By Jeff Yost
On November 8 nearly 500 Nebraskans gathered at Norfolk’s DeVent Center and Divots Conference Center to talk about the future. They represented dozens of the 257 hometowns that make up a growing community of communities, better known as the Nebraska Community Foundation network. They are volunteers, there on their own volition because they care deeply about their hometowns. They are building stronger communities in their own places and together, a Greater Nebraska.
Part volunteer training, part hometown expo, part celebratory banquet, Nebraska Community Foundation (NCF) volunteers report that they attend NCF’s Annual Celebration year after year because it affords them the opportunity to connect with peers across the state who share their optimism, goals and ambitions – like providing access to early childhood development and workforce development to all Nebraskans, attracting returners and newcomers, and giving “stayers” lots of reasons to remain in the hometowns they love. The NCF Annual Celebration puts community “experts” (i.e. the people who live and work there) at the center of learning. All participants are encouraged to engage, exchange information and share their own stories. This peer-to-peer learning model has served NCF well over the years.
The theme of the event was “Unleash, Inspire, Connect,” a nod to NCF’s newly established mission statement which reads: “We unleash abundant local assets, inspire charitable giving, and connect ambitious people to build stronger communities and a Greater Nebraska.” There are countless community stories across the Nebraska Community Foundation network that embody these pillars of our work and many of their stories were lifted up at this year’s Annual Celebration.
“Unleashing abundant local assets” is at the heart of asset-based community development, a philosophy and practice that defines the NCF approach. Asset-based community development flexes the strengths and tools already at a community’s disposal, rather than creating new ones. For instance, the Atkinson Community Foundation Fund partnered with Brush Creek Brewing Company, a local brewery, to concoct Nebraska’s only zip code beer, made entirely from ingredients grown in the 68713 zip code. All proceeds from beer sales benefitted Atkinson’s community unrestricted endowment. Talk about putting local assets to work. NCF Annual Celebration attendees were among the very last to enjoy a sample of Atkinson’s zip code beer – unsurprisingly, supply was outpaced by demand.
All across the NCF network, volunteers are “inspiring charitable giving,” but one of the most impressive examples in recent memory comes out of Pender where an over $7 million state-of-the-art community center was constructed through the contributions of local citizens, solicited by fellow community members who believe in the future of their hometown. The Pender Community Center houses the village offices, veterans organization, a 24-hour fitness center, recreation and fine arts space, and an early childhood development center. Susan Jensen, a volunteer on the Pender Thurston Education & Community Foundation Fund, closed out our evening banquet by telling her extraordinary community’s story.
“Connecting ambitious people” is the sole purpose of NCF’s Annual Celebration but we also see it happening throughout the year across the state. Four community leaders from Columbus – Karina Perez of Centro Hispano, Yesenia Peck of Nebraska Public Power District, Troy Loeffelholz, of Columbus Public Schools, and K.C. Belitz of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce – had an opportunity to share their story during a lunchtime panel discussion centered on “inviting, welcoming and belonging.” In the midst of a massive skilled worker shortage, ambitious citizens and organizations are partnering to attract and welcome newcomers to Columbus to fill hundreds of available, necessary jobs.
You can think of these elements – unleash, inspire, connect – as three circles in a Venn diagram. Their intersection serves as the sweet spot where we begin to see really amazing things happening in Nebraska communities. It is within that intersection where hometowns of choice are created. Communities that will attract and nurture young families. Ones that their children and their children’s children will be proud to call home.