Laurel, an expanding community, driven by philanthropy

By AUSTIN SVEHLA | Norfolk Daily News

LAUREL – In her 13 years residing in Laurel, Christine Rasmussen has had the opportunity at a firsthand look at the town’s growth.

One of her first undertakings after becoming Laurel’s economic development coordinator in February was the implementation of a yearly youth philanthropy contest.

“I had been going through a checkout actually and the Norfolk Daily News paper was there ready for somebody to buy, and their front page was the youth philanthropy project (in Norfolk),” Rasmussen said. “So, I grabbed a paper and took it home with me and read about it and I was like ‘I think we should try this.’

“My first week here, I had a meeting with my new committee and they were all in. I threw out a few feelers and people jumped right on it. I called the Norfolk Chamber and they hooked me up with Callan Collins and I told her I’m interested in what you’re doing.”

Collins is coordinator for the Norfolk Area Community Foundation Fund. The NACFF serves the Philanthropy Council, which puts on the Norfolk Youth Philanthropy Contest that began in 2012.

When Rasmussen approached Collins about a potential youth philanthropy project in Laurel, Collins offered applications, contest guidelines and timelines to help kick-start the process.

“We put so much time and work into it that we are happy to help anyone else who wants to do the same thing in their community,” Collins said. “We’ve seen what it’s done for Norfolk so we know that if this happens in another community, great things are going to happen.”

The youth philanthropy project is an opportunity for youths and young adults to use their creativity, compassion and love of their community to help create change. The goal is to help people from kindergarten to age 25 think about how they can make a difference in their community.

“The kids win because they get to come up with an idea, they get to make a change that they want to see happen and we get to help make that happen and the community wins because something got changed for the better,” Collins said.

Youths from Laurel, Coleridge, Concord, Dixon and Belden are all encouraged to enter. This year, three projects were submitted by two entrants.

A girl from Coleridge opted to do birthday bags as an option for families who can’t afford them, including everything one would need to have a birthday party with up to eight friends.

A local 4-H club added fitness equipment up to the walking trail on the west side of the football field and a stand-and-spin piece of equipment outside the swimming pool as a way to encourage kids to spend more time outdoors. The winners are awarded up to $500 by the youth philanthropy committee to implement their projects.

Plans for the 2020 project are underway, as presentations to encourage participation were given this Tuesday at schools in each of the five communities. Applications are already being accepted and are due June 1. The individuals or groups then have until Oct. 1 to complete their projects.

Paperwork is then completed over the next month before the contest takes place in the first part of November every year.

“After you get that first year under your belt, you know a lot more,” Rasmussen said. “We got this started earlier this time so if classrooms wanted to do something, they would still have time to do it before school gets out.”

Each of the students and their community partners will be recognized at a chamber banquet in January to give each person involved a chance to talk to community members about their projects.

The project adds yet another positive aspect to both the surrounding communities and Laurel itself, a town prospering in a multitude of ways.

The City of Laurel is readying itself for a downtown revitalization project set to begin in 2021. It is being coordinated to take out the median along a two-block stretch and flatten out the streets and sidewalks to provide a more level surface to walk on.

The Community Redevelopment Authority bought 110 acres south of town for redevelopment, and housing studies and a comprehensive plan are being updated. It’s the latest addition to the town of nearly 1,000 residents.

“Laurel is a really good town,” Rasmussen said. “People come together to make things happen. This position (economic development coordinator) was actually vacant for 18 months while they were trying to find somebody and the committees kept meeting to keep things going so when you got here, it wasn’t like starting from scratch. I was very impressed with that.”

Rasmussen has lived in various communities in Northeast Nebraska, including attending school at Northeast Community College in Norfolk and Wayne State College in Wayne. She has developed a keen knowledge of the area and what it has to offer, and she is proud of what Laurel has to give.

“When I had first moved here (13 years ago), I had been told how they all came together to get the concession stand and do the new football field and the tunnel that comes underneath the highway,” Rasmussen said. “Things have happened, and there’s always a story behind it, but they get it done.”