Building community by bringing generations together
“We have a lot of lakes and trees between people,” remarks Northland Foundation Vice President Lynn Haglin. She is describing the seven northeastern counties of Minnesota, a vast, rural landscape where the Foundation has worked since it was established in 1986. Roughly 325,000 people live there, spread out in one urban hub and 67 smaller towns over an 18,000-square-mile area, including three Indian reservations. Distance and isolation are compounded by the fact that this is a region with pockets of poverty, where many families struggle.
“We want to help strengthen these small rural communities. By giving them just a little bit of help along the way, engaging people, and [providing] some resources—communities can create new opportunities,” Haglin said. Central to this approach is a commitment to leveraging the assets that are plentiful in these communities— including some that have turned out to be hidden in plain sight.
One especially successful strategy that the Foundation has put into action began with the realization that nearly one-third of the population of this region is aged 55 or older. Traditionally, older adults were seen as a population with increasing needs. Despite stereotypes, many of the region’s older residents were healthy, skilled, and interested in making their communities better. What if that pool of talent could be mobilized?
With support from The Atlantic Philanthropies’ Community Experience Partnership, in 2008 the Foundation produced a study that revealed that northeastern Minnesota’s older adults were deeply concerned about young people, and about the future viability and vibrancy of their communities. Too many youth, they feared, were growing up without a sense of connection and belonging in northeastern Minnesota. Youth in this region were twice as likely to be living in poverty as other Minnesotans. There was recognition that without the support of community and nurturing adult relationships, many young people were at risk on the path to adulthood. Additionally, there was growing awareness that youth who left seeking educational and employment opportunities often would not return to their hometowns to live, in part due to lack of community connectedness.
Older adults, many of whom had spent their entire lives in communities that were now at risk of eroding, felt strongly that the future of the region was at stake. They wanted opportunities to do something tangible and lasting to nurture the next generation. Yet there was no clear way for older adults to be engaged in the lives of young people, particularly youth from outside their own families. Older adults wanted to be part of the solution; they just didn’t know where to begin.
The Northland Foundation saw an opportunity to help, and in 2008 began work on what eventually became the AGE to age initiative. AGE to age convenes older adults, youth, and the generations in between in order to tackle important community needs. In particular, the initiative is dedicated to ensuring that children and youth build meaningful relationships with older adults and are supported in achieving their full potential as they transition into adulthood. As importantly, AGE to age helps young people to build connection with, and know they are valued members of, their communities—both for their own benefit and for the continued vitality of northeastern Minnesota.
10 rural communities (since expanded to 13) including three Indian reservations; community size ranged from 391 to 12,000 people
- The seven-county area of northeastern Minnesota—more than 18,000 square miles
- Total population = 326,000
- 55+ population = 105,000 (32%)
RESULTS (FIRST 3 YEARS)
- Intergenerational programs to support youth developed in 10 communities
- 6,000 people engaged (including 1,800 aged 55+ and 2,800 youth ages 5–18)
- 300 new opportunities for older adults to engage youth to address important civic needs and build shared community identity
- 6,720 volunteer hours generated annually (valued at $421,464 over three years)
- $761,464 in leveraged donations, including volunteer time, across the 10 sites over three-year period
- Additional $1.2 million raised to support program expansion and replication through at least 2016