About a decade ago, I moved to the small town where I plan to spend the rest of my life. Excitement filled me, and I rushed to join the community and put down some roots.
My excitement quickly deflated. Places to live were scarce, especially because I did not know the right people who had the nice, unadvertised rentals. Attending community events alone earned me a critical stare that seemed to question my motives and character. My only human interaction came from the wonderfully sweet women who attended my church or worked at the extension office because they were hardwired to be excellent, welcoming hosts. For the first time in my life, I was an outsider. It was lonely and miserable.
I went a whole year without making any connections with people who were my age or life stage.
Then I met Jennifer. She was an outsider, too, but she had been at it longer. She had amassed connections and wheedled her way into many social and community circles by demonstrating her character, willingness to volunteer and her commitment to service. As my first friend in town, she empathized with my isolation and gladly opened doors for me.
Almost a decade later, I am happy in the town. It has been a long slow process but I have worked to build a reputation and found a place in the community. My drive to build the type of community in which I want to live and raise my family is respected and appreciated. I will never completely drop the outsider title but I have made peace with that.
I have met dozens of people who have encountered the same struggles when moving to rural communities across the country. Outsiders are rarely welcomed with open arms.
This cynicism and distrust, which requires a person to prove themselves before they can be part of the community, is detrimental to growing your community. Rural America should be opening its arms to welcome new families instead of excluding them.
When you see new people in the community, be like my friend Jennifer. Welcome and encourage new arrivals. Share what you like about your community and provide examples of how you are involved so they can learn about available activities. Make introductions to people who may be helpful or good for them to get to know. Invite them to join you for young professional groups, community organizations or church activities that may interest them.
Explain your community’s traditions. New people but will likely want to join in the fun. Keep in mind that they will not be blindly tied to what a community has always done. As their understanding of traditions grow, they may have suggestions for improvements. Listen to their ideas. They are not trying to destroy traditions; they want to be a part of them. Also, new people don’t mind if you don’t take our suggestions, but we do get discouraged when you don’t even consider them.
Not everyone will be a great addition to your community, but if you start from the mindset of distrust, you may discourage or drive away the good people who will help your community to thrive and grow in the future. People who make the choice to live in your town should be commended and welcomed. Because today’s outsiders are tomorrow’s neighbors.