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How the Seeds From One Grant Have a Small Community Buzzing

North Shore Area Partners volunteers, David, left, and Stacey, water the raised beds in the NSAP Community Garden on a sunny day in Silver Bay, MN.

sprig by Posted in Grants, Small Communities

“We just put in an order for seeds from a local nursery,” explains Kelly Looby, executive director of North Shore Area Partners, a Silver Bay, Minnesota nonprofit organization whose mission is to support the independence and well-being of older adults in the northeastern two-thirds of Lake County. “People are excited about what we’ll grow this year. About what butterflies might show up.”

She’s describing one of the capital projects – a welcoming and accessible green space and garden – completed in 2023 thanks to a Rural Leadership Boost Grant from Blandin Foundation, created to support projects in small communities with populations of less than 3,000 people.

But it’s not all perennials and pollinators for Silver Bay, a town built by and for mining. No longer does a single industry nor a single company provide for the needs of a community. Shifting economics and demographics create tension. Church and club memberships are dwindling. Children fit into one school building rather than three, and there is a shortage of workers everywhere, including the nursing home that now occupies one of the former schools.

Meanwhile, Lake County is at the forefront of a widespread aging demographic trend, with 28% of residents currently older than age 65 at a time when many health and social service providers are concentrating on more densely populated areas, leaving rural communities with fewer resources. Rural counties in Minnesota now have more aging residents than urban counties, and people living in rural communities are more likely to have household incomes below the statewide median.

These disparities are why Blandin Foundation focuses much of its grantmaking on small communities. In times of great challenge and opportunity, the resilience and fortitude of rural people and places shines through. Yet a critical need remains for more resources to move small communities from where they are to where they want to go. Rural Leadership Boost Grants support these local ideas — and the dreamers and doers who move rural places forward.

Over the last five years, North Shore Area Partners’ work has been marked by challenges and opportunities, resilience and fortitude. Since 2003, they’ve worked to meet the growing need for aging services and support in their isolated area, including becoming a licensed home care provider in 2019 to fill a growing services gap and prevent aging neighbors from leaving town. This new, complex commitment required staffing, budget and operational growth, including moving into a vacated (and donated) Wells Fargo building in the heart of Silver Bay. NSAP took ownership in February 2020 to begin renovations and bolster their fledgling home care program.

One month later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, deeply and disproportionately impacting the town’s aging population. After that first year of isolation and renovation, and one week after finally moving into their new building, a fire next door forced NSAP to move out and renovate all over again due to smoke damage.

“Through it all we persevered, and North Shore Area Partners emerged confidently into its new role and new space,” explained Lise Abazs, NSAP’s executive director at the time, in their grant application. “We provided aging services in the community throughout the pandemic, and we officially opened our new facility to the public in November 2021. Our annual service numbers have grown from around 200 individual participants pre-pandemic to over 500 annually.”

This yearslong perseverance and the observed experiences of individuals and groups utilizing their new facility crystalised the role they envisioned for North Shore Area Partners in the Silver Bay community: from an aging services provider into a community hub. The accessible space offers meeting and gathering rooms, legal aid services, neighborly connections, and so much more.

“The direct support services that NSAP provides to older adults are core to what we do, but the social activities and interactions we enable are key to maintaining long-term health and wellbeing. The variety of programming that can happen at our facility draws in a wide range of individuals from throughout the community,” Abazs explained. “It is this vision of community that North Shore Area Partners is working towards, a vision where the community is welcoming and friendly to all ages and finds common ground and purpose in growing through life changes together.”

The $100,000 grant from Blandin Foundation helped NSAP further improve their facility to meet newfound opportunities for public use and engagement, with an overall goal of encouraging and supporting an age-friendly community. Indoor projects included adaptations and furnishing to make existing rooms more flexible for a variety of services, activities and users. Outdoor projects included developing accessible greenspaces and installing a solar array to increase environmental and economic sustainability.

But according to Looby, NSAP’s current executive director, this grant funding is about so much more than exterior and interior renovations.

“It’s about opening North Shore Area Partners up to the community and creating welcoming spaces to help people gain a greater understanding of the services and supports we offer and who we serve, and how the community can be involved with us or as a resource to people they know,” she explained, adding, “What these dollars have done is helped to create a community within a community. Now that we have these projects up and going, it will allow us to secure other funding. Blandin helped us lay the foundation to grow from. Now that we have gardens, for example, we can look toward funding additional outdoor activities and recreation.”

North Shore Area Partners plans to continue evolving and responding to their small community’s needs and opportunities. After these whirlwind few years, strategic planning is now on the docket, including how the organization can prepare for that steadily aging population. Specifically, they’re looking at putting together programming around solo aging – older adults living by themselves, maybe without any close relatives nearby.

“That’s a growing need in the community,” Looby said. “And we’ll prepare for and respond to it, just as North Shore Area Partners and this community always have.”

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