Anja Thiessen fell in love with the Delta the first time she set foot in Jonestown, Miss. in 2001, as an exchange student from Germany volunteering with Habitat for Humanity.
She would build houses during the day in Coahoma County – one of the nation’s poorest – then spend evenings visiting with local kids and their families.
Anja returned as a high school graduate in 2003, working as a volunteer assistant teacher in a kindergarten class at rural school outside Clarksdale, the county seat.
During that year, Anja discovered a region of contrasts – one of poverty and potential, where young people facing huge social, educational and economic obstacles were striving to find opportunity.
“The Delta is a place of perseverance and grit and resilience,” Anja says.
“It’s a place of extremes, where you see a lot of pain, and at the same time you see so much hope. Both of them are real. But I try to be plugged into the hope that is around you.”
Anja returned to Germany but found herself drawn back to Mississippi again and again – sometimes returning several times a year to maintain relationships with families and kids who had become friends.
“I was working at Sherard Elementary when I knew this would be my future home,” Anja says. “I couldn’t picture leaving and wondering what happened to Kim and Willie and Zach and all the kids I met. I wanted to help remove some of the obstacles they faced.”
She returned for good in 2011 to co-found Spring Initiative, an after-school youth development organization that now serves 80 students from Clarksdale and across Coahoma County.
“Our mission is to empower young people in the Mississippi Delta to beat the odds, access the opportunities they deserve, and build successful, hopeful, and happy lives for themselves,” Anja says.
“We talk a lot about beating the odds.”
Anja and Spring co-founder Bianca Zaharescu built the program based on the “transformational power of education and caring relationships” to lift students to their highest potential.
Spring offers traditional academic programming and supports, while addressing the socio-emotional needs of students within small, age-based cohorts.
Every day, Spring dispatches staff in a caravan of minivans to schools in Clarksdale and around the county to pick up students after school.
The kids spend the first part of their afternoon burning off pent-up energy – playing tag or dodgeball – before breaking into groups for healthy snacks and group conversations.
“Imagine it as a kind of family meal where students talk about their highs and lows and gratitudes,” she says. “They practice their empathy with peers and listening skills and learn how to be in a space that is open and vulnerable.”
Hour-long academic sessions follow. Older students in the ‘Big Spring’ cohort, for example, might work on improving reading comprehension and journaling while younger kids in ‘Mini Spring’ rotate through learning centers focused on math and reading.
The last part of the day is devoted to applied learning – students discuss current events, conduct science experiments, practice photography or taking off-campus trips to meet local business or civic leaders.
Spring also offers individual and group therapy for students. About half of the students at Spring receive some form of counselling.
“We provide a safe space in which kids learn that they are brilliant and can take on the world. It's a space where you build confidence and find that self-worth.”
The Walton Family Foundation supports Spring Initiative as part of its efforts to promote economic development, improve education and enhance quality of life in the Delta.
Throughout students’ years at Spring, they learn to embrace a “growth mindset” and take on new academic or personal challenges, even at the risk of failure.
“For so many students, the idea of trying and not succeeding becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that gets them thinking it’s safer for me not to try,” Anja says. “What we do is encourage kids to work through that discomfort and build courage to keep trying.”
Anja sees the payoff when Spring students head off to university and are able to fight through challenges that might have otherwise derailed their college careers.
“The students are the agents of change in their own lives,” she says. “They are amazing at writing their own stories and using the opportunities that Spring gives them to write their own narrative.”
Anja subscribes to the idea that “it takes a village to raise a child” in the Delta, where students are not only confronted with poverty but struggling schools and limited economic opportunity.
“A lot of our kids will face some significant obstacles, but that’s not where their story ends. We are there for them in those low moments, helping them work through challenges and encouraging them to believe they and their future are worth it,” she says.
“I think that's why Spring is powerful. It adds to every student’s community of caring adults and peers. You need a community around you to help you hold your hope for the future, when maybe in the moment you are dealing with too much and can’t hold on to your hope.”