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A Small Town’s Transformation

Guest Post by Allison Nkwocha

How did Milton-Freewater accomplish a 2000% improvement in volunteer participation?

Participation in Milton-Freewater’s annual “Make a Difference Day” went from an average of 35 volunteers to more than 700 after the 2015 Pomegranate Center community-build of the town’s gathering place.

Randy Grant, Executive Director of the Milton-Freewater Downtown Association (MFDA) with the Pomegranate Center team and fellow Pomegranate Center trainees.
Randy Grant, Executive Director of the Milton-Freewater Downtown Association (MFDA) with the Pomegranate Center team and fellow Pomegranate Center trainees.

The best way to start changing local perceptions and revitalizing the town was by getting locals involved and emotionally invested. That’s where Pomegranate Center came in. Long before the gathering place was envisioned, we were teaching local leaders successful community engagement skills. Randy Grant was one of those leaders. As Executive Director of the Milton-Freewater Downtown Alliance (MFDA), an organization founded to ramp up community advancement and promote community involvement, Randy says that the most important thing he learned from Pomegranate Center was proper preparation for efficient and effective community meetings. Pomegranate Center helped Randy and the MFDA organize a series of meetings to define goals for the future of Milton-Freewater.

Randy, at far right, during a design session incorporating the community's ideas.
Randy, at far right, during a design session incorporating the community’s ideas.

By providing opportunities for involvement every step of the way, Pomegranate Center helped build trust within the community. Strategic outreach efforts were expanded to encourage all community members (including the under-represented Hispanic community) to attend community meetings. Each meeting was structured so every person participated and was heard. By the time the town was ready to build the project, more than 250 volunteers and businesses were eager to donate their time and resources to build something that truly came from within the community. Tackling a project this way guarantees involvement and ownership, and takes much less time. Milton-Freewater wrapped up their gathering place project in just four months from start to finish. “It felt like the way a community should function,” Randy proclaims.

He says this ongoing transformation of Milton-Freewater is a “philosophical shift.” Soon after the gathering place was completed, Randy recalls “an older man walked by and looked at me, frowned and said ‘This is too nice for Milton-Freewater, you know?’ I just looked back at him and said ‘There are 250 local volunteers who would very much disagree with you.’ Some people expect Milton-Freewater to be beat up and downtrodden, I’m afraid that’s been the default mindset.” This is what Randy and many others in Milton-Freewater are trying to change… and it’s working! Make a Difference Day was wildly successful but even before then, while moving rocks beside a friend at the gathering place build, a teenage girl was overheard saying, “Wow, I didn’t realize people care so much.”

Paving the way for more improvements to come, the positive momentum and new energy of local engagement must be nurtured. Randy Grant knows that his work as a community organizer is constantly evolving. “To accomplish more, you have to want more,” he says. “There will always be more to learn and more to do.”

Next steps include making sure that the money raised from the recent school bond that passed with a more than 80% majority (another victory for a rural town where tax increases are typically difficult to pass) is used in a way that supports the community’s vision. Now that local leaders are using the Pomegranate Center approach and since our 2014 community-build of a gathering place where there used to be a barren lot, Milton-Freewater has been riding a wave of enthusiastic community engagement.

In previous years, only 30 or 40 volunteers would show up for the town’s annual Make a Difference Day but this year more than 700 residents participated! Twenty times the number of volunteers came and scrubbed, cleaned, painted, repaired, landscaped, and installed community improvements all around this rural Oregon town. Not only that, local businesses and agencies pitched in with over $26,000 worth of donations. Here are a few pictures and quotes from Make A Difference Day: