A Project for Students and Citizens

Living Democracy in Collinsville: Week Five

In Collinsville on June 18, 2013 at 5:03 pm

photo-47Closeness Can Be Curse, Blessing

By Mary Beth Snow

Sometimes the best attributes about a place can also be the worst. In the case of Collinsville, which has so many great attributes, it’s not hard to discern what is one of the best: Collinsville seems to be the epitome of a “hometown.” People love Collinsville because it’s small, and they know their neighbors —  and their neighbor’s mothers and their cousins. People know each other’s names, and also whom they went to senior prom with and what part they played in the fourth grade play. It’s a beautiful thing to be so close to people in your hometown, but that closeness can make it difficult for outsiders to feel like they’re a part of the community.

This was something discovered at our community discussion held a few weeks ago, moderated by visiting Living Democracy journalist Nathan Simone. Peggy Wright, the town circuit clerk, commented about how isolated she felt when she first moved to Collinsville. Her parents had grown up here and she had some family in the area, but she still found it difficult to adjust. What Peggy had to say came as a shock to Jennifer Wilkins, Collinsville librarian, who has lived in the community all of her life. Jennifer was completely unaware that Collinsville can seem intimidating or unwelcoming to newcomers. Being a Collinsville native, she’d never a reason to discover this viewpoint.

photo-48

Mark Shatzel helps clean trash cans in downtown area. (Photo by Mary Beth Snow)

Peggy’s sentiments are echoed by Mark Shatzel, a library board member and active citizen who moved here with his wife after retiring from their jobs in South Florida. Mark is a volunteer firefighter and member of the Collinsville Rescue Squad, but he said he can still feel as if he is not fully a part of the community. He said, “The people here tolerate me, and I think they even accept me, but I’ll never be one of them.” Last week, Mark devoted countless hours of his time to help me clean, repair and paint trash cans out in the hot sun. While we were working one day, another member of the fire department stopped by and gave Mark a blank check to pay him back for a new rescue vehicle Mark had gone to pick up in Oklahoma the week before. The level of trust indicated by that transaction proves that Mark is becoming more and more a part of the community, but it can be a long process. Peggy is integrated into the community, but she has also lived here for 25 years. In the words of Mark’s wife, Pat, “I’m new in town too… I got here in 2007.”

The best thing about realizing that a problem like this exists is that you’re already one step closer to solving it. After our community discussion, Jennifer began to discuss plans for a “welcome wagon” effort to greet new people in the community. The main problem is that residents, like Jennifer, often don’t realize that this problem exists because they have never been in the position of being on the outside. As Jennifer says of her beloved hometown, “Living in Collinsville is like your favorite book that you never get tired of re-reading. Familiar without ever being boring!” That’s the secret to the charm of a small town and can also be the cause of problems for outsiders and newcomers. It takes time to get acclimated to a new place, especially a place rich in its own unique culture and tradition. The Shatzels and Peggy Wright have all handled their problem in the best way possible: by becoming involved in their community, meeting their neighbors, and devoting their time to make the community better.

photo-49

Jennifer Wilkins

Though my arrival to Collinsville was 25 years after Peggy’s, after discussing, we shared some of the same experiences. In a small town, everyone knows if you’re new. People stare more than they’re aware of and it’s not hard to discover that people are talking about you, whether it is good or bad. I have met countless people who, after introducing myself, said, “Oh, YOU’RE the girl from Auburn.” In a town of 1,985 people your reputation precedes you. I have felt a taste of what Peggy and the Shatzels and other newcomers have felt, and it is intimidating and somewhat hard to deal with. But even after being here for only six weeks, Collinsville is already starting to feel like home. The men at Tyler’s Feed Store yell “War Eagle!” when I walk in, and when I walked into a new church last Sunday, I saw a friend on the second row who invited me to sit with her. Breaking into community isn’t easy, but it’s worth every second if it.  Hopefully, with newfound awareness of the problem, long-time citizens can go a bit more out of their way to be welcoming, and newcomers can go out of their way to carve their place in community. As far as I’m concerned, there are few better places than Collinsville to do that.

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