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Living Democracy in Collinsville: Week Ten

In Collinsville on August 5, 2013 at 4:13 pm
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Mary Beth Snow with community partner Myles Smith after meeting over breakfast at Jack’s. (Photo by Nathan Simone)

“Good People” of Collinsville make summer a blessing to remember

By Mary Beth Snow

I’ve been out of Collinsville for a few weeks now, but I still miss it every day. Little things will get to me. I’ll drive past Jack’s (the eating establishment where I ate probably at least 25 percent of my meals this summer) in Decatur and wish I was at the Jack’s in Collinsville having breakfast with Mr. Myles, or I’ll see a group of kids playing and wish that I was with the beautiful children from our summer reading group. The 10 weeks I spent in Collinsville were incredible in a way that I’m not sure I’ll be able to describe, but this blog post will be my attempt.

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Summer reading program participant shares hug and smile with Snow.

At the beginning of last school year, I thought I would be spending this summer doing a long-term mission trip in the Dominican Republic. Ann Faulk, who is the woman I babysit for at home and also my second mother, reminded me to pray a lot and make sure that I went where God wanted me, not just where I saw myself. I didn’t know at that point that he wanted me in Collinsville, or even that Collinsville existed. But as is always the case, God has better (albeit slightly random) plans for me than I have for myself.

I met Dr. Mark Wilson, the head of the Living Democracy Program, outside on the concourse a few days before classes started. We talked briefly about Living Democracy, and I was interested, so we made plans to talk at the College of Liberal Arts scholarship reception that I would be attending with my parents. When Dr. Wilson explained the program to my father and listed off the involved communities, my dad made a comment about the high Hispanic population in Collinsville. I was completely unaware of any attributes of any of the towns, but my dad, the principal of Austin High School in Decatur, was familiar with the ESL program there because we also have a strong one in Decatur.

I have a passion for Hispanic people and culture, as my father already knew and Dr. Wilson would soon learn. I joined Living Democracy just because I wanted to go to Collinsville, and I spent a large part of fall semester praying that I would be placed there. The day that I finally knew for sure, I was ecstatic.

We did a lot of research before going to our towns — I knew the demographics, the location, names of local officials, and important local businesses — but the knowledge and awareness I gained this summer is something I could have never learned on the internet. I am beyond grateful for all of the relationships I was able to form this summer and the people who gave their time and resources to make me feel at home.

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Myles Smith helps with homemade ice cream at Collinsville Public Library summer reading party.

I want to thank Jennifer Wilkins, head librarian at the Collinsville Public Library, for being a better community partner than I could have imagined. From long discussions about flower planters to small fiascos with homemade ice cream, we dealt with a million small decisions that made a big impact, and Jennifer always gave me the space and respect necessary for a healthy working situation. There were times we disagreed on plans of action, but we always came to a compromise, and all of our projects were so blessed. I also want to thank Miss Margaret, Linda, and Kayla, the superstar library crew, for the lunches and talks we shared, the help they gave and just for being there every day, keeping the library running.

I want to thank Myles Smith for the dozens of meals we shared at Jack’s and Don Chico’s, and more importantly, the guidance and the stories shared over those meals. Myles drove me around and introduced me to half of Collinsville, often ending us up in situations where I had to translate a conversation between a citizen who didn’t speak English and Myles, who didn’t speak Spanish. He was always patient and incredibly kind to everyone. I think that it’s not that Myles ignores differences between people, but rather that he just doesn’t notice them, and his way of loving everyone he comes in contact gave me more hope in humanity and still reverberates in my mind daily.

After talking to some of the other Living Democracy fellows, I realized how blessed I was to get to live with a family and not alone. Carlos, Maria and Abigail Perez were like a second family this summer, and I am so grateful that they welcomed me into not only their home but also their church, the Hispanic Church of Christ that Carlos pastors. A summer of speaking only Spanish at their home did wonders for my speaking skills, and the guidance they shared over meals was encouraging and insightful.

I will always remember a particularly long conversation with Maria about finding a husband and her very wise advice- to choose well, because “the father has to care for the children, but the mother has to care for the children AND the father!” I very much miss the whole family and the church congregation, especially Juanita and Elizabeth Morales, both of whom loved me like their own family member and brightened my days constantly.

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Sunset in downtown Collinsville.

I was also blessed with the help of some pretty awesome high school students. Deanna McKinney, Tiffany Pruitt, Malik Mathis, Shaq Dupree, Deanna Morales, Naomi Cummings, and Linda Pedro gave me so much assistance in planting flowers and herding little children. Without their help my summer would have been a lot more difficult and a lot less entertaining.

Another special thanks goes out to Roger Dutton and the Collinsville Historical Society, for all of their cooperation on projects, and to Rebecca Clayton, Gail Moore and Martha Barksdale for sharing the history of Collinsville with myself and a group of my high school students by showing us the Collinsville History Museum and “Little Collinsville,” a collection of models of Collinsville buildings that depicts the town in days gone by.

I would also like to thank Johnnie Mac and Patricia Edwards, Jackie and Joann Myers, Donnie and Margaret Myers, and Rebecca Clayton for welcoming me into their homes and sharing stories with me about Collinsville’s past and present.

There may only be around 2,000 people in the town of Collinsville, and you do have to drive to another town to get to Wal-Mart, but I was so blessed by the opportunity to spend 10 weeks around some of the best people I’ve ever met.

Whenever I try to describe people from Collinsville, I often end up saying “they’re just good people.” It sounds simple, but it really says it all. I was incredibly blessed beyond words by the time I spent in Collinsville and the people I was able to meet while there, and I can’t wait to go back. So on that note… I’ll see y’all at Turkey Trot!

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Living Democracy in Collinsville: Week Nine

In Collinsville on July 24, 2013 at 2:51 pm
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Mary Beth Snow, center, gets warm reception at Collinsville City Council meeting. (Contributed Photo)

 City Council Meetings Turn Out To Be Interesting, Important

By Mary Beth Snow

Of all of the new things I’ve experienced this summer, one of the most interesting is probably not what you’d expect: city council meetings. I am ashamed to say that before this summer, I had never in my life been to a city council meeting and had absolutely no idea what to expect. When I envisioned a city council meeting in my mind I saw something resembling a mixture of British parliamentary debates combined with Judge Judy and a town hall meeting from the television show “Parks and Rec”. I am (for the most part) happy to report that city council meetings in the real world are not quite that rambunctious.

At the first city council meeting I attended near the beginning of my time in the community as a Living Democracy Fellow, a large crowd attended because the Collinsville High School soccer team was being officially congratulated for just having won the 1A-4A state championship. Recognizing the local champions was the first item on the agenda, so Mayor Johnny Traffanstedt called the players up to the front of the small room where they posed for a picture with their coach. He noted that they are only the second state championship team in the town’s history, the first being the 1975 basketball team. The coach of that team, L.D. Dobbins, was present at this meeting, and he and his wife are regulars at most of the city council meetings.

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Mary Beth Snow used paint gun and support from local merchants, city officials to restore downtown trash cans.

After the soccer team left, it was my turn to speak. I introduced myself to the council and the audience and then explained my summer projects. I told them that local merchants had donated $250 to go toward my efforts on downtown beautification. I then asked them to donate the same amount, which we could also match from my Living Democracy project fund.

Much to my surprise, the mayor then asked me if I could match a higher amount if they donated more, a generous offer of support that astounded myself and many others, including the mayor’s brother who (lovingly) described his brother Johnny as a “tightwad” to me the following week.

The second city council meeting I attended was much different. Instead of a big crowd, there was only a small group of people: myself,  Jennifer Wilkins, my community partner who attends every meeting to report on the activities of the public library, Coach Dobbins and his wife, and Miss Mattie, who was one of my students from the weekly Spanish class I taught in Collinsville.

Jennifer and I reported on the different ways we used the funds that we had for the downtown beautification project. We were able to accomplish a lot during the summer with those funds: we bought six new planters to accompany the ones already lining the street, the soil and flowers to fill more than 20 planters and the supplies to renovate five trashcans downtown. With local help I spent a week in the blazing summer sun using power tools and pressure washing the trashcans before giving them a fresh coat of paint. Work continues on choosing the design for streetlamp banners that will line Main Street, but thanks to generous support from both merchants and city officials, the cost is covered.

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Beautification effort brings in freshly painted trash cans, flowers and banners.

The best part of the city council meeting was that the mayor thanked us for all of the work we’ve done this summer. It’s a dangerous thing to work for recognition, so I always try to work with the mindset that what I am doing will never be recognized and that keeps me focused on doing things for purer motives than personal glory. However, it is nice when recognition does come, and Jennifer and I were both happy to know that the work we’d done, along with the help of some great high school students and library board members, was making a difference around town.

In all honesty, it’s a shame that more people don’t go to city council meetings. One of the biggest complaints that we hear about government and “politics” is that people feel disconnected or that their voice isn’t heard. But city council meetings are too often held in empty rooms. I don’t say that to point fingers.  I know that people have things to do. There are baseball games to attend and dinner to cook and a million things pull us from every direction. I think that part of the problem is that we sometimes don’t even realize that things like city council meetings are going on and that they pertain to us, but they are and they do. That’s one of the best things I learned this summer. And you don’t have to be in Living Democracy to learn that. So next week be engaged, remain informed and go to your city council meeting!

Cool Collinsville celebration culminates in Snow’s day

In Collinsville on July 12, 2013 at 3:52 pm
Mary Beth Snow poses with some of the children who attending her "Reading Party."

Mary Beth Snow poses with some of the children who attending her “Reading Party.”

By Nathan Simone / COMMUNITY REPORTER

Living Democracy fellow Mary Beth Snow celebrated the end of her 10 working weeks in Collinsville with a “cool” celebration that included the Collinsville Public Library as a place to eat homemade ice cream, create art and share a love of reading with more than 29 kids.

Snow invited children from all over Collinsville to come to the public library to eat pizza before having fun with a local artist.

Guntersville artist Kelly Jackson provided projects for the children to complete, which included bookmarks to put in the new books they would soon be receiving.

Community partner Myles Smith (standing) and Nathan Simone (left) make homemade ice cream. (Photo by Nan Fairley)

Community partner Myles Smith (standing) and Nathan Simone (left) make homemade ice cream. (Photo by Nan Fairley)

Jackson’s daughter Cadley and Guntersville High senior Mason Holcomb assisted her in passing out bookmarks to color and helping direct them when it was their turn to assist in one of two larger paintings that will hang in the front of the library.

After eating and painting, homemade ice cream was made and excited children had their pick of vanilla, chocolate or Grapico.

At the end of the event, each child received their own bag filled with four books, donated by Jean Dean Reading is Fundamental in Opelika, and ample school supplies to assist them in the upcoming academic year.

Head librarian Jennifer Wilkins said that Snow’s time in Collinsville working with the library has been a tremendous boost to the city and the larger community.

“We’ve just had the best time with her,” said Wilkins. “We hope she comes back next summer.”

Community partner Myles Smith, 79, assisted Snow in more than a few projects and introduced her to many people around town. From eating at 6 a.m. with the “Knights of the Round Table” at Jack’s to appealing to City Council, Smith said that Mary Beth is one of the most personable and straightforward people Collinsville could’ve asked for.

“I don’t know if we could have gotten anyone to better blend with the community,” said Smith.

Snow said not only did she have a tremendous amount of fun hosting the event, but received a deep sense of personal fulfillment as well.

“I loved having a last chance to visit with all the kids,” said Snow. “I had the opportunity to read and hug and love children, and to me that’s the most important thing I can do in life,” Snow said.

Head librarian Jennifer Wilkins (left) and Mason Holcomb (right) hang up the larger paintings the children made. (Photo by Nan Fairley)

Head librarian Jennifer Wilkins (left) and Mason Holcomb (right) hang up the larger paintings the children made. (Photo by Nan Fairley)

For however little things like ice cream and books may seem to adults, Snow said that seeing children excited by the simple things in life also made the event a success.

“To see those kids asking me if they could read a book to me or being amazing by seeing homemade ice cream made the event a success in my mind,” Snow said. “Because even though those things may seem small to us, nothing is small to children.”

With the look of smiles on everyone’s face as the children started to leave the library, this just may be a “Snow day” that Collinsville will never forget.

Collinsville Reading Party

In Collinsville, Photos on July 11, 2013 at 8:24 pm
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Collinsville Reading Party, a set on Flickr.

Did you attend the Collinsville Reading Party July 10 at the Collinsville Public Library? If not, check out Journalism student Nathan Simone’s photos from the event.

Living Democracy in Collinsville: Week Seven

In Collinsville on July 7, 2013 at 6:43 pm
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Elaine and Leon Hufstetler give time, talent to Collinsville Rescue Squad.

“Somebody’s Gotta Do It”

By Mary Beth Snow

I was standing outside City Hall chatting with my community partner, Jennifer Wilkins, after the Collinsville City Council meeting Monday night when a woman drove by in an SUV on her way to the Rescue Squad building. She rolled down the window to talk to Jennifer, and I could see that she was wearing bright pink lipstick. Jennifer told her to  “get to that meeting and keep those men straight”, and I knew I had met someone who I needed to talk to. Her name is Elaine Hufstetler, and I had the fortune of talking to her at the Rescue Squad meeting that night.

I didn’t know what to expect from the meeting, but most of it was devoted to stocking a used rescue vehicle that the crew just bought from a town near Oklahomaphoto-53 City. There were 10 of the most active members on the squad there working hard to make sure that all of the necessary supplies were loaded so that the new vehicle would be ready to go out on calls. With this new addition, the rescue squad now has three vehicles. They also have two boats that can be used for creek and lake rescue missions.

Elaine, one of only two women on the rescue squad, has been a part of the squad since the early 90s. She joked that the men only wanted her to join because she could “pay the bills for them”; the joke has merit, since she handles the bookkeeping and office work so the men can go out on runs. Her husband Leon mentioned that she had gone on a few rescue calls but had to stop because it always seemed that there were injured children on the ones she went on and she couldn’t handle seeing it. Now she does her part by making sure things run smoothly for the all-volunteer group  funded almost entirely by biannual “road block” fundraising, where the members of the organization ask for donations from visitors traveling to Trade Day on Saturday mornings.

Leon is on both the rescue squad and the volunteer fire squad in addition to his jobs of driving an ambulance and an ice delivery truck. When asked about all of his involvement, he simply replied “somebody’s gotta do it.” That seems to be a motto for this very involved couple. Elaine is also the secretary and treasurer of the Collinsville Christian Women’s Society. The two have been married for 52 years. Elaine grew up in Collinsville and Leon in Sand Rock, and they’ve lived in Collinsville for most of their adult lives, except for a few years spent traveling when Leon was in the army.

photo-52In fact, many of the people on the rescue squad are involved in the community. I saw many faces I’ve seen elsewhere in town. One active member of both the rescue and fire squads is Mark Shatzel, a member of the library board who is the one who helped me clean, repair and paint the downtown trashcans this summer. I also recognized David Bowen, District 3 representative on the City Council, who has been supportive of my projects this summer. The captain of the squad,  Travis Butler, works at Graves Hardware downtown and has helped me buy everything from wood planks to ant killer for various redevelopment projects. These men, and others like them, donate their time and energy to being a part of the rescue and fire squads without receiving compensation for the very reason that Leon gave – “somebody’s gotta do it.” It’s a simple phrase, but it’s powerful and it’s true of everything. Someone does have to do it, or it won’t get done.

One of the most important aspects of living in community, especially an engaged community, is realizing the things that need to be done and then taking action to do them. It’s not enough to notice something wrong or missing and sit back on our heels hoping that someone will step up to the plate.  As members of s community, that’s our job. We see the roles that need to be filled, and we step up and fill them. That’s what the men and women on this squad do. They bring together their diverse talents and personalities and become a group of people who are committed to responding to emergencies in their community, sometimes even at the risk of their own lives. It’s that attitude of “others above self” that makes community work. It would have been easy for the squad members to spend Monday evening at home with their families instead of stocking a rescue truck.  But here they were working together to get the job done because somebody’s gotta do it, and they do.