May 2018
Homeplace & Community

Black Belt Resurgence

The Alabama-Tombigbee Regional Commission brings hope to the poor living in a 10,000-square-mile area.

 

ATRC Director John Clyde Riggs, left, chats with Camden Mayor Phil Creswell.

During the darkest days of the Depression in America, millions suffered with little hope for the future because the country was basically broke.

Bread and soup lines in big cities kept people going during the 1930s, while one of the most popular songs of the day was "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"

Many had to fend for themselves. Those lucky enough to live on farms could grow their own food. Others depended on help from relatives, churches or friends for support.

Those days may be long gone, but senior citizens with vivid memories haven’t forgotten what it was like to squeeze pennies in an effort to survive.

John Clyde Riggs heard tales of what it was like when many people could only dream of better days ahead.

Little did he know at the time that, one day, he would be in a position to see that guardian angels would be headed in the direction of those most in need.

Those angels arrived in the form of organizations that banded together to help those who could not help themselves.

ATRC Assistant Director Frank Dobson examines records at the organization’s headquarters in Camden.

 
   

The Alabama-Tombigbee Regional Commission has been one of them and, for over 40 years, it’s helped to relieve the plights of the poor living in a 10,000-square-mile area the size of Rhode Island.

Riggs directs those organizations from a modest facility across the street from the Wilcox County Courthouse. Inside is a small, but dedicated, staff, who works hard to help see these important services are available.

An aggressive nutrition program is a good example of how important it is in the 10 counties and 47 towns comprising the ATRC.

"Some will eat half their delivered meals for lunch and then save the other half for later in the day," said Riggs, who has personally delivered meals and seen the gratitude in the eyes of recipients.

ATRC will be 50 years old next year. Special celebrations may not be held, though, because, as has been the case in the past, frills often are set aside to take care of more important daily activities.

Adding up all of the available ATRC programs might take a while because there are so many of them. Recipients don’t need a score card, however, because the programs are familiar throughout the sprawling region.

 

Staff members Patti Gibbs, left, and Evelyn Agee take a short breather at the Alabama-Tombigbee Regional Commission headquarters in Camden.

Take the free lunch program, for instance. It isn’t restricted to Alabama by any means, but those who are involved have reason to smile each time the doorbell rings and volunteers are outside with food in their hands.

"Our volunteers serve 1,500 meals a day either to homes or nutrition centers across the region," Riggs said. "Hundreds more are on waiting lists and will be added as soon as they can be included in the program."

He and his staff would love to serve more of the poor during the week, but it’s budgeted. That’s a financial fact of life across our country.

The rapid growth of programs administered through ATRC is apparent; even a cursory glance can see the importance to those being served each day.

When the food program was created in 1997, it was budgeted at about $6 million annually. Today, it’s $14 million; a clear indicator of just how popular and crucial the programs are.

Riggs said the annual economic impact in the 10 counties serviced by ATRC is estimated at about $100 million a year. It’s an amazing bottom-line achievement for the organization.

Rural residents are charged nominal fees to ride in vehicles to get to medical facilities, stores and other places of importance.

"Our vans don’t operate without riders helping to pay their share," Riggs said.

He is well aware that many can’t afford a car or are in age groups precluding that.

Riggs said the rural transportation program currently operates in four of the 10 counties: Clarke, Conecuh, Monroe and Wilcox. One of its most important roles is taking patients for dialysis.

In four of the counties, transportation for the mentally impaired or handicapped also is provided as part of the program.

A relatively new, but warmly welcomed, program within the ATRC family involves a Medicaid waiver designed to provide services for seniors and those who are disabled.

It is committed to helping people retain their independence by providing services that allow them to live in their own homes instead of nursing homes.

ATRC Assistant Director Frank Dobson, left, shares a laugh with K.C. Pang, director of corporate affairs for GD Cooper USA.

 

"Without that particular program, it could cost up to $60,000 a year, but we’re keeping people at home for about $12,000 annually," Riggs said. "We are proud of being able to do that."

Other programs are just as vital, but latching onto them isn’t easy because so many are seeking one.

The starting point is to apply for grants and that’s not easy. It takes skilled workers to obtain one and that can be a problem. Many groups similar to ATRC work hard to prepare grants throughout the year.

Problems facing the region are slowly being resolved and those who manage the programs don’t kid themselves thinking there will be any overnight solution.

"What we have is a challenging area with high unemployment and poverty, but we’re working hard to turn it around," said Riggs, who is familiar with annual reports showing Wilcox County has the highest jobless rate in Alabama year after year.

He was born in Wilcox County in 1950 and has spent most of his life helping others in the region. To say he’s been a born leader would be quite an understatement.

In addition to his ATRC leadership, he also spent eight years as a member of the Wilcox County Commission as well as one term on the Camden City Council.

Riggs has a bachelor’s degree in Science from Auburn University and has accumulated years of experience during his lengthy ATRC leadership.

Hard work hasn’t been a stranger to Riggs because he was involved in construction as well as a local homebuilding company.

He and wife Sandra have two sons living in Auburn. Jason is a lawyer and Michael is involved in water management. They have three grandchildren.

 

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.