— It would be hard to start a more rural, small business than Evelyn Haye has.

But that’s what she did 15 minutes west of this farm and college town, on S.C. Highway 4, halfway to Neeses, a village of fewer than 400.

Creative Expressions & Gifts, the store Haye opened three years ago, is similar to a Hallmark shop except that Haye creates or personalizes almost everything herself, from flower arrangements and gift baskets to greeting cards, T-shirts and balloons. And instead of occupying part of a shopping mall, Haye’s store sits along a rural, two-lane highway in what used to be her garage.

It may not seem like much, but to Adolphus Johnson, Haye, and others like her, offer hope for economic stability in rural South Carolina. She’s an up-and-coming entrepreneur who just needed a helping hand in the form of a small grant.

The grant is among several community development programs in the state modeled somewhat on the microloan concept of a Bangladeshi economist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for using tiny loans to help poor women start businesses.

Microloans have enabled millions of Bangladeshi and Indian women buy everything from cows to sewing machines to start and run businesses. It’s expanded to benefit much of the world.

The hope is that similar efforts can help poor areas of South Carolina. The focus is on rural and struggling areas of the state, including the 26 counties of Forgotten South Carolina that were left behind as the rest of the state advanced economically in recent decades.

Johnson directs New America Corp., a nonprofit he set up two years ago to help improve Orangeburg County’s economy by helping people help themselves. One tool is a Business Individual Development Account.

Those who qualify must regularly put money in a savings account for at least six months.

The program will match savings of up to $1,000 at a rate of $3 for every $1 saved. In other words, if a person saves $1,000, the program will match it with $3,000. Participants must attend personal finance and business training sessions and develop a business plan.

The money can be used for most anything that helps people enhance their ability to prosper, such as for higher education or buying a home. Johnson prefers to focus on those wanting to start or expand a business.

He started the grants in partnership with the S.C. Association of Community Development Corporations, which has spread the program to community development organizations across the state.

Johnson sees Haye as a budding success story for his effort.

When she started her business in 2010, her store was more garage than store. “I’d pull the garage door up and down and have a table with displays inside,” she said.

She heard about New America’s savings and grant program last year through a friend at church who gave her the $50 application fee.

For many businesses $3,000 wouldn’t mean much, but for Haye, it was a lifesaver. She recently got the full $3,000 match and used the money for equipment and supplies to expand.

“I was going to get every penny they had to offer me,” she said. “I was having quite a struggle. It gave me the boost I needed.”

BMW, Boeing or people

The community development association reports that since the savings and grant program began in 2001, $750,000 in grant money has generated almost $11.5 million in economic impact. That’s from the purchase of 80 homes, 67 people returning to school and the creation of 103 small businesses.

Compared with the need in South Carolina, the amount of money available is tiny and the impact negligible. But Bernie Mazyck, who heads the community development association, said it shows that if people who exhibit effort and desire get a small boost, it can make a big difference in their lives and can benefit their communities.

Given that almost one in five South Carolinians lives in poverty, it would take more than $3 billion “to meet that need with our program,” Mazyck said.

The idea that the state would pony up that amount of money is fantasy, but Mazyck believes the long-term investment would have been better than what the state has gotten from its business incentive program to attract new industry and promote company expansions.

Some areas of the state are certainly better off from those business incentives, such as Greenville and Charleston, which got BMW and Boeing, respectively. Both brought huge investments, big employment numbers and high salaries. But jobs from those giant companies and from most recruited industries generally aren’t spread to rural areas.

The state offers no real accounting of how much it has spent in incentives, which are given to companies in the form of tax breaks, cheap land, training and infrastructure.

Boeing alone has received more than $1 billion in incentives since 2009, when it decided to build a Dreamliner assembly plant in North Charleston.

Mazyck imagines what it would be like if the state invested $1 billion in small grants and loans to help its poor start or expand businesses, buy homes or improve their educations.

“I believe there would be a greater return on investment, not to mention leveraging the state’s investment,” he said.

New America is one of 10 community development organizations in the state offering the grant program. So far, New America has helped start or expand seven small businesses with the grants.

The program is designed to help break the cycle of poverty by encouraging poor and low-income people to work toward their future, Johnson said.

Unfortunately, many poor people exist in a live-for-today world, he said. “They don’t think about the future.” They are so down they can’t imagine that something good could happen to them with hard work, education and self-discipline.

Johnson grew up in Bennettsville in what he described as a lower-middle-class family. His parents didn’t go to college but made sure he and his three sisters did. Johnson went to S.C. State, where he majored in business administration. After graduation, he started his own contracting business.

He said he always wanted to use the skills he learned to help people but came to realize that “it’s kind of hard to help people unless they have money.”

That’s what made him focus New America’s efforts on programs to empower low-income people by encouraging them with a little monetary aid if they take positive steps to improve their financial capability.

New America, and several other community development organizations around the state, also offer small loans to people who don’t qualify for regular loans but show promise.

Johnson’s loan program is funded by a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He is in the process of working out approval of New America’s first loan.

Johnson said he’s considering offering one of the loans to Evelyn Haye so she can further expand Creative Expressions.

“You gotta be resourceful and use what you have to get what you want,” Johnson said.

And that’s a perfect description of what Haye has done.

Taking the plunge

Haye turned to her faith to decide if she should quit her teaching job at Elloree Elementary School and start the business of her dreams.

After a women’s prayer conference at church, she knew. Two weeks into her 28th school year, she quit teaching and threw her all into Creative Expressions.

She cashed in her retirement and most of her savings so she could pay off her mortgage 10 years early and buy the delivery van, supplies and equipment needed to start her business.

Having no debt helped her in the rough early years when she also had no real income.

“Whole months went by with no money. ... It was very tough at times and has totally been a walk of faith,” she said.

Faith provided encouragement and purpose, but she wishes she had had something else in those first two years: the financial and business training she had to take when she signed on to New America’s savings and match program.

“I learned a lot from the classes and I had an opportunity to write a business plan, which is something I had really needed to do.”

She no longer lifts a garage door for customers to enter her store. An inviting entrance now graces the remodeled garage where her creations fill every shelf and counter, a tribute to the variety of her work.

The amount of foot traffic isn’t what she would like it to be, but people from across the country have discovered her website and she is willing to ship to almost anywhere. She estimates about one-third of her business comes from the Internet. Most of the rest of her business is phone orders, often from word of mouth.

Haye confesses she’s still “nowhere near” making what she earned teaching. But with the equipment and supplies she purchased from the $4,000 in savings and grant money, she feels ready to take the next step.

“My main goal was to be in a position to create jobs. I’m on the road to it.”

Reach Doug Pardue at 937-5558.