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My family’s chosen use of vacation days, our ancestral home, the land of our people could be considered a hamlet by even the most generous of standards. Helena, Arkansas, is the former home of a few family members and my most frequent travel destination. Despite its lack of movie theaters, bowling alley, and Starbucks, there really is a wealth of entertainment opportunities. One can people-watch at the Wal-Mart Supercenter, eat at the Subway inside the Wal-Mart Supercenter, or even cruse around the statue of the dough boy at the center of town, just a few short miles from the Wal-Mart Supercenter. It’s a barrel of laughs, right?
One particular instance that comes to mind when thinking of Helena in its essence is a family outing to what was then the only Mexican restaurant in town. This trip was particularly dreary, for it was my spring break, and I am deathly allergic to the oak pollen that seems to be extremely potent around the beginning of April. Still a little drowsy from the Benadryl I had taken earlier, I sat with my family as we ordered. Once the waiter delivered our respective meals, my father sat puzzled, glaring at what was supposed to be a chili relleno. The nearly hand-sized, amorphous sub-species of food startlingly resembled a large rat, crispy curled tail and all. We all fell silent in awe of the seemingly inedible being sitting in front of us. Poking it with a fork only seemed to anger it, for it oozed an unidentifiable white liquid. Needless to say, the rat of sorts was returned and we were wary of the restaurant from then on.
In all actuality, despite the lack-luster location, my trips to Helena do mean quite a bit to me, for they provide the rare opportunity for me to spend time with my non-mediate family. Though, it’s true that there is limited entertainment, and (believe it or not) on my last visit I went to Wal-Mart a total of six times over the course of a four day trip, the crime-infested, racially tense, and somewhat poverty-stricken town is making positive strides. Just recently, I became privy to the fact that the elite in Helena are giving to a positive, beneficial, and down-right heart-warming cause. I read a book by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers. One chapter in this book focused on a fairly new educational program called KIPP, or the “Knowledge is Power Program.” It is generally located in under-privileged areas, like Helena. It’s completely funded by individuals and organizations, independent of state funding. Traditionally the results seen in children that attend these schools, most of whom were previously performing under the respective standards, are astounding.
Again, while in Helena my family and I were out to eat at a seemingly safer restaurant. There, I saw a school bus full of children in a powder blue uniform driving downtown (a term used loosely to describe what the “happening” place to be once was- see photos). I saw the “KIPP” logo on their uniforms and my jaw dropped. I thought this was precisely what this depressing little town needs: Hope for the future. I was suddenly overcome with a sense of pride for the hamlet I was once almost embarrassed of. There are still, to this day, no movie theaters (as a matter of fact, there is only one video store), no shopping malls, or general hang outs. But who knows? Maybe one child, having gone through the KIPP School will have a fire in his or her heart to make Helena something great again.