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Midlands Voices: Philanthropy boosting communities

Midlands Voices: Philanthropy boosting communities

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Bereuter represented Nebraska in Congress from 1979-2004 and currently serves on the Nebraska Community Foundation board of directors. Yost is the foundation’s president and CEO.

What a great time to be living, working and raising a family in Nebraska. This sentiment is shared by an increasing number of adults in the prime of their lives who are choosing to live in our rural communities. In 50 of Nebraska’s most rural counties population growth for people in their 30s and 40s is on the rise.

On Nov. 5, volunteer leaders from across the state will join the Nebraska Community Foundation in Columbus as we “rewrite the rural narrative” with sociologists from the University of Minnesota and University of Nebraska-Lincoln, along with educators in asset-based community development. The all-day training event for NCF’s affiliated funds and the evening banquet will be a celebration of the positive trends we are seeing across the state.

What the Nebraska Community Foundation has been advocating for more than 20 years is gaining traction.

Today, people can choose to live and work just about anywhere. Our mission is to also enable them to choose our hometowns. Community-led philanthropy is helping to make this happen.

Community leaders have long lamented the fact that so many of their high school graduates leave town and never come back. Of course progressive communities should recognize that many of their young citizens leave for education, experience and skills that will equip them to be more productive citizens — wherever they choose to live. This is not necessarily a permanent loss.

The 30- and 40-year-olds who are returning to smaller communities are likely to have expanded levels of education and career and leadership experience.

They are representative of the 51 percent of Americans who say they would prefer to live in a small town or rural area, according to the Pew Research Center. The same study points out that by a ratio of more than 3-to-1, Americans prefer living where the pace of life is slower and where neighbors know each other well.

Welcome to small-town Nebraska. Today, thanks to 21st century technology, people can choose to live close to family and friends, enjoy their preferred lifestyle and still stay connected to anywhere in the world.

Philanthropy is making that choice possible. Throughout Nebraska, our 220 affiliated funds are using local philanthropy to build on local assets. It may be an arts program or a fitness center, health care, child care or elder care. We are investing in what our changing demographic will need and desire in order to come home for good.

For example, Nebraska Community Foundation’s affiliated fund in Shickley is intent on making this small town of 341 a viable option for young families. The fund has provided grants for early childhood development and K-12 education — from playground equipment to sophisticated interfaces and sensors for the high school science department. Good schools and quality affordable child care are attracting young adults to the community, which will soon transform a cornfield on the northwest edge of town with infrastructure for 15 housing lots.

The Connie Fund, an NCF donor-advised fund established by the late Connie Day of Norfolk, put Chromebooks and iPads into the hands of every child in Jefferson Elementary School this fall. It’s the first elementary school in Norfolk to offer one-to-one technology for every student. This charitable investment in public education is stimulating conversations at the school board level on strategies for extending this opportunity to other elementary schools in the district.

In 2007, Nebraska Community Foundation worked with Holt County and its eight municipalities to create an economic development office and established a new NCF-affiliated fund — Holt County Economic Development, headquartered in O’Neill. Here are some reasons population is stabilizing after decades of decline:

» 57 new businesses started; 34 expansions; 26 successions: 377 jobs created and 209 retained.

» 142 graduates of Holt County Leadership Institute.

» $5 million endowed in seven affiliated funds for community/economic development.

» More than 300 individuals and families moved to the county in the last 10 years.

Community-led philanthropy is creating communities of choice across the state. Nebraska Community Foundation is proud to work alongside hundreds of ambitious people who are re-envisioning Nebraska’s rural places.

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