Photographs by John Sykes Jr.
“Even though people are helping you, you turn around and give back to somebody else.” - Annette Dove
Sunday, August 13, 2017
PINE BLUFF -- Annette Dove has a big heart.
She's the founder and chief executive officer of Targeting Our People's Priorities with Service, a Pine Bluff nonprofit empowering families to change their environment and become productive citizens. She started it from scratch, with just her faith and her retirement from teaching. TOPPS now has three facilities and provides a dozen programs for children in the community.
In 2011, with TOPPS on the verge of a breakthrough that would propel it into the national spotlight, she was diagnosed with an enlarged heart. She beat that, so to speak, with just prayer and a little help from some friends.
Dove, a native and lifelong resident of Pine Bluff, is a scion of the respected Howard family (George Howard Jr. was Arkansas' first black U.S. District Court judge). Her parents were role models for what she planned not to do with her life.
"My dad had a transmission shop, and he'd pick up all the young men off the streets and train 'em to keep 'em busy," she says. "My mother had a beauty shop before she started working for the Jefferson County Extension Service, where she operated canning kitchens and gleaning programs. She just took whatever she could find to reproduce it to help somebody's family.
"There wasn't a lot of time for playing in the neighborhood. We had to help. We'd work all day in the beauty shop, and then the neighbor would call and need money to pay the light bill, and there'd go mom out the door. I realize now what they were doing. But at the time, I said to myself, 'Uh-uh, I'm not doing any of that when I get grown.'"
She attended Dollarway High School and got married at 16. "I'm not going to tell how that was," she says, but "I had to start really working." She answered phones at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff while she worked toward the elementary/special education degree she got there in 1980. She got a job as a special education teacher for the Pine Bluff School District, earned a master's degree in education at Ouachita Baptist University in 1984 and subsequently got an elementary principal certificate in 1987.
"I went back and got my principal's license, but I couldn't get a job as a principal," so the school district put her to work in its Home Instruction Program for Pre-School Youngsters, also known as HIPPY. "I started seeing young women who looked like they had no hope, and some of them were teenage moms. And I said to them, 'If I can do it, you can do it.'"
Then Dove got a push toward working with disadvantaged youngsters.
"You have to understand, my faith is everything to me," she says. "I was praying one day, and the spirit of God told me I would be asked to be the youth director [at my church]. I lived across the street from the church; I walked out of the door, opened the church door and an elderly lady said, 'Annette, come here, girl. The spirit of God told me to ask you to be the youth director.' My eyes were so big they like to have popped out of my head."
She accepted the call, partly on the basis that her community was changing -- and not in a good way. "Crime had begun to be so bad. We started working with kids in the community, taking them home, hanging with them, finding things to keep them off the street. And it was working."
She did that for seven years, until her work taking kids off the streets started raising some eyebrows. "We'd have the vans packed with children; we were bringing children who were really hungry to church, and kids that weren't real disciplined, and that can kind of bothered a few people.
"I got tired of fighting that battle, so I quit."
She and her husband, William Dove Jr., a parole officer, decided to move out of the community because they wanted a safer environment for their own children. "I remember the spirit of God saying, 'But what about the people who couldn't move?'" The pair worked out a plan that would allow her to eventually quit work and go back.
Her husband died in 2000, around the time of the state's worst ice storm in recent history. "We couldn't even bury him because the weather was so bad," Dove recalls. "And the spirit of God kept visiting me and saying, 'You made me a promise.' And I was answering, 'There's only one of me and I have four children.'" Finally, she acquiesced.
It didn't turn out to be as easy as she'd thought, but she was determined. She bought and renovated an older house. "I really wanted it to be a safe haven for that community, because during the summer, the kids would be out on the streets with nothing to do. And I knew if an adult was there to supervise, we wouldn't have any of the drug activity or the violence."
She counted on her grant-writing experience to generate funding, but that didn't work out the way she expected either. "So I had to use what personal money I had. That meant going into my teacher retirement, assuming we'd get all that back later. It didn't happen."
What did happen was that people in the community started giving. "Soon as we got the door open, though, we didn't have enough room for all the kids that needed help. We were doing things out on the front porch, in the yard -- we just had kids everywhere."
Meanwhile, Pine Bluff state Sen. Stephanie Flowers had found money to renovate a building in Townsend Park into a teen center. The place "had been the old African-American convention center in the '60s," Dove says. "People tell of Ike and Tina Turner performing here and Bobby 'Blue' Bland." Flowers' plans fell through, and she offered it to Dove with the understanding that she'd use it for teenagers. Dove's original facility still serves youngsters in grades K-4.
TOPPS also operates a T-shirt shop. "We started that program in 2009 with the help of the university [UAPB] ... really just to keep the boys off the street, to keep them occupied. We've used it as a training model," she says. The kids create banners and T-shirts and earn a stipend.
READYING A GENERATION
A grant from 21st Century Community Learning Centers pays teachers to provide after-school help with academics. And TOPPS' DREAMS ("Dreams Require Educating and Motivating Students") program helps high school students prepare for college or the Armed Forces. Mike Dove, Annette's youngest son, oversees it in his spare time.
"That DREAMS program has been so successful with helping those kids get ready for after high school," says mother Dove. "Our first goal is to make sure they graduate on time with everything that they need. And we help prepare those students who want to go to college." Some 28 students graduated, 27 are in college and one is in the military.
Mike Dove also stays on top of a mentoring program that focuses mainly on young boys without their fathers in the home. There are also two girls' mentoring programs -- one for younger girls, one for teens.
And TOPPS takes its kids on trips, domestic and, for the first time this year, abroad, to London and Paris. Each traveler had to put in 100 volunteer hours. "Even though people are helping you, you turn around and give back to somebody else," Annette Dove says.
Dove has a full-time staff of five, plus part timers and volunteers. "This summer we hired 15 students, some through the city for the youth programs, some with our budget," she says. "We've provided a pre-job training program to make sure they have the necessary skills to be ready to work. We've been working with the city six, seven years now, and that's an excellent opportunity."
TOPPS also operates reading programs, provides internet access and feeds kids. By late July, the program had served more than 830 meals, though that number drops considerably in the fall, when children are back in school.
State Rep. Vivian Flowers of Pine Bluff, who represents the state's 17th District (and who is the state senator's first cousin), says she's "just floored" by "how [Dove] has not let funding challenges; capital, structural challenges; or certainly her own health challenges stop her.
"A lot of kids just fall through the cracks or might be invisible to the people who are doing their jobs ... or who might be overwhelmed, as we know many of our teachers and our counselors are." Dove, she says, "goes above and beyond" to make sure kids reach their potential, "so they can be more than OK, so they can do more than just survive."
WHEN THINGS GET TIGHT
Dove hasn't had to put in her own money for a while. When things get tight, and they have, help has always arrived.
In 2011, "God sent Ray White as an angel to me," Dove says. White, a former journalist, was working with the Arkansas Food Bank, got interested in Dove's feeding program and wanted to come to Pine Bluff to see how it worked.
Dove was reluctant; she was trying to organize things so she could take a couple of weeks off, her first vacation since she'd started TOPPS. And "I had no funding, except for the food reimbursement, and that's never enough," Dove recalls.
White persisted, so she agreed to give him half an hour. Over lunch, he peppered her with questions: "Why are you doing this? Why did you give up your life to do this?" Her answer: "My husband had died, all my kids were grown, and I want to see other kids have an opportunity."
White decided to help get her some publicity. A Little Rock TV station sent a camera crew but that didn't produce a wave of donations, so he contacted some friends at NBC. They set up an interview that was to air Dec. 12, 2011, on the network's Rock Center With Brian Williams. Dove learned the identity of the interviewer minutes before the interview began: Chelsea Clinton.
"We could not pay the utility bills," Dove recalls. "We did not have $500. [It] aired and people started giving to us [from] all over the world. We were able to operate for three years after she did that interview."
Meanwhile, Dove had been feeling ill; doctors eventually told her she had an enlarged heart that was beating at only 10 percent of capacity. She had no money and no insurance to pay for a defibrillator, but with help from an itinerant insurance salesman, she had the surgery. The device worked for one day and quit. Another doctor told her she'd need a transplant.
With prayer -- and a change in medications -- Dove rallied. Within six months, her heart efficiency improved from 10 percent to 25 percent; in another six months, it was almost normal.
"That was God giving me my second opportunity to finish what I'm doing," she says.
As funding was ebbing again late in 2016, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof discovered Dove. His Dec. 3 op-ed piece was hyperbollically headlined "Finding America's Mother Teresa."
"We were back to zero almost," Dove says. "God has opened doors for us, you know? When Nick came in and did his story, it opened another door for us."
TOPPS is, paradoxically, better known elsewhere than it is in Pine Bluff, where local business owners are still discovering it. "We try to put our work out there, but a lot of people don't know we're in town and the kind of work we do here," Dove says.
"That's so true," says Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington. Newcomers to Pine Bluff who meet Dove are amazed that she's not well known in her own town. "They're blown away. 'You have this phenomenal woman within your community and you don't know what she's doing?'"
Washington has known Dove for close to 40 years; they met at church while both were Pine Bluff teachers, though they did not work at the same school.
"She was always outgoing and compassionate, a real go-getter," she says. "She's been like that for as long as I've known her.
"She's not doing it for money, she's not doing it for accolades from anybody, she's just doing it from a heart of wanting to help her community be better."
"I felt like it would be easy, and it wasn't," Dove says. But it's all worth it "when you see the success of children, when they go off and they finish school and get their degrees, and when they tell me, 'Ms. Dove, if it wasn't for you, I would have been in jail or on drugs.'
"I don't want a kid to pass my way and say nobody tried to help him. We maybe can't help everyone, but if you come this way, and you listen, we're going to do what we can to help you."
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Jan. 11, 1956, Pine Bluff
FAMILY: husband, the late William Dove Jr.; four children; and six grandchildren
FAVORITE FOOD: seafood FAVORITE JUNK FOOD: a candy thing — coconut Almond Joy
THE MENU FOR MY LAST MEAL: mac and cheese and seafood — let’s say crab legs
I ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT EAT possum.
FAVORITE COLOR: royal blue
IF I HAD TO LIVE OUTSIDE ARKANSAS IT WOULD BE IN San Antonio.
I’M MOST COMFORTABLE WITH PEOPLE WHO … are givers. They care about other people. They are genuine.
GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY: Barack Obama, Billy Dee Williams and Rachel Maddow — I just love her.
IF I’VE LEARNED ONE THING IN LIFE, IT’S … to be true, no matter what people think about you. Be honest with yourself [regardless of] others’ opinions.
I WANT MY KIDS TO REMEMBER the life lesson to give back. Have a strong faith in God. You can’t live in this world without that strong faith.
THE BEST LESSON I’VE EVER RECEIVED WAS from my mom — “Make sure you’re right in what you’re doing.”
MY PET PEEVE ABOUT SOCIETY: Everybody doesn’t have the same opportunities. Society will say they do, but they don’t.
A PHRASE TO SUM ME UP: a giver
High Profile on 08/13/2017
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