How “Starkville Strong” Evolved from a Small Facebook Group to a County-wide Community Organization

Starkville Strong Team
Some of the community members involved in creating Starkville Strong. 

By Karie Pinnix

In March of 2020, Jimmy Redd observed how businesses, restaurants owners and service workers dealt with the implications of COVID-19. As a musician who has performed within several bars and restaurants, Redd witnessed his close friends who were in the service industry complain about not having the means to pay their electricity or rent before the arrival of federal stimulus checks. Week after week, COVID-19 began to shut down more restaurants in a usually bustling, vibrant Starkville, then empty of patrons and students.

Redd, also a lecturer of literature and creative writing at Mississippi State University, felt helpless watching his peers struggle financially. Like other areas in the U.S., he noticed how even before the pandemic, many families were already living between paycheck to paycheck. However, he noticed servers in restaurants bearing the brunt of the crisis.

“And so, whenever the pandemic struck, I mean, they all had to close down, and then the servers and everything were there,” said Redd. “You're worried that they're not going to get their next paycheck. They didn't know when [the restaurants] were going to open back up again.”

Many business owners also expressed the same concern. According to a joint survey conducted by the Mississippi Economic Council, Mississippi Manufacturers Association and Mississippi Economic Development Council in April of 2020, 88% of Mississippi’s businesses have been negatively affected by COVID-19. 60% of the businesses were considered essential, and 60% were also small businesses.

At that time, Redd believed more needed to be done in Starkville to help businesses and the service industry stay afloat in the area during that time. Using Facebook as a tool to recruit others to help within the community, he formed the group Starkville Strong with the initial goal of supporting Starkville’s small businesses and restaurants during the start of the pandemic.

Starkville Strong Post

Translating 'Starkville Strong' to Action 

At first, Redd and volunteers arranged care packages to individuals in the service industry who were directly affected by the loss of work from the pandemic. These care packages would consist of gift cards from Starkville restaurants such as 1883 Smokehouse and Casa Bravo Mexican Restaurant. Over several months, other restaurants such as Bulldog Burger Co. and Harveys donated meals to the group.

In May, Redd wanted to become more involved with the Facebook group, but with the responsibilities of a family and a full-time job, acting as the main administrator for the group became challenging. To continue the group’s mission, Redd switched his position as administrator to Brandi Herrington, the co-owner of the Starkville-owned art business Dunkington.

As the Facebook group grew bigger, Starkville Strong began to tackle more issues other than food insecurity among families, to other issues, such as temporary housing and job placement in Starkville.

“We switched to basically meeting the immediate needs of people in Starkville to the best of our ability,” said Herrington. “So, anything that has to do with quality of life, and that would be temporary housing, transportation, food, hygiene, health, all those things.”

Many individuals who were homeless in Starkville have now received help from Starkville Strong. From the start of the organization to January of 2021, 26 homeless cases were addressed, which led to Herrington, volunteers and the individuals in need of housing to communicate with MUTEH, a Mississippi agency that conducts records of homelessness in the state and helps organizations find housing for homeless individuals.

As Herrington conducts several calls to housing authorities in Starkville, each homeless person stays in a temporary space such as Days Inn and Suites until the necessary paperwork is completed. In a process that usually takes two to three weeks for a homeless individual to receive permanent shelter, with the help of organization, housing is found much faster. As of now, 20 of 26 homeless individuals that Starkville Strong has encountered have permanent housing.

Struggling Through the Pandemic 

The organization also helps with rent and utilities assistance, an aspect that stood out to Nicole Chapman. For Chapman, a merchandiser at Lowe’s and occasional promotional model, the organization seemed unique by how Golden Triangle residents seemed to reach out to one another on the Facebook group to provide assistance for the Starkville community.

Chapman remembers losing her job at Gordmans, a departmental store near Highway 12 of Starkville, now closed due to the pandemic. When thinking about the date, Chapman smiles and tries to remember, a hint of recollection on her face as she finds the right time.

“March of last year,” Chapman recalls, laughing. “I’ll never forget.”

Unemployed and anxious, Chapman stayed at her house at that time with her 8-year-old son, Tyson, trying to keep her mind off of the rising COVID-19 numbers that spring. With finding activities to do with her son and buying groceries when she felt a strong need to, Chapman took precautions when necessary. She also realized that she needed help paying her monthly rent during that time.

Chapman had heard about Starkville Strong before and had planned on becoming a member, but last year is when she became more active on the Facebook group. That’s when she saw a post about United Way of North Central Mississippi assisting individuals with financial assistance for rent by their Emergency Management Fund. After submitting an application, Chapman was approved for $200 financial assistance in February of 2021.

After receiving aid from the organization and having to face financial difficulties, Chapman credits the help from the volunteers for Starkville Strong in allowing her to not take for granted her basic needs.

“You know, it could be worse. I mean, some people are actually sleeping outside, and I have a house,” said Chapman. “I think it’s really good that Starkville, you know, has those types of people that care that much about their community.”

Starkville Strong Post 2

Growing 'Starkville Strong' 

After May, Starkville Strong began to have a direct impact on several areas of Starkville. As they became more known, more community organizations and businesses began to take notice of the organization’s efforts. The organization, first depending on the Facebook group’s members during a time when resources were scarce, now had the support from community leaders and well-known nonprofit organizations in the Golden Triangle area such as OBSERVS.

Initiatives that Starkville Strong has taken since last year include a community event called pantry hours, where volunteers of the organization would go to one of Starkville’s food pantries or nonprofit organizations such as the J.L. King Center and give away bags of perishable and dry goods to Starkville residents.

To aid with Starkville’s need for food security, Herrington noticed how there were two vacant, unused small food pantries built by the local Boy Scouts of America chapter at Starkville’s First United Methodist Church and the MSU Wesley Foundation. Volunteers took initiative to use these two vacant small food pantries around Starkville and fill them with nonperishable food items such as Ramen Noodles, Jiffy Mix and several canned meats and vegetables three to four times a day in May. In the summer, the organization partnered with Day One of Mississippi State University to allow MSU freshmen to build three additional small, updated pantries equipped with a transparent door, fresh white paint, and a small roof to protect the pantry.

The organization has also helped other individuals in the Starkville with their projects to help the city after the onset of COVID-19. SaPerior Patton, a moderator of Starkville Strong’s Facebook group, has started a project to cook meals and deliver them to Starkville residents who are suffering through food insecurity last year during the pandemic. With only $50 and 25 plates at the time, she would cook the meals in her home and often deliver them on her lunch break every Wednesday from her job to different neighborhoods around Starkville, using personal funds to pay for the food used to cook her meals.

After first becoming aware of Starkville Strong’s Facebook group from her experience as a business owner for seven years, Patton posted on the group about her services cooking and delivering meals to residents in need for exposure. Her posts immediately became popular within the group, and in months Patton went from delivering 25 meals to at most 100 plates a week. The meals would differ every week, from Southern classics such as barbecue baked chicken, cornbread and fried okra, to regular spaghetti and chili tacos.

Starkville Strong Helpers

After becoming a moderator for Starkville Strong, Patton began to work closely with the organization, where she would become a volunteer for several events when needed and make decisions on how to organize events hosted by Starkville Strong.

In turn, the organization provides her with volunteers to help her deliver meals. Members of the Facebook group even donate canned goods for Patton to be able to make several meals a week.

“There are several weeks that Starkville Strong has helped me to make sure that the need was met. You know, they always check and say, ‘Hey, do you need anything for this week?’” said Patton. “But the main goal of me being in that group was to, you know, continue to volunteer and help me to have a voice in the community."

In February of 2021, Starkville Strong’ Facebook group has grown to more than 8,400 members and is still growing today. Herrington credits the resilience of the Starkville community during the pandemic in the organization’s rapid growth.

“There are a lot of people who are suffering who may not have suffered before. And so, we’re more on an equal playing field,” said Herrington. “And so, I think that's been a part of the momentum as well that's helped us really bring the community together to help each other.”