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Laney Mayfield reflects on summer of learning

When I first interviewed for the role as a community journalist and civic engagement leader for Living Democracy, I never thought it would guide me to a place filled with adventures, lessons, and excitement. With my eyes closed and not knowing what to expect, the program led me to a gem in Northeast Alabama, Collinsville.

I spent two and a half months in Collinsville. With a population of less than 2,000, the town with one school and two stoplights quickly became my home away from home. Collinsville is a town filled with unsung heroes, sheroes, and respected community leaders. It is a close-knit community with long-established traditions, and everyone knows everyone.

But it was the little things that one may take for granted that made my stay even more special. Whether it was walking downtown and smelling freshly baked tortillas from Los Reyes or having brief conversations in Spanish with members of the Hispanic community or admiring the lights of the historic Cricket Theatre in the evenings, each moment was special in its own way.

Besides immersing myself in the town's culture, I was on a mission to enhance the community through service projects. Early on, I realized that the growth and development of the youth in Collinsville, including literacy, was a top priority.

I realized some children did not have access to educational resources. One of those resources was books.  Because of that, kids in the area were at a greater risk of falling victim to the summer reading slope.

Though I had my own ideas of how I wanted to help address the problem, it was imperative that I considered the thoughts of those who lived in the community who could offer me a different point of view. One must be willing and ready to compromise on your approach when in an unfamiliar community.

It's important to work with trusted, longtime residents who have a grasp of the environment instead of relying on your own understanding. This was one of the greatest lessons that I have learned.

So, thanks to the Collinsville Public Library and the guidance of local educators, I assisted in distributing over 130 books in English and Spanish to school-aged children in May. In addition, I coordinated literature-based projects for the children and pre-teens for two weeks in June.

During both events, my eyes were filled with tears as I watched the corners of kids' mouths turn up into smiles when they received bags of free books. There were times where they would even sprint to a table full of books, grabbing several at a time. One young boy asked if he could take more books and bookmarks home to share.

Witnessing those children so innocent and happy was one of the highlights of my time in Collinsville. It was refreshing and sweet.

There was another moment that contributed to my thrilling time in the area. I reached a major milestone when my piece spotlighting the highly anticipated return of the Collinsville Panther Pride band and was published in Mountain Valley Times, a newspaper in Rainsville, Alabama. I am so grateful for the opportunity provided by the Belvins family, who own and operate the business.

Aside from engaging in those activities and having my story published in a local news outlet, the most memorable and most pleasing experience was working on the Gregory School project.

It all started when I saw a blue and white logo for a school on a mural painting of downtown in the children's play area in the local library. I asked my community partner Jennifer Wilkins about it and was informed that more information needed to be gathered about the school that played an essential role in the town’s history.  

My journalism senses began to tingle because it was intriguing, and there was more to uncover. In an effort to learn more, I reached out into the community, searching for any information available and eventually created a sustainable and accessible artifact for public use. 

I discovered that the school was once a thriving institute in town for Black students from the early 1940s to 1968. Since its closure, several articles and memorabilia associated with the school have disappeared without a trace. In addition, many of the people who attended the school have either relocated or passed away.

Through this community project, I utilized and strengthened my writing, communication, and reporting skills while interacting with long-time community members and listening to their heartfelt stories. In addition, I gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for the resilience and strength of Black educators and students during that period.

Though Blacks in Collinsville faced many obstacles, it did not stop them from making the most out of their educational experiences and making a difference in their community. They never gave up, despite the endless number of hardships that were before them. Honestly, this work encouraged me never to become complacent and continue pursuing my dreams and goals.

After two months of research and interviewing subjects with the help of two amazing mentees from Collinsville High School, I presented the information to the public during my final night in town. I was overwhelmed with emotion seeing the people who attended the school and others excited to learn and share their memories about such a historic school.

Days after the presentation, I received countless phone calls from attendees expressing their thanks and gratitude for my willingness to raise awareness of such an essential piece of Collinsville's legacy.

Though they thanked me for the work, I was mostly thankful that I was allowed to spend time in their community because I am not originally from there, nor do I have any connections to the town. Still, somehow, I became a part of the community.

I hope that the remains of the school in the area are recognized because it is historic and represents a pivotal moment in time for some people who call Collinsville home. It was one of the first educational institutes for Blacks in the area, and it deserves recognition.

As my journey in the valley ends, I often reflect on how much I have grown since the first day I visited on a rainy day in May. Little did I know that within that brief time, through my civic engagement work within a community, I would impact the youth, form connections, and meet lifelong friends.

I will never forget this summer filled with literacy, history, new experiences, new perspectives, community and most of all, fun. Thank you, Collinsville. This is not goodbye. I will see you later.