Times are harder for many these days. Perhaps that is felt most in small town, rural America. This story of self-reliance and voluntary solution can be traced back to the 1980’s. Boone County Nebraska was affected quite negatively by the farming crisis of the time. Many viewed living a life and raising a family there as an undesirable goal. A large amount of the teenagers and young adults of that time would leave once they got their high school diploma in hand to settle and pursue careers elsewhere across the country.
This left a lot of questions and very few answers for how this county and its small towns would survive future generations if the trend continued. Jay Wolf, a local rancher, recalled a quote he heard from his father, “As my dad used to say, it wasn’t a place you chose to live necessarily.”
Even during these rough times in the 80’s the county showed signs of life by being able to keep the local hospital in town, which today employs the highest number of workers in the area. The hospital continues to steadily grow and succeed. The county began to come back to life in the 90’s when it began a community foundation. They were able to focus the energy from this foundation to help jump-start a community looking for hope. They constructed a brand new fitness center with its main feature being a swimming pool and spin classes that are quite uncommon in rural towns.
By the time the early 00’s rolled around the community was already feeling more optimistic. Local teachers, students, and citizens raised the funds to renovate the town’s historic theater in 2002. That theater is now showing blockbuster films on the weekends and mostly employs local high school students, giving them a sense of pride and community as they begin to enter adulthood.
A handful of years later the town decided the senior citizen center was in desperate need of a renovation. The biggest challenge was finding a way to raise the 2.5 million dollars that were required to pull it off when they had never funded something at even a fraction of the cost. Jay Wolf said about the project, “We had never raised even 250,000 for anything in this town.” That didn’t stop them from trying. Not only did they raise the 2.5 million they needed, they managed to double that once they realized the senior center needed much more help than was thought before.
The proof was now in the pudding, so to speak. This county can and will survive with the help of its charitable citizens. Not long after fixing the senior center, they fixed up their local public swimming pool. After that, they got a 2-mile-long hiking trail funded and built. With this momentum, the county, and Albion, the main city of the county, has continued to invest in itself through charitable donations. It has found new life, and people now want to live and invest there.
They now proudly have breweries, new restaurants, a beautiful golf course, a renovated hospital, and an overwhelming feeling of optimism that can be felt throughout Albion and Boone County. Lindsay Jarecki who moved to the town with her husband, who began a law practice in his hometown, has noticed big changes in the decade they’ve been there. “It seems like when one person takes a risk, it nudges someone else on the edge and they do it too. So much of this stuff simply wasn’t here when we got here… You can practically feel the confidence building.”
Confidence booming, Albion and the county took on its biggest challenge to date, trying to renovate the agricultural center/fairgrounds and build a brand new childcare center for families in the area. Childcare was severely lacking in this rural area, as it is in most rural areas. The importance and size of these tasks were daunting on their own but to attempt both at the same time was bold to say the least. “There was fear, so we had to come together. We decided we were gonna support each other no matter what…We trusted each other…and the community trusted us.” Jackie said about the idea.
Boone County’s citizens delivered. They raised a vast majority of the funds for the childcare center within county lines. The agricultural center and fairgrounds project raised nearly all of the money needed through local donors and county funds. Kurt Kruse, owner of Kruse Farms recalls how amazing it was to see the community rally behind both causes and their importance, “One cool thing that happened is a lot of people gave to both projects. But the ag building also attracted some rural people who hadn’t previously given. Both these things…will help the area grow. They will bring people to town.”
The agricultural building and fairgrounds is now a hotspot for tourism in their area, hosting many exciting events. Barrel racing, rodeo, junior rodeo, livestock shows, horse riding, and other events draw in large crowds from all over Nebraska. Some folks come from as far as 100 miles away. These opportunities and events just were not possible before the community rallied to build a place for them to exist. Now it is hosting events featuring commerce and people from over a handful of states such as, concerts, bull riding, and dog shows.
The childcare center, Boone Beginnings, is also a major success and has relieved the stress for dozens of families of having to find affordable and quality childcare. Many families were anxious about finding childcare for their little ones. Now that worry is gone and the local parents and families couldn’t be more excited.
Albion and Boone County still have pressing needs, but have shown the resilience needed to face them through voluntary charity locally. Their main problem now is the one facing all of America: housing. It’s simply too expensive to build nice middle-class homes, and that’s their next target. Boone County and Albion have about 7 million in reserve in the Boone County Community Fund and other similar charities. Estimated costs put the needed total to be somewhere around 30 million to achieve its goals.
It sounds like a steep ask but it may not be too difficult with a town raring to grow and provide for itself. The extra money and wealth being brought in will go a long way when paired with the sense of community that is now felt throughout Boone County. “My sense is that, in the last 20 years, the conversation has shifted dramatically in Albion. We work with a lot of places that have one or two successes. In Boone County they now have almost a dozen things they can point to and say, ‘Look at that. We did that.’” Jeff Yost, CEO of the Nebraska Community Foundation, who does work with 270 communities in Nebraska as well as Albion.
What a remarkable story from this rural county in fly-over country. This city and county took it upon themselves to address dire needs and solve them. I have little doubt that they will continue to find ways to thrive with the giving and caring spirit that has gotten them this far. Not only did they face issues that city, county, state, and federal level governments try to fix and struggle with on a routine basis, they did it through voluntary means. That’s a big reason for its success, if you ask me. That type of fundraising and charity creates a real sense of pride, joy, and love not only for yourself but your neighbors and community as well.