M Partner Celebrates Successful Pilot Phase in Lexington

Community engagement initiative will continue to improve quality of life in partner communities

Archive Photo: UM students, staff, VISTA members and community partners work together on landscaping and beautification projects for M Partner Community Day in Lexington. Submitted photo

OXFORD, Miss. – After two years of collaboration between community members and faculty, staff and students at the University of Mississippi, the M Partner initiative has helped spur improvements in health status and educational success in Lexington that promise to serve as steps toward a brighter future for the community.

The university launched M Partner, a community engagement effort that seeks to improve life in Mississippi communities, in 2018. M Partner offers a framework for community and university representatives to pair university resources and expertise with priority projects in partner cities across the state, and supports institutional efforts to promote healthy and vibrant communities.

The inaugural M Partner communities were Charleston, Lexington and New Albany. In Lexington, M Partner led to six academic courses and internships, five special programs and events, three new partnerships established through the North Mississippi VISTA Project and the involvement of 80 UM students.

This interdisciplinary outpouring of support led to Lexington’s recognition as a 2019 Healthy Hometown Award winner by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation of Mississippi. These collaborations have promoted community wellness, food security, and educational enrichment and success.

“M Partner was the opportunity of a lifetime for a small town with limited resources like Lexington to be provided with the expertise and collaboration with the best and brightest of the university’s campus,” Mayor Robin McCrory said. “We were able to attain community goals and complete projects that will leave M Partner footprints forever ingrained throughout the city of Lexington.”

Health and Wellness Promotion

McCrory worked closely with Ovuokerie Addoh, assistant professor of health and kinesiology; Rachael Larkin, an exercise science major from Haymarket, Virginia; and Taylor Sanders, a doctoral student in health and kinesiology from Madison, to compile the application and supporting data for the Healthy Hometown award. They met in Lexington and on campus and corresponded extensively to create the materials.

The award recognizes the strides that Lexington has taken to improve community health, including trails for walking and biking, and a weekly farmers market. The proposal for the Healthy Hometown award included a community garden and installation of a splash pad to enhance municipal recreation facilities. The $50,000 award and recognition provides financial resources and momentum to further develop parks and recreation infrastructure.

Archive Photo: UM doctoral student Taylor Sanders (left), professor Ovuokerie Addoh, Honors student Rachael Larkin and Lexington Mayor Robin McCrory collaborate on the Healthy Hometown Award application, which the city was awarded in July 2019. Submitted photo

“We are grateful for the work of Mayor McCrory, Dr. Addoh and his team,” said Peter Granjean, dean of the School of Applied Sciences. “This partnership exemplifies our commitment in applied sciences to learn, lead and serve where human science and service intersect.

“We look forward to a longstanding relationship with the city of Lexington and a more healthy and vibrant Lexington community.”

Also during the 2018-19 academic year, Addoh taught a graduate-level seminar that organized a health fair in Lexington as a culminating project. The health fair was scheduled to coincide with the spring festival and included free screenings for blood pressure, cholesterol and BMI, along with help interpreting the figures and lifestyle changes to support healthy habits.

The health fair was postponed because of inclement weather, which created an opportunity to collaborate with the Community Student Learning Center’s annual garage sale and fundraiser.

Food Security

The Lexington Farmers Market provides healthy, local produce to residents and serves as a source of revenue for area farmers and growers. During the summer of 2019, Kymberle Gordon, a doctoral student in nutrition from Canandaigua, New York, served as an M Partner intern with the market to strengthen its presence and operations through marketing, interviews with growers and customer surveys.

Gordon also worked with the Holmes County Herald to place information about the market in the paper and produced recipe cards to distribute at the market in partnership with the local extension agent and the UM Medical Center’s Holmes County Hospital. To raise the profile of the market among local youth, the Boys & Girls Club of Lexington organized a field trip to the market; this was an opportunity to use connections between the M Partner intern and VISTA members serving with the Boys & Girls Club.

In summer 2020, recent UM graduate Curtis Hills served as a public service intern for the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement, working to build the infrastructure of the Lexington Food Pantry in his hometown. Hills, who had served as an undergraduate innovation scholar with the institute’s Catalyzing Entrepreneurship and Economic Development initiative, as well as an M Partner intern, helped with planning for the new nonprofit and assisted with mobile food distributions, which reached 600-700 households each week.

“Lexington gave me so much growing up, and I felt lucky to have had the opportunity to work alongside the Lexington Food Pantry this summer,” Hills said. “It is no secret that Lexington and the entire Holmes County community needed more hunger-related resources before the pandemic.

“LFP offered an invaluable resource in their weekly food distributions that impacted over 650 families weekly. The COVID-19 pandemic, with all its darkness, brought a lot of shining light to families in Lexington.”

Educational Enrichment and Success

A top priority for local stakeholders was improving the percentage of students reading on grade level by the end of third grade. In 2013, Mississippi passed the Literacy-Based Promotion Act, which emphasizes reading skills, particularly from pre-K to third grade.

Angela Rutherford, UM professor of teacher education, director of the Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction and state coordinator for the Region 7 Comprehensive Center, and Angelia Crawford, literacy teacher at CELI, worked with the Holmes County Consolidated School District to create a Comprehensive Literacy Framework to support the district.

The framework provides elementary and secondary school teachers with research-based tools to improve students’ reading levels.

“The work of the Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction has helped transform elementary schools in Mississippi,” said David Rock, dean of the School of Education. “Dr. Rutherford has led a multitude of efforts to provide quality training and support to educators across the state. Her commitment and dedication to improving literacy in Mississippi have truly made a difference.”

The McLean Institute used other strategies to support educational initiatives in Lexington. During summer 2019, Hills completed a summer internship in Lexington with the Nollie Jenkins Family Center.

This was a particularly meaningful placement because Hills is a graduate of Holmes County Consolidated High School and had participated extensively in the center’s programming as a high school student. Returning as a CEED Innovation Scholar and M Partner intern, he led workshops on resume writing, interview skills and identifying career pathways.

Consistent with the ethos of the McLean Institute, Hills embodied the example of education as a path to economic advancement while offering tools for others to follow in his footsteps.

Finally, in partnership with the Boys & Girls Club of Lexington, the North Mississippi VISTA Project has placed summer associates and a yearlong VISTA member in Lexington since June 2018. All these VISTA members are from Lexington and have a direct connection with the Boys & Girls Club, many as recent graduates.

In 2018 and ’19, two summer associates provided literacy and math instruction and organized enrichment activities, recording learning gains in 77 students. The yearlong VISTA member is developing relationships with parents and local businesses to support the club, and these partnerships will benefit the organization even after the VISTA term concludes.

“The city of Lexington welcomed the University of Mississippi with open arms,” said Laura Martin, M Partner director and associate director of the McLean Institute. “It has been exciting to see the ideas discussed in initial community meetings come to fruition through the commitment of our community and campus partners.

“We are deeply grateful to all who contributed to the successes of the M Partner pilot phase in Lexington.”