One man's mission to revitalize small-town America

David Karas
David Leckey of the Orton Family Foundation poses in Shelburne, Vt., where the organization is headquartered.

Ten years ago, things weren’t looking so good in Biddeford, Maine. Growth was stagnant, particularly because of a controversial municipal waste incinerator – also the town’s largest taxpayer – that occupied some eight acres on the downtown riverfront. There were also infrastructure improvement needs, competing downtown interests, and an image problem.

“The city did not need a short-term, band-aid solution list or lackluster plan,” says Daniel Stevenson, who previously served as Biddeford’s economic development director.

Community leaders decided to partner with the Orton Family Foundation, a nonprofit based in Vermont whose aim is to help towns and small cities become healthier and more economically vibrant. With some 35 neighborhood meetings and the participation of hundreds of residents, Biddeford opted to buy out the waste incinerator and move forward with other plans that ultimately created a wave of development and revitalization.

Why We Wrote This

David Leckey runs the Orton Family Foundation, which helps communities find solutions to problems like slowing growth and infrastructure breakdown. The guiding principle of his vision: Community-building.

The partnership with the foundation was a “game changer,” says Mr. Stevenson, who made his comments in an email interview. “The City is better off today with over $100 million in new private-sector mixed use investments and millions in downtown public infrastructure improvements including the RiverWalk....”

The experience he describes is one among hundreds of similar stories told by communities across the United States. And while the fine details of the stories differ, the common thread is the role of the Orton Family Foundation and its Community Heart & Soul model. Shepherding this process for communities is David Leckey, executive director of the foundation.

“There is a palpable hunger I’m seeing and feeling in small towns to do something together, to do something positive about where they live and with each other,” says Mr. Leckey, who himself grew up in Van Buren, Ohio, which had a population of 328 as of the 2010 Census. “The large majority of people in small towns are good folks wanting to do the right things.”

The challenges of many small towns in the US have been well documented, in some cases being nothing less than a fight for survival. Leckey commonly hears that the need for affordable housing, broadband internet, day care, and economic development, as well as the toll of the opioid crisis, are among the key struggles facing small communities. But he sees something deeper.

“Too many towns have sort of lost a sense of pride and purpose in those challenges; they have lost too much connection with each other as neighbors, or maybe they never had it,” he says. “Maybe they have forgotten the resiliency and resources that are still within their own hands – or as we say, in the hearts and hands of the people who live there.”

Three guides

The Community Heart & Soul model is guided by three principles, which the foundation describes as involving everyone, focusing on what matters, and playing the long game. It is carried out over four phases, from laying groundwork to making decisions and taking action.

“Involving everybody either rebuilds, strengthens, or discovers relationships that are within the community,” Leckey says. The process gives participants “a path to really engage with all the different types of folks who live and work in the community.”

Sixty-six towns in 14 states have completed or are currently engaged in implementation of the model, Leckey says.

The foundation was founded by Lyman Orton, whose parents in 1946 opened the first restored general store in the country, The Vermont Country Store – which has since become a major mail-order and online retailer. Mr. Orton remains chairman of the foundation’s board and provides funding to cover the nonprofit’s operating expenses – approximately $2.5 million annually.

In a recent interview near the foundation’s headquarters in Shelburne, Vt., Leckey reflected on how he found his way to the nonprofit. He had served as president of a manufacturing company and was looking for a next step that would enable him to effect change. In addition, the work of the foundation resembled his role in the 1980s as one of the first executive directors of what today is called the Southwest Initiative Foundation. In this job in Minnesota, he helped diversify economies in 18 counties.

“Being from a small town myself, loving it, and spending a lot of years working in small-town and rural development, [the Orton Family Foundation] seemed like a good fit,” Leckey says.

He refers to the potential of small-town America, which he and the rest of the foundation strive to realize.

“In this changing environment, we know more about what’s going on across the world than sometimes on our own streets,” he says. “We are looking for ways to reconnect that, [and] I just love connecting people. I love it when they mutually discover why they are so passionate about where they live.”

Leckey says that some of the biggest changes his team notices when the model is implemented have to do with positive action as well as pride and a sense of direction. The team also routinely sees “excitement about the relationships that have been built across the community” and an outpouring of volunteers ready to roll up their sleeves.

‘A different way of doing business’

Kirsten Sackett served as the director of planning and building for Cortez, Colo., when it participated in Community Heart & Soul from 2012 to 2014. At the time, Ms. Sackett says, the city had limited resources for planning and tended to take a reactionary approach. Also, community leaders lamented low levels of public participation.

“We were poor, the school system left much to be desired, as did the health system, as it was always difficult to recruit and retain qualified teachers and health care professionals,” she says in an email interview. “There was also a desire to find a way to keep youth in the community, or at least provide opportunities for them to come back after they finished up college.”

Working with the foundation, she says, gave Cortez “a different way of doing business.”

“It brought together community members in meaningful ways to create understanding as they began sharing stories and talking about real issues and real solutions for the community,” she says.

The process resulted in, among other things, the creation of a beautification plan, a youth-adult collaboration, and a frequent reliance on the model to confront present-day challenges and opportunities.

She applauds Leckey’s dedication to this work.

“David Leckey believes in Heart & Soul. And he is a leader in transformation,” she says. “He showed us that he cared, and that he wanted to support the H&S communities in whatever way would be most helpful.”

Stevenson, who worked in Biddeford, also has praise for Leckey.

“David is socially responsible in his thought process, [and] that is reflected in his problem solving and communication with others,” he says. “David is thoughtful, responsible, balanced and respected. He is honest and approachable. And with his easygoingness and sense of humor, [he is] an absolute pleasure to be around.”

Leckey is quick to offer a reminder about the importance of community. “You don’t live in an economy; you live in a community,” he says. “Build your community first.”

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Other groups that support communities

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects below are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.

El Pozo de Vida fights against human trafficking through prevention and intervention and works for the restoration of children, families, and communities. Take action: Financially support a community center in Mexico City that helps sex workers.

Loaves & Fishes Family Kitchen is committed to providing hot nutritious meals in the San Francisco Bay Area. Take action: Be a volunteer at this group’s community garden.

Globe Aware has a mission that includes working with children in slums and other disadvantaged youths. Take action: Donate money to build a community center in Romania for the Roma.

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