RARE expands capacity of rural towns
Program matches young professionals with development efforts
In 2016, when Elizabeth Gronert graduated from the University of Iowa, she didn’t quite know what to do next. She knew she wanted to get out of the Midwest. She knew she wanted to build career connections. And she knew she wanted an adventure.
Gronert found the answer with the University of Oregon’s RARE AmeriCorps program. RARE (Resource Assistance for Rural Environments) matches successful applicants, most of them recent college graduates, with rural communities and organizations that need skills in specific areas but may not have those resources.
RARE is building a cadre of committed young professionals — many of whom choose to stay in Oregon — who can gain valuable experience while expanding the capacity of rural communities. “In rural communities, the ability of one person to make an impact is immense,” says Titus Tomlinson, RARE’s acting program director. “As an AmeriCorps program, RARE adds the spirit of service to the table, and it’s a beautiful way to give back.”
A win-win proposition
For Gronert, RARE offered “just a big ball of benefits.” In return for working 11 months, participants receive a $1,600 monthly stipend, graduate credits, an education award that can be used to pay off loans or future educational expenses, and the chance to make connections, amass experience, and become part of the tight-knit RARE community.
“What they are really getting is real-world practice, real-world experience and the chance to make real-world decisions,” says Tomlinson, a RARE alumnus who came to Oregon 12 years ago to serve with the city of Winston’s planning department in updating its floodplain management plan. “It was a life-changing experience for me, on both a personal and professional level,” he says.
Since RARE’s inception in 1994, AmeriCorps has placed more than 500 RARE members throughout rural Oregon. In its first year, RARE AmeriCorps placed 13 members; this year, there are 31 members. Participants work for municipalities, nonprofits, regional groups or statewide organizations. Projects are as varied as the needs of communities, including economic development, planning, tourism, fire communication, art and library development.
For Tomlinson, like many participants, culture shock played a role in the learning experience. “I moved from very liberal Arcata, California, to conservative rural Oregon — full beard, dreadlocks to my waist,” he remembers. “They accepted me with open arms. Politics aside, what matters most is a sense of community. I befriended the police chief, the mayor … I was part of that family. It was an extremely special experience, part of my life that I will forever hold dear.”
This is Gronert’s second year working with the Oregon Coast Visitors Association on projects relating to agritourism and recreation on the south coast, including the burgeoning Oregon Food Trail. Her position is co-funded through OCVA, the Wild Rivers Coast Alliance and Travel Oregon.
Statewide partners are an increasingly important component of RARE. Organizations such as Travel Oregon, the Oregon Food Bank, Oregon Main Street Program and The Ford Family Foundation provide funding, training, hosting, information sharing and expertise.
“We’re thankful to have such great local and regional partners that also want to make investments in capacity to support rural communities,” says Travel Oregon’s Alexa Carey. Carey was a RARE placement in 2012-2013, helping the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians in Roseburg develop its small-business incubator, the Umpqua Business Center. She worked in Oregon after her RARE term ended and is now Travel Oregon’s director for community-based services.
Tomlinson looks forward to increasing the program’s number of statewide partners, which has the effect of increasing the support available to rural communities. “When we come into a rural community, we are able to really wrap around their needs,” he says. “You don’t just get a RARE member, you get access to our partners.”
Projects benefit from RARE
This year’s 31 RARE participants are working in small communities throughout Oregon on a wide variety of projects. Many are collaborative efforts between regions and organizations. Here’s a glimpse of what RARE placements are working on:
Oregon Coast Visitors Association: Travel Oregon’s Oregon Food Trails program guides tourism communities in how to identify their strongest agritourism products and market them to Oregonians and visitors alike. Four food trails have been developed with the help of the RARE program: Wild Rivers Coast, Great Umpqua, East Gorge and North Coast.
City of Roseburg: The RARE participant is supporting the initial start-up of the Roseburg Public Library, helping develop library policies and procedures, including those related to the recruitment and retention of a large volunteer workforce.
Clackamas County: RARE is helping assess opportunities and barriers for community solar initiatives, coordinate public engagement and outreach, and identify partners and participants for a community solar installation.
Eastern Oregon Healthy Living Alliance: The RARE placement is helping conduct a social marketing campaign aimed at increasing fruit and vegetable consumption with Latino moms in Malheur, Morrow, and Umatilla Counties.
City of Florence: The RARE participant is helping the city’s public art committee members select and install two large-scale public art pieces in Florence’s Urban Renewal District.
City of Veneta: The RARE participant is supporting entrepreneurs, including the formation of a pop-up retail district and the formation of a brewery incentive package.