberry. Locals raise livestock and grow hay, soybeans and other food crops.   

In 2019, the city of Mulberry was selected to participate in the Community Sustainability Program with Communities Unlimited (CU). The funding for this three-year initiative comes from the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Community Development Initiative (RCDI) Grant. CU was chosen to serve as the intermediary organization responsible for providing technical assistance to Mulberry and other communities. The overarching goals of the initiative align with the mission of CU: To move rural and under-resourced communities in areas of persistent poverty to sustainable prosperity. 

On October 7, 2019, the city of Mulberry hosted CU for a public announcement about the selection for the Community Sustainability Program. Around 50 people attended the first meeting. Some returned the following month for a Mulberry Community Leadership Team (CLT) workshop. This was the first of a series of monthly workshops to build a leadership team that would serve the community for the next three years.

During those three years, CU’s Senior Community Facilitator, Michelle Viney, led the team in monthly workshops to better their community and develop their roles as local leaders.

As time passed, the Mulberry CLT and Michelle worked to identify assets in six of the eight capital areas. These include Built, Natural, Social, Financial, Political and Cultural. They deep dived into each area and discussed the community’s needs. They talked about the infrastructure of existing buildings, water and sewer systems, broadband and road issues. 

A walk audit was part of the Community Sustainability program in Mulberry, AR

Through the Community Sustainability Program, Michelle guided the community leaders in the creation and process of identifying assets and opportunities for local-wealth growth in their town. She worked with small business owners to assist them with business development and management. She also assisted them with organizing and staying on top of community events and ways to attract visitors to their small town and led the team through a walk-audit. A planning engineer from Crafton Tull conducted the walk-audit. A walk-audit, also called a walkshop, is a site meeting held to walk (or bike) an area of town with a diverse group of community members to identify conditions that either support or create barriers in the built environment regarding the livability and safety of the users. During this audit, they identified the need for accessible wheelchair routes, better bike lanes, curb extensions and more along Mulberry’s Main Street.   

During the three-year program, Michelle kept track of the community’s needs and guided them through ways to make the Mulberry community a safe and happy place to call home.

Mulberry, AR Mayor Gary D. Baxter presents CU's Michelle Viney with a "Key To The City Of Mulberry" plaque

They were all happy about what Communities Unlimited has done for their city.

Mulberry’s Mayor, Gary D. Baxter, stated, “Michelle has been a lifesaver to our city, and we will miss having her.”

He is glad that the town of Mulberry was selected for the Community Sustainability Program.  Michelle explained that although she would not be there in person to meet with them every month, CU would be here if they needed anything. 

The three-year initiative ended on September 28, 2022, during the last town hall meeting with Michelle, Mayor Baxter, and a few community leaders. Mayor Baxter presented Michelle with a plaque that granted her a “Key to the City of Mulberry” for the challenging work and dedication that she has given to them over the last three years.

Emily Brandon is a popular figure in the Jackson, Mississippi, community. Her 17-year background as a public school music teacher gained her the recognition of being a dedicated, results-orientated, passionate teacher and leader with expertise in the continuous improvement and inspiring  students in their music education.  

Emily grew up in Columbus, Mississippi, in a household where both her parents were teachers, and her father loved music. However, she decided to pursue nursing and went to college to become a nurse. Emily is a Type 1 Diabetic, and she wanted to become a nurse to help others.  

She attended all her classes and came close to graduating but found herself drawn more to music. One day she called her parents crying and explained that she wanted to change her major. She said, “I was singing to my patients.” It was good therapy for the patients, but she realized that her “medical calling” was not the right choice. She needed to focus on her musical talent.

Her parents agreed to let her change her major on one condition; she had to add something to her major besides just music, so she tagged on teaching to her studies.

Emily began taking classes from her father and his music teacher. She added her mother to the manager role. She started doing more singing in the church choir, playing the church organ, and participating in community theater, where she landed the role of Dorothy in the musical, The Wiz. After appearing in The Wiz, the family that owned the local newspaper contacted Emily and her family and offered to pay for her voice lessons.

Emily Brandon shows of the keys to her new location where she teaches students in Jackson, Mississippi

She felt as though she was on the right track. She spent the next few years pursuing music and later married.

The couple eventually left Columbus and moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where she taught in Jackson public schools for years but started virtual teaching during the pandemic. She returned to public education but felt unsafe due to being at high risk because of her Type 1 Diabetes. She spoke to an administrator and explained her decision not to stay at the school, and things began to change. Emily said, “They asked if I wanted the role of Head Music Specialist for the district for all virtual students.” She accepted the new position and went from 300 students to 3,000. 

However, to Emily, the number of students all on one screen became overwhelming. She was still not ready to go back in person, so she started brainstorming her options. Emily thought of an idea. She could instruct students in her home. She explained her home’s entryway branched into three different areas and she could use the areas without disturbing her family.  

Emily said, “I posted on Facebook.” She advertised lessons for children in the surrounding areas to come to her house for lessons. Her daughter came up with the name Mrs. B On The Keys, and her friend gave her a baby grand piano. He said, “As long as you use this to teach children, it’s yours.”

The word took off, but she was still unsure what the future held.

Jackson Public School was shocked that she did not sign up for the next semester. She enrolled the students into private classes in her home, and the number of students started to grow. Emily was still not sure that this was the correct approach.  

Although her home had the space and purifiers to keep the air in her home clean, she was uncomfortable with the number of students coming in and out of her family’s home.  

She thought she would feel better if she had a bigger space in a commercial location. After getting a reference, she reached out to Communities Unlimited, Entrepreneurship Management Consultant Marnell Love.  

Emily was concerned about her business affecting her family. “I did not want to get in a hole.” Marnell and Emily worked through the numbers, they produced a plan, and she discussed it with her family. 

Emily and Marnell started researching locations but kept coming up empty. “Everything was expensive,” she explained. 

A friend recommended Highland Village, a high-end shopping center in Jackson, and Emily’s first response was the same, too expensive. After researching and talking to the owner, she realized it might work. 

The next few weeks turned into one hurdle after another. Yes, she could afford it, but the location needed sound-proofing. She could not afford the extra cost. She decided to look elsewhere and started to get discouraged, but Highland Village did not give up. They contacted her again and offered her a space that already had sound-proofing due to another tenant’s needs. She saw this as a blessing, and things started looking up.

Emily Brandon speaks with customers at her grand opening

Emily started discovering that her journey was always one hurtle after another. Still, her perseverance and determination kept her going, and the doors that were closing on her opened to bigger and brighter things. She started to feel like she was in the right places at the correct times because she met people who could work alongside her on her new project. She was also coming into opportunities for the new location, and small miracles seemed to start coming out of the woodwork. So many people were in her corner. Emily moved forward with opening her studio at Highland Village and started interviewing her staff.

Things were coming together, and she could see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

She understands that there will be challenges for her new business. Sometimes panic sets in, and she stresses. She tells herself that she must manage her time and take care of herself, but she is not where she used to be. She looks at her past and realizes how far she has come. “Now I am footloose and fancy-free. I got happy when I started booking people and realized that every day is like Christmas, and I don’t know what I will get,” she said with a big smile on her face. “My only sadness now is when I lose a student; either because they advanced or quit the program, I am starting to learn that this is out of my control.” 

She praises Marnell for his guidance and for not giving up on her when she wanted to give up on herself. She is also grateful to Communities Unlimited for the small business loan that helped expand her business outside her home. “Everything just fell into place,she shared. 

Even though her vision was not always clear, she is happy that each step of her journey led her to a path that brought her to where she is now.

Along with piano, Mrs. B On The Keys offers singing and woodwinds lessons to students

Mrs. B On The Keys opened its doors in April of 2022. Emily teaches piano and voice lessons to kids and even some adults. Lynise Little, Ty James and Calandra Daniels make up the rest of her staff of talented artists. Emily stated, “We are at full capacity.” 

Although she never thought she would leave the school system, she feels like Mrs. B is on the “keys to success” and is excited to see what happens next.

The Indian Creek Youth Camp is located on the banks of Center Hill Lake, not far from Liberty, Tennessee. The Caney River feeds the lake and is a popular recreational area in central Tennessee.  

Indian Creek can accommodate up to 350 people, and in the surrounding hills are permanent residences and vacation homes. Unlike similar locations, the camp does not close for the winter. The cabins are rented to vacationers and for retreats during the winter. The camp and surrounding area are large enough to have their own water system, which services the nearby residences. The camp is a surface water system that requires full treatment of the water it pulls from the Caney River.

Indian Creek Youth Camp is located on the banks of Center Hill Lake in central Tennessee

Herb White ran the system for more than 20 years. Herb’s duties were not limited to just the water system. He managed and performed maintenance all over the camp, so his time with the water system was often limited. 

The documentation for the water system became outdated along with the aging infrastructure. The Tennessee Department of Environment Commission (TDEC) regulates the system. The Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) were written on a whiteboard. The system must sample its water, but those samples were not regularly taken. There was no set sampling schedule. Source water assessments weren’t performed. The water operator usually only visited the office once a month to complete paperwork and perform bacteriological sampling to monitor for the presence of coliform bacteria and pathogenic bacteria. The system fell out of compliance with state and federal regulations.  

In 2020, Herb decided he was ready to retire. He began working with his replacement, Ben Copely. Herb mentored Ben to take over all of his responsibilities, at the place that Ben has known since his childhood.  

“I came here as a camper years ago when I was a kid,” Ben said. “As a teen, I started working here with Herb White. I did maintenance one year, and one year I worked with the horses.”  

Before Herb called him about the job, Ben had moved across the country, from Florida to Idaho. By that time, Ben had a diverse background in construction and maintenance, so he was the top choice to replace Herb. Ben would need to become a certified water operator to take over all of Herb’s responsibilities.  

As the transition began, the water system received a state order. The system was out of compliance because of a lack of proper testing and documentation. The state order noted that the system was not sampling regularly. It was not performing tasks related to the Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule (LT2ESWTR) and Revised Total Coliform Rule (RTCR).  

Indian Creek was referred to Communities Unlimited (CU) for assistance in regaining compliance. Ben said he was skeptical that such an organization could provide so much for no cost to the water system. 

“I didn’t believe it was true that someone could help decipher everything,” he said. He checked with other nearby systems that had worked with CU and heard high praise from each one. Reassured, he was ready to meet with Annie.   

Annie Chiodo, Tennessee State Coordinator, took on the project. While discussing the issues with Herb White, Annie learned that Ben needed assistance in obtaining his water operator certification.  

"I took the test the first time and failed it, so I started again with her. Annie was very supportive, and she'd ask me questions and answered questions when I had them."
Ben Copley
Indian Creek Youth Camp

Annie began tutoring Ben and offered basic training to prepare him for his water operator certification test. Once he completed the required water operator course, Ben planned to retake the certification exam in May of 2020.  

Unfortunately, COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the exam. The exam is only offered twice a year, so his next opportunity to take the exam would not be until November of 2020.  

“It was really disheartening to have that taken away,” Ben said. Annie worked with Ben to keep his knowledge fresh and prepared for the next exam. Ben said he continued to study hard, even spending most of a family vacation studying. Ben knew the stakes. 

“It’s super important that I pass the test and that I deal with the state and not forget anything or mess up something,” Ben said. “If I make a mistake, it could cost us.”

Herb White and Ben Copley hold Ben's new Water Operator Certification

The exam was held in November as scheduled, and Ben took the test. He informed Annie that he had passed and was now a certified water operator. The certification paved the way for him to take over the water system and Herb to retire in 2021. 

After management of Indian Creek fully transitioned to Ben, there was still a lot of work to get the water system back into compliance.  

One of the issues to be addressed was monitoring the water source. When Annie requested the plan from Indian Creek, she received a single page with the sample plan, maps of the system and collection points. 

The system lacked a cross-connection control plan and a Watershed or Source Water Protection Plan to outline how to alleviate existing and future threats to the water supply.  

As COVID-19 swept the country, Annie provided personal protection equipment (PPE) to the camp’s personnel through the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP). 

“Annie made sure we had PPE,” Ben said. “She got us some masks when no one else had them.” 

Herb officially retired on January 1, 2021, and Ben became the official certified water operator for Indian Creek Youth Camp.

CU's Annie Chiodo inspects systems at Indian Creek Youth Camp

Annie worked with Ben to develop a Corrective Action Plan to satisfy the state regulators. Annie guided him in creating a Cross-Connection Control Plan, a Sampling Plan, a Watershed or Source Water Protection Plan, Monthly Operational Report (MOR), and approval from TDEC. The system prepared proper documentation of SOPs, as the previous instructions for the water system did not address all of the system’s needs.

Ben praised the assistance Indian Creek has received from Annie and Communities Unlimited.  

“What I love about Annie is she’s always there to encourage you and keep you on track,” he said. “For me, it’s fantastic to have Annie looking over my shoulder and Communities Unlimited. My biggest fear is that Annie retires.”  

Annie continues to mentor Ben as he navigates issues that arise with the system and assist in finding solutions that fit the needs of the camp.

The neighboring areas of Texas Rio Grande Valley, near the United States and Mexico border, have faced complicated water issues for years. According to the article from the Texas Tribune, colonias on the border struggle with decades-old water issues; their treatment facilities, pipes, wells, and septic tanks are too old, and the communities cannot afford to purchase new ones. The residents have to create ways to access water resources for their families. They sometimes rely on bottled water to obtain clean water. The word “colonia” means neighborhood in Spanish, which is what these communities have become

Falcon Rural Water Supply Corporation is a small nonprofit corporation in rural western Starr and southeastern Zapata County along US Hwy 83 parallel to the Rio Grande River.

Falcon Rural WSC is the nearest water supply corporation to these small communities. Several families depend on Falcon Rural Water Supply Corporation for safe drinking water. 

The corporation began on September 6, 1966, as a nonprofit corporation that provides rural water service to approximately 1,300 low-income colonia families and businesses living and operating within Starr and Zapata County. Most families reside in Zapata County in colonias, Salineno, Los Arrieros, Falcon Heights, Lopeno and Chihuahua Ranch.   

In the spring of 2021, Falcon Rural WSC discovered that they must relocate their water lines in Zapata County to accommodate a Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) project. The project engineer approached Communities Unlimited (CU) to assist in funding the relocation. After researching, CU determined that the corporation might be eligible for funding if the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development (USDA-Rural Development) could verify that its current Community Loan Fund (CLF) was suitable for takeout from the new project funding. 

The entire existing water system infrastructure funding came from the USDA-Rural Development. Since its creation 54 years ago, Falcon Rural WSC has grown to 1,367 water connections. USDA-Rural Development funded most of the water supply corporations in Starr County. Recently Falcon Rural WSC and others have relied on CU’s Community Loan Fund for emergency repairs to restore service and for use as interim monies to fund the engineering costs. CU has a long history of working with these communities, colonia’s funding resources are limited, and the USDA-Rural Development 306c plan can make their projects affordable by providing grants. CU has a good working relationship with Zapata County and has been an assistance provider to Texas for some time. Colonias in Texas have a long-standing negative connotation due to its residents’ poor quality of life because of the lack of infrastructure along the border for many years.  

One of the USDA-Rural Development requirements is for the applicant to secure private right-of-way from potential customers or owners, which makes it challenging for the applicant to complete the acquisition of easements and properties. This is not a popular element of satisfying the conditions to reach the project bidding stage. The Texas Department of Highways and Transportation (TXDOT) is widening U.S. Highway 83 and expects all utilities to relocate their services at their cost before beginning construction. Thanks to the USDA-Rural Development recommendations, most, if not all, of the waterlines and equipment are located in the private right-of-way. The water supply corporation hired Dan Campos, P.E. from Harlingen, Texas, to prepare the engineering and secure new easements. The cost of relocating the water lines and assets associated with the water system has reached $2 million. Thanks to the USDA-Rural Development policy, the project is over 95% reimbursable from TXDOT.   

However, the keyword is “reimbursable.”  How many small water supply corporations have $2 million in reserve to fund the project?  

This brought in the Communities Unlimited Lending Team, Bryn Bagwell, Director of Lending, Kevin Tillman, Small Business Lender, and Dan Campos, P.E. After the technical assistance provider attended numerous meetings with the TXDOT consultants, project engineer, and CU’s Environmental Team, a collaboration formed between all involved parties. They agreed on front portions of the construction cost in advance of reimbursement. The key was developing a disbursement schedule that specified when and how the disbursements would come and when to expect a refund. This integrated project team approach in working with the engineer, community, city, and agencies ensured a positive flow of transition monies to complete the project.

The waterline relocation project will allow the corporation to make the needed waterline adjustments so that TXDOT can move forward with its proposed roadway construction. The project will also replace approximately 27,390 feet of the water line that has been in service for around 49 years. This will allow Falcon Rural WSC to assist the communities better.

The CU loan allows the corporation to complete the necessary planning, design, and land acquisition tasks needed to close the previous colonia Water Improvement Project that USDA-Rural Development previously funded.

Communities Unlimited, South Texas Coordinator Raul Gonzalez, began working with Falcon Rural Water Supply Corporation to revise easement policies to assist the project engineer in relocating the water line. CU also provided a deferred payment plan to address the slow collection practice that caused significant concern with securing funding.  Raul assisted Falcon WSC with the USDA-Rural Development and Letter of Conditions (LOC) and worked throughout the process to ensure that all requirements received attention.

CU's Raul Gonzalez meeting with Falcon Rural Water Supply Corporation

In the summer of 2022, CU worked with Falcon Rural WSC Project Engineer Dan Campos to verify that all invoices went through acceptance and approval by TXDOT. Dan Compos and CU’s Lending Team met via Zoom to ensure that all reimbursement requirements were complete.  

Raul stated that the consulting engineer went far beyond his role as project designer and worked directly with management and the board president to meet the conditions for funding the project. He also ensured that the project met all TXDOT rules for reimbursement requirements.  Raul has been the primary contact for funding issues, Financial Management, and Technical Assistance. 

The technical assistance providers coordinated and attended the loan closing to ensure the board members understood the project flow’s scope and terms of constructability. The last part of the project development needs was to revise water supply corporation service policies as necessary in advance of securing new right-of-way documents. The technical assistance provided sample USDA-Rural Development, approved easement forms, and denial forms to notify owners that refuse easements will not be able to secure water service in the future until they give an easement and pay for the relocation of the water lines. 

As of the summer of 2022, CU and USDA-Rural Development, Dan Campos, P.E., and the board president are engaged in providing short-term and long-term funding needs and technical assistance in the colonias. With everyone’s continued participation, the project will stay on track to assist these communities with their needs. 

Communities Unlimited received a grant from Cargill’s Black Farmer’s Initiative to purchase trailers for growers in three states to increase their farm’s capacity. 

Cargill’s goal is to build a more equitable economy. They plan to accomplish this by putting producers at the center of solutions, working to increase the participation, profitability, and productivity of Black farmers, ranchers and growers. Cargill worked with several groups across the United States that formed a partnership to increase access to markets, capital, information and technology for Black farmers.  

According to www.cargill.com, in the United States, Black Farmers make up less than 2% of the country’s 3.4 million farmers, and there has been a 90% decrease in Black farm ownership. In response, and in keeping with Cargill’s long-standing commitment to farmers in the US and worldwide, Cargill launched the Black Farmer Equity Initiative. The focus is on collaborating with producers to make equity across the food and agriculture system a reality. 

Healthy Foods Coordinator, Brenda Williams worked with several small-scale farmers to provide them with trailers, thanks to Cargill’s Black Farmers Initiative. The trailers were purchased from Ouachita Trailer Sales, LLC in Crossett, Arkansas. Some farmers have been farming for over 10 years and still did not have the equipment to do their job effectively. Most farmers used inadequate equipment to transport their products from their farms to market. The trailers the farmers received changed that.

Burthel Thomas, a watermelon farmer from Wabbaskea, Arkansas, is one of the recipients who received a trailer. Before receiving his new trailer, Mr. Thomas had to ensure that he covered all his products before hauling them to a new location. He struggled to haul enough products from the farm to the market, using his trailer.

Burthel Thomas picking up his trailer from Ouachita Trailer Sales

Before working with Brenda on the initiative, Mr. Thomas had to set aside extra time to prepare his watermelons for the journey to Crossett, AR. In most cases, he arrived at his destination with damage to at least half his load. Thomas explained that weather has always been a big issue, so now that he has a trailer with a roof, he can transport more safely and twice as many watermelons as before.  

Watermelons have not always been a part of his life. Still, after retiring from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Resource Conservation Service, he wanted something to do with his time, as well as something he could leave to his family. “The planets lined up with the solar system, and I stumbled into watermelons,” Mr. Thomas said, laughing. He started with 5 acres of watermelons and currently has 300 acres. 

During his career, he gained the conservation skills that assisted him in making his watermelon operation environmentally friendly. Mr. Thomas said that he has a rhythm to his method, which includes lying down the plastic mulch in the spring to get a proper soil consistency, lying down plastic in the winter so that the moisture stays until summer, and finally buying seeds that will plant through the plastic. Mr. Thomas said, “Every sustainable practice I could put on my farm, I have signed up for it.” 

Mr. Thomas explained, “I’m a one-man operation; I have to make sure that it is done right and there is a perfection to raising melon.” In addition to the watermelons, Mr. Thomas added 30 beehives to increase the pollination of the watermelons. With the unpredictable weather, he wanted to ensure that the watermelons had enough fruit, were healthy, and stayed in good shape; he then used the honey from the bees to pass around to his friends and family. “I have little jars, and I pass it out,” he said. 

Mr. Thomas is happy to have received the new trailer. It has pushed him further into the next step of his business. It has made effective use of his time, and he can transport his product to its destination more safely. 

Liz Bell-Simpson is the Director of WSBZ Farms in Little Rock, AR. The farm focuses on making the maximum positive effort for their community. Its mission is to outreach to socially disadvantaged farmers, ranchers, veterans, and children in the community. The nonprofit organization teaches children to learn conservation, and environmental health while studying in their own garden bed(s).

They raise a variety of produce, including eggplant, cucumbers, squash, okra, cabbage, and potatoes and work with local food pantries and libraries to provide healthy products.

Just like Burthel Thomas, Liz and her crew were hauling these products to rural communities outside of the Little Rock area, on a trailer that did not have a cover.

Some of the products were arriving at the destinations damaged and not in the best condition.

A representative from WSBZ farms picking up their new trailer

Liz started talking to her crew about needing a new trailer, right around the time that Brenda Williams contacted her about the Cargill Black Farmer’s initiative. Liz thought this was perfect timing.

The trailer has assisted WSBZ Farms, to expand and get visibility to the community and expand to other states, including Texas. She has recently collaborated with a rice producer and added rice to her list of healthy foods.

Liz Bell-Simpson and her family putting their new trailer to work delivering produce

Dwight Johnson, an entrepreneur from Crossett, Arkansas, has always been passionate about preparing good food. As a kid, he experimented in the kitchen. Dwight continued his hobby, cooking for his family. He usually has his hands deep in meal prep when he isn’t working his day job. The only thing that makes him happier than cooking is seeing the smiles on the faces of his loved ones as they enjoy his meals. 

Dwight has worked at his day job for 15 years, but something was missing. At this point in his life, he had hopes and dreams for his family and wanted more for them. He didn’t have much saved for the future. Dwight has a 401K, but not much in terms of a good retirement, which was unsettling. Dwight worried about how his family would survive down the road.

The idea of working for himself had always been a dream for Dwight.

He wanted to leave a legacy for his family and give back to the community. He ate at a food truck specializing in seafood in Louisiana one day, and an idea came to him. Dwight remembered standing in a long line to order. After finally making it to the front of the line, ordering, and eating, he thought, “I could do this.” He sat down and talked to his family about opening up his own seafood trailer. 

Dwight thought about the idea and what it could mean for him and his family. Dwight and his wife Shante repeatedly talked about the idea, and one discussion led to another. Before Dwight knew it, he came up with his own Cajun recipes. Dwight thought about his Auntie Toyce Newton and how much she loved to cook, so he let her taste his product. Toyce’s reaction made Dwight realize that he was on the right track. She said, “Nephew, you have a product.” Dwight took this as a sign that his idea was the right one. 

Bic's Cajun Kitchen Logo
Dwight and Shante Johnson own Bic's Cajun Kitchen

At first, Dwight’s business process consisted of making the product, posting pictures through his Facebook page, and selling to friends and family. Before he knew it, word spread, and he was running out of room in his home. Dwight and Shante needed more space to keep up with the orders. His aunt happened to work for a local nonprofit and reached out to Communities Unlimited on Dwight’s behalf. 

Dwight and Shante began working with Communities Unlimited’s Lending Team. Dwight had already invested in some inventory and equipment for the food trailer. He needed a loan to purchase the trailer and get the business started.

Bic's Cajun Kitchen Facebook Announcement
The Johnson's announced their purchase of a new food truck on Facebook and received 371 likes and 165 comments.

The Johnsons then got introduced to Communities Unlimited’s Entrepreneurship Team. They started working with Dale Rutherford, Senior Management Consultant. Dale assisted Dwight and Shante with a business plan, and they prepared for the opening of “Bic’s Cajun Kitchen”. Dwight used “Bic” as part of the name for the business because it was what his mother called him as a kid. He explained that only she could call him that, but he is more than honored to use it in his legacy. 

Bic’s Cajun Kitchen has a prime spot in an open area on Main Street in Crossett, Arkansas. The end of the lot has a stage that will hold live music events. Dwight’s business is booming with a lot of repeat customers. His business consists of pre-orders and walk-ups on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Once he had a plan, Dwight’s dream became reality quickly, and he held to his promise to give back. Dwight had an opportunity to do a seafood spread for a “Make-A-Wish” patient and her family.

Dwight’s vision is now in full force, and he has plans to grow the business. Bic’s Cajun Kitchen participated in its first public event, Christmas in Crossett.

He is grateful for Communities Unlimited and the work the lending team and Dale did to assist him in his dream of creating a legacy for his family. 

Bic's Cajun Kitchen in Crossett, AR
PPP Loans

Some groups were overlooked when the CARES Act was first passed. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, followed and included additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Changes were made to guidelines to impact those with the greatest need. Then the PPP Extension Act of 2021 was passed, extending the deadline of the Paycheck Protection Program, or until funding was no longer available. Communities Unlimited (CU) made 290 PPP loans totaling over $4 million to childcare centers, water and sewer systems, small-scale farmers and small businesses in nine states.

Moma Keta’s Childcare is in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Makethia was determined to keep Moma Keta’s doors open. Makethia decided that the struggling parents that counted on her for childcare and the four employees that depended on her for a paycheck were more important. She chose not to take a salary, so she could pay her employees and keep the doors open. Communities Unlimited started reaching out to the Arkansas Childhood Association to help daycare owners in Arkansas. Makethia received $7,040 in a forgivable loan under the PPP program.

Cherry Tree Rural Water District (RWD) in Stilwell, Oklahoma, saw an approximately 40% reduction in revenues because of COVID-19. The revenue loss was primarily because of the early closing of schools in the middle of March 2020 and the loss of jobs, with 90% of the households served are members of the Cherokee Nation and the system already in a persistent poverty county. Cherry Tree RWD is working with limited staff, one full-time office clerk, and one full-time water operator. The office clerk has had regular video conferences with CU staff to determine the best course of action in unprecedented times. Cherry Tree RWD district learned from CU that they were eligible for the PPP Loan and applied and received $30,730 to aid them in continuing to provide safe, clean drinking water to their customers.

Calvin Head is the Director of Mileston Cooperative, a Black-owned farm cooperative in Tchula, Mississippi. An entity had advertised the PPP loan to the cooperative. They required the farmers, most of whom do not have computers or broadband, to upload their documents to a portal. There was no one to assist them and answer their questions. The farmers became frustrated and said, “forget about it.” CU stepped in and offered an alternative, a person rather than a portal. Someone to answer questions and assist in preparing documents.

Allison Bruning and her husband Delfin Espinosa started Academic Warriors, an online private school for children with learning disabilities and/or who are on the autism spectrum or have ADHD. Allison and Delfin had applied when the first and second rounds of PPP loans opened but were told they didn’t meet the requirements. Academic Warriors has experienced many difficulties since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. They ended up having to let all of their teachers go. A representative from US Small Business Administration (SBA) emailed Allison letting her know that because of the changes to guidelines, Academic Warriors may now qualify for a PPP loan and gave Amanda the contact information for Communities Unlimited. She applied and was approved. The funds allowed Academic Warriors to pay teachers, replace equipment and help cover operating expenses.

The City of Magnolia, Mississippi, wanted to extend city sewer service to all its residents but did not have the financial resources to do so without outside funding. The homes in the area of North Street had always used septic systems. The septic systems were failing, and some residents had pipes that went directly into ditches. Residents were afraid their children would get sick from the raw sewage if they played in the yard. Magnolia needed a long-term solution.

They asked Communities Unlimited to assess the unserved area and determine what would be needed to connect all 30 homes in the area of North Street to city sewer. Communities Unlimited assessment assisted engineers in developing the most effective option for the Magnolia. It also aided the city in receiving the funding needed to cover the cost of connecting every home to city sewer.

Communities Unlimited’s part in the project was made possible by the Rural Community Development (RCD) program. RCD serves small communities in rural areas mainly comprised of low-income residents who do not have access to safe, clean water and sanitary wastewater disposal and often do not have indoor plumbing. The RCD program is one of six programs within the Office of Community Services (OCS) located within the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) part of the US Department of Health and Humans Services (HHS).

Communities Unlimited believes one of the most effective ways to accomplish our mission is with partners. The Amarillo Area Foundation began asking community organizations what their community needed to thrive. Puff Niegos, local Philanthropist, Linda Crank, a vice president of Happy State Bank, and Clay Stribling, President and CEO, of the Amarillo Area Foundation, were instrumental in bringing Communities Unlimited to the area.

The Amarillo Area Foundation chose to invite Communities Unlimited to open our first office to offer all of our services to Amarillo and the 26 rural counties in the Texas Panhandle. Happy State Bank offered office space they had vacated because they built a full-service bank across the street. Linda compares Communities Unlimited to a drop of water in a pond that ripples outward. CU held a ribbon cutting with the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce, inviting clients, area organizations and banks. Cocina On The Go catered the event, owned and operated by Anna Lisa Ramos, one of Communities Unlimited’s first small business clients in Amarillo. The six banks including Happy State Bank, that make up the Amarillo Area Foundation Panhandle Financial Collaborative (PFC) were part of a panel on obtaining capital for small businesses.

We have since announced our partnership with the T.L.L. Temple Foundation Rural Opportunity Catalyst for East Texas Initiative (ROC-ET). The foundation recognized that many people in East Texas could not access life-changing economic opportunities. The rural people in East Texas needed access to a CDFI and small business consulting services. They chose Communities Unlimited and a PeopleFund to fill the gap.

One of Communities Unlimited’s first partnerships was the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, Inc. (RCAP). We continue to add new partnerships every year including the Partners for Rural Transformation (PRT) and many others extending our services beyond our seven-state service to be part of building healthy communities, healthy businesses and healthy families.

The CARES Act initially overlooked small-scale minority farmers. When the second round of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan was announced, the guidelines were changed to impact those with the greatest need. Communities Unlimited called small-scale farmers in the Delta and offered assistance.

Calvin Head is the Director of Mileston Cooperative, a Black-owned farm cooperative in Tchula, MS. An entity had advertised the PPP loan to the cooperative. They required the farmers, most of whom do not have computers or broadband, to upload their documents to a portal. There was no one to assist them and answer their questions. The farmers became frustrated and said, “forget about it.” CU stepped in and offered an alternative a person rather than a portal. Someone to answer questions and assist in preparing documents.

Debra Lockard never even considered applying for a PPP loan because she didn’t think she knew how and wouldn’t be able to do it. CU told her not to worry. Someone would be with her every step of the way.

15 small-scale farmers in the Mississippi River Delta received PPP loans from Communities Unlimited. It may not be a big number, but the funds those farmers received meant they got to keep their land. They were able to get to plant and grow another season. They have the opportunity because of the funding to fill the gaps in a food system that has depended on transporting produce thousands of miles across the country or from other countries. It means creating jobs in communities where jobs were scarce before many businesses closed.