Communities learning to use what they have
Menahga and Akeley work on reducing poverty with Horizons
Riham Feshir and Jean Ruzicka
January 31, 2009
Park Rapids Enterprise
Poverty isn’t always defined financially.
It can be the unused assets, resources and skills that put a town in the poverty threshold.
Menahga and Akeley are two among several communities that set goals for their towns to reduce the poverty rate by participating in the Horizons program.
Horizons is a University of Minnesota Extension program established in 2003 to give people of small towns – population of 5,000 or less – the resources and guidance needed to pursue projects that would build positive relationships within the community as well as reduce poverty.
“Most of the time you don’t even realize that this is what poverty looks like,” said Jody Bjornson, member of the Menahga Horizons team.
Bjornson, who’s also a member of the Vision team, said he and others in the community have been coming up with ways to improve Menahga. Projects and ideas were suggested but the lack of resources delayed implementation.
Horizons provided leadership training for Bjornson, Sarah Makela and Joanie Anderson from Menahga and Vern Peterson and Chris and Kathy Conger from Akeley that was held last month in Park Rapids.
Now the teams are in the process of teaching other volunteers in their communities what they’ve learned. They trained to become trainers.
Following the training, study circles were formed to identify poverty.
In Menahga three study circles and a total of 35 volunteers are participating.
In Akeley, 32 arrive to “form, storm, norm (normalize) and perform.”
The teams came up with short-term, mid-term and long-term ideas and by May, the short-term ideas must be completed according to the program’s recommendations.
One long-term goal for Menahga is to revitalize the senior center turning it into a community center that appeals to residents of all ages.
The current senior center is hurting financially due to declining attendance and participation, Bjornson said.
Horizons members suggest getting donated computers with Internet access, and ping-pong and pool tables to make the center a fun place for the youth to hang out.
Horizons will hold a fundraiser supper for the community center at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 28 at the Menahga VFW.
Short-term goals include creating a modern day welcome kit for new people who move into town as well as those living in town, starting a financial management class and brainstorming ideas to revamp the community center.
“There is not a lot of money involved in the program, it’s about using what you have,” Bjornson said.
Those assets come in the form of skills that local volunteers and small home-based businesses, that can’t afford advertising, can provide.
From the study circles, the groups were able to find people with certain skills who are willing to help others. A woman who loves to cook and bake for example, can teach her neighbor some cooking skills. A mechanic can show you how to change your own oil so you don’t have to spend money at an auto shop.
“It’s going back to how community used to be and should be,” Bjornson said. “About helping your neighbor.”
The resources will also be listed in the welcome kit, which the group plans to publish by May from a home computer and distribute to residents all over town.
People live in small towns their whole lives and still don’t know each other and the resources available, said Extension community coordinator Susanne Hinrichs.
Although money is not a necessary tool for the program to work, by the end of the 18-month program, if members make progress and reach their goals, the community will receive a $10,000 grant to carry out the projects.
“It’s probably the most positive thing I’ve been involved in my whole life,” Bjornson said.
Uniting Akeley community
“It’s pulling the community together,” Vern Peterson said of the ideas and enthusiasm being generated in Akeley.
“People have embraced the program,” he said. “And learning their opinions will be listened to.”
The group is united in a desire to improve the image of the city, he said.
A greater Akeley Youth Council has formed to give kids a “collective voice and create activities for a youth center.”
“Fun” may be on the docket, but the initiative will include service to the community. Members, for example, are in the planning stages of a food drive.
The kids will also have a voice, Peterson said, reporting to the council on a regular basis.
A community vegetable garden is also in the planning stages, the site yet to be determined. People wishing to grow produce would be allocated a portion of the garden, with a farmers market a possibility, Peterson said.
The idea for a food co-op also surfaced, with Blue Ox owner Karen Baldwin working with the group. “We want to support – not compete with – local business,” Peterson said.
A winter recreation area that may include a skating rink and warming house is also being considered.
“Mid-term” ideas are creating a 20-year, comprehensive plan to define goals and a vision for housing in the community – including accommodations for seniors.
The group has also suggested an information sign at the corner of Highways 34 and 64 to list activities and business.
A revitalization of Broadway – Highway 34 – is also being considered. This would include cleaning and painting the streets and reopening a Laundromat and hardware store, which closed last year.
The study circle members would like to see greater use of the former school, now the Akeley Regional Community Center, and bringing a school into the city – charter or private.
The “Leadership Plenty” group, now in the fourth of its nine-week meetings, convenes from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Mondays at the Akeley Senior Center.
Tell us your story now!