A way to keep rural communities alive

by Rich Heffern

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It wasn’t a barn raising but it shared the spirit of that timeless American enterprise where a community gathers on a Saturday morning to build together something new and mutually beneficial.

Titled “Making Connections, Sharing Hope,” the event displayed small businesses and family-operated services from six rural counties in northwest Missouri. It was held in the auditorium of St. Gregory Parish in Maryville, Mo., a few years ago and was sponsored by Sparks of Hope, a rural advocacy group.

The purpose of the exhibit/gathering, according to Sparks of Hope cofounder Franciscan Sr. Christine Martin, was “to showcase entrepreneurs who are making a difference in our rural area.”

“As people from surrounding counties gathered,” she said, “we hoped to make connections and share hope for our rural communities to hear and see how others have successfully turned their dreams of business ownership into a reality.”

A 34-page directory handed out at the door listed over 90 local businesses and family-operated services. Some of those businesses were on display in the gym.

One exhibitor, Steve Curran, proprietor of Curran’s Sharp-All, said he often drives the back roads of northwest Missouri and stops by local Amish communities, who run small sawmill operations to raise cash. “Their saws get quickly dulled by cutting oak for pallets,” Curran said. “If those blades need sharpening, we all benefit; if not, I’ve spent some time in the countryside. No loss there.”

His wife Wanda does the bookkeeping. Curran works a regular job and does the sharpening for extra income to keep his son in college. “I’ve lived here all my life,” he said, “but working night shifts in the factory I never knew anyone. Now I know everybody.”

Larry Uehling exhibited his handcrafted wooden tables and jewelry boxes. “I had a stressful job, and to unwind at the end of the day I started working with wood.”

Uehling said he prefers to use local native sources when he can get them – walnut, sycamore and even unusual woods like that of the Osage Orange tree, which farmers long ago planted to provide fencerows between their fields. Together with his wife Penny, Uehling makes the rounds at craft shows in Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas.

Tony Mickler shows off his yard sculptures made from welded-together horseshoes. Rodney Clowdus makes looms for weaving rugs and cloth blankets.

Benedictine Fr. Daniel Petshce, pastor of St. Peter Parish in nearby Stanberry and another co-founder of Sparks of Hope, pointed out that, like the exhibitors in the gym, most rural folks work two or three jobs. “It’s often the only way they can stay on the land or in small towns, such is the economic devastation in rural American over the past few decades.”

Initiated in 2003, Sparks of Hope is a response to that economic crisis. Operating from a faith perspective, the group seeks “to positively shape the future by promoting the revitalization of rural community.”

The group initiated the formation of the Northwest Missouri Enterprise Facilitation Project and received funding to set up a board, then hired a local facilitator whose job it is to seek our rural residents in the area who have good ideas for businesses and services, then help them develop those ideas into full-fledged operations. The facilitator’s task is to connect such people with available capital and get them talking.

Thus far, the Enterprise Facilitation Project has assisted 275 entrepreneurs. Other similar projects around the world have done well also.

“The usual way to try to develop rural areas in this country,” Fr. Petsche said, “is to try to lure big companies into building their new factories in the area. The bait used includes tax incentives, low wage expectations, and the strenuous rural work ethic. Our aim is to do this from the bottom up, linking local businesses, entrepreneurs, banks and consumers in innovative ways, reestablishing community ties and relationships that have gone by the wayside in recent times.”

Statistics show that of the 50 poorest counties in the nation, 49 of them are rural. The number of family-run farms has declined drastically over the last two decades. When the farms go down, the small town soon follow. Businesses on the town square fold when Wal-Mart moves in. Most disconcerting, perhaps, is the reality that rural young people more often than not move away to cities for economic opportunities. Few are interested in staying on the farm or in town.

Sparks of Hope and rural enterprise facilitation represent a real possibility for the rebirth of small towns and farms. It’s an example of faith in action, making a real difference. It blazes a path for the necessary re-invention of both rural and urban economies. Its methods work as well in the city as in the country.

Sparks of Hope member Ginger Geeding said, “Above all, this effort makes real and concrete the vision described in Catholic social teaching. The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes says it well: ‘The achievements of the human race are a sign of God’s greatness and the fulfillment of his mysterious design.’”

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