Rural Leaders Adapt and Advance Solutions in the Age of COVID-19

June 9, 2020 | Blog, COVID-19

Kinsey Brown, RCAP

The Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) is known for the incredible work done nationwide to ensure that rural communities have access to clean, safe drinking water and sanitation services. For more than 50 years, the partner organizations comprising the RCAP Network have worked with small communities to keep improving quality of life through technical assistance and training in water, wastewater and solid waste services. Increasingly, communities are seeing the connection between clean water, public health and the ability to grow and prosper.

During the last few years, the RCAP Network has also begun to focus on economic development assistance to provide communities with pathways to enhance their local economies, including through programs like WealthWorks, designed to root wealth locally and advance a region’s overall prosperity and self-reliance. RCAP Technical Assistance Providers (TAPs) are finding ways their water and wastewater assistance supports overall capacity building and community development.

When RCAP asked its network to help identify everyday heroes in their communities, many stories emerged like those shared about water and wastewater in the most recent issue of Rural Matters®. Responses also shined a light on local businesses and growth-focused leaders.

Tammy Eckhardt is a small business owner in Lewistown, a community of about 5,800 in the high plains of Central Montana. Eckhardt completed RCAC’s (the Western RCAP’s) “Building Rural Economies” program, which includes a component for building local entrepreneurs. After that, Eckhardt decided to take the plunge and open her own quilt shop Sew Peaceful.

Photo Credit: Dustin Love, RCAC publications & graphic design specialist

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Eckhardt was contacted by the Central Montana Medical Center. They informed her that they were going to need more masks than they currently had in stock. Looking to help her community as much as possible, she immediately began sewing masks and donating them to her fellow Lewistown community members to assist with social distancing guidelines. In addition to sewing herself, she also enlisted fellow sewists through the power of Facebook. Sew Peaceful began providing the recruits with mask sewing kits and patterns. Eckhardt estimated that they have been making 200 to 500 masks a week for both the hospital and other community centers like nursing homes, assisted living organizations, law enforcement and even neighboring communities. They also began to produce other types of masks that were needed, surgical caps, laundry bags, and anything else the community might need for public health.

When asked about what advice she would provide to other rural entrepreneurs during this crisis, Eckhardt said the biggest lesson would be to be prepared to move business virtually and sell products online. “You have to be able to adapt with what’s going on around you,” she said.

Another example of local communities adapting to dramatic change is in Enfield, North Carolina.

Enfield is a small town in Halifax County with a population of around 2,500. The town administrator, Montre D. Freeman, has been tirelessly advocating for broadband capability in Enfield. Like many rural towns, Enfield is not near a hospital, making the need for telemedicine even greater during this pandemic. Freeman and his colleagues have partnered with Wade 7 Communications, Althea and Cloudwise – digital connectivity companies who will help provide hotpots to Enfield residents.

Photo Credit: Kim Martin, SERCAP

“These collaborations will give our students the ability to complete their class assignments and hopefully provide a platform for our medical providers to create a telehealth presence in our town,” said Freeman. “These collaborations will position the town for sustainable economic development projects that will transform us into an attractive area for growth,” he said, looking toward the future.

Eckhardt and Freeman are embracing adaptation and hope during adversity, and for that, they and the countless rural and tribal leaders across the United States, deserve recognition. While the future of the coronavirus is uncertain, the RCAP Network’s commitment to rural communities is not. That is why we are partnering to offer national programs like RuralRISE  – register now and plan to join June 29, 2020.