Traveling with Twain

In Search of America's Identity

Non-profit “Baby Steps” is a success story in mostly poor Okolona, Mississippi

After seven weeks of visiting places that remind us of America’s problems (prison, homeless camp, lynching site) we decide to search for places that are helping to solve the country’s problems.

We discover Baby Steps, a nonprofit founded in 2003 by William Raspberry, a retired Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post syndicated columnist, in his hometown of Okolona, Mississippi, which is mostly black and mostly poor.

We interview Carla James, the Baby Steps site director in Okolona, who requires more than a half hour to describe all of the Baby Steps projects and programs. Baby Steps annually teaches more than 250 parents and children, in a town of 3,500, how to prepare for the first years of school.

But Baby Steps goes beyond early-education home visits and counseling that help parents improve their children’s reading and other skills. Through partnerships with the Okolona School District, three early childcare centers, community service agencies, the National Council of Negro Women and other organizations, Baby Steps provides holistic help.

James describes tax services for low-income families, advice on social security and Medicaid, and dental, medical and pharmacy programs. She almost frowns as she struggles to remember every service that Baby Steps provides.

But she brightens as she recalls individual cases of black, white and Hispanic children she has helped. “It’s not just a job, it’s a life to me,” she says.

Loren Ghiglione

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