By TOM KOCAL | Prairie Advocate News
LANARK – In an attempt to reach out to juniors and seniors at Eastland High School, and create more awareness of the career opportunities that exist right in their own back yards, twelve community leaders told their stories at a Learning Lab on Thursday, Sept. 5.
The presentation stems from an Eastland community book read of Hollowing Out the Middle–The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, and is a follow-up to the survey distributed to 58 members of the EHS graduating Class of 2013 at the end of the school year. The effort to “plug” the rural brain drain with solutions formulated by students and businesses in the Eastland School District took another step forward with Thursday’s presentation.
The book identified the working-class “stayers,” those that stay in the area to work, raise their families, etc.; the college-bound “achievers,” who often leave for good after they obtain their degrees; the “seekers” who head off to war to see what the world beyond offers; and the “returners,” who eventually circle back to their hometowns.
The group, which included stayers, achievers, seekers, returners, and several combinations, including newcomers, shared some of their experiences that eventually allowed them to live and thrive in Lanark, Shannon, and Lake Carroll.
During the introduction, Monica Burkholder, Eastland High School Principal, told the students, “These people are here today because they value you - they value your future, and your success. They are sharing their valuable time away from their businesses to be here. They want to invest in your future, and your careers.”
Burkholder described herself as a “returner” who left to go to college, had opportunities elsewhere, but always wanted to come back to the Eastland area to live, work and raise a family.
“I feel safer here with my kids playing in the backyard. I can call Grandma to babysit instead of someone else. I believe in the Eastland school district.”
Rhett Coatney, COUNTRY Financial Representative from Lanark, is a “returner.” He left the area to go to college, lived elsewhere, experienced several job opportunities, but returned to Lanark when he found what he enjoyed doing.
“We want to keep our communities strong.” He added that the way to do that was to not only retain people, but to attract new people who want to “enjoy the benefits of living in a small community.”
He urged students to learn and use technology that will create the opportunity for them to be able to live in Carroll County, but work anywhere in the world. Also, the many different types of jobs that are available at companies like COUNTRY. “If you ever want to know more about our businesses, just ask us.”
Penny Lauritzen of Lanark would be considered a returner according to the book. Technology was key to her success as well.
“I was a farm manager for almost 20 years for a company based in Omaha, Nebraska, but was able to do that because we could communicate by computer from my office in my home. Most of the time my office was set up in my car as I traveled the 12-county area to visit the farms that I managed.”
Steve Wilkins described himself as “an old farm boy that happens to work at the First State Bank of Shannon.” Wilkens, Vice President and Senior Loan Officer at the Shannon location, also left Shannon to earn a degree, build a career and a family, but came back home when the opportunity arose.
Matt Zumdahl, Loan Officer at the Exchange State Bank of Lanark, is a 2001 graduate of Eastland HS, and another “returner.” He expressed his satisfaction with having the opportunity to be back in his home town after going to college, and told the students, “Opportunities are always here, whether out of high school or college.”
John Nelson was new to the area when he and his family moved to Lanark in 1978 to work at the Exchange State Bank of Lanark. He worked his way up in the ranks, and after a 35-year career there, is currently the President of the bank. His message to the students was based on the changing times.
“What we have experienced during our lives is different than what you will experience. Technology has changed the world. But give your home town consideration when it’s time to plant your roots.”
Tom Kocal is a “newcomer” to Lanark in 1975 when he and his wife bought The ADVERTISER from his grandparents, but he had been coming to Lanark since he was 3 years old, making him a “returner” of sorts.
“We had no degrees in journalism or marketing, but we read a lot. We learned, and are still learning. My opportunity was simply to be able to live in Lanark. We raised a family, and grew the business into The Prairie Advocate News and web site. If you want it bad enough, you can do anything that you set your mind to.”
Kris Simpson is a “returner,” a 1988 graduate of EHS. She, too, left to obtain her nursing degree, and the family lived in Byron for a year while she worked in Rockford. She stated she has “worked all over the area, always while pursuing my nursing career. But I came back home to Lanark to live. I would not want my children to go to any other school district, and I don’t want to live anywhere else. I can work anywhere, but I still live here.”
Jodi York “returned” after graduating from NIU in Dekalb. Due to her husband’s job opportunities here in the area, she “changed” her career focus. As her family grew, she founded a licensed daycare facility in her Lanark home that currently has a 9-month waiting list. “I’ve made a success of my business, and still support my family and the community.”
Jason Thede is also a returning 1988 EHS graduate who attended automotive college in Chicago and worked in Rockford for awhile. But he always wanted to work at the family business in Shannon. He now owns Al’s Quality Service in Shannon. He reminisced about his days on the Eastland gridiron, and how thankful he was to be able to watch his son play on the same field. His advice was to “get technical training, as much as possible. It will enhance your opportunities, no matter what you decide to do.”
Connie Knutti is “Bubba Simpson’s Grandma.” (Kris Simpson’s son, a junior at EHS). Knutti worked for the State of Illinois for nearly 40 years - out of her Lanark home. “You may have to be willing to travel, like I did, but you can be whatever you want to be,” she urged. “Go, experience life, learn, live. But come back home. Go back to the family farm. If you expose yourself to options, and be a life-long learner, you will thrive anywhere you are. Don’t know what you want? That’s OK, try something new. Remember, if you don’t like what you’re doing, it will always just be a job; but if you like it, it will be your career.”
Connie Lower is the former Eastland School District Superintendent, and a “returner” with a twist. She now works for a university in Clinton, IA, most of the time from the comfort of her couch, using technology. But she urged the students to be creative, and not close off any options. “Use your entrepreneurial spirit to find what you love.”
The group hopes that future planning can prevent the decline of the community that often pushes the best and brightest young people to leave, and that under-invests in – and under-estimates – those who choose to stay, even though these young people are their best chance for a strong future. They believe they can have an impact on making sure that the future is positive for the current residents and the young people of the Eastland School District who decide to stay in the area or return to the area at a later time in their lives.
Burkholder said that within a few weeks, an updated survey will be given to the same Eastland Juniors and Seniors that heard the presentation Thursday, to establish current levels of awareness.
“We will follow up next spring with a repeat to determine if we have created more awareness thru the school’s career program and more community interaction.”
The next meeting of the Hollowing Out the Middle group will be Thursday, September 26 at 7 PM at the Heritage Center in downtown Lanark.
Copies of Hollowing Out the Middle–The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, are available at the Lanark Public Library, 111 S. Broad St. in downtown Lanark.