Volunteer spirit makes Diller more than just ‘another small town’

August 23, 2017

Diller, Nebraska (pop. 260). It’s one of the prettiest little towns you’ll see traveling south on Highway 103. Visit sometime. Discover it for yourself.

In Diller, things just seem to get taken care of. Sandy Kotas mows the grass and tends the gardens around the welcome signs on the north and south entrances to town. Larry Germer keeps the mini-park memorial garden on Main Street looking beautiful throughout the year. Kate Schnuelle mows and trims the area around the Diller sign at the intersection of Highway 136 and 103. People show up without asking for acknowledgement to mow the north and south right of ways into Diller.

Volunteerism is a way of life in Diller, a place where people have pitched in to help with a community celebration around the Fourth of July for 121 consecutive years. But helping hands can only do so much.

“We wanted to give our community a financial resource for the future,” said Beth Roelfs. As one of the founding members of the Diller Community Foundation Fund in 1999, Roelfs has played a key role in nurturing community philanthropy in her hometown. She served as chair of the fund until two years ago. She has helped build the fund’s unrestricted endowment to more than a half million dollars. All the while, she has worked with dozens of other community leaders to raise money and complete projects that make Diller a remarkable hometown.

Tammy Weers, treasurer of the Diller Community Foundation Fund, an affiliated fund of Nebraska Community Foundation, can rattle off an impressive list of projects as if she were naming members of her family:

“Two important projects in the past have been the construction of a new fire hall and the renovation of our post office that was in disrepair and at risk of being closed. The community saw the need for the improvements and we were able to facilitate contributions from donors and also provide financial support for the projects. We have an account designated for our main street that provides funding each year to plant flowers and for the flags that are put out on the new decorative lamp posts on all holidays. And of course, there’s the beautiful mini-park on Main Street, too.”

A particular point of pride for Diller is its renovated opera house. Current chair of the Fund, Dennis Schmidt, explained that the project has been ongoing for quite a few years. An annual shrimp feed is its biggest fund raiser, attracting 500 to 700 people. “We’ve put on a new roof, installed new windows, filled in the basement and added new heating and air conditioning,” Schmidt said.

Today the stately old building, beautifully restored, is a landmark, celebrating a proud past and a hopeful future. Part of that continuum is the people who no longer live in and around Diller, but still care deeply about their hometown.

In 2006, former resident Al Svajgr offered the Diller Community Foundation Fund an unconventional gift — a truckload of heifers worth $50,000. Members of the fund advisory committee where thrilled, and they chose to make the major gift even more significant to the community. The Fund challenged the community to raise a three-to-one match — $150,000 — as a catalyst for building an unrestricted endowment.

The community responded to the challenge. Within two years the matching dollars were raised, and the resulting $200,000 endowment went to work. Since then, more than $47,000 has been granted from the payout on the endowment, yet the endowment has continued to grow. Through investment earnings and new contributions, it now totals more than $580,000.

Annual grants have supported dozens of youth programs, community celebrations, sports teams, the public schools, a fitness center, the Old Bank Museum, and the volunteer fire and rescue units.

“One of our resources for the community is to publish an annual newsletter sent to about 900 people. It not only recaps what we have been able to do to support the community; it also allows some of the community projects to use the pages to promote their causes,” said Roelfs.

Tammy Weers said, “I’m most proud of what we can give back to the community each year. That is the most rewarding part of being on the fund advisory committee. One of our focuses is on youth, encouraging them to come back to the community.”

“People are coming back to small towns,” Schmidt said. “People are sometimes surprised at the number of jobs and businesses in town. The main street looks so good now. The decorative streetlamps — all of them courtesy of the generous donors who sponsored them — are a nice addition.”

Scott Pretzer is vice chair of the fund. He and his family are moving from Firth back to the family farm near Diller. Pretzer intends to continue his veterinary work in Lincoln on a part-time basis, but being close to home and family is very important to him.

“I said yes to being on the Diller fund advisory committee because I saw the impact many of the past grants had on the community. I think the unrestricted endowment is important because it is a savings account for the future of our hometown, and it can have a positive impact on Diller for a long time. Part of being proud of your hometown is ensuring a way that it is taken care of, and this is the perfect way to do that,” Pretzer said.

Dennis Schmidt now lives in Beatrice where he works in the IT department for Southeast Community College, but Diller has been “home” all his life. “I grew up there, went to school, and still go to church and farm with my brothers there.”

Being involved as a volunteer is as natural to Schmidt as it is to many in the community. His family grew up helping mow the cemetery on occasion, laying brick on the community building and shingling the roof.

He believes that people in thriving small towns are used to thinking 30 years from now, not 30 minutes. It’s about small-town communities willing to sacrifice the “now” for the “future.” And it’s this futuristic attitude that is driving the success of the community’s most recent challenge grant. Diller Community

Foundation Fund is working to raise $200,000 to receive an additional $100,000 offered through a private foundation.

Schmidt said he is humbled by the generosity of all the people and businesses in the community who are helping to reach their goal.

“And I need to say ‘Kudos!’ to Nebraska Community Foundation for helping communities understand the long-term benefits of fostering a positive vision. The training sessions that NCF sponsors brings Diller together with communities across the state to share learning experiences and keep each other motivated.

Everyone is so eager to share, so that you don’t have to start projects and ideas from scratch — it’s just an amazing thing that speaks to the goodness of the wonderful people across the state of Nebraska,” Schmidt said.

“Besides being able to raise and grant money for projects, we’ve been able to change the mindset of the community,” said Roelfs. “Oftentimes in smaller communities you might hear ‘That can’t happen, there’s not enough money, there’s not the manpower.’ People are now saying ‘Let’s see what we can accomplish; let’s dream what we can accomplish. We may not get all the way there, but let’s see how far we can reach.’ With our volunteers and the funding we can provide, it’s enabled people to become visionary about their community.”

If you are type of person who likes planning ahead, think about visiting Diller’s 122nd community picnic around the Fourth of July next year. It will be a great chance to experience what community pride and volunteer spirit is all about. The picnic committee, with its recent grant from the Diller Community Foundation Fund, is already recruiting volunteers and working out the details!