For Nebraska Community Foundation, stabilizing and growing population in our smaller communities is our highest priority. Our goal is to build communities where young people will choose to live, work and raise their families. What we have learned is that this is what young people would actually prefer.
Ten years ago, middle and high school students in McCook were among the first in Nebraska to respond to a survey on rural youth attitudes, sponsored by Nebraska Community Foundation. To date, more than 7,000 Nebraska students, and thousands more in other states, have volunteered their opinions about living in their small towns.
There is a perception among many adults that kids in small towns just want to get out. However, only 12% say their town is too small. What’s more, most of those surveyed told us they could easily see themselves staying in or returning to their hometown in the future, if career opportunities were available. Living close to family was the overriding reason for their desire to remain or return.
Teens in McCook appear to have an independent streak, with 46% expressing an interest in taking an entrepreneurship class and owning their own business someday.
One telling note, however, is fewer than a third of the youths said an adult had asked for their ideas about how their community could be improved.
These findings served as a wake-up call for leaders in McCook. With more than half of young people preferring to stay in or return to their hometown, it was their job to help them find a way to do so.
Volunteers with the McCook Community Foundation Fund, an affiliated fund of Nebraska Community Foundation, took the lead in reaching out to young adults.
MCFF helped relaunch the Hormel Entrepreneurship Competition through McCook Community College. The goal is to promote economic gardening in the region. The program supports entrepreneurs in the startup and growth phase by offering classes in business plan writing. Multiple contestants are awarded up to $25,000 in prize money to develop or expand their business idea, with no strings attached. Ten years ago, the competition’s first winner, Cody Dame, opened his dream business, Game On. Late last year he opened his fourth store in Grand Island.
McCook Community Foundation Fund is considered NCF’s go-to group for getting projects off the ground and helping out towards the end. Three years ago, a group of committed high school students used an MCFF challenge grant of $10,000 to launch fundraising for a world class skate park. Early on, the City was not overly supportive. But the youths and their supporters raised more than $95,000 to offset the $135,000 construction cost, and City officials now praise the park as one of the best in the state. The City recently accepted a $1,500 grant to add to the skate park lighting project, which is nearing its $14,000 goal.
With their sights set on long-term impact, McCook leaders and generous donors created an endowment to provide ongoing funding to address youth engagement far into the future. One of the first steps was to form a youth committee to advise their adult mentors on grantmaking that would directly benefit McCook’s kids. The group named itself “Youth Change Reaction” and went to work.
They have helped develop a disc golf course at the city’s Kelly Creek Park. They joined the traditionally adult Southwest Nebraska Leadership Institute and directed grant funding for the elementary school’s backpack program, TeamMates mentoring, and junior high school entrepreneurship classes. Recently, YCR used their endowment payout to purchase Chromebooks for the 5th grade social studies class.
Of course, youth and young adult-oriented impacts are only one element of the Fund’s mission of “Inspiring investment in the quality of life for the people of southwest Nebraska.” If you live in or travel to McCook, you will experience what “quality of life” looks and feels like. A vibrant downtown, first-class health, recreation and education facilities, and a culture of giving where every gift, large or small, is invested in a place people love to call home.