Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Good Memories, Opportunity Key to Youth Returning

July 17, 2004

A man inspected a landscape that to the untrained eye looked beautiful and productive. He knelt to the ground, brushed his hand around, and said, "Where are the young?"

There were no seedlings, no new life, no succession, no rising generation of trees, bushes and grasses to replace the old stately growth. What looked so rich was actually barren.

William Patrie, rural development director of the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives and the North Dakota Association of Telephone Cooperatives, believes that rural development is not sustainable if it does not address the reason young people leave rural communities.

Let me add some more questions. Why do young people leave? Why do they stay? Why do they come back?

Why do young people leave? Young people leave because they want to get an education, to develop their possibilities and personalities away from mom and dad, and to connect with their talents and destiny in places that nourish their budding lives.

They leave because there are no jobs or means to earn a living in their home communities. They leave because they have felt judged, condemned or otherwise mistreated in an environment where social rank and privilege are passed on as surely as money.

They leave because they feel rural social life is stifling and doesn't offer enough opportunity, freedom or tolerance to let them grow and be uniquely themselves.

Why do young people stay? They stay because they have developed a sense of place, belonging, security and community that is hard to leave. They have work that is satisfying or satisfying enough.

They have opportunities in established family businesses that are viable and dynamic.

Some stay because frankly, they are too afraid to leave, or if they have left, they find the new environment too inhospitable and quickly retreat to the known and comfortable. They choose to live with economic insecurity to enjoy the warm, accepting human security of small town life.

Why do young people come back? They come back for the quality of life. In their school years, they served and learned what community was all about.

They enjoyed the friendliness and support of a large extended family of relatives, neighbors and community members. They come back because they want to live in a place they remember as being wholesome and supportive of family and religious values - safe, friendly and balanced.

They come back because of their good childhood memories and they want to raise their children in similar circumstances. They come back to family businesses that are dynamic and viable. They come back because they see an opportunity in the local community that matches their training and talent - a fortuitous circumstance in an economy that is highly urban and centralized.

Patrie's other telling comment about rural economic development is, "The single most important ingredient in sustainable rural development is an understanding of what people want to buy and why." Rural development is based on real markets with real products and services. It is real world economics.

He further states, "Rural development is done by rural people, in their own interests, for their own primary benefit."

Rural entrepreneurs. Rural entrepreneurs have vision. They anticipate events, markets, financial opportunities. They understand human and natural resources. They are visionary.

Entrepreneurs loosely defined are people who excel in the field of chosen endeavor and has made themselves invaluable to the people they serve. Examples are an expert mechanic, an acclaimed drama teacher, a coolly professional emergency medical technician - someone who has marketed their own talents and gifts and fills an important niche for needed goods and services.

Whether the entrepreneurs are home grown and never leave or whether they come back, the result is the same. They create jobs, opportunities and economic activity for others equally committed to life in rural communities.

Young people need to know and get acquainted with these local entrepreneurs before they leave. They need to realize their dreams can come true in the local community as well as in the big, wide world. If others can do it, they can too.

Combine that vision with good memories of community life and we will see new life a rising generation of young next to the old.