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April 15, 2021

Doing Things The Sunflower Way

Positive attitudes and community involvement abound

By Greta Sharp

The Bolivar Bullet

You won’t find a dark cloud in Ruleville and that’s more than just the weather report. Add two new solar farms projects to the positive attitude of residents committed to moving forward and this town is enjoying its moment in the sun. 

Recurrent Energy began researching the area between Ruleville and Drew for a solar farm over three years ago. “It’s flat land, so it’s perfect,” explained Shelia Waldrup, deputy director of the Sunflower County Economic Development District. The company leased the farmland and started construction. 

Entergy Mississippi plans to purchase the power from the 100-megawatt solar farm covering approximately 1,000 acres. “By the end of 2021 we hope to be in production,” said Waldrup. “It will power about 16,000 homes. It’s pretty big for us.” 

The $140 million project will create 150 to 200 temporary jobs for about a year, with seven to ten permanent positions to oversee the solar farm. The tax revenue is another plus for Sunflower County. People are moving into the area for the temporary positions, which benefits hotels, restaurants and shops. 

“It’s a win/win,” says Waldrup. “It’s a wonderful opportunity. We’re always looking for these big manufacturing businesses to move in, but I think these days they’re kind of not here right now. So we look for 30 to 40 employee businesses and this is exactly what keeps them around.” 

Another big move in Ruleville is the new Farm Bureau Insurance office Brandon Cummins is building on the highway, which is nearing completion.  The new address is 354 W. Martin Luther King, a highway-front location by the Dollar General. “To bring new and growing things to a small town, that goes a long way,” he explained. 

For years, Farm Bureau has occupied a space on West Harrison. “I want to scale and grow,” said Cummins. “We’ve done that. We’ve done very well here. But for growth, I think you have to invest in yourself.” 

He’s hoping the new, high-traffic location will attract customers. The business’ main focus is home and auto insurance; with dropping mortgage rates and better interest rates on vehicle purchases, he wants to be ready. “When people jump on these deals, they need insurance as well,” said Cummins. 

In 2021, he hopes for increased interaction with clients thanks to the heavily traveled location. “I try to make it as personal as possible, create a relationship,” says Cummins. “I want to bring in new faces and conversations, and strike up old conversations that have maybe fallen off the table.” 

A new Covid vaccination area has been set up inside Sunflower Rural Health Clinic. COVID testing continues as well, but now through a provider inside the clinic. “When the vaccines were approved by the FDA for emergency use in December 2020, “we transitioned into learning more about the vaccines, how they work, what side effects to look for, how to educate our patients, and ultimately set up the clinic as a vaccination site with the MS state department of health,” stated Sunflower Clinic Director, Clinic COVID Team Director and Family Nurse Practitioner Brooks Rizzo. “Millions of Americans have already been vaccinated and I believe the number of Covid cases has decreased in our area because of the Covid vaccinations,” said Rizzo. “I believe the vaccine works and to date, there is little risk involved in taking the vaccine”. To schedule a vaccination appointment, call (662) 756-1631. 

North Sunflower Medical Center took a leading role in the fight against COVID-19. Before funding from the state, it offered free testing at a local restaurant’s parking lot. “We also continue to encourage and teach the community about the safety measures that everyone should take to protect themselves from the virus,” said North Sunflower Medical Center CEO Daniel Ceja. 

“People have lost family, friends, in addition to the devastating effects that this pandemic has caused our economy and the way we look at health care all together,” said Ceja. “As a health care facility, we are gathering and buying all the necessary PPE that we can get our hands on to insure the safety not only of our employees, but for the protection of patients as well.” 

North Sunflower Academy in Drew took the health precautions seriously and remained in the classroom for face-to-face learning. Even better, Headmaster Janet Ray reported enrollment grew by fifty students. 

The low student-to-teacher ratio allows for individualized attention. “We’re a small school and we wear a lot of hats, our staff and coaches,” she said. “We can focus on what we need to do to help get them to the next level.” 

Ray is especially proud of two hires who came on board back in March of 2020. Coach Jennifer McCullough previously taught in public schools and coached at the college level. At North Sunflower, she runs the women’s basketball program, and teaches physical education to third through sixth grades. 

“She has done a wonderful job with our ladies’ program,” said  Ray. This includes a summer camp for players and a workout and practice schedule for the team that took them to a top five ranking in their division. “That’s big news when you have a new coach come in and start a new program,” said Ray. 

Coach Ricky Smither joined as North Sunflower’s head football coach after coaching in public schools, junior college and college levels. The junior high team won the district championship and the varsity team went to the playoffs. 

Like most everyone, the Ruleville Chamber of Commerce is looking forward to a better 2021. The group canceled the 2020 Great Ruleville Roast & Run, its only fundraiser, due to COVID-19 concerns. The $1,000 Christmas Cash Giveaway replaced it, but President Brad Cooper is focused on the 2021 event. 

Proceeds from the Great Ruleville Roast & Run support the chamber’s work on downtown improvements, including the historic depot, medians and the park area. “We’ve added Mississippi Prison Industries’ benches that Parchman has made, and Mississippi Prison Industries garbage cans,” stated  Cooper. “We want to make it as aesthetically pleasing for anyone who wants to bring their business to Ruleville, or anyone who just wants to enjoy it.” 

Before Christmas this past year, work downtown included decorating the park and gazebo. Cooper says former chamber member and integral community member Hugh Arant brought his farm workers to help put up holiday decorations. 

The city saw other changes as Matt McNutt stepped into the boots left by Ruleville Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jack Griffin, who passed earlier this year. “The chief is elected by the members of the fire department through a voting process,” said McNutt. “I was fortunate to be voted unanimously as the new chief.” 

McNutt brings almost two decades of experience to the position, including several years as a career firefighter. When he moved to the Delta in 2010, he joined the Bolivar County Volunteer Fire Department and spent the last three years serving on Ruleville’s fire service. 

Since taking the reins in October, McNutt purchased a new fire truck. This improves the department’s rating, which saves the city money, as well as homeowners who will see savings in their insurance, he explains. 

North Sunflower Medical Center’s 2020 accomplishments include the purchase of Haire Drug Center in Cleveland, adding a second drive-through bay to the hospital’s pharmacy, and a new Chronic Care Management program at the hospital’s clinic. 

Ceja’s hopes for 2021 have come true with vaccinations available at Sunflower Rural Health Clinic. “I’m excited to see NSMC make a great impact with COVID vaccinations, to everyone in the surrounding areas of the Mississippi Delta.” said Ceja. 

One area in Ruleville that didn’t change was its community spirit. At the Sunflower Clinic, Rizzo applauded the staff’s hard work and willingness to help where needed. “COVID hasn’t gotten the best of us,” she said. “We are still doing things the Sunflower way.” 

When local medical staff set up COVID-19 testing in the Mexico Grill parking lot, Cummins provided refreshments from The Pharm. “I’m just trying to make day-to-day living a little better for our people,” he said. 

He also sponsors Player of the Week awards for local student-athletes. “It’s to give them a sense of accomplishment, to make them feel proud of what they did that week in their sporting events,” Cummins explained. 

McNutt says public and community relations are integral to the fire department. During last spring’s lockdown, the fire truck escorted the Easter Bunny around Ruleville, then rolled in December with Santa, Mrs. Claus and several elves. 

“It’s the whole city of Ruleville,” said McNutt. “It takes volunteers from the fire department, the police department, the City of Ruleville has sponsored us, the chamber, the hospital, North Sunflower Academy.” 

As a volunteer organization, the fire department works on a strict budget from the city, a small amount from the county and private donations. “Being out in the community is essential,” said McNutt. “The more they see us active, the better that outcome will be for us. This is a small town. Just about everybody knows someone who is part of the fire department. I want everybody to feel comfortable with us.” 

Perhaps no one works harder at community relations than Levester Moton, who owns a local construction company. He recently retired from his position as a school bus driver after 43 years. “My mama raised us to work,” he said. “I don’t just sit around.” 

Moton and his family graduated from Ruleville Central, so they’re familiar with the needs there. “A lot of children don’t have clothes or uniforms or school supplies when they get ready to start school,” he explains. So he started the Back to School Rally. He relies on community partners like North Sunflower Medical Center, who donated hand sanitizer, provided bags for the supplies and helped stuff the bags. 

The event helped an estimated 300 kids in 2020. “It grows every year,” says Moton. “The first year, it was maybe 100, but then it started growing every year.” Due to COVID-19, the 2020 Back to School Rally was a drive-thru event. 

There’s also a Christmas tradition that started years ago with Moton going house to house with holiday food gifts. “Sometimes we would give out 500 bags,” he said. This grew into a community Christmas dinner at Williams Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, where Moton is a minister. 

All are welcome and Moton solicits donations for the event. “But if I don’t get them, it’s going to happen anyway.” Like the Back to School Rally, Moton and his family make sure of that. “I like to teach people to give,” he said. “It’s better to give than receive. I want my children, my grandchildren to know it’s all about giving.”

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