They sat in groups of 10 in the basement of St. John's Church in the Iowa town of Greenfield with one task before them: to think up three things they liked most about their town and surrounding Adair County. In other words, what resources did the region have to fall back upon? Until that evening no one had thought of tackling the town's problems by listing its assets before its needs, and the result was dramatic. One woman, a tear spilling onto her cheek, said it for them all at the close of the meeting: ``I'm just so amazed at all the wealth here. We're told so many times that we are poor and deprived.''
To the surprise of most everyone there, before that evening in early February was over the tally of assets had topped the 100 mark. Few had any idea that their embattled rural community had so much going for it. Suddenly they had ``reason to hope again.''
The town of Greenfield reached a turning point that evening. In the terminology of the meeting organizers, Rodale Press of Emmaus, Pa., the process of ``regeneration'' had begun.
A typical regeneration story that helped inspire the residents of Greenfield was recently printed in the Adair County Free Press. It happened in a North Dakota community of 140 people.
As Free Press editor Ed Sidey wrote: ``The school had closed. Then the only cafe in town was about to close. It had been the gathering point for the whole community, the social center. The residents figured that if the cafe went, so would the town.
``Rather than let it happen, the town took over the cafe. Volunteers were organized. Each person who was able gave two days a month to work in the cafe. The best cooks did the cooking, and the rest did other chores. It worked ... so well that business began to grow ... people from around began to come to the cafe. The demand for food to supply the restaurant resulted in reopening the grocery store which had closed.... The town took the profits and opened a recreation center in the empty school building that included an archery range and other games.
``That is regeneration. No state or federal tax dollars involved there. No big gift from a foundation. Just local folks using their own skills and the things they had right there.''
In Greenfield, in the years since the farm crunch depressed American agriculture everywhere and Iowa's economy in particular, the population (2,100) had been fed a constant diet of doom and gloom by media stories of a failing economy, of foreclosures, and of suicide on the farm. The effect was to constantly reinforce the sense of helplessness that engulfed them all.
By approaching their problems from the other end - first listing the assets - the townspeople took the first step towards regeneration that winter evening.
This is part of the Rodale approach to agriculture in the magazine New Farm, dedicated to showing farmers how to improve profits by making optimum use of the farm's own resources, thus reducing off-farm inputs. Recently, publisher Robert Rodale began to reason that if the system was so successful on the farm, surely it would work with communities, families, and even individuals.
Getting folks to assess the skills right in their own backyard was the reason Rodale representative Jeff Burcuvitz came to Greenfield. Topping everyone's list of assets that evening was the quality of the people, their love for each other (they rally to help anyone in need), and their honesty (you can leave your car unlocked, with the keys in the ignition and money lying on the seat and no one will touch it).
Ideas on how best to use these newly recognized resources in both the short and long term still are coming in. One option: Greenfield could link up with other towns in Adair county to develop the region's tourism potential.
Apart from attractive natural scenery that includes several lakes, the town has a stable of antique airplanes bequeathed to it by a fancier many years ago. Spruced up and advertised, it could draw many visitors to the area, and plans are to tie it in with an annual antique auto rally.
Also, the town is near to the site of the very first train robbery in the West and close to the birthplace of John Wayne and Johnny Carson. There's good fishing, sailing, hiking, and an established nature trail, good restaurants, arts and crafts, and, say the residents, bed and breakfast options as good as you'll find anywhere.
A project already under way is the compilation of a people-resources directory, a sort of Yellow Pages of local talents that will cover everything from the woman who can read and write fluently in German (should anyone have anything that needs translating) to the man who is a dab hand at repairing vacuum cleaners.
Apparently everyone at the meeting was aquainted with the woman who is fluent in German, but barely a handful were aware that she possessed such a talent until it was brought out that evening. As Burkuvitz keeps stressing: ``What's the use of a resource if no one knows it's there?''
So now the town is gearing up, some say it is fired up, to begin tapping resources that few appreciated just a few short weeks ago.
For information on the Rodale approach to regeneration write to Jeff Burcuvitz, Rodale International, 222 Main St., Emmaus, PA 18049. Rodale Press is preparing a booklet on the subject and also publishes a quarterly Regeneration newsletter.