#RFIFellows in Action: Pierce County

Left: Judith Grey, Right: Marie Meis

By Judith Grey and Marie Meis

We are now three weeks into our experience in Pierce County, and we’ve gotten a start on all nine projects for the area. Our projects include:n

  • Working towards more digitally connected communities
  • Creating social media plans
  • Participating in Pierce’s ECAP process
  • Putting on community events
  • Working on virtual community events

While our projects have been the forefront of our work, we’ve also been immersing ourselves in the community. Our RFI Community Innovation Fellows Susan Norris, director of Pierce County Economic Development, has been introducing us to business owners and area leaders. We attend each city council meeting, chamber of commerce meeting, economic development meeting and all other relevant meetings to our projects and county. It is at these meetings that we see area leaders, we hear issues that are important to the communities and we understand what priorities each individual town holds. Getting this perspective helps in each project we do as we try to portray the county the best we can.

“Being in a rural area has opened my eyes to what it takes to make a rural community thrive. There are so many hidden leaders through the community, and it takes each one to make sure the area is always moving forward. I cannot wait to live in a small town myself and be one of those agents of change.”

Marie Meis

One of our projects has been creating a YouTube channel with videos for the county. We set out to capture what we had learned so far. Our office space became each community as we continually gathered video clips. A community leader offered his drone, and we quickly learned drone skills in a day. Through these videos, we are getting a more well-rounded view of each town. 

While at different meetings, we noticed two different organizations missing a logo. The Pierce County Economic Development office and Pierce ECAP. We volunteered our skills and came up with logo options for each. We sent out surveys and gathered feedback to create one final logo for each. During this, we realized that projects aren’t always presented to us directly. If we see a need, we don’t need to be asked to fill it. It’s part of our job to see the gaps and brainstorm how we can fill them.

“This may sound cliche, but truly this experience has shown me how much change I need to be effective as a team member. Also, it provides the opportunity to make an impact on the others ‘ lives and see visual results. Overall, this work hasn’t shifted my perspective, but rather opened it by providing insight and opportunities for the future.”

Judith Grey

With community celebrations canceled or adapted, we saw a need for an event in each town. We have planned socially distant community events for Osmond, Pierce and Plainview for our community service. In Plainview, we will be holding a sidewalk chalk contest for five different age groups to win chamber dollars. In Pierce, we’ll be releasing a scavenger hunt list of items you can find in Pierce and around the house. The first person to email us their pictures and the two most creative will win gift cards to Pierce businesses. And finally, to celebrate Osmond’s new pool’s opening, we will have a pool celebration giveaway. We’ll have a booth set up outside of the pool with a spinning wheel to have participants spin it to see what pool-related prize they win. Each event has been created and tailored to the community and has partnerships with other organization and businesses to celebrate the summer the best we can. 

Through this whole experience, the most important part has been the people. Being a part of their county and seeing what’s important to them has driven our whole experience. Residents choose to live here because they know how much the county has to offer, and we get the chance to learn more about it each day. 

#RFIFellows in Action: Ravenna

By Ethan Weiche, Connor McFayden, Kori Siebert and Andromede “Andy” Uwase

From left: Gena McPherson, Community Innovation Fellow, Ethan Weich, Andy Uwase, Kori Siebert, Connor McFayden, Amber Ross, Community Innovation Fellow

After three exciting weeks in Ravenna we all agree that we are thrilled with what we have accomplished thus far, we are excited to see what we will accomplish in the coming weeks and we could all use a nap!

Along those lines, we have had no trouble finding an adequate work-life balance; us interns regularly drop in for some pre-work yoga classes together and will oftentimes end the day with a team movie + dinner. Fun team-building activities aside, we have found the work immensely gratifying and fulfilling. We approach each day as a new opportunity to make a difference and broaden our perspective, experiences that we would be happy to elaborate on below.

Kori & Andromede: We have wasted no time getting our foot in the door with the local businesses here in Ravenna. Through conducting interviews with them we are learning more about their operations while simultaneously creating marketing content to bring them more attention and customers outside of Ravenna. We have also been meeting with businesses to help create their online storefront on a one-stop-shop called Shop Where I Live (SWIL). Aside from the work with local businesses, we have also been creating Facebook live videos and events, flyers, brochures and content photos for a new website. We’re just scratching the surface and are excited to see what the future has in store for us.

Coming into this experience I didn’t realize how much Ravenna would affect my future endeavors. I have found my passion for helping small businesses be heard, being able to hear their personal stories while also marketing them has been extremely enriching. I’ve only been in this community for three weeks now and I know without a doubt that through this opportunity I have found the passion I want to pursue for my future.

Kori Siebert

Growing up in a big city, I am enjoying the small welcoming community I have found in Ravenna. I am learning so much about ways of helping and contributing to their economic development by talking to different local businesses, an experience that I am excited to use in my future career. I have also been enjoying the diverse community at work which is opening my mind to the new cultures, ideas and activities.

Andromede “Andy” Uwase

Connor & Ethan: The majority of our work so far has been working with Ravenna’s government and nonprofits on a variety of projects. We facilitated discussions between the mayor, public works and interested community members regarding the future of main street’s medians, and are currently helping them draft a long-term landscaping plan for those areas. We also took on the Ravenna Area Vision Foundation’s fundraising mission for a long-awaited Hike/Bike trail, working on brochures, events, and virtual fundraising materials. Lastly, in what’s become a bit of a passion project for the boys’ team, we have designed and advertised for a city-wide scavenger hunt for the community to enjoy. Overall, both of us have found the work deeply enriching.

I have been exposed to various professional projects in the past three weeks and have found the entire process surrounding grant writing to be surprisingly rewarding; from tracking down the right materials, discussing the relevant points to emphasize, typing a punchy submission, and even proofreading the final draft. It has made me seriously consider a career in grant writing and/or proofreading.

Ethan Weiche

Coming from the Omaha area, I have enjoyed seeing a new side of my home state. I feel like I understand the issues facing rural Nebraska in a much more personal way. Working in a small town has its challenges, but seeing the impact of your work on such a tight-knit community is tremendously satisfying. I can see myself putting down roots in a community like this in the future.

Connor McFayden

In sum, us interns have been extremely well received — so much so that we don’t think we’ll go back to school in the fall! We are tremendously grateful to our fantastic community leaders, lodging providers and everyone who makes Ravenna, Ravenna.

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#RFIFellows in Action: Auburn / Nemaha County

By Emma Hoffschneider and Brittney Emerson

Left: Brittney, Right: Emma

These past few weeks in Auburn, Neb., have been packed full of new and exciting adventures. While we spent the first two weeks quarantined, we didn’t let that stop us from hitting the ground running. During that time we researched LB-840, a funding opportunity for economic development within a community.

Through researching LB-840, I gained a deeper understanding of the impact a new policy can have on a rural community. Sometimes we think new policies won’t change anything in our small rural towns, but in reality policies like LB840 can make a huge difference

Emma Hoffschneider

After our initial research, we then contacted the 72 communities across Nebraska who have LB840 in place to see how it has benefited their communities. We compiled the information we received into folders for the Auburn Development Council to use later in their campaign.

This opportunity gave us both a better understanding of rural community politics and policy while instilling a passion for betterment of this small community. LB-840 is a great chance to help small businesses and the overall appeal of the town. As RFI Fellows and honorary Auburn community members for the summer, we hope that our hard work pays off for their sake.

Brittney Emerson

Now that our quarantine has officially been lifted, we are excited to get out of the house and out and about in the community of Auburn. This past week we did just that by capturing photos for an article that will be published in Nebraska Life magazine. Around Auburn and the rest of Nemaha County one will see statutes of Honey Bees. As part of a leadership class project, Leslie Clark, President of Auburn Development Council, headed this Honey Bee movement in an attempt to bring beauty into the community and involve the artists of Nemaha County. The Honey Bees of the Heartland is listed on the Nebraska Passport Program and is a great activity to do while maintaining social distancing guidelines. 

While our first few weeks in Auburn have been packed full of new and exciting adventures and projects, we are far from done. We already have another list of projects ready for us to tackle. In addition we have started a weekly blog called “Our RFI Experience” on the Auburn Economic Development Council’s website as a way to communicate with the community of Auburn. We are excited to continue making an impact in the community of Auburn as much as it is making an impact on us. 

I am so impressed with Brittney and Emma, their passion for Rural Nebraska and how they have jumped right into researching LB 840 for Auburn Development Council.   Being quarantined for two weeks didn’t slow them down any.   We are fortunate to have two young ladies who are embracing being away from home for the summer to help out a community they did not know.   I am privileged to be on their team and get to know them.  I know the hard work they are putting in and contributions they are making to Auburn and I look forward to all the amazing things they will do for their own communities and the State of Nebraska.

Kim Beger, Community Leader, RFI Community Innovation Fellow

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#RFIFellows in Action: Wahoo

By Amanda Most, Oscaline Usanase and Savannah Gerlach

Standing with the “HOPE” letters. which will be carried to various locations featuring individuals, businesses and groups in the H.O.P.E. campaign.

We are settled in and adjusting well to our summer adventure in the community of Wahoo, Neb. Amongst the craziness of COVID-19, we were overjoyed to begin our fellowship experience immediately following Memorial Day. Since the start, we have been welcomed with opening arms, warm smiles and lots of sweet breakfast treats.

We wasted no time immersing ourselves in the community by virtually meeting leaders through the City of Wahoo, the Wahoo Chamber of Commerce and Saunders Medical Center. We toured the downtown and have continued to visit various businesses to gather knowledge and information about their dreams and goals for the future. Zoom meetings have been no stranger to us as we have sat in on many committee and board meetings including the Corona Creative Committee, Greater Wahoo Economic Development Foundation and the City Branding Committee. As a team, we have determined a project for each to take the lead on that aligns with our strengths and interests. We each give brief overviews of our projects below.

Amanda: I am pleased to be working with the Saunders Medical Center long-term care team. I will assist them in recruitment and retention efforts, helping them solve the challenging question “How do we attract rural healthcare workers and get them to stay?”

Along with hospital leaders, we will be working to evaluate and improve the current work culture as well as highlight all that the community of Wahoo has to offer, resulting in an even more highly desired rural healthcare system to work in.

I will also be collaborating with my teammates to develop a communications plan that includes storytelling avenues to help share the stories of the hardworking individuals who put their full hearts into caring for the elderly.

Oscaline: Over the course of the summer, I will have an opportunity to work on civic engagement and communications with the Chamber of Commerce and the City of Wahoo. I have already been working with my team to find ways to update the website and add new pictures to go along with it.

I personally will take the lead in advertising and highlighting the services provided by the Chamber and the City of Wahoo, as well as the wonderful places and activities available in Wahoo. I am currently working on updating the Greater Wahoo Development Foundation brochure, and I hope to update two additional brochures in the coming weeks for the Wahoo Community Foundation, and Lake Wanahoo.

Savannah: The project I’ve dove into is the city-wide communication plan. The communication plan will relay messages from the Wahoo City and Chamber of Commerce to its citizens to help them stay informed on events and happenings within its businesses and organizations. We plan to carry out the communication plan by updating the city and chamber websites, establishing updated and sustainable social media platforms, and through a new idea called the H.O.P. E. Campaign – Helping Others Prosper Every day.

Through the campaign, we plan to spread positivity throughout Wahoo by highlighting the good things happening in the community. Whether it be businesses that came up with creative ways to adapt during quarantine, upstanding citizens that donated time and efforts to contribute to the community meals on wheels program or recognizing a community member that takes time out of his day to volunteer at the Pet Rescue Center.

Throughout our time in the community this summer, we will continue to grow the communication system and social media so that every audience in Wahoo is reached, involved and included. 

#RFIFellows In Action: Chadron

By Sawyer Smith and Tyra Reardon


Screenshot from the Chadron RFIFellows’ weekly team check-in. Each Tuesday, we meet as a team to discuss what we have been working on the past week, share our thoughts on our team workbook activity, what we have been doing for fun and address any questions that may have arisen. Top from left: Terri Hayes, Tyra Reardon, Katie Carrizales. Bottom from left: Kerri Rempp, Sawyer Smith, unknown.

We are currently working from our homes. Sawyer is in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Tyra in St. Edward, Neb., instead of being in Chadron. This is due to COVID-19 concerns. We are hoping that we will be able to move into the Chadron community in the coming weeks as the state of Nebraska begins to open up.

Even though we are not currently in Chadron, we have still hit the ground running with our projects. This summer, we are working on several projects with the travel board in Northwest Nebraska to introduce new resources, as well as update some of the more dated aspects. These projects all serve to promote tourism in Dawes and Sioux Counties.

Sawyer has taken the lead on the Discover Northwest Nebraska website redesign and is working to create a more user-friendly and informative resource for visitors to the area.

Tyra is researching potential merchandising opportunities to help increase revenue for Discover Northwest Nebraska. Merchandise is an area that the travel board has not yet explored, so we are both excited to help them expand the goods and services that they are offering.

Tyra has also been working on promoting the Northwest Nebraska Bingo program, which highlights different locations, businesses and communities across northwestern Nebraska. Discover Northwest Nebraska is wanting to further promote northwestern Nebraska as a tourist destination, and we believe that the bingo program does just that.

We are also working with Educational Service Unit 13 (ESU 13) to help create a comprehensive mental health assessment. The assessment is going to be used to help gauge gaps in the mental health services that ESU 13 is currently providing, as well as to measure the strengths of the current programs that ESU 13 has set in place. During the past two weeks, we have been conducting literature reviews over articles and journals that discuss the implementation of mental health needs assessments. We are currently searching for information to help us better understand what a good mental health needs assessment is, how to administer the assessment, and what to do with the results obtained from the assessment.

As part of our service hours for the summer, we will also be working with Chadron Public Schools (CPS) and Dawes County Joint Planning (DCJP). We will be working on a presentation for DCJP, which highlights the results of their collaboration over the past few years, with the intention of developing ongoing community collaborative effort in the future. We will also be working with CPS to develop a Youth Activities brochure to provide easy access to information for CPS and its students.

Having to work on these projects virtually has not been without its challenges. Despite these bstacles, we are still excited to be able to make an impact on this community, and to have this opportunity for personal and professional growth.

17 Nebraska communities welcomes Rural Futures Institute Student Fellows

June 8, 2020 — LINCOLN, Neb. — Seventeen Nebraska communities are welcoming students from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL), Union College and Wayne State College for an immersive, eight-week inclusive leadership development experience. 

Arapahoe, Auburn, Ravenna and Wahoo as well as communities throughout Dawes, Pierce and Pawnee counties are hosts to 17 Rural Futures Institute (RFI) Student Fellows and two mentors in each area have been elevated to RFI Community Innovation Fellows.

Together, students and community innovators will move forward strategies for economic and workforce development, access and recruitment and retention of residents within the context of: early childhood education, community marketing and communications, entrepreneurship, mental health care access and inclusion. All RFI Fellows will also have the opportunity to develop as inclusive leaders through training and individual coaching sessions.

Continuing to create the future together this summer within the COVID-19 mitigation efforts was an individual decision by each of the participating fellows and a demonstration of their commitment to serve Nebraska’s rural communities and build their inclusive leadership skills, said Helen Fagan, RFI director of leadership engagement.

“While the immersion may look different than years past — all fellows will follow the local counties health and safety guidelines — the efforts will still move several community strategies forward,” Dr. Fagan said. “Many of these communities consider the students a much-needed capacity to overcome and embrace the additional challenges and opportunities from COVID-19.

“This is a difficult situation and one that requires an understanding of welcoming we have not seen in the recent past. We have a tremendous opportunity to grow together this summer.”

Fagan evolved the program in 2019 to focus explicitly on inclusion — her area of expertise and research — supported by data from the University of Nebraska at Omaha Center for Public Affairs Research. During the 2000s minority groups contributed more than half of the population growth in 16 (two-thirds of all) of the 24 counties in Nebraska that had population gains. In 74 Nebraska counties the majority population decreased, while the minority population increased. 

Age, gender, race, ethnicity and experience are all elements that leaders must continue to understand and explore to create welcoming, innovative environments, Fagan said. 

Rachel Willis of Papillon, Neb., is a junior agricultural leadership, education and communication major at UNL. She chose to pursue the RFI Fellows experience because “everything about it is purposeful and impactful,” she said. It takes into consideration her strengths and aims to push her out of her comfort zone in a way that supports others. The opportunity to explore another part of the state and make an impact beyond “just work experience” was also enticing.

“I think COVID-19 has shown us just how connected communities actually are and how much the decision of one person can affect an entire community or even an entire state,” said Willis who will work with community leaders on marketing, economic development and tourism throughout Pawnee County, Neb. “Decisions to show support for each other can spread also. The university is seen as a source of leadership within our state and has excited students ready to help.”

Ethan Weiche, a junior architecture major at UNL and native of Plymouth, Minn., is also embracing the opportunity to work with smaller towns throughout the state.

“I think students have been afforded a great opportunity to come and study in the state of Nebraska,” Weiche said. “For four years the highest priority of students is to learn and immerse themselves in their chosen field. This is all done in the hopes that they may somehow use their particular knowledge in the future. Having lived and learned in the state for several years, to give back to the people of Nebraska only seems right.”

Weiche will be mentored by RFI Community Innovation Fellows Amber Ross, director of the Ravenna Economic Development Corporation, and Gena McPherson, executive director of the Ravenna Chamber of Commerce. 

“Having these students in the community will be welcomed and needed more than ever with COVID-19,” McPherson said. “We need their fresh ideas and perspectives to help our businesses find a new normal, prepare for a possible re-surge of the virus and find creative innovations that could take their business in an even better direction. Accomplishing some of the projects we already had in mind prior to COVID-19 will also be a huge necessary benefit and morale boost for the community.”

Project details and fellows bios as well as ongoing updates are available at ruralfutures.nebraska.edu/2020fellows

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About the Rural Futures Institute
The Rural Futures Institute (RFI) at the University of Nebraska leverages the talents and research-based expertise from across the NU system on behalf of rural communities in Nebraska, the U.S. and around the world. Through a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, RFI encourages bold and futuristic approaches to address rural issues and opportunities. It works collaboratively with education, business, community, non-profit, government and foundation partners to empower rural communities and their leaders.