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Rural Community Learns From Peace Corps Fellow

posted on March 8, 2002

The populations of rural communities are typically older and poorer than urban dwellers. Because of the emphasis on agricultural enterprises rural economies can be as easily whipsawed by international trade agreements as domestic consumer trends. For the most part rural communities are coping with the challenge of sustaining themselves in such a vulnerable environment. But, they can always use some help. A program that offers some promise is one that deploys people who have worked in the field of economic development in some of the world's most challenging circumstances. Four years ago Market to Market examined a small Illinois town that was participating in the Peace Corps Fellows program. Was it successful? Producer Nancy Crowfoot provides this update.

Rural Community Learns From Peace Corps Fellow

Cambridge, Illinois, population 2100, may not look much different than many other towns in rural America. It is the county seat. And agriculture has a definite presence at the edge of Main Street.

But since Market to Market first visited Cambridge in 1997, many visible improvements have been made … from painting some "older" buildings a more "historically" appropriate color ... to the addition of more than a half dozen new businesses on Main Street.

And an entrepreneur from a neighboring community purchased his second vacant building on Main Street. He is dividing and renovating an 18,000 square foot building into office and retail space.

Jim Schebler, Property Owner, Cambridge, Illinois: "We've gotten good support from the town, you know. People always come by and they say, you know, the building looks a lot better than what it used to look."

Much of the credit for the town's facelift, and new business development, goes deeper than a bucket of paint. Behind the scenes is the less glamorous "business" of running a town … a task that up until a few years ago was heavily dependent upon part-time elected officials and volunteers. And when Market To Market visited four years, the volunteers were tired.

1997 Cat White, Cambridge Volunteer

"Nobody had time. Everyone was afraid of being dumped on. There is a great need there to have somebody doing that daytime phone calling, doing that daytime research."

Three years after volunteer Cat White made that statement … she got her wish. Last year, businesses and the local government pooled money totaling $20,000 to hire a part-time program director for it's Cambridge Main Street Program.

Also, town leaders, for the first time ever, created a new position of a full-time Village Administrator. To pay the $45,000 salary, the Village Board dipped into a Reserve fund … and raised property taxes 12% (about $30 per household).

Spending the money and hiring new staff was a decision … many in town believe … would not have occurred at all if it were not for the participation in a program that brought this woman to Cambridge. She had returned from work in the Peace Corps and entered a University Peace Corps Fellows program to earn a Masters Degree.

As part of her studies, and in return for a tuition-free education, she did an 11-month internship in a rural Illinois community to help the town carry out its list of priorities.

The priorities ranged from coordinating volunteers, to updating the village ordinances, to beautifying a small park near Main Street.

2001 Cat White, Cambridge volunteer

"It took Karen coming in and showing them somebody moving forward with established goals accomplishing them, something could happen.

No, if we wouldn't have had our Peace Corps fellow worker, Karen Mauldin -Curtis, we wouldn't be where we are today."

Cambridge found it's Peace Corps Fellow at Western Illinois University's Institute for Rural Affairs. John Gruidl is director of the Institute's Peace Corps Fellows program.

John Gruidl, Director, Peace Corps Fellows Program, Western Illinois University, Macomb, IL

"The program is intended to be really a stepping stone for communities.

"One thing that we've seen is that a lot of the communities that have had a Peace Corps Fellow, go on to hire a professional to do community and economic development."

Gruidl says of the 32 communities in rural Illinois that had a Peace Corps Fellow work with them for 11 months, about one-third of the towns went on to hire a full-time person to continue the work. Cambridge was among the towns … but it was not without some resistance at the time.

1997 Bill Todd, Cambridge Mayor 1993-May 2001

"I'm not sure that we could afford to hire somebody to work full-time who would be considered to be a top flight economic development person."

However, while still in office mayor Bill Todd supported the creation of a Village Administrator position. It was a decision he says he does not regret.

2001 Bill Todd, mayor 1993-2001

"I really think that the people in the community realize that professional management was a good direction for us to go.

"I haven't had anybody personally tell me that we made a mistake."

Those would be comforting words to Cambridge native Village Administrator, Mike Palmer … who until last summer held a similar position in Colorado.

Mike Palmer, Cambridge Village Administrator:

"Actually, I told them many times, I'm amazed how far they got with just volunteers."

"The comprehensive plan, I read that and its probably one of the best comprehensive plans I ever read. Their ordinances were together. It just needed to be built on a little bit."

As Cambridge continues to "build a little bit" … it also has become an example the Peace Corps Fellows program can hold up as a success story. And with community success has come expansion of the Peace Corps Fellows program. Four years ago, the program trained just eight students a year. Today they have 20. And In addition to training Fellows in community development, the program has broadened its focus to other issues facing rural America. The issues include the environment and community health.

John Gruidl, Director, Peace Corps Fellows Program, Western Illinois University, Macomb, Illinois

"25% of Peace Corps volunteers are doing health work overseas in developing countries. So let's train them professionally to be health educators. Let's bring them back and have them service the communities here in Illinois who need that kind of service."

Gruidl hopes the program encourages students to choose a career in rural America. He says about half of the 35 graduates of the seven year old program … including Karen Mauldin-Curtis who worked in Cambridge … have either left their field of study or moved to jobs in urban areas.

John Gruidl, Director, Peace Corps Fellows Program, Western Illinois University, Macomb, Illinois.

But I think 50% is much better than if they didn't come through our program. So if they went through the Urban Institute somewhere, certainly, they would never come to a rural community."

While rural Illinois may be just a temporary stopover for many of the Peace Corps Fellows … their work has left a lasting impression on communities like Cambridge.

The town received the help it needed … and can now move forward on its own.

For Market To Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.


Tags: agriculture economy Illinois news rural