On this holiday founded on multiculturism, our Greene County invests in diversity & growth.

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

JEFFERSON, Iowa, Nov. 22, 2023 – One of the things I’m genuinely grateful for on this Thanksgiving holiday is that the businesses, most people, and even alumni of our Greene County are stepping up to a future of more multicultural living here. 

Many of us believe this will give us the opportunity to end a century of population decline, and decades of trying to have enough workers to let our industries, farms and small businesses thrive and grow.  And by recruiting whole families, we’ll fill up our schools, churches and volunteer organizations, too.

Here are some numbers to back up what I’m saying:  GCDC officials announced on Monday that its volunteer-run fundraising campaign this fall for the multicultural initiative has reached nearly 60 percent of its goal of $300,000.

As of midday Sunday, there had been 27 pledges with commitments of a total of $155,950.  Another 36 potential donors have been contacted, are considering whether they will invest, and if so, at what level.  The pledges are being sought now, but the actual donations don’t need to start until Oct. 1, 2024.

Sid Jones

“Only a handful of people of the contacts we’ve made have said no,” said Sid Jones, the GCDC president, recently retired banker and one of the leaders of the multicultural initiative.  “Overall, it’s been an incredibly positive response.”

The multicultural project is being operated now with a $95,703 U.S. Department of Agricultural Rural Development grant.  The funding from that became available Oct. 1 this fall. The $300,000 being sought will pay for operations of the project in its second, third and fourth years. 

Most of that will go toward a salary and benefits for a full-time director, who will be hired soon by the Greene County School District, which is partnering in the project with GCDC, local businesses and possibly at some level, the City of Jefferson and Greene County Board of Supervisors.

GCDC’s multicultural initiative, the planning for which started two years ago this fall, seeks to grow the workforce and the overall population in all areas of the county.  Individuals and families from many cultures will be recruited from across Iowa, the U.S. and beyond.  The initiative was vetted and developed in a series of public meetings, with much input from major employers, local governments, churches and civic organizations.

The value of the school’s commitment is expected to be $51,000 over the three years, and that’s the largest pledge so far.  With good reason.  Superintendent Brett Abbotts noted this past week that there are 31 new students from diverse cultures this fall “and 22 of them are requiring English language assistance.”  The school expects to use the new multi-cultural director at least one-fourth of that person’s work time to help such students and their families get settled and acclimated in the communities and schools, including assisting with language translation and cultural understanding.

“Greene County Community School District is committed to supporting educational equity, providing support for diverse populations, and ensuring that we are committed to community engagement across multiple avenues,” Abbotts explained in an email. “Our desire is to ensure a partnership between our schools and our new families to ensure that they are supported and communicated with effectively to welcome them not only into our school district, but into our community.

“This center and whoever is the successful candidate should be able to provide necessary resources and support to our teachers in the way of communication with translating and interpreting support as needed. Furthermore, the center can facilitate greater parent engagement and involvement in our schools by providing a welcoming atmosphere. Our schools, staff, and community are excited to work together with the Multicultural Family Resource Center, which is why we have made such a great commitment to this project.”

Besides the director’s salary and benefits, other costs covered by the current federal grant and the $300,000 from the fundraising campaign will include some advertising, promotion and consultant services needed in the effort to recruit new workers and their families to the county.

The largest commitments so far by local businesses are $15,000 over the three years by Wild Rose Casino & Resort and Home State Bank.

“Wild Rose is committed to the long-term success of the community,” Travis Dvorak, the general manager, said. “This program will serve as a great catalyst for both maintaining and increasing the population of Greene County. We are excited to see the Greene County Community School take the leadership position, and we appreciate all the work done by GCDC and several community members. We fully support this and any other programs that help make Greene County a vibrant and successful place.”

Bob Allen, who succeeded Sid Jones as president & CEO of Home State Bank, said the board of directors believed their commitment is a sound one.

“Being a community bank, Home State has been committed to and always will be committed to projects that have a positive benefit in our communities,” Allen said. “The uniqueness of the Multicultural Family Resource Center is that it positively supports our local schools, medical facilities, agriculture, and small to large businesses.”

Individual donations have started at $100 for the three years, and Jones said commitments of all amounts are welcomed.

Many of GCDC’s members and directors have already committed.

Mary Weaver, partner in a farming operation outside Rippey and a rep for that community on the GCDC board, said they’ve done so because she and husband Gary Weaver think workforce and population growth are essential.  “Gary and I recognize the need for additional families to work, live and play in our rural community,” she said. “We must show population growth to maintain our vitality. Or the last one out will turn off the lights.”

GCDC member Mike Holden, a farmer outside Scranton, has been one of the development organization’s most active members in the fundraising campaign – while committing for the family’s businesses, too.

“The Holden family, which includes Moo Meat, is investing in the multicultural project and its funding for a professional director because we need to be prepared to welcome newcomers to our county-wide community,” he said. “If our local businesses, of all sizes, are going to be able to fill their current open positions and their future needs, it will require attracting new people to our county community.  It will likely require a diversification of cultures in order for these jobs to be filled, and housing to be built for them to live here, so they’re not just working in the county.

“We believe that through community projects like this one we truly have a chance to grow Greene County!” Holden continued. “Accepting change can be difficult, but if we embrace it, together we can meet any challenges we may encounter.”

The initiative is also drawing support from natives of the county now living and working elsewhere – including several of our best-known who’ve made financial commitments.

“A lot of good things are happening in Greene County,” said David Yepsen, now retired, who grew up in Jefferson and became the political writer for the Des Moines Register and then hosting the “Iowa Press” show on Iowa PBS television. “To keep them going, we need people, especially workers.

“This effort will help us attract and keep newcomers.  Helping them navigate things like adjusting to local schools, finding healthcare, getting housing, drivers licenses or starting their own businesses.  It’s an effort to just plain be neighborly.  And this will also help those of us who want to welcome newcomers to our communities find ways to best do that.”

Michelle Book, also of Des Moines, the CEO & president of the Food Bank of Central Iowa, said “while I don’t live in Jefferson now, I grew up there, and I’m exceedingly proud of my Greene County roots.  I travel the state for work, and I’ve seen firsthand how other communities prosper when they embrace diversity.  I want that kind of prosperity for my hometown.”

Terry Rich, a Cooper native now living in Waukee, is retired director of the Iowa Lottery after directing the Blank Park Zoo and having major success in cable television.

“I appreciate what Greene County did to help me become successful,” Rich said. “It’s important to support and help a community find ways to help others benefit.  In today’s world, the county’s effort on this initiative will be ahead of the game, with outreach for successful productivity and impact.”

As news about GCDC’s proposal for workforce and population growth has spread, there are already signs of significant response. 

Multiple contractors are planning new housing developments in Jefferson and other communities around the county.   Investments by contractors in new developments in Jefferson – underway and proposed – total more than $25 million.

Jones, while grateful for the financial commitments being made by businesses, individuals and organizations, said “our ask of our communities is more than dollars.  We’re asking for open minds and hearts for assisting and welcoming people from other cultures.

“The type of positions and opportunities available with our employers here cover a wide spectrum, but a lot of them are probably not going to be filled by our traditional Caucasian workforce,” he continued. “We haven’t been able to find enough of them for years.  At this same time, we have people all over the world looking for new opportunities – Latinos, Ukrainian refugees, Asians, South Africans.   And in that is an opportunity for our businesses and all of Greene County to grow.  We want to help other people come and enjoy what I’ve always called the quiet enjoyment of life in rural Iowa.”

Jones went on talking about how “Greene County has always stepped up to the challenge.  Recently, that’s included the expansion and renovation of the medical center, the construction of a new high school and career academy, developing and building the The Children’s Center for early learning and childcare, and 70-plus women who came together to restore a building on the downtown square and named themselves ‘Why Not Us?’  Now, the Multicultural Family Resource Center may be the largest single initiative and challenge facing us in the next 20 years.  Please consider a donation and pledge to the project. Why not all of us?”

He said that as the fund drive by GCDC is being completed and the new multicultural project’s director is being hired, the committees of volunteers interested in helping newcomers will be re-organizing, after doing a lot of preliminary work in 2022.  That will start soon after Jan. 1, along with education and entertainment activities to facilitate intercultural understanding.

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For more information and to get involved with the multicultural project, contact GCDC by phone at (515) 386-8255 or by email development@greenecountyiowa.com.  Or you can contract me directly at (515) 370-2659 or by emailchuck@offenburger.com.

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