from the book Spirit Run
I just returned from Jackson County, Kentucky and the small town of Grayson, Kentucky. There’s a natural beauty in those mountains and winding roads. The people were kind, helpful and want to see their towns thrive. They shared stories of their history, the people and their dreams with me. Some had stories of failure and are working on raising up out of that despair much like the phoenix did. When I’m on an Idea Friendly onsite visit, I look for ways people can take small steps, to volunteer in a small way. I also look for the stories of locals already serving their well-loved communities. The power of story has the ability to change the outcome of a town.
This is a story to be told, often.
I met a couple in Sand Gap, KY who bought The Whistle Stop Express and there was a large building that came with it. They’ve turned it into a community center and the folks in town are welcome there with open arms. There are meals for the hungry, hugs for all, opportunities to belong to a community. There’s been a problem with drugs in town, and several residents are no longer the people they were before drugs ruined their lives. These owners treat everyone with respect and care. But even more than that, they treat them with love. They set an example every day of how to treat our fellow human beings.
Here’s a one day job volunteering that he did willingly.
One gentleman showed up at the community center the day I was there dressed as the Easter Bunny. He had been at the local jail, the community center, the gas station – anywhere that needed some cheering up.
Here’s another short term opportunity to volunteer.
We took a driving tour around Annville, KY and noticed this housing place nestled among the mountains with a babbling brook and park space behind it. Shame on me, my first thought was “why do people keep trash like that outside of their homes?” It was pointed out to me that the grandmother who lives there is raising her grandchildren and doesn’t have the wherewithall or physicality or time to clean up that small mess. The woman giving us the tour stated this would be a great half a day volunteer opportunity for a bunch of ninjas. And said she’ll get right on that. Two other people in the car said they’d help.
Talk to each other
The first evening I was in Jackson County they held a gathering for anyone who wanted to come and hear about ways to save their community. Erik from Backroads of Appalachia made available the small historical site at Big Hill to gather. The image below is just 1/3 of the room. I don’t go to any town, bring a template with some big city idea on it they can dumb down. I ask folks to tell me who they are and what they want in their community. Then we talk about it.
Here’s one story of many folks who volunteered in a small way to help a new business get started.
Kathy pictured in the lower left wants to start her own outdoor business providing items to use to traverse the region. But she only has one side by side. We talked about just getting started with that one item. And one lady offered her canoe for Kathy to use. This started a conversation around the room of how she could start now, using what others offer and they would help her too.
How volunteers can work together in partnership
The couple next to Kathy are farmers, who used to run a dairy. Dairy farming is hard, and they had to try something else. He has converted the dairy barn into a space where he can do woodworking. He also wants to really use that space, and make it available for others to use. We talked about the Old Geezers Club in Akron, Iowa. Several others in the room had ideas for them and wanted to help. There were artists in attendance and were grateful for a space to work on their art, and also sell it. They could also volunteer to be in the space sometimes to help run it.
Your officials need to hear your stories
McKee, KY is the county seat and also has the fastest internet speed in the United States. That’s because the Peoples Rural Telephone Company and their leader Keith Gabbard have made it so. You can read about how that happened in The New Yorker article. This group met and had a lively discussion with me. Keith is the guy on the far left. Tim Truett, the 89th district state representative was there too. He’s also the elementary school principal. Small town folks wear many hats. Many of these folks have been trying to establish a lodging tax. However, a magistrate has to ask the fiscal court to review it. And no magistrate would do that. Funny, you mention the word ‘tax’ and people get nervous. Tim, along with the tourism board, got the fiscal court to look at it at their next meeting!
Talking about what you want can lead to volunteer actions that make small things happen
One gentleman was fed up with the trash and illegal dumping in the area. Another artist in the room proposed using the old cars and create a transformer art exhibit. There were stories of folks who’ve worked in the region making their parks available to all. We found out there are 200 rooms available for visitors to use, but not an updated list of where these Airbnb’s and cabins were located. This week I received a spreadsheet with that updated list! Talking about what they wanted led to volunteer actions making small things happen. The power of sharing your story shines through.
You can stop if you want
Grayson was not to be outdone. We started at the Grayson Art Gallery early in the morning. A big tables worth of people showed up at 8 am. They were there to hear what they could do to help their small town. Many of them stayed for the rest of the day, spent with a walking tour of downtown, lunch and a driving tour of the region. The folks in the picture below know how to volunteer.
There’s the local college president, the mayor, a city council person, a couple of business owners, a state senator, a high school student and the Main Street director. We talked about partnerships, taking small steps and getting in action right away. The state senator told us a funny story, well, kind of funny. They used to have a master gardener’s group that was active. But they got older and less willing to do the work. So they created fundraisers … to pay others to do the work! Oh, the irony.
Idea Friendly: kill the committees, get to work and have fun with taking small steps
The mayor kept notes on his phone, but just the notes that pertained to him. (Yes, I gave him assignments.) The Main Street folks plan to set up an Art Trail and involve the artists in town. And the two of them won’t do it all themselves. The artists and building owners will be involved. As we walked around, we got some permissions on places to put murals.
There was a discussion about adding EV stations downtown in a parking lot. One of the attendees will find out how to make that happen. The mayor put on his list to work on lighting up the parking lot at night, so store owners can park there safely instead of in front of their stores. The high school student is going to bring her friends to city council meetings. The mayor thinks adding a nonvoting student to the council is a great idea and will pursue it. There are many opportunities for everyone to volunteer, without setting up committees, in the ways that they want to help.
Volunteering can be easier and with more people, yet make such a big difference in a small way
I started this letter thinking about the importance of telling our stories in our own communities. That change will come when our good reasons why are out there for more people to know about. Then I found a common theme amongst these stories – how volunteering can be easier and with more people, yet make such a big difference in a small way. Many people in small towns are not aware of the various ways they are already volunteering, or the many other ways where volunteers are needed. If only for a few hours.
Telling our stories, sharing our ideas and asking for help make change possible, and sooner.
Thanks to the kind folks in Kentucky for welcoming me with open arms!
About Deb Brown
Deb Brown comes from a farm outside of Geneva, Iowa, population 141. Her heart lies in sharing the possibilities for small towns. Deb travels a lot, taking back roads when possible, and talking to the locals, sharing stories of other small towns and encouraging anyone who will listen. She’s the co-founder of www.saveyour.town and owner of Building Possibility.
- Jackson County and Grayson KY Stories and Volunteers – August 8, 2023
- How to fill empty buildings: real world examples Deb Brown shared with Gowrie, Iowa – July 25, 2023
- Folklife in the South Conference – The Stories Matter – July 10, 2023
- Boost your rural retail business with this trick – November 5, 2021
- Business plans are not worth the paper they’re written on – February 6, 2020
- How to get the city to suspend the rules for you – January 7, 2020
- Using events to promote service and industry businesses – September 11, 2019
- How do you start a microbrewery? With micro-steps – March 11, 2019
- Small town makerspace idea: Old Geezer Club – September 12, 2017
- How we got a filmmaking crew to tell our small town’s story – May 29, 2017