Dr. Mary Williams has lived in Clarksdale, Mississippi, her entire life. She worked at the local hospital as a nurse practitioner for over 20 years. When she started Urgent & Primary Care of Clarksdale, there were no other after-hours clinics in Clarksdale.

“I was inspired to start my business because there was a need for after-hours care in the rural community,” Mary said. “People have to drive 45 minutes to get service after hours.”

“The need was there. I was available, and what better way to give all of myself to the community?”

Clarksdale, Mississippi, is a rural town of only 14,894 people, 34.5% of whom live in poverty. This rural southern town is located in Coahoma County, which has as its western border the mighty Mississippi River.

Running a business in a rural area is challenging, Mary said.

“Because we’re such a small area, we make such a small dot on the map,” she said. “It’s not an area that people would look at and bring attention to — ‘Let’s go to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and look at the rate of diabetes. Let’s go to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and look at kidney disease.’ That doesn’t happen.”

Those factors make it challenging to get financing and assistance for small businesses and startups. It meant driving 60 miles to the University of Mississippi-Oxford to utilize the Small Business Administration’s mentorship and other programs for Mary.

Even so, Mary said she needed assistance, particularly with accounting. That’s when she found out about Communities Unlimited.

After being introduced to Deborah Temple, Director of Lending for Communities Unlimited, Mary decided to take out a loan to help with her business startup costs. Deborah then connected her with Lequita Gray, a management consultant at Communities Unlimited, who assisted her with her finances and business management practices.

“She’s been a tremendous help, and I want to thank Communities Unlimited for that,” Mary said about Lequita.

As the business began to grow, so did the loyalty from the town’s residents, who seemed to appreciate that she had invested so much into her hometown.

Six months after Mary’s clinic opened, a national chain opened a clinic down the road. At first, Mary was worried about the competition.

“But you know what the town did for me? The day the other clinic opened, I had no [empty] parking spaces,” she said. “That week, and from that point on, they made it clear that ‘we support local, and we’re behind you.’”

Mary’s clinic was thriving almost from the beginning until COVID-19 hit.

“I went from seeing 25-30 patients a day to seeing five or six because we had to shelter in place,” Mary said.

She said she could see the vast impact the pandemic was having on her rural community, an insight many people didn’t have.

“In a small community, you don’t have a lot of manufacturing, and it’s really rural. So if they’re out of work, you can imagine the economic impact,” she said. “It has already impacted us wholly, but that economic impact on a small, rural community is unbelievable.

“It’s heartbreaking, that’s what it is. It’s heartbreaking.”