In building community, every little bit adds up to a lot

Special picnic tables built to accommodate a spot for wheelchairs will soon find homes across Itasca County, Minnesota. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

A few weeks back, my son’s Boy Scout Troop in Grand Rapids helped build 25 wheelchair accessible picnic tables. The extra long table tops will adorn parks across Itasca County, everywhere from Nashwauk to Deer River, allowing people who use wheelchairs to easily join in a family meal.

Henry and I built one picnic table alongside a legion of community volunteers and fellow Scouts working on their own tables. (Ours must have been the best because we took the longest to finish). I doubt all of us voted for the same candidates, believe the same things, or drink the same kind of coffee. But that hardly mattered.

What brought us all together that day was an idea hatched by Alex Morse, a Scout in pursuit of his Eagle rank, and Myrna Peterson, a woman working to make Itasca County the most accessible county in Minnesota. Peterson’s tireless efforts to improve the accessibility of her hometown stem from her experiences after a terrible car accident in 1995 left her paralyzed. Peterson — a teacher, runner and active community person —
realized that it was hard to get around in her motorized wheelchair.

That led to Mobility Mania, an organization that works to expand mobility options for people in Grand Rapids and beyond. Peterson and fellow organizer Lee Isaacs, who lost mobility in a separate accident around the same time as Peterson, now lead the fight with many other volunteers.

Meantime on the other side of the region up in Ely, a recent gathering of “100 Ely Women Who Care” yielded more than $7,000 for a community organization last week.

It works like this. Twice a year, about 100 women commit to making a donation of at least $100. Groups of four can pool smaller $25 donations if they prefer. Each $100 “share” entitles one nomination and one vote for which nonprofit group should receive the total sum of money. The women then spend a couple hours listening to persuasive appeals for the various nominated groups. Afterward they vote, and one organization then receives a sizable donation.

“The energy in the room when we do these meetings is just amazing,” said organizer Chris Chandler when I spoke to her last week. “People from all walks of life coming together for one goal, to support the charities in town. Everybody is happy and friendly, seeing old friends and meeting new friends. They really get it, in terms of what we can do collectively as opposed to individually. These women volunteer and provide support in other ways, but in one hour we get together and make a significant impact that has ripple effects beyond that.”

This fall’s successful organization was Ely Community Resource, an organization that promotes youth activities in Ely. At least 126 women contributed more than $7,000. Last spring, the Northern Lakes Arts Association received $7,000 as well.

I’ve done something similar in my public speaking classes at Hibbing Community College for several years. We don’t raise as much money, but students will pool $1 donations and I match the total. Then each student argues on behalf of a nonprofit group, we vote, and send a money order to the winning cause in the successful student’s name.

“This model can be replicated in any community,” said Chandler. “Particularly in rural Minnesota it’s working really well.”

Creating action projects involving all parts of a small community brings people together rather than dividing them. Helping nonprofits or making a town friendlier for wheelchairs won’t solve all the world’s problems, but doing so actually solves *some* problems.

So what are you going to do? Just sit there as the TV screeches about political gridlock, shootings and slime balls abusing their power? Are you going to wait for some developer to cough up a billion bucks for your hometown or for drug addiction to suddenly fall out of fashion?

Or will you make something beautiful?

It’s hard for one person to revitalize a town, but two can make a dent. And three or more become a force for change, if they persist.

Talk to your neighbors. Get something going. You’ll be glad you did, and it’s the only guaranteed way to make the world a better place.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


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