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EDITOR’S NOTE: Part of the fun (and responsibility) of living in a smaller community is getting involved. If something new and positive happens, it’s usually because folks got together and got to work. It’s rarely someone’s job description to “make sure stuff happens.” Today, we start a series of interviews with folks in small communities who “Get It Done” – people who go above and beyond to help make a community a better place to live. You know who we’re talking about.
Keota, Iowa, once rated the country’s “most extroverted town,” has recently made some big improvements with a few grants, a little luck, and a volunteer bulldozer. We interviewed Keota native, local business operator, and volunteer extraordinaire Melinda Eakins, about going above and beyond to get it done and keep her town of 1,000 something special.
Keota recently received over $100,000 to build a new community amenity – that’s a huge deal for a town of only 1,000 people. How did that come about and what was your role?
The city did a community visioning program and one of the things that kept coming up was that people wanted to create a safe, inviting trailhead for the Kewash trail, a 14 mile nature trail that ends in our town. I wrote a grant proposal, working on behalf of the city and Keota Unlimited (a volunteer organization), and we received a $75,000 grant from the Iowa [Department of Natural Resources], plus three other grants.
How did Keota residents react to such a big win – were they surprised?
There were a lot of people surprised at how many people use the trail. Denny Lyle was my co-chair on the project. And he also happens to own a bulldozer. While we were doing the trailhead he asked, “Can I clean up the trail too?” They said OK. Then he asked, “Can we get everyone to come out Saturday morning to pick up what I dug out?” So we had a clean-up day. In that 90 minutes, we saw 15 people we didn’t know using the trail – we were surprised it was so many.
I guess it pays to know someone with a bulldozer. It sounds like you don’t have any shortage of people ready to step up and help.
It’s hard when you’re in rural areas. You have to find the right person who can help you – know who to ask for the right thing. We’re little, so we all have to do stuff or we wouldn’t be here.
The trailhead came right on the heels of another big achievement for Keota, where you also played a pivotal role.
A few years ago there was the idea to build a veteran’s memorial in Keota. I was on the committee. I wrote a grant [proposal] to receive $50,000, one of our residents donated the land, and the community fund-raised the remaining [money] through auctions and raffles. For one of the raffles, we sold 500 tickets for $100 each.
Five hundred tickets? In a town of 1,000 people?
It was very impressive. Some people from out of town bought tickets. One woman sold one to every member of her family. The Facebook page generated tons of interest – people with roots here [from] all over the world were watching.
Were some people skeptical that these projects would be successful?
Yes. The veteran’s memorial project was first. People were like, “yeah right,” but now they see it. It’s like, “Oh, we didn’t realize it was gonna look like that.” It’s absolutely beautiful – seven pieces of black granite. A local mason donated his time to build it. We had a dedication in June and the governor came to speak and we had about 1,500 people, more than the population of our town.
I’ve been told – one project will lead to another, they’ll feed off each other. That’s how it was.
The memorial success created momentum to do the trailhead?
Yes. People had seen what we were capable of.
You’ve volunteered a lot of time for your community. What motivates you to do that?
I grew up here and my family owns a business here. We have 23 employees. We have a very vested interest in the community. I’ve been fortunate to be involved in two really great projects – it’s nice to have some opportunity.
Has opportunity been scarce for Keota?
We’re a rural town. We’re struggling to get people who want to live here and work here. We have a small school; we’re fighting to stay open. We have to share everything with other schools. We still have our own identity though – we have our own basketball team. Our football team made it to the state playoffs this year – that was big.
We’re fortunate – we have a convenience store, a grocery store, a hardware store. We have two manufacturers – my family’s business and a place that makes organic chocolates. We have a café and a bar, a couple insurance agencies. We still have stuff here.
And it seems you have a lot of dedicated people too. Speaking of which, do you think Keota really is the “most extroverted town” in the country? Has that contributed to your success?
[laughs] Sure. I don’t know where they got that. But it’s nice to have your name in the paper for something positive.
More about Keota, Iowa
Keota is in southeast Iowa, about an hour southwest of Iowa City (the nearest urban area). Their population has hovered around 1,000 people since 1900, making it the second largest town in its county of about 10,000. Their population on average is slightly older and lower income than the U.S. at large: 18% of Keota residents are over 65 (national average ~14%) and median household income is around $43,000 (national median ~$54,000). The community offers about 250 jobs – primarily in wholesale trade, health care, manufacturing, and education. However, most of these jobs are filled by commuters, since about 90% of Keota’s 480 working residents travel elsewhere for work, with about 30% commuting more than 50 miles. Keota has its own high school and elementary school, and shares some resources and sports teams with nearby schools. The town is governed by a mayor and 5 city council members.