I am speaking today in Bismarck, North Dakota at the Ignite Legendary Leaders conference and sharing below my most recent weekly column. It ties into my speaking topic of Building Engagement, Online and Offline. When we moved to our small town and rural county it was the most elderly per capita county in the U.S. I was pregnant—and thought we were one of a few young couples who would move to Wishek to be the next generation in a family business.
I was wrong. In the coming months and years I met scores of young families. I saw other pregnant mamas in the small town grocery store. We were invited to another young family’s home one night and there were at least six other young families. All of them had family ties to the area and chose to come back for professional jobs. I distinctly remember thinking we were not alone. It didn’t matter what the statistics portrayed—our rural area was going to endure and thrive.
Instead of a “rural brain drain,” young families are changing the tide and settling in our small-town of Wishek. Our youngest daughter’s has 27 kids in her kindergarten class—nine more than our son will graduate with in May or that my husband’s graduating class had more than 20 years ago.
A few years ago, I sat through public interviews for a key community role. One candidate described our town as a “typical small town.” I thought to myself, “He doesn’t know our small town, or any for that matter.” I bit my tongue and sat on my hands.
If a small town is going to thrive it can’t be typical. We have to dig in and differentiate ourselves, just like we would with our businesses or products. One way to differentiate our rural communities is by our willingness to serve.
As a general rule of thumb, the more active a community or area, the more tourism, businesses and employees it attracts. The more money invested in your area, the stronger your economy becomes.
With a new generation comes the need to shift volunteer and leadership efforts and roles. Of course, every service group, community or county organization and elected or volunteer board is comprised of patriarchs and matriarchs. But a new generation needs to step up to pitch in.
Take the time to learn from those who have served before you, but know you don’t have to do it like it’s always been done. Be willing to give your time, just as the patriarchs and matriarchs did to make way for a community you can call home.
A couple weeks ago, I went around our small town to gather the needed signatures to add my name to our city council ballot. We have five open positions due to terms ending and two people moving. I’m one of eight candidates on the ballot. For a town of 1,000 people in a county of 2,500, I think eight on the ballot is impressive. It shows community investment, civic interest and a willingness to serve.
There are other ways I can volunteer that don’t involve boards or elections. This past winter, I helped three friends as they transitioned daycares. Two to four days a week for six weeks I watched their combined six kids. Those winter days created memories I will treasure for years to come. I made a lot of homemade playdough and dug out toys from our basement I hadn’t seen in years. This time of year, I volunteer coach high school discus and shotput throwers. I get to spend hours in various spring weather conditions with kids who are willing to put in time for a sport I love.
Recently, our family helped lead a service at our church, which is between ministers. My husband, Nathan, played the trombone, my son, Hunter, played the trumpet and piano, my oldest daughter, Elizabeth, read scripture and played the piano and my youngest daughter, Anika, brought fruit snacks to hand out during Hunter’s children message. I shared a message rooted in life experiences. It wasn’t anything extraordinary—we were just willing to step up and serve when needed. In the end, we received the blessing and were stronger for our service.
I’m not any different than anyone else in the community. I don’t have any more or less time. We choose to serve and fill in where we can in a variety of roles. It doesn’t have to be on an organized board or elected position. You can plug in where needed, and if you don’t know where that is, ask area leaders or call an organization.
If we want our rural areas and small towns to thrive through what seems like today as rocky, uncertain economic times and be poised to bring in another generation, maybe it’s your turn to step up and fill in. Or, maybe it’s your turn to step down and ask someone new to serve.
Dig in, and be more than “typical” in your service.