Rural

How Some Small Towns Are Achieving 'Brain Gain'

Jul 10, 2018
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

When communities watch young people grow up, go off and never return, remaining residents and politicians often bemoan there’s been a “brain drain” — especially when such population loss means schools and businesses close.

A new hospital, financed by a USDA loan, is under construction on the edge of Syracuse, Nebraska, a town of just under 2,000 people.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media file photo

Editors note, June 28, 2018: The CDC says the data referenced in this story about farmer suicides is incorrect, due to "coding issues" and that the agency will work to correct the data, according to media outlet The New Food Economy. Updated suicide numbers for farmers have not yet been released.

Farming involves a degree of inherent risk, such as environmental and biological factors like drought and disease, which can come and go practically without warning. Depressed commodity and dairy prices and a burgeoning trade war are adding to that usual stress and taking a toll on farmers.

Sarah Scantling gave birth to her daugher Abilene in Dryersburg, Tennessee, 30 miles from their home in Pemiscot County, Missouri.
Bram Sable-Smith / Side Effects Public Media

When Sarah Scantling went into labor this summer, she had to drive 30 miles and across state lines.

Three years earlier, the only maternity ward where she lives in Pemiscot County, Missouri closed down. Scantling had to choose between a handful of other hospitals in the region between 20 and 70 miles away. She chose to give birth in the hospital in Dyersburg, Tennessee.

Montra Beeler may not be all that all, but she fills a huge role in the understaffed fire department in Cedar Vale, Kansas.
Frank Morris / for Harvest Public Media

If you pull a fire alarm in any large U.S. city, it's likely that paid firefighters waiting at a nearby station will quickly respond. But seven out of 10 American firefighters are volunteers. They cover vast sections of the country, making up an aging network that is increasingly understaffed and overworked.

Earl Bullington is an advisor for Focus Bank, which rescued the struggling Pemiscot County (Missouri) hospital in 2013.
Bram Sable-Smith / for Harvest Public Media

$1.25 million.

That’s the size of the bill that could have shuttered the only public hospital in rural Pemiscot County, Missouri in August 2013.

$750,000 for payroll. $500,000 for a bond payment. $1.25 million total. One August day in 2013, the hospital’s CEO Kerry Noble had to face facts: The money just wasn’t there. It took an emergency bailout from a local bank to keep their doors open. For now.

Meramec State Park in central Missouri was surveyed this summer for tick-borne viruses after a patron died of a virus that may be associated with ticks.
Alex Smith / for Harvest Public Media

Tammy Wilson loved the outdoors and was happy to spend her days working at Meramec State Park in the central part of Missouri.

Her family often stopped by to see her, most recently at the end of May.

“My mom had two seed ticks on her hip – I believe it was her right hip,” says Wilson’s daughter, Amie May of Bonne Terre, Missouri. “And my sister pulled them off. A couple days later, mom said she just wasn’t feeling herself.”

Since the Dillon's grocery store in St. John, Kansas, closed last year, residents have traveled 12 miles or more for their groceries.
Bryan Thompson / for Harvest Public Media

A brick building that was the only grocery store in St. John, Kansas, sits vacant, its glass doors covered with paper since it closed early last year.

St. John is the county seat of Stafford County in south-central Kansas, but it’s home to fewer than 1,300 people. Today, the closest grocery store is 12 miles away, in Stafford.

Local Boy Scouts carry flags down Illinois Street in a parade marking the 150th anniversary of the founding of the city of Sidney, Nebraska.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Sidney, Nebraska, has prospered while many rural cities have struggled. For decades, the city has been home to Cabela’s, a major outdoor retail chain.

As Cabela’s completes a deal in which it will be bought by a rival, however, the future of Sidney’s economic engine is in doubt. As in other rural cities that have faced the loss or closure of major industry, the question is how the community will move on and grow in the 21st Century.

Sister Loretta Jasper cut the ribbon on the Neighbor to Neighbor drop-in center in Abilene, Kansas, in February.
Bryan Thompson / for Harvest Public Media

The social and health effects of isolation on some rural Kansas residents spurred three Catholic nuns to convert a storefront in Concordia, Kansas, into a drop-in center where women can find support and resources. 

Seven years after the center opened, two dozen women on average come through each day in the town of about 5,000 to socialize, do laundry, get a cooking lesson, or simply connect with others.

The Grandview R-II school district in rural Missouri started an online summer school program to help its students take classes the district can't regularly offer.
Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media

This story is part of the special series United And Divided, which explores the links and rifts between rural and urban America.

Schools in rural school districts often don’t have the budget or the teachers to offer students all of the courses they would like to take. One rural district in a Missouri county decided to offer credit for online classes in an effort to give its students the educational opportunities it can’t otherwise afford.

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