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Mary Jennifer Russell joins ranks of effective local volunteers

Several years ago a woman in a small, nearby Mississippi city relied heavily on volunteer workers in her effort to start a valuable program for her city. For whatever reason it didn’t work, and she sarcastically complained, “Volunteers fly off the face of the earth.”

While it is no doubt true that many volunteers do get flung off as the earth spins, it is also true that the few volunteers who do take on projects, who do the thankless work, who follow through, and who stay with it until the thing succeeds, contribute greatly to making their communities more livable.

Here in New Albany consider Katherine Dye, the long-time public school art teacher, who imagined the Park Along the River and worked until it become a reality in the 1990s.

Think of Anne Stephens, who has volunteered thousands of hours over a lifetime and topped it off by donating the money to establish UNITE.

There’s Joyce Sumners, whose volunteer work has included 44 years of work for the North Mississippi Symphony and more a half century as a volunteer at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Union County.

Former Transportation Commissioner Zack Stewart has given hundreds of hours of his engineering and craft skills to the community, including work at the Union County Heritage Museum and on the development of the Ingomar Mound site, as well as work on church buildings and other philanthropic projects around the world.

Names of other local volunteers deserve to be added, but we’ll stop with a few of the easy ones lest we offend by omissions.

New Albany businesswoman Mary Jennifer Russell has become a highly effective volunteer of her generation, and is setting a pace that will be hard to improve upon. A Union County native, Mary Jennifer Russell (or simply “MJ” to some) graduated from New Albany High School. She studied at Northeast Mississippi Community College, and graduated with BA in biology from Ole Miss in 1995.

Mary Jennifer Russell

Mary Jennifer Russell

She started baking cakes and selling them in 1997. That work has now grown in to a business called Sugaree’s, which sells cakes nationwide and employs 25 people.

An energetic and focused woman, Russell has taken the lead in recent years on several undertakings that have benefited the community. The words “quality of life” and “sustainability” apply to most of the volunteer work she has done.

The most visible is the Biscuits and Jam Farmers’ Market held every Saturday morning starting in late May and continuing through late summer. Russell owns the land on the left bank of the Tallahatchie River at the downtown Bankhead Street bridge where the market is set up. Russell spearheaded the Farmers’ Market, which had its first season in 2012. Thirty-five to 45 growers sell locally grown produce and prepared foods made with locally grown fruits and vegetables. Free biscuits and jam, provided by Sugaree’s, and free coffee are served to customers. The Union County Master Gardeners and the Mississippi State University Union County Extension office are major contributors to the success of the Biscuits and Jam Farmers Market.

Because of Russell’s involvement with the success of the farmers’ market, measured by its economic impact, she was invited by the EPA Office of Sustainable Communities to speak at the New Partners for Smart Growth national conference in Baltimore in January.

Last summer Russell hosted a 2-day Technical Assistance workshop that was part of the Livable Communities grant administered by ARC, EPA and USDA. Three Rivers helped Russell apply for the grant with the city’s approval.  The goal of the workshop was to open up her idea of expanding the farmers’ market and connecting it to the Tanglefoot Trail to a wider range of potential stakeholders for further refinement, and to learn how to best leverage the $20,000 Livable Communities grant awarded for that purpose.

A plan emerged that involves New Albany attorney Will Ford and Russell deeding a little more than two combined acres to the city for the establishment of an easily accessible permanent farmers’ market pavilion adjacent to its current location, closer to the river, and connected to the Tanglefoot Trail with a short “connector trail.”

Those attending the Liveable Community workshop toured a possible development site on the banks of the Tallahatchie RIver

Those attending the Livable Community workshop toured a possible development site on the banks of the Tallahatchie River

Russell and City Tourism and Marketing Director Sean Johnson are currently working on another $150,000 grant due next month.  The $175,000 that Johnson and State Representative Margaret Rogers secured from state appropriations will be used as a match for this grant. Russell secured architectural services, at no cost to the city, of a USDA Agricultural Marketing Services architect, who has visited New Albany for two site visits and has a third planned this month.

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