As we ran south toward Ripley, Tennessee, we transitioned from Mississippi River bottom land into rolling hills.

The agricultural fields became interspersed with thick forests and tall trees. The intermittent periods of shade were welcome as the temperature climbed into the 90s. Hotter than average here, but maybe this is the new normal . . .

Victoria ran the final segment into town with some steep hills to welcome her. We landed at the Lauderdale County, Tennessee Courthouse in Ripley’s historic town square. Victoria toweled off and changed, accompanied by a couple of mockingbirds (and the outdoor music that plays around town square). Most importantly, we were met with a familiar face—Robbie Tidwell.

Robbie made sure we were oriented and found our way to the meeting room. He’ll be our Lauderdale County host for the next couple of days, including a stay at the State Park he manages.

Susan Worlds, B.J., Annette and Mayor Maurice joined us at the courthouse for some good conversation—and healthy snacks! We really appreciated that they took time on a busy workday to share the pride they feel in this area. We were also very appreciative that they shared their challenges, as well.

We discussed a couple of big themes in Ripley – poverty and philanthropy. Lauderdale County is one of the poorest in Tennessee by the numbers, but this group feels that strong programs and partnerships are helping them get the most from limited resources.

One example is the partnership with Pathways to Possibilities to bring career education to young people. It’s a three-county job fair of sorts that highlights vocational-based work opportunities that youth can pursue at any one of the regional technical colleges.

They also utilize the skills of inmates at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary to perform needed community services—a double benefit as this also helps with the transition from incarceration into society. The “trustee” inmates—with lesser sentences or on good behavior – can provide labor and services within the community. Thanks to this partnership with the prison, the cities and county can mount improvements to infrastructure for instance that otherwise would be out of budget, while simultaneously providing job readiness training to these inmates who are oftentimes on the verge of parole.

Despite these great partnerships, and having the American Queen riverboat bring guests to Fort Pillow State Historic Park a few times a year, the community has its struggles. “We’re distressed but proud,” someone said that afternoon. I believe it was Susan who said, “If you’re not proud of where you’re from, go somewhere else!”

When asked why they make this place home, they pointed across the table to the people in the room. They describe the kindness that the community shows when someone is in need. People care about each other around here.

They know it’s a challenge to attract high paying jobs, not to mention getting enough of those jobs to keep the next generation rooted in this community. Those are challenges they accept. This is a community that rises to a challenge.

One last thing . . . Ripley also plays a role in national security through their involvement with the National Defense University (NDU). Top military strategists from many nations spend time embedded with local families here in the heart of the United States. Learning their rhythms and routines. Interacting at the human scale. Building understanding. Building connections. Building empathy.

Well done, Ripley . . .