Young women in Atkinson are focused on the future of their hometown

There is a familiar old saying, “If you want something done, ask a busy woman!”

That about sums up the situation for the five very active working mothers who are moving full speed ahead for the future of Atkinson (pop. 1,245) in north-central Nebraska.

These young women, in their mid- to late-30s, form the super majority of the volunteer advisory committee of the Atkinson Community Foundation Fund. The Fund is on a mission to “enlighten and excite the people of Atkinson to make a difference in the community through financial generosity and volunteer commitment.” In other words, they’re raising money for their hometown.

Anders Olson, an affiliated fund development coordinator on staff with Nebraska Community Foundation, says this group does not exactly represent the norm. “Typically, I work with groups that, frankly, include a quite a few older, gray-haired men. With this fund advisory committee, five of the six members are young women,” Olson said.

He went on to say, “As they were updating their strategic plan, they realized they didn’t have any ‘gray hairs,’ and they may just need them for guidance and their connections. It’s been a fun group to watch. A year later, not having an extensive old boys’ network has not slowed them down in any way. They have been just as successful in asking for and gaining support as the other communities I work with.”

Shannon Olberding, the chair of the Atkinson Community Foundation Fund, admits that the lone male member of the group, Jim Brennan, may have acquired a few gray hairs over the past few years since the Fund has reinvented itself.

That was back in 2011, the year Olberding, a former math teacher, returned to her hometown with her husband, started a new career, had her first baby, and agreed to join the Atkinson Community Foundation Fund advisory committee.

“We joke about going after the fresh faces in town. When I came back in 2011, I was immediately identified as someone who could get involved with community work. This was the same time the Fund was reorganizing and rebooting,” Olberding said.

Olberding figured there wasn’t much of a chance of getting a teaching job for quite some time, probably until someone retired. So, she began working for Holt County Economic Development, an affiliated fund of Nebraska Community Foundation that supports entrepreneurship and business development in the county’s eight communities, including Atkinson.

“That was when I first learned about the transfer of wealth study and the update that NCF had just completed. This was very real to me. It makes you think about what will happen as wealth passes to the next generation and on and on. Where will the wealth go?

“I’m passionate about Atkinson. The economic development job increased this passion. My dad is the mayor and he’s been on the city council. We have to be ready to pass the torch to the next generation. That’s why I was so attracted to this work, because of the future of Atkinson,” Olberding said.

Shannon Olberding is now the mother of three children, ages five, four and three. She is a full-time insurance agent and a part-time fitness instructor with certifications in yoga, kickboxing, nutrition, strength and weight conditioning and small group fitness.

She says that her fund advisory committee sister members sometimes think of themselves as being a bit on the fringe of fitting in.

“We never feel like we have got it all together compared to other affiliated funds. That’s why we love the peer learning that NCF provides. In one of those early sessions we looked around, and other funds had 13 or 14 people there… and sub committees! We only had three or four. We’re all working people. That’s one reason we thought we needed some retired people who have some extra time!” Olberding said.

Although the Atkinson Community Foundation Fund had been in existence since 2002, it had become somewhat inactive, so the new group of volunteer women, along with Jim Brennan, one of the original founders and a former chair, were starting over. Their goal was to begin building an unrestricted endowment.

“We believe an unrestricted endowment is important because it is permanent. It’s here for the long-term. When we give back, it keeps giving back, to our children, our grandchildren and our great grandchildren,” Olberding said.

“Funds from our unrestricted endowment can support all the other nonprofits in the area and our town, too. We’re not competing; we’re cooperating.

“With an unrestricted endowment, we’ll be able act on opportunities we cannot even visualize today,” said Olberding. “I like the example Anders Olson uses: Think of people in the 1950s having a fund for the support of phone booths. How could that funding be used today? The future will decide for us what will be needed.”

Olberding said when the new group of volunteers first came together in 2011, nine out of 10 people in town were probably unaware of the Fund. “We knew we could not have one-on-one conversations about building an endowment if people could not see what an endowment can do. So, we began to support projects like the backpack program,” Olberding said. This is a popular program that provides food for under-privileged students to take home over the weekend.

An opportunity to do something on a much larger scale developed in the summer of 2013. The City of Atkinson agreed to allow the Fund to begin raising money for new playground equipment and other improvements at Mills Race Park, a former state recreation area. People realized the park was a hidden gem, but it was going to require some work.

“I had memories from childhood of the old equipment, but I wouldn’t want my kids crawling up the slide on a ladder with rungs 18 inches apart!” Olberding said. It took two years and a lot of work but the Fund met its $50,000 goal in the summer of 2015, and the new park and playground were completed and formally dedicated in June 2016.

“The park project was what we needed for people to see and touch, and to have our name on it, and our energy behind it. But doing the park project drove home our premise that we don’t want to fundraise for our own projects. We want people to come to us with their ideas. With an unrestricted endowment, we can work with the community and be a partner,” said Olberding.

Training provided by Nebraska Community Foundation has helped fund advisory committee members overcome their fear of asking others to contribute to the endowment. One workshop activity called “Finding My Voice” was particularly helpful.

“Writing out how the endowment benefits the community and then practicing it with others from different communities was very helpful. I was able to find something in common with everyone I talked to, and then tie it back to the endowment. This broke down the wall of fear of asking for contributions for both Nicky Cadwallader and me, and now we’ve made just as many, or maybe even more donor visits than Jim Brennan, who we used to joke would have to make all the calls!” Olberding said.

Brennan, who grew up in Atkinson, said he was pleasantly surprised that the younger demographic was so responsive. “They would say things like, ‘We should have been doing this a long time ago.’ It’s made me rethink my strategy of just talking to older people. It’s been very reassuring. These younger people have a different perspective. They’re engaged and moving forward,” Brennan said.

The younger generation is also moving back.

Lisa Bilstein, who moved from Montana, is the only fund advisory committee member not originally from the area. The others are all “returners” – people who left to go to school and start their careers, but found their path back to their hometown. Lisa married a local man and has two children.

Nicky Cadwallader and her husband went to college in Kearney, returned to Atkinson, and now have three children.

Megan Gotschall returned after college and career stops in Texas and South Dakota. She owns her own business, Ranch Country Cattle Services. Erin Jelinek, head teacher at St. Joseph Catholic School principal and the Fund’s treasurer, married a local man and is raising three children.

And Jim Brennan, now a senior vice president at Tri-County Bank, returned to Atkinson to take advantage of the opportunities to grow personally and professionally.

After decades of decline, the population of Atkinson has stabilized and appears to be growing, especially since 2010, according to U.S. Census estimates.

Fortunately, the people who are being attracted back to hometowns like Atkinson are demonstrating loads of enthusiasm and talent. And increasingly, the new crop of community leaders includes fearless young women with fresh ideas.

According to NCF’s Anders Olson, who works throughout north-central and northeast Nebraska, “In Holt County, and all along Highway 20, you find females in leadership roles. Highway 20 is full of rock star women, and Atkinson is a great example.”

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