The People and Communities that Power our Work…and Our Hope
We could think of no better way to reflect on 2021 and look forward to a better New Year than to share about what brings us hope as a national network of partners working to improve quality of life in rural America starting at the tap.
Earlier this year at the RCAP National Conference, we asked folks in our network including technical assistance providers (TAPs), managers, team members and partners– who on their team and/or in their community inspire them? Keep in mind that this ask was totally optional. There were no incentives for taking the time to share apart from giving thanks and shining a light on someone else. The beautiful responses we received not only reflect the wonderful work that is happening in our regions and rural communities across the country, but it also speaks to the generosity of spirit of those who took the time to share. We are grateful and inspired.
Below is the full listing of what we heard that we have kept intentionally less filtered, but we also created a curated snapshot of stories to share via this holiday story scrapbook.
It’s our people and their stories of resilience that power our mission and work. May we remember the beauty and power of people as we navigate all that lies ahead in this coming year!
from the Rural Communities We Work With…
COMPASSION AND CARING COUNT
Most of my projects revolve around schools. I would say my proudest community member is a teacher at a Voluntary Prekindergarten school. She took on the worm tower with 3-5 year old’s! Tina Fleming of Wakulla Educational Center.
Juanita Gazaway, Manager and Operator of the Alcovy Shores Water and Sewerage Authority in Georgia has made a strong impact on her community. I know it seems like we always talk about Juanita and the other “Golden Girls” in Alcovy Shores. But there is a reason for that. They are incredible, and they care so much about their community – Juanita in particular. Nowhere else have we come across a woman in her 70s that operates a public water system with the help of other women also in their 60s and 70s and now 80s. It’s an amazing story and we just love Juanita!
Kim Gotschall is the Mayor of Braddyville, Iowa. The amount of compassion she has for the wellbeing and existence of her small community is unprecedented.
Sam Payton, former Mayor of Hopkins Park, Illinois & current Pembroke Township Supervisor. He gave me a chance to bring assistance to his community several years ago. He was voted out soon after that but came back in a different role recently and has continued the relationship with us.
Mrs. María Santiago – Nieves, Quemados I Sector Los Ortiz Inc, San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico. She has made a difference in the community as the system operator in charge of compliance. In addition, her concern for the community is the reason other members of the Board of Directors take a lot of needed actions.
STEADY, SUPPORTIVE AGENTS OF CHANGE
Mavis Brewster, General Manager of McDowell County Public School District is a staunch supporter of providing water to every West Virginian. She has persistently applied for any assistance available to promote public health in McDowell County and is currently working on two new projects to extend water to areas with no treated water.
Nicole Caldwell with BetterArts. We are working with her on an application to Museum on Mainstreet.
Laura Francis from the Town of Durham, Connecticut. She is the first Selectman of the town. She has been working on asset management, rate comparison, rate analysis and rate setting. This has been a full year of uphill battles and changes. Yet she has been instrumental in the great work RCAP does and has been a great support to us.
This is not a community member in the sense of a technical assistance project, but a Vermont drinking water community member – Ashley Lucht, Director of Capital Planning at the Vermont Bond Bank. Staff from RCAP Solutions has been proud to serve on the Vermont Drinking Water Week (DWW) Committee for years – but RCAP’s involvement has ebbed and flowed over the decades, depending on staffing levels and other factors. Ashley’s involvement has not. The DWW committee is composed of volunteers who are passionate about all aspects of drinking water. We are members of the drinking water community. We are scientists, engineers, drinking water operators, public works employees, state employees and educators. We volunteer our time for the opportunity to educate the public – specifically, 4th, 5th, and 6th graders – about the importance of drinking water and water resources. Ashley, Chair of the DWW Committee, has been a constant presence surrounding the annual celebration for at least 15 years. The DWW Fair has reached thousands of students and their families during that time. No small feat in rural Vermont – and many years, it likely would not have happened without her tireless organizing.
I live in small, rural Atoka, Oklahoma, where our downtown businesses began to close one-by-one about 20 years ago, with more emphasis on business activity along Hwy 69/75. A couple here in Atoka – Gayla and Steve Mansell have taken it upon themselves to renovate several buildings in the downtown area and bring in some businesses to lease them. It has started a domino effect and many of the other business owners have now updated the façades of their building, and the entire downtown area is being revitalized.
Percy Robinson, Mayor of Summit, Mississippi is always a champion in my mind. Lorraine and I have worked with him and he is always working for the residents of the Town of Summit. I remember presenting a water rate study there on 2 different occasions. At both meetings, he was the person that made the board understand that it was a difficult decision to raise rates, but that it was also the right decision. He is always willing to entertain new ideas and is always supportive of Communities Unlimited and RCAP.
COMMUNITY FIRST – ALL THE TIME
I want to identify Chad Booher, an Alderman and Mayor Pro Tem with the city of Mokane in central Missouri, for his commitment to the community and willingness to juggle de facto city administrator responsibilities as they attempt to address major water and wastewater system improvements at the same time.
Patty Kempton, Pemaquid Villas Mobile Home Cooperative, Bristol, Maine. Patty has acted as the volunteer Operations Manager for this community for decades and the community has relied heavily upon her. As an older adult, she has recently sold her home and will be moving to an apartment with fewer maintenance responsibilities. Although this was already a done deal, Patty was the primary contact and organizer of RCAP Solutions recent GIS mapping in the community. The mapping project will capture a lot of Patty’s institutional knowledge. This community has been fortunate to have her for so long, and for her willingness to continue her contributions to ensure the maps capture her legacy knowledge.
Raynold “Ron” Passardi, town of Monroe Massachusetts (MA) – population 90. His dad ran the water system for years, and Ron started helping his Dad when he was 14. Ron gave countless hours of his life to maintaining and operating that system as a water commissioner. Ron passed away in May 2020 at the age of 79. I accompanied him to meetings in Springfield with the MA Department of Environmental Protection (because Monroe didn’t have a licensed operator). At that time, we would have lunch in an Italian deli, and I heard stories about how his Dad used to know the family that ran the place, and about the basement kitchen where they watched baseball and made sausage and cheese. Oh, could Ron tell stories! Ron had so many stories about Monroe, a community that has seen the Deerfield River industries that supported families disappear, and homes abandoned. He never stopped thinking about his community and his responsibilities to them. Ron was declining in health while I worked on the project. I am left with the image of him slowly making his way up the steep hill using his cane to go take the water readings.
In a small, 400 household village in western New York (NY) state, one person has been the spark plug keeping the project moving forward. She came to the RCAP Fly-In (virtually, of course) this year, and provided verbal support of RCAP’s work in the community and a written quote for our case study. She also almost single-handedly followed up on the RCAP income survey to obtain the required response rate for eligibility for a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) application. RCAP submitted that application in July 2021, with some input from her. More to come when the CDBG awards are announced later in 2021. As a follow-up to the story after submission – the project just received a CDBG of $1,250,000!
MODELS OF RESILIENCE
When I think of community members who have made a difference, I think of my “career project” in Melville, Louisiana. Melville has seen critical leadership challenges in the past that left them out of compliance with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). In the past two years, the community has been faced with great challenges, like hurricane damage and great community losses from COVID. Despite these challenges, their operator, Mr. Paul Broussard, and their clerk, Mr. Tom Jung, have worked hard to help the town’s aldermen and citizens see the value of a good water system.
Mayor Kevin Brown in Buena Vista, Georgia has made an impactful difference in his community. The city has been in desperate need of wastewater treatment improvements at the plant for many years and needs a complete rebuild of the Wastewater Treatment Plant. The problem has been delayed, and he has brought new energy to the city council and governance and has been a proactive voice to make this a priority. His leadership prioritized bringing wastewater treatment improvements. As of today, the project is well on its way to being funded by U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development and within the next 2-3 years, the city will have a treatment plant that will serve the citizens of Buena Vista for the next 3-4 decades.
I can mention Miriam Matos of a small community in the rural area of Caguas, Puerto Rico. With the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic imposed, in addition to handling the water treatment system, she did a lot of community work distributing food, masks, sanitizing materials, and other activities during the lockdown in her community, as well as assisting other neighboring communities. At the same time, she is working to develop an organization to represent rural/small systems in Puerto Rico, doing a lot of interviews and depositions in the local legislature.
from RCAP’s National Network…
LEADERS & GUIDES WHO MAKE US BETTER
So pleased to share and celebrate the work of Jenna Day. She is such an asset to our Community Resources team. Not just because she is organized, productive, thoughtful, and decisive in her work – I suspect that RCAP Solutions already knew that when they hired her – but because she cares about her team. She is a great listener. She checks in when times are tough. She is understanding of others’ struggles and eager to celebrate their successes. Jenna cares about the well-being of her staff, making sure that we are all getting rest and relaxation – especially important during a pandemic, in which we all need reminders to unplug.
The rough and difficult times are the most valuable in helping us to recognize how one person can make a difference. A leader who understands the boundaries of well-done work, and the needs of their team to make it happen. Firm and direct with her requests, and supportive and ready to facilitate, I believe Josefa Torres has made a difference leading Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands team to complete an important number of trainings, and many technical assistance projects to communities, municipalities and even federal Agencies. I believe her leadership made us better, and we as a team have grown under her wing.
Kristin Woodall has made the biggest impact on me. She has recognized my skillsets and is enabling me to use them.
Candice Balmer, NY State Lead. As my first Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) funding period was rapidly closing, just as I started 2 new EPA projects, I needed to get the projects in the Data Collection System (DCS) along with quarterly updates. As they were very small communities, the demographics did not automatically populate. I learned there is no getting past this page to enroll a project without having the required demographics. I had heard there were a lot of glitches with searches on the U.S. Census website, as the new census data was being loaded. Someone mentioned Candice as really good at navigating that website. Several states away from me, without any previous direct contact, Candice returned my call and from the field, accessed the site on her phone, and walked me through the advanced search features. I know she was very busy, but she took the time and had the patience to provide this guidance.
Candace Balmer…she embodies everything RCAP!
I would like to share that Jerry Kopke has been an amazing mentor and inspiration for this work. He has been with CU since the early days of Community Resource Group (CRG), over 30 years ago. He has given me great advice over the years. First as a training specialist with CRG, and later when I came back to CU as an environmental TAP and ultimately a community sustainability TAP. He is so conscientious in his approach to work with communities. I so appreciate having his guidance and the opportunity to shadow him.
Kim Padgett has been an exemplary mentor always available both professionally and personally. She sets a high standard for every RCAP staff member.
I wanted to mention Mark Pearson and all he does for small communities and our team here in Texas. He recently guided a new employee through the process of determining median household income in a certain area and actually made it interesting. He has been a guide for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, allowing all of our Texas team to be more effective in communicating with communities.
DEEP CONNECTIONS, DEEP WORK, DEEP IMPACTS
Our State Coordinator, Chris Brunson has made a difference in the past year by continuing to grow trusting relationships despite COVID and poor WiFi and cell service. In particular, he has a knack for helping old-school communities see the value of GIS mapping, which has resulted in our team creating maps for communities that will benefit from it the most.
My partner, Georgia TAP, Diane Caldwell who has provided assistance that has helped 10-12 small communities get back into compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act over the past 2 years. Most of them were under consent orders for improper or missing reporting issues and Diane has become the “go-to” person in Georgia for these kinds of problems. She has an easy way with people and is able to go into a community and provide help without assigning blame, or making the operators or managers feel diminished in any way. They know she is there to help and accept her in that way.
Dinah Foreman was recently promoted to Alabama State Coordinator at Communities Unlimited (CU). She recently invited Felix Firestone, Board Chairman of the Fords Valley & Hwy 278 Water Cooperative in Alabama to speak with the CU board of directors. He shared that Dinah has been working with the cooperative since 2015. She trained their bookkeeper as well as their board in financial management. Dinah worked with them for a year. When Mr. Firestone became the board chair in 2016, he reached back out to Dinah because they had a new operator and a new bookkeeper and Dinah had to start the training over. The system needed a new water source and had maps of the system. Dinah worked with them to find a well. She also conducted water rate analysis and saved up some money. The coop was established in 1971 and purchases water from Hoakes Bluff City. They now have 850 customers who are members of the coop with 2 storage tanks. When Firestone became board chair, he learned about large water loss because of an old system. The system already had a great deal of debt having borrowed $942,000 on blended note but still owed $728,000. After Dinah’s training, the coop refinanced that through local bank at 4.79% for 7 years. Now owe $100,000. In 2016, the system purchased 134 million gallons and today purchase 102 million by reducing losses. Most recently, Dinah helped the system secure personal protective equipment (PPE) masks through RCAP and later she worked with CU’s lending team to secure a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan for the system that freed up critical funds.
Dinah served as our previous training coordinator at Communities Unlimited and we would not have kept up with our training deliverables without her leadership. I don’t currently work with communities anymore, but I figured I’d share that shout out as Dinah will now be serving as Alabama State Coordinator.
Gloria Gentry with North Carolina (NC) SERCAP is working on getting a Community Health Center for senior citizens for the Town of Kingstown, NC. There are no medical facilities nearby and ambulance response time is slow.
I feel that TAP Kristina Hartley from Midwest Assistance Partnership truly makes a difference with the communities she works with, through a willingness to immerse herself in projects and tackle problems head-on. She shows an intense determination to find solutions to problems when others may feel they are unresolvable.
Allison Jermain, Rural Development Specialist – Tucson, Arizona. In one month, Allison assisted 18 communities with their Consumer Confidence Reports (CCRs) over a period of approximately 2 weeks and right before the deadline for submittal. As a result, 18 communities received water quality information from their public water systems, and the public water systems remained in compliance with the primacy agency.
Kim Martin has demonstrated great leadership in the Broadband Initiative for the Town of Enfield, Connecticut. Her collaborative work with town officials and contracted broadband experts have led to some great outcomes coming out of this hard work.
Johnathan Patrick has engaged with this community with CF TAT assistance and Drinking Water compliance long range planning. Johnathan is also working to identify areas where I can come in and strategically blend with CU’s other services.
I want to put forward my team member, Phil Read. Phil works on all of the USDA Technitrain projects and many of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Community Services projects. He is consistently referred to work with small communities by the USDA Area Office personnel when they get calls for assistance with the RD Apply System. His assistance has resulted in more than $18 million in leveraged loan and grant funding for the 15 Technitrain projects of which he has worked in the 2020-2021 funding year alone. In short, he gets the money out to the community!
Joseph Valdes, Rural Development Specialist – Canjilon, New Mexico. In 2020, New Mexico had approximately 640 health-based violations between approximately 210 public water systems. Over the past fiscal year, Joseph has helped 18 communities with a combination of health-based violations and other sanitary survey violations. New Mexico’s sanitary survey violations, including health-based violations, decreased by approximately 15% this year. While this was not due to Joseph’s work alone, I would guess it was a substantial percentage and contribution.
Raul Vasquez, Rural Development Specialist – San Luis/Yuma, Arizona. Approximately 98% of Raul’s work is with Colonias in Arizona and California. Raul is a great bridge builder. He connects Colonia communities with our Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) network of talent, a variety of funders including USDA to ultimately secure funding to replace aging infrastructure. Raul develops and maintains exceptional relationships with communities, funders and the RCAC team. This past fiscal year, Raul performed or is performing services with 7 Colonias across the region. At least 5 of the Colonia communities he is working with will secure funding from USDA and other local funding sources.
ABOVE AND BEYOND
My colleague Richard King has made a difference by working diligently on private well assessments in a rural community in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana that is concerned about water quality and hoping to qualify for grant funds that will allow them to tie into an existing system. He has spent a lot of time on these assessments even though they don’t hold much weight in our performance evaluations or considerations for raises. In my eyes, that is really caring about the job.
Traci McQuary and Lorraine Magee. These ladies work in Mississippi and have done some great work. Traci has served as a mentor to our new Mississippi staff. Additionally, she has been very supportive in our decentralized wastewater training efforts. We have gone through some management changes here at CU and Traci is now the State Coordinator for Mississippi. She has taken on this role while still providing assistance to communities. Lorraine Magee is also a Technical Assistance Provider (TAP) here. Recently, she accepted the role of Training Coordinator. So she continues to provide assistance, while also coordinating our training activities. Lorraine has also been very helpful with the support she has provided to our CF TAT communities, recently getting a grant awarded for the Town of Gloster to purchase a new dump truck. Both of these ladies also did an excellent job assisting small businesses and nonprofits receive Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. They have truly gone above and beyond this past year.
I wanted to take an opportunity to brag about Arthur Pittman. Arthur has been with CU for 12 years and has helped numerous small communities with funding needs for their systems. Arthur left us us at the end of August for retirement but has spent the past several months passing on knowledge to our 2 newest Oklahoma team members, and worked tirelessly to help two systems with CU loans to pay for engineering design work to meet their Rural Development Letter of Conditions.
Jim Starbard carried a really large load this year. His work on the North Central Private Well Program could impact thousands of private well owners in MA as he works to affect Private Well regulations statewide by educating homeowners and engaging legislators about the need for a statewide regulation and state supported funding for remediation.
THE “GO-TO” EXPERTS
Richard Birch is an amazing co-worker. You can always count on him to work you through a problem or have the answer. We need to figure out how to duplicate him.
Mario Casillas, Rural Development Specialist – Phoenix, Arizona. Mario joined us from the regulatory world. As a result, Mario does a fantastic job helping us and more importantly, communities understand and navigate these regulatory processes. Over the past fiscal year, Mario has also undertaken asset management and water audit projects that match his skills. Lastly, this past fiscal year, he also conducted approximately 15 workshops across a variety of RCAP funding programs in addition to local funding programs.
Derik Dressler from RCAP Solutions has made a difference in helping us complete our EPA 1 AWWA trainings. Together Derik and I were able to elevate the quality and structure, bringing the training to a virtual platform and delivering to 6 states in our region.
Shout out to our team member Jean Holloway. Jean loves her work and the work being done with SERCAP. She was set to retire and made the decision to stay on as a Technical Assistance Provider (TAP) so she can continue to do the important work in our rural communities. She is so knowledgeable, and her experience is really valuable. I am grateful that she is still part of the team. As a new state manager, I really rely on her expertise to guide my transition.
Karl Pennock, Rural Development Specialist – Las Cruces, New Mexico. This past fiscal year, Karl has performed 13 rate studies in Arizona and New Mexico. Karl’s ability to culturally and societally understand communities are his greatest attributes in developing water rate studies which are equitable, and which help communities develop the debt and operational ratios necessary to qualify for loans. Each of the 13 rate studies he performed or is currently performing will help these communities secure funding from multiple groups of funding agencies. As you can imagine, as a result, Karl is also our Rural Development Apply Guru.
Karen Pereira Tapias, Rural Development Specialist – Albuquerque, New Mexico. Karen’s work with communities is methodical and precise. When I think about her work with communities it reminds me of the precision of a surgeon or a Rolex/Omega watchmaker. As a result, the communities she helps develop a strong understanding of the Technical, Managerial and Financial (TMF) process and build capacity.
Carolos Velazquez-Figueroa. He is always available to provide orientation and clarify doubts. In addition, Carlos is the master in control during online trainings.
I cannot praise the work of Carlos Velazquez enough during the last year helping with the transition from in-person training to online training. Taking charge of handling and knowing the platform and educating on the adaptation of material for online training. If that wasn’t enough, his work in the U.S. Virgin Islands has opened work for me in the potable water side with the contacts he has been able to establish.