Taking charge of a dream
A young woman returns to her hometown to teach and lead the effort for a new community center
Vicki Jo McConnell was born and raised near the remote southeastern Oregon town of Arock, a rural community two hours from Boise, Idaho. She went to school in the Arock area, leaving to go to college in Boise.
She taught school in Nampa, Idaho, for seven years before getting an offer for her dream job—going back home to be a teacher at the primary school she had attended not that long ago.
“The job opportunity came up in Arock, and it had always been in the back of my mind,” McConnell says. “My husband was game to move out here, and most of my family is here. My parents still ranch and raise cattle, my grandparents live here, I have aunts, uncles, cousins and my brother. It was the ideal time to move home and start a family.”
And that’s what she did. She and her husband, an industrial electrician who frequently travels for work, built a home in 2008 and McConnell became one of two teachers at the grade school, which serves 14 students. They are now the parents of a 3-year-old daughter.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she says. For McConnell, the advantages of living in a rural community outweigh the inconveniences, which include traveling two hours to Boise for shopping and health care, limited cultural opportunities and lack of jobs.
“You are close to your family here,” she says. “And it’s an old-fashioned value system that you don’t find in town a lot. I feel like kids can get lost in the system, and there’s not much accountability. Kids can’t fall through the cracks here.”
But with the rural life came responsibility. When McConnell moved back to town, she picked up a project that her dad and her uncle had started years ago — the Arock Community Center.
Bringing a dream to life
“The community center was an idea started in 1985 by my dad and my uncle and some others on the school board,” McConnell explains. The Grange Hall, built in 1938, served as the recreational center of the town. But it was built as a meeting place, not for sporting events, and it was really starting to show its age. The structure was infested with bats and didn’t have a kitchen. The bathroom was a privy outside.
Arock residents, McConnell’s dad among them, had talked for years about constructing a community building that could serve as a town center. “There were rumblings for years, but no one really had time. They were farmers and ranchers who work sunup to sundown.”
McConnell says she just came along at the right time. “I was passionate about getting it done,” she says. It wasn’t an easy sell to the older generation, who didn’t grow up playing basketball and volleyball. “They didn’t really see the value in having a recreational center for the youth,” McConnell says. “And a lot of them—some in my own family—said, ‘oh I don’t know, that’s a lot of money.’”
A $600,000 building
But, after a lot of time and effort and meetings and conversations, the town embraced the idea, and community giving and foundation grants combined to make the $600,000 building possible. On Nov. 15, 2012, a grand opening was held.
A lot of the naysayers have changed their minds, McConnell says. The youth use it every day, shooting baskets over Christmas break, getting together with their friends. An insurance company held its business meeting at the center, and the school held its Christmas program there. McConnell’s grandmother even celebrated her 90th birthday party at the center, with more than 100 people attending.
The making of a rural leader
Taking a leadership role in her community came naturally to Vicki Jo McConnell. “I’ve been a little bit of a leader my whole life,” she says. “I can see it in my mind’s eye, and I want to work toward it.”
That’s not to say it was easy — building personal credibility was an important step. McConnell ran into a few barriers, especially in the early days of the community center project as she investigated costs and talked to contractors. “Some of them really talked down to me and that was hard,” she says.
And then there was the perception issue. Many community members remembered her as a child and had to adjust to her as a leader. “It’s a fine line between being pushy and getting everybody on the same side, but I wanted everybody to be for it. Eventually, it worked out.”
McConnell already has an eye on the next project — a community library. The school district’s library is currently housed in a singlewide trailer that sits behind the primary school. “It’s falling apart, and it’s an eyesore. Why not create a community library? We don’t have anything like that now, and some people don’t have Internet access.”
McConnell expects that, once again, she will be taking the lead on the project. “It’s another one of those deals where 99 percent of our people have a ranch or a farm,” she explains. “They are busy. They want to have good things happen, but they either don’t know how or they don’t have time.
“I don’t do it for me, but for my daughter, for the community. Why not better the place where we live?”