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Make a town your community

Ten years ago, at age 31, my husband returned to live and work in his hometown. He transitioned from being an "achiever" (one who left) to a "returner" (who left and returned), as identified in the rural brain drain research included in the book ...

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Nathan Pinke returned to his hometown ten years ago this month. (Katie Pinke/Agweek)

Ten years ago, at age 31, my husband returned to live and work in his hometown. He transitioned from being an “achiever” (one who left) to a “returner” (who left and returned), as identified in the rural brain drain research included in the book “Hollowing Out the Middle” by husband and wife authors Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas. I read the book after our son and I moved with Nathan to Wishek.

It would have been easy for Nathan to remain an “achiever” and never return to his rural roots. Wishek certainly wasn’t the same as it was when Nathan left at 18. Instead, 10 years ago this month, he turned in his resignation letter from his pharmaceutical management position based in Fargo. He spent a week in Mexico as a sales reward trip with his colleagues, being wined and dined by upper corporate management, which almost made him second guess his resignation. A month later, he got off a plane on his last business trip and turned in his corporate car, gas card and other perks. We traveled west from Fargo to his hometown, and two days later, he started working alongside his dad in our “new” community. Wishek is a town of around 1,000 people in a county of 2,600 people, with far more cows than people.

We didn’t have an established circle of friends, and we were renting a small house with neighbors we didn’t know. We didn’t have any affiliation to community or civic organizations or churches. We had to connect with other “returners” as well as “stayers” who never left.

Wishek could have been just another dying small town, but we saw glimpses of possibilities. Since then, our town has experienced a rural revival of sorts thanks to new businesses developed by local folks. For example, on our most recent home construction project, our business worked with 13 other local businesses. Our youngest daughter’s upcoming second grade class with 27 students is the largest in the school.

In the past decade, I’ve come to learn it’s up to me to make my town my home.

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As Nathan says, “Everything in life has hassles,” a quote he learned from my dad who also went from owning a successful small business and traveling extensively to full-time farming at age 42. Nathan’s hassles changed from those associated with corporate and city life to small business, rural community life.

There are hassles in our communities. We don’t all agree. What a gift it is to not all agree! We don’t all have the same interests. Again, variety and diversity differentiate our communities. Who wants to live in a town with a homogenous, vanilla population? Sounds boring and static to me.

Nathan and I learned from others and brought our outside experiences with us to embrace and discover our town until it truly felt like our community.

It didn’t happen all at once. As we established ourselves in our work, in our home and with our kids, we engaged on issues, listened to those who had been active in the community for decades, joined local organizations and ran for boards/committees. Our family became more active in the community. We learned to carefully choose what we are willing to go to the wall for and who to stand up for and alongside on issues.

Not every decision is popular. I’ll be honest. We’re comfortable researching, debating and agreeing to disagree on issues. Communities don’t grow staying the same.

Our past experiences taught us to keep learning and evolve or our business and community will die. Ten years later, we’re no longer the new family. We’re established in various roles. Our business has evolved and so has our community.

I can look around and see new faces and new leaders to be developed for community growth. I bet you can see that in your community too. Now as a rooted in rural resident, new people energize me. We have hopeful future in our community because of the variety of people choosing to make our area their home.

Is it time to rediscover your community? Engage new residents? Invite over those new faces in your neighborhood?

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If it wasn’t for the “stayers” (those who never left) and fellow “returners,” Nathan and I wouldn’t be fully vested in our community a decade later. It takes all of us, a variety of voices, ages and experiences to sustain our communities. Avoid the rural brain drain and rediscover your community. Make your town, your home community.

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