In the 21st century economy, people can choose to live and work almost anywhere, provided there’s ready access to a computer and a steady internet connection. Because of this, experts say the Great Plains – and places like rural Nebraska – are in the midst of a golden opportunity, and many communities are looking at unique ways to entice young people with options to their places.
Nebraska Community Foundation is just one organization that is helping communities of all sizes create the kind of amenities and quality of life solutions that will attract returners and newcomers to rural Nebraska. Two women at opposite ends of the state are doing just that – living, working and raising their young families exactly where they want to – in the heart of Greater Nebraska.
Originally from Hadar, Nebraska, Tracy Dennis moved to O’Neill in 2012. The wife of a Holt County native, Dennis began work for the O’Neill Chamber of Commerce and Holt County Economic Development, a position she says she loved and led to a multitude of new professional and personal connections throughout the region, including an invitation to serve on the local Nebraska Community Foundation affiliated fund, the O’Neill Community Foundation Fund.
Dennis says the Fund has become increasingly active in recent years, thanks to a challenge grant from an Omaha-based foundation that guaranteed $100,000 when volunteers were able to raise $200,000. That money directly benefits O’Neill’s unrestricted endowment, which is like a community savings account that generates earnings over time and can be used for any charitable purpose the Fund sees fit. In O’Neill, the endowment payout is being used in large part to attract young families like Dennis’ to the area. Funding for the hospital, community center, and a new extended campus for Northeast Community College are just a few examples.
For these reasons and more, Dennis says O’Neill has provided the ideal hometown for her young family, and lots of other young families are following suit.
“They spend 10 plus years in Omaha, finish their educations, and when they are ready to start their family, they move back.”
When she became pregnant with her second child, Dennis knew a change of pace was in order.
“You quickly realize when you’re a mom and your husband is a business owner that you need a lot of flexibility. Sick kids, doctors, appointments, preschool – we really needed someone who was more available.”
Around that time, Dennis’ sister-in-law reached out to her about a position at the small appraisal company she worked for in Houston, Texas. Best of all, it allowed Dennis the flexibility she craved and kept her in O’Neill. Today, Dennis’ work for EDI Appraisals, Inc. – which includes everything from scheduling appraisals to helping balance the books – can be done from the convenience of her own home, or more often, from her husband’s office in O’Neill.
It’s the ideal scenario for a busy, working parent with a passion for community service.
Kayla Schnuelle is another young Greater Nebraska returner who was looking for a career that would allow for the flexibility to accommodate her growing young family, but also allowed her to work in the community of her choosing – in Schnuelle’s case, that’s Diller, Nebraska, population 256.
Schnuelle recently began working remotely for Mission Matters, a team of facilitators and consultants providing leadership development, seminars, coaching and consulting services to nonprofit organizations, businesses and communities all over the country. Schnuelle said she chose to move her career in this direction because of her passion for and experience with rural communities across the state, precisely the kind of places the organization is looking to make more of an impact in.
Did Schnuelle always envision her future would take her back to her rural roots (she’s originally from Valentine)?
“No. I aspired to live in Boston and become a CEO,” said Schnuelle.
That all changed when she took an internship with Cherry County, working under her mentor, Bud Stoltzenberg. Schnuelle recalls him saying, “You have big ambitious dreams, but I think you should think about sharing your talent here in Nebraska.”
“I laughed and didn’t quite understand what he meant until much later in my life,” Schnuelle said.
After a couple of years, Schnuelle says she began to understand. She went on to pursue her master’s degree at UNL in Leadership Education where she fell in love with rural development. That led to the formation of Connecting Young Nebraskans, a statewide network designed to connect, empower and retain young leaders in rural areas of the state. Schnuelle was instrumental in the process.
“I was so sick of hearing about brain drain because I knew so many wonderful young ambitious people living and working in rural places,” said Schnuelle.
Since then, the network has grown to over 840 members. On November 7, they will hold their biannual summit in Pender, Nebraska, the day before Nebraska Community Foundation’s Annual Celebration in Norfolk. Young Nebraskans from across the state are invited to join. Both organizations are talking about ways to join their forces for good and extend an invitation to members of the respective statewide network.
Similar to Dennis, Schnuelle’s youth, passion and energy have been sought out by multiple local charitable organizations, among them, the Diller equivalent of the O’Neill Community Foundation Fund. Schnuelle was invited to serve on the campaign committee aimed at raising $200,000 for a two-to-one match of $100,000 by the same Omaha foundation.
But Schnuelle says this wasn’t just any invitation. Diller Community Foundation Fund volunteer Beth Roelfs personally came to her home and over a glass of lemonade, while Schnuelle’s sons played in the yard, Roelfs talked about what she could bring to the campaign.
“No one had ever asked me like this before!” said Schnuelle.
She happily accepted and says she hopes other organizations will follow the Diller Community Foundation Fund’s lead and invite young community members to join their causes and allow them to utilize their talents.
“I really feel like young 20-40 year-olds are highly oriented to community because they are purpose driven. They really like to find their purpose and this can often be done through community activities, volunteering and philanthropy.”
So, what’s Schnuelle’s purpose?
“I am the bridger – connecting community, people, and creative ideas by weaving a network of relationships. I talk to prospective young returners often. I ask them what they really want. What are they searching for – to be closer to family, a slower pace of life? That’s why I’m here. I tell them my story and how much I enjoy living rural and working with amazing people from across our great state.”