Volunteers are rural northeastern North Dakota town's gift that keep on giving

The Gilby (North Dakota) Community Center, since opening in August 2021, has been host to dozens of volunteer-run public events throughout the year, not just on holidays, but also during the week.

A woman with a red vest and blue sihrt talks to a woman with a gray shirt and black pants..
Darlene Hughes, a volunteer for the Gilby (North Dakota) Community Center's Dec. 10, 2022, Breakfast with Santa event orders coffee from Ashley Renfrow, a volunteer barista at the center's Gilby Grind coffee shop.
Ann Bailey / Agweek
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GILBY, N.D. — An infant with wondering eyes sitting with Santa Claus. Children gathered around a guitar player leading them in Christmas carols. Volunteers dishing up plates of pancakes with a dollop of whipped cream and holiday sprinkles on top.

Though the scenes in the Gilby Community Center could be part of a Hallmark movie, they are the reality of a day in the life of the building that has brought together residents of the city and farms that surround it.

The community center, which houses the Gilby Grind coffee bar, since opening in August 2021 has been host to dozens of volunteer-run public events throughout the year, not just on holidays, but also during the week. The events include murder mystery dinners, the coffee bar on Saturday morning and painting evenings. The community center also is available to rent for private events.

A chalkboard lists the coffee drinks at Gilby Community Center's Gilby Grind coffee bar.
A chalkboard from the former Gilby school lists the coffee drinks and cocoa that the Gilby Grind coffee bar in the Community Center offers its customers.
Ann Bailey / Agweek

In November 2022, the City of Gilby received North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s Main Street “Smart Efficient Infrastructure Award” for the renovation of a former grocery store into the Community Center and Gilby Grind coffee bar, housed in the center.

A woman with a Santa Claus coat and cap strums a guitar and sings.
Stephanie Matteson led Christmas caroling at the Gilby (North Dakota) Community Center Breakfast with Santa event on Dec. 10, 2022.
Ann Bailey / Agweek

“The town has been incredibly supportive,” said Kayla Elke, a volunteer who also serves on the Gilby City Council. Elke is one of a total of about 15 people who volunteer during Gilby Community Center and city events. The events include picnics in the park during the summer, the annual Halloween parade and a geocaching activity in fall 2022 that doubled the size of the town, population 242.


Other volunteers help to maintain the city’s venues, hang up signs and put up Christmas lights.

Volunteering in Gilby appears to have a domino effect, said Dexter Cronquist, a Gilby farmer who builds the city’s outdoor ice skating rink each winter and takes it down in the spring.

“If one person puts in a little effort to make others smile, I feel like it turns into a cycle and others will continue to also put forth a little effort,” he said.

Meanwhile, donors know that the money they donate for projects or spend on events such as Murder Mystery dinners and coffee drinks they buy at the Gilby Grind will be used for city projects, Elke said.

“I think the biggest thing with all of the support is all of the profits with everything we do above and beyond our operating expenses goes back to the city for betterment projects,” she said.

Renovations to the city playground and the city ice skating rink also were funded with donations and grants from the Main Street Initiative and Myra Foundation.

In 2019, Elke and her mother, JoLynn Dickson, who also serves on the Gilby City Council, led a $15,000 fundraising drive to buy new playground equipment and bring the space up to insurable standards.

When the two women launched the drive they were unsure whether it would be successful, and if it was, how long it would take to raise money, Elke said.


A woman wearing a white sweater is smiling.
Kayla Elke is a member of the Gilby (North Dakota) City Council and volunteers at events the city hosts.
Evan Girtz / Agweek

“However, the community showed up, and we got donations from residents of the city, people who had lived here or even had grown up here, and grants, so we were able to complete the playground project in a much faster time frame than I had anticipated,” Elke said.

The city’s biggest project to date is the Community Center, which was an abandoned grocery store before Yvonne Cronquist, a local nonagenarian — she’s 96 — donated the building to the City of Gilby in 2020.

A year later, volunteers, with the help of contractors, had renovated it into a community center, with a corner kitchenette and coffee shop. The renovation was financed with public grants and private donations, including an anonymous donation of $10,000.

A baby dressed as an elf sits on Santa Claus' knee.
Noah Smith met Santa Claus at the Gilby (North Dakota) Community Center's Breakfast with Santa event on Dec. 10, 2022.
Contributed / Kayla Elke

On Dec. 10, 2022, people from babies to senior citizens gathered for “Breakfast with Santa” at the Gilby Community Center.

"It's wonderful, just wonderful," said Vicki Bunker, a longtime Gilby resident while she was waiting for a volunteer coffee bar barista to make her latte. "I don't know what we did without this place."

“Before we had this space, we didn’t have any place to call our own,” Elke said. "We could have some events at the church, but then you’re limited when you can hold them because the church has other things going on, too. It’s also great to have a space within your community that people can rent out.”

The Gilby Community Center has been rented for events including birthday parties, anniversary parties and graduation receptions, Elke said.

Santa Claus talks to a woman with a blue shirt and blue pants.
Santa Claus talks to Vicki Bunker at the Gilby (North Dakota) Community Center's Breakfast with Santa on Dec. 10, 2022.
Ann Bailey / Agweek

The city’s newest project is to remodel the back room of the Community Center into a space that can be used for storage. The city hopes to meet the $35,000 fundraising goal by summer 2023.


The city’s revitalization has caught the attention of some other small town North Dakota residents who have asked the Gilby volunteers how they were able to fundraise for and accomplish the projects they’ve undertaken and how they are able to host a wide variety of events.

The formula for success includes having an enthusiastic leader heading a team, trial and error, and acceptance of people’s suggestions, Dickson said.

“You need someone with a spark, and then you need other people to join in and be open minded about their ideas and suggestions," Dickson said. “Some things are going to go well and some things aren’t going to go well.”

She recommends using the resources of North Dakota’s Main Street Initiative, which offers communities information about how to build on their strengths and networking opportunities with other small cities that have successfully completed projects.

Meanwhile, having a city mayor who is supportive of the community projects also has been a key factor in the city projects’ successes, Dickson said.

A woman wearing a gray sweatshirt pours orange juice into a glass Christmas tree container.
JoLynn Dickson, left, a Gilby (North Dakota) City Council member, volunteered at the Gilby Community Center's Breakfast with Santa event on Dec. 10, 2022. The city's mayor Rob McLean, center, and Celeste Nelson, right, a Gilby resident, served pancakes at the event.
Ann Bailey / Agweek

Mayor Rob McLean calls the improvements in the city “wonderful.”

“It’s brought the community more together,” McLean said. ''We've got a good community, and I like to see things progress. And I think we’re going in the right direction.

“Being from Gilby my whole life, it makes me feel good to see things going on now, “ he said.

Yvonne Cronquist also is delighted to see the city revitalized and, especially, that people are enjoying the Community Center, which once housed hers and her husband Jack’s grocery store.

“My grandma loves going there to talk to everyone. She is very happy with how busy it gets in there,” Dexter Cronquist said.

A few years after Elke helped launch Gilby’s first project, she’s grateful for the financial and volunteer support from the community and believes that it not only benefits residents but also raises the interest of people outside of town.

“We had a Murder Mystery the other night, and one of the participants asked, 'Are there any houses for sale here?'" Elke said. "It’s very exciting for people to have so many things that are going on within the town.”

Ann is a journalism veteran with nearly 40 years of reporting and editing experiences on a variety of topics including agriculture and business. Story ideas or questions can be sent to Ann by email at: or phone at: 218-779-8093.
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