PRAIRIE CITY - Volunteers in Grant County face the same, discouraging reality at nearly every meeting. Whenever a civic organization tries to plan a fund-raiser or event, the same handful of people face each other from across the table.
Government bodies also confront the discouragement caused by a stagnant economy where double-digit unemployment is common but fresh ideas for revival are scarce.
Volunteer burnout and the doldrums of a lackluster economy might find a cure in an innovative grant program that has reached into Eastern Oregon all the way from Minnesota.
The Northwest Area Foundation, headquartered in St. Paul, Minn., helps communities reduce poverty in its eight-state region: Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. These states were served by the Great Northern Railway, founded by James J. Hill. In 1934, Hill's son, Louis W. Hill, established the foundation. The foundation has approximately $367.67 million in assets. On Aug. 19, Foundation President Karl Stauber announced that nearly $1.7 million will pay for the "Horizons" program, including $113,333 of in-kind support per community for Elgin, Prairie City and Union.
In Eastern Oregon, the foundation will work through Rural Development Initiatives, a consulting firm based in La Grande. The "Horizons" program will strive to develop leaders within these communities by hiring consultants and providing information.
Volunteerism can grow when people's skills are cultivated, said Linda Harrington, president of the Greater Prairie City Community Association and the local applicant who secured the grant for Prairie City.
"You can't do it with the same five or 10 people all the time," Harrington noted of civic groups.
Leadership development also can improve struggling economies, the Northwest Area Foundation believes.
"Studies show that small communities, even if they are distant from larger population centers, can thrive if they have a strong leadership system," said Northwest Area Foundation President Karl Stauber. "Our aim is to help rural communities strengthen their systems in order to reduce poverty for the long term."
The notion of community self-empowerment is especially appealing as state, federal and private grants become more and more difficult to acquire.
"The underlying premise of all of this is if your community is viewed as having a glass half full instead of half empty, you can look to the inside to build your community, instead of looking to the outside, always looking for someone to come in and fill you up," Harrington said.
Specific examples of groups that might benefit from "Horizons" include the Greater Prairie City Community Association, a grassroots booster group for the Prairie City area, and the Prairie City Athletic Complex group, a nonprofit organization striving to renovate the city's existing football field and replace the obsolete sand track without requiring any funding from the school district. Harrington said she planned to invited leaders of this group to participate in "Horizons."
This summer, Harrington and GPCCA past president Judy Jacobs learned about "Horizons" at a foundation-sponsored workshop in La Grande. Representatives from a total of 134 communities in seven states attended the workshop; 29 applied for the grant, and only 15 were selected.
The 18-month program, including nine months of leadership skills development, provides a "circuit-rider" consultant who will serve Elgin, Prairie City and Union and organize monthly meetings among the three communities to discuss their progress.
"The first thing that we want to do is something called asset mapping," Harrington said, which is an inventory of the physical and human qualifications in the community to find out people's interests and abilities.
In the end, public participation will be critical to making "Horizons" succeed in Grant County, but the outcome will be worth the effort, Harrington said.
"We want to survive and thrive and be a community where families really want to live," she explained.
Citizens in Elgin, Prairie City and Union have joined to participate in the "Horizons" community leadership project, an economic and community development program backed by nearly $1.7 million in grant funding. Members of the Prairie City Planning Committee have agreed to stay with the process during the entire 18 months and understand that they will spend approximately 16 hours a month serving the community during this time. Community members have agreed to participate in the nine-month community learning and leadership development program. These volunteers include:
Planning and steering committee:
Chad Freeman, Grant County economic development coordinator
Linda Harrington, president, Greater Prairie City Community Association
Judy Jacobs, member and past president, Greater Prairie City Community Association
Dennis Reynolds, Grant County Judge
Sarolta Sperry, member, Greater Prairie City Community Association and recent chair of Art in the Park
Business person: Wanda Winegar, Bar-W-B and member and past officer of the Greater Prairie City Community Association; Judy Jacobs, Riverside Schoolhouse Bed & Breakfast operator and school teacher; Bob Quinton, Klamath First Federal
Civic Club Member: Kerryann Woomer, Kiwanis Club member and Prairie City resident (still recruiting for the second position)
Elected Official: Lance Delgado, Prairie City mayor; Jim Hamsher, Prairie City councilman
Newcomer: Kellie Olsen, track coach; Bill Harrington, co-owner of the Strawberry Mountain Inn Bed & Breakfast and independent contractor of mediation services;
Nonprofit representative: (still recruiting)
Youth: Ashley Curt, Michael Thompson (two additional slots open)
Other: Kristine Shull, Forest Service, Prairie City Ranger District; Denny Diezel, pastor, Prairie City United Methodist Church
For more information about "Horizons," call or e-mail:
Linda Harrington, Prairie City, (541) 575-1006; email@example.com
Bill Searles, Union, (541) 562-5197; firstname.lastname@example.org
Rich Zinzer, Elgin, (541) 437-8014; email@example.com
To learn more or to volunteer, attend the Greater Prairie City Community Association meeting, tentatively set at Prairie City at 6 p.m.Wednesday, Sept. 17, where the plan will be discussed. Additional information about the Northwest Area Foundation can be found at its Web site, www.nwaf.org.