Why Doug Friedlander moved from New York to the Mississippi Delta – and stayed

The three keys to successfully helping out in a new community, he says, are being humble, volunteering constantly – and sharing the credit.

© Louisa Bertman
Doug Friedlander helped found the Boys and Girls Club of Phillips County, an area of Arkansas with a 32 percent poverty rate.

In 2004, Doug Friedlander quit a lucrative career in software to join Teach For America. The born-and-bred New Yorker found himself teaching high school science in Helena, Ark., a town with a poverty rate of 32 percent.

After he and his wife realized that the local children needed more opportunities than the classroom alone could provide, they helped found the Boys and Girls Club of Phillips County. Friedlander, a member of the Rotary Club of Helena, is now director of the Phillips County Chamber of Commerce.

THE ROTARIAN: What’s life like in Phillips County?

FRIEDLANDER: Well, it’s in the Mississippi Delta, which is one of those places that need help but don’t get any press. It’s been as bad off as post-Katrina New Orleans for four decades.

Back when agriculture was king, we were the hub of a 
prosperous region. Mark Twain even wrote about Helena in Life on the Mississippi; he said it 
“occupies one of the prettiest 
situations on the river. ”

Our community has incredible architecture, culture, and history, but it’s been in a 40-year recession and has lost about half its population. I liken it to Cinderella: It’s from a good family, it took a precipitous fall, but it’s ready to be dusted off and taken to the ball.

TR: How did you decide to 
help found the local Boys and Girls Club?

FRIEDLANDER: During my Teach For America days, my colleagues and I would work with our students to build them up and get them on the right track. We would see progress, and they’d come back the next day as if nothing had happened. We realized that we were walking up the down escalator.

Our community doesn’t have a movie theater. It doesn’t have a mall. It doesn’t have a skating rink. It has little in the way of positive opportunities for youth. We realized that a Boys and Girls Club would help our kids socialize and mature in the presence of good role models.

We met some people who had the same idea, and together we launched the campaign in January 2006 with a speech at the Rotary club. Everything exploded from there. A Rotary member offered us a building to use as a temporary location, and he ended up joining our board. We opened that June.

We’ve raised $2 million and built a state-of-the-art facility. We have more than 700 members, and we see about 250 kids a day.

TR: Any suggestions for Rotarians in similar communities?

FRIEDLANDER: My wife and I wouldn’t be in Phillips County if it weren’t for Teach For America. I would encourage Rotarians to reach out to people involved in Teach For America, because given the right opportunities, they might stay in your community and become part of your leadership infrastructure.

TR: What’s your advice for newcomers to an area that needs some help?

FRIEDLANDER: Having an attitude of respect and humility 
is rule No. 1 – not coming in like a superstar. Rule No. 2: Volunteer constantly and show up religiously. In any community, there’s only a small subset of people who show up and 
do things, and when they see you showing up, they’ll start 
to see you as a brother or sister.

And the third thing is: Share credit. Make other people look good.

This article originally appeared in The Rotarian, the official magazine of Rotary International. Rotary connects 1.2 million members of more than 34,000 Rotary clubs to provide humanitarian service and build goodwill throughout the world through addressing issues such as disease prevention, maternal and child health, literacy, peace and conflict resolution, economic development, and clean water. The Rotarian challenges readers to become more involved in service to their neighborhoods and to the global community. It's found on Twitter at @therotarian and @Rotary.

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