Strong Communities, Strong Schools: A Rural Community Center Profile

September 27, 2020 |

By John Glasgow

The work of sustaining a rural community is no small feat, and when it comes to the limited resources all too common in rural America there truly is strength in numbers. Collaborative partnerships between schools and community organizations are essential for providing critical services from education and community building to more fundamental needs like food, clothing, and shelter. By highlighting the work of these partnerships, the Rural Schools Collaborative can underscore the importance of these social arrangements to accomplish shared goals in our small towns.

This same type of networked relationship allows the Jamieson Community Center, in Monmouth, Illinois, to offer an array of services to the Warren County community. In addition to substantially reversing food insecurity in the county, the JCC has partnered with local schools, community foundations, and volunteers from the area, including Monmouth College, to institute a tutoring program to support students with additional educational needs and provide public spaces to exchange ideas and build unity.

While the community center has long provided a food pantry and meal service for the Monmouth area, Nancy Mowen, executive director for the JCC, praises the perseverance of her staff, and the generosity of the community, in expanding their services to levels not seen in the organization’s history, such as introducing meal delivery services to neighboring Henderson and Mercer Counties, expanding their senior nutritional program, building a community garden, and offering weekend and summer meal programs for area children

“We work to ensure that people have basic needs met, and food is obviously a huge part of that. When I started here, Warren County was labeled as a food desert and we had the highest food insecurity rate of any of the surrounding counties. We are no longer labeled as a food desert and we have the lowest rate of food insecurity in our area—that’s with a lot of effort.”

Using data collected by Feeding America, for their “Map the Meal Gap” project, Mowen is overjoyed with the progress the JCC, and other efforts in the area, have made toward addressing food needs in the county. Over the past four years alone, the food insecurity rate in Warren County dropped an entire percentage point, equating to roughly 160 individuals.

However, the work of the JCC does not stop with traditional food services. In addition to tackling elements of much needed economic development through an endowment building partnership with the Galesburg Community Foundation, the community center offers programming designed to buttress the work of schools and teachers in the area.

Securing funding through a local foundation, Mowen and her staff established the Pattee Learning Center. Mowen explains that with this program the JCC can offer tutoring services to students struggling in their regular classes across three core areas:

“We chose to focus on reading, writing, and math…We felt that if you had a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th grader who was unable to do their homework, it was because they missed something along the way. We had one [student] who was close to two years behind in reading, and now she actually just won the young writers contest at school.”

While designing the program, Mowen and her team were determined to craft a service that addressed all of a student’s needs in addition to their educational requirements.

“We looked at things that would make a child successful and we wanted to make sure we had as many of those things in place as we could. We wanted to build on the strengths of children, and we wanted to point out their value and build on that value. You work through the curriculum, you believe in them as a person, you give them that attention, [and] we talk to each child so that goals are set for each child; and it’s incredible what you can do with these children.”

For the students enrolled in the JCC’s learning center, these additional steps to foster an environment that welcomes and empowers them, along with educating them, establishes a service that is much more than an extra session of reading or writing in the day:

“My background is in education, so I know that attendance is a huge thing, but the kids love to come [to the learning center] and they don’t want to miss. We had one young man who was very close to graduating the program by meeting all his curricular and personal goals, but he didn’t want to go. He kept coming up with reasons why could still stay here.”

Strengthening the program further, the JCC operates the learning center in collaboration with the students’ teachers in the local school system. By doing so, not only does the learning center receive wide promotion throughout the area, but the schools themselves are able to enhance the value of the services they offer to students. This direct partnership allows both institutions to unify their limited individual resources to provide a powerful social force for education desperately needed in many rural towns, and the impact on students is definitive.

“Teachers at school definitely have seen a difference in these children in how they’re performing at school, not only on an academic level, but their social skills have also improved…Most of the students who come in have IEP’s [individualized education programs]. Many of them, by the time they graduate the program, no longer have IEP’s…A child who may have had difficulty with peers in the classroom and with interactions now has the skills necessary to be a successful student and has the self-esteem to be confident in their actions with their peers.”

For Mowen, the Pattee Learning Center can help students achieve this because the program fits into the larger vision and culture she and her staff are forging at the community center.

“I believe that if people are given a network and a safety net, that allows them to move on and achieve their potential. If they don’t have those, they’re so busy worrying about the day-to-day struggle that they can’t get to that next step.

“So, we’re building a culture of acceptance…It’s not just enough to have the services here; people have to be comfortable using the services and coming here. One of the values we have is every person has value and one person’s value isn’t greater than another’s. Each person is important and each person matters.”

Beyond just platitudes, this ‘bridge building’ has proven successful through the popularity and efficacy of the JCC’s core services. The JCC’s work to value and unify people in the area during this age of division has also been crucial for weathering the pandemic. Like most community non-profit organizations, Mowen and her staff were deeply concerned about the ability of the community center to continue its services once the pandemic took hold of the region.

“I’ve definitely seen people come together to work toward a common goal here. When the pandemic hit, people embraced the work that we do and embraced the people we serve. People came together to make that happen, to make sure community members are taken care of and, I can tell you, almost every time there’s been a challenge the community has stepped up.”

By July of this year alone, the JCC received private donations totaling what they normally expect to receive in an entire year. Mowen notes that “because of that, we have been able to keep up with the need in our community and expand in the middle of a pandemic. When other places are scaling-back, we’re surging.”

The Jamieson Community Center acts on the premise that even fundamental problems and needs can be addressed when we band together, whether that’s for fighting food insecurity, building social unity, or strengthening students’ school experience.

“There’s a very strong sense of community here," Mowen reiterated, "and I think that’s a wonderful asset…The community rallies around each other, and that’s a really bright spot, a point of light, we should all be celebrating. We’re community, and we’re community together.”

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