Nurturing Transplants: Young professionals finding home in rural areas
“Staples is a very special place. Even though my wife and I aren’t originally from here, we have made it our new hometown.” Erich Heppner and his wife Katie are new to Staples, but not new to living in small, rural towns. They are a part of a growing trend of young professionals moving “back home” so to speak, returning to their roots. In return, they are giving back, and helping sustain a way of life.
“I think it's common that a lot of times with small towns, there are the same people and same families for generations,” says Heppner. “I think that it speaks to the diversity and beauty of the area that people are willing to relocate here and it make it their new home. Staples is like a diamond in the rough.”
They come in every generation, from every walk of life. They come to contribute, to live, to make a home. Young professionals are increasingly looking to live in small towns. With their arrival they bring new ideas, fresh perspectives, and we in turn teach them the collective knowledge of their new community, not to mention new skills.
Settling down was the farthest thing from Erich Heppner’s mind in late 2005. He had just enrolled in the heavy equipment program at Central Lakes College. Since his arrival at Central Lakes, Heppner became involved in a number of student programs and activities. “My prior experience was either Christian school or homeschool. I didn't have that real traditional classroom experience until I got to college, so, I really enjoyed that.” Heppner became head of the student senate. “I got involved in student government right away, got involved in campus clubs, involved in hosting student activities. I didn't realize it while I was there, but it was really kind of shaping me and molding me for the career that I have doing Student Activities now and advising our student governments.”
Heppner’s student involvement caught the attention of the administration of the college. They saw potential in this young man and presented him with an opportunity. At that time, Heppner was in a transition. “I graduated from the heavy equipment program, but it was the middle of the winter when I graduated, so obviously, with seasonal work with that type of trade, I would have to wait until spring before I was going to get a job,” said Heppner. He decided to go into the Diesel Mechanics program. “They had just switched that over to a 12-month program,” he continued. He decided to stay another year, plus he was having a good time at school.
As he was finishing up the diesel program, the college’s Director of Student Life decided to move on, and a couple of the college administrators reached out to Heppner. “We really think that you should apply for this position. We know you don't have the educational credentials that we require but we know that you've got some really great experience.” The college encouraged Heppner to think about the job; they thought he would be a great fit. They told him it'd be interesting to see how far along he’d get in the process. “I was kind of just doing it, applying just to see and get some experience interviewing, that type of thing. But lo and behold,” laughs Heppner, “I somehow got the job, and instead of being a diesel mechanic, or a heavy equipment operator, I ended up working at the college, having a full-time job and staying and living in the area since then.”
As the Director of Student Life, Heppner works with a programming board of students to create activities for students to be involved in and enjoy. “I'm working with my students and officers in the Student Senate to make sure that everything is working well on campus, and that there's a good open communication line with college administration.” He also works with students to help form campus clubs, so that they can be doing some service learning and civic engagement activities, both in and outside of the classroom for their clubs.
Community service is an area where Heppner has gained a lot of experience. Lately, one of the issues he’s working on is helping students who are food insecure. “There's a lot of students at CLC, about half of them that, we’ve learned through recent surveys that they are in fact, food insecure, and they've gone long periods of time without having a decent meal,” says Heppner. In response they expanded their CLC Food Pantry, which is their food shelf on each campus. He says the goal is “to find ways to make sure that we're providing those basic necessities for students.” The Food Pantry distributed nearly 17,000 pounds of food last year.
Since moving to Staples, Heppner has shared his knowledge with the entire community, being involved in bringing Ruby's Pantry to town to provide food and necessities, and to have that as a monthly food distribution. “We know we've got a poverty issue here that that we need to keep working on. That was my rationale for trying to at least help in a small way, monthly, being able to provide some more food for area residents.”
Heppner and his wife Katie are new parents. It’s an exciting time for mom and dad. He reflected about the recent changes that took place before they moved to Staples. At the risk of sounding cheesy, Heppner says “ultimately, it's certainly the people that are the reason that I'm here.” “The community at Central Lakes College has always kind of felt like my second family,” he says. The Staples community has been extremely welcoming. “As soon as we got in the area, everyone was welcoming,” said Heppner, “our new neighbors recognized that we wanted to get involved and invited us to join local groups and organizations. Giving back was a great way to get to know everyone.”
Erich and Katie continue giving back to the community as members of the Welcoming Communities group. “That's a big passion of ours, to make sure that we're creating a community that is open to every other person that's out there, so that they feel like this is a great community for them to come to, and that they can get their kids involved. And they can feel like it's a space that's safe for them.”
They hope their experience with Staples will inspire others. “There's a lot of opportunity for growth in small towns. Whether you’re looking to grow your leadership skills or grow your family, there’s no shortage of opportunities, just maybe a few less stop lights.,” concludes Erich.