- Associated Press - Monday, June 8, 2015

ITTA BENA, Miss. (AP) - Living in California, Charlotte CarpenterOgieriakhi never pictured that she’d be where she is today - in Itta Bena trying to do her part to help save her adopted town.

She had no plans to start her own nonprofit organization or a community house, but times change. She has been working on a variety of projects for Itta Bena, including the community house, which is set to open in July.

Before moving, Ogieriakhi often visited family in Itta Bena, including her mother, Sarah Coleman? her stepfather, William Coleman? and her grandmotherinlaw, Suzie “Big Mama” Coleman.

She fell in love with the town and found a cause because of it.

The years prior, she worked at a community organization called Family Services Center Inc., where she worked with low-income families and rehabilitated individuals to find jobs. The majority of her work was grant writing. While she lived there, she got her first taste of fighting for Itta Bena.

“When I visited here, I saw a need for the same type of programs,” Ogieriakhi said.

That year, Ogieriakhi worked from California to write a proposal for a grant from the Department of Human Services. She was awarded $179,000 for a GED job placement and job preparation program for Itta Bena.

“Unfortunately, 9/11 happened, and because we were a new organization, next year’s funding never came,” Ogieriakhi said.

Ogieriakhi thought “that was that,” and her Itta Bena efforts were put on pause but not for good. Sickness struck her family, and her stepfather and “Big Mama” passed away in 2010. She came to Mississippi to care for them and then the town.

“I can’t just sit around and do nothing while my community just falls apart,” Ogieriakhi said. “I live here now, too.”

Even though she is not a native of Itta Bena, her ties to the town keep her planted firmly on its soil.

“‘Big Mama’ raised a lot of these folks here. This was her home,” Ogieriakhi said. “And it needs to be saved.”

This past year, Ogieriakhi started writing to government representatives, asking for advice on what to do next. She and Itta Bena have received acknowledgement from the President Barack Obama administration, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and the U.S Department of Agriculture.

“After a lot of letter writing and networking with the USDA and economic development, our city has been finally put on the map,” Ogieriakhi said in a letter.

Rural Development also sent Ogieriakhi information on a grant application funding many areas, including infrastructure, that could help Itta Bena gain further momentum toward getting out of debt. She is working and hoping to get backing from county and city officials.

“There is so much money designated to better the Delta. All we have to do is come together and apply,” Ogieriakhi said.

In her efforts to bring Itta Bena together, Ogieriakhi put on a health and community awareness fundraiser in September 2014 under her new organization’s name. The fundraiser made efforts to raise funds for breast cancer by selling tickets for the Fannie Lou Hamer Cancer Foundation. Money was also raised for an Itta Bena family that lost two members to the disease.

More recently, Ogieriakhi has started taking the downtown Itta Bena buildings she’d inherited from “Big Mama” and renovating them. She has been preparing them to address the next need: a community outreach center.

The newly painted walls of the community house - painted green, yellow, black and red - are a stark contrast to the antique shop “Big Mama” ran. But Ogieriakhi has plans for computers, classes and games, and “bright colors are necessary for fun and a stress free environment,” she said.

“My goal is see the building finished complete with a computer lab,” Ogieriakhi said. “This will be a place people can come register their unemployment, study for the GED testing or go to school online, and the youth can do homework after school and library hours.”

Ogieriakhi’s community house is set to open in July. All renovations and outreach projects that she has been a part of since 1999 have come out of her own pocket, West Coast family and friend assistance or grants.

As she goes along, Ogieriakhi is learning that the survival of Itta Bena isn’t just a town issue, but a county and state one.

“I can’t make the changes needed by myself,” Ogieriakhi said, “We are a town lost. It’s time we are found.”

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Information from: The Greenwood Commonwealth, http://www.gwcommonwealth.com

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