Our town holds a fall festival every year, complete with parade, livestock auction, pie contest and, of course, the carnival. On Friday night that week, we went to the football game at the high school. Friday night lights for sure.
It was the first home game of the season, with everyone out in force to cheer for the home team. The boys played, the girls cheered, the band marched. We caught up with fellow farmers and friends we hadn’t talked to all summer. Parents were volunteering everywhere you looked, from the gate to the concession stand. Packs of teenagers in school colors milled about.
After halftime, I left with my youngest and a friend in tow to take in the carnival. We walked downtown under the lights of the carnival. The girls were too excited to notice, but within minutes we saw our first fight — adults, not children. Smoke hung in the air. We walked past clusters of bickering adults, conversations ringing out over the carnival. Packs of teenagers without enough clothes on milled about.
The difference in the crowds could not have been more stark.
In truth, it’s a full-color illustration of the divide in our rural communities.
All across Illinois, rural communities are grappling with this idea. We watch the poverty number in our schools climb to as much as 75%. That means nearly three-quarters of students at the school are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, are living with substitute care, or their family receives public aid. Today, it’s not uncommon for children to share their home with their mom’s boyfriend and his kids, and maybe some of them are in the same grade. Instead of asking children to draw a picture of their family, teachers have to ask them to draw a picture of who lives in their home.
Connected and lost
It’s easy to see this divide as the haves and the have-nots, but I think it’s more accurate to call them the connected and the lost.
Connected people feel connected to their community. They attend ballgames before they have kids in school because that’s their community. They volunteer at the school when they don’t have kids there because that’s their community. They give back without promise of immediate return or entertainment because that’s their community. They want to feel a part of it.
When you don’t feel connected, you don’t have a reason to give. Or to participate. You’re lost. You’re getting by day to day and paycheck to paycheck. You’re surviving. And very often, it’s generational.
The young people, though — they’re dying to feel connected. It’s why they show up at Youth for Christ meetings and Fifth Quarters and anywhere caring adults look for them and make them feel a part. Our big-city counterparts would say this is why young people join gangs.
Connection is harder to come by when you live in the country, though. Over the past couple of years, we’ve had teenagers come to live with us who we’ve watched make choices directly based on a lack of hope. They see another way exists, but they don’t know how to get to it, because they watched as their mom smoked pot and their dad cooked meth and their grandparents grew pot. (Side note: Did you know you could buy urine on the internet to beat a drug test? I did not.)
It goes on. Why study for a test when a D is good enough? Why study for tomorrow’s final when you don’t know where you’ll sleep tonight?
When you’re living for the moment because of survival or circumstance, you can’t see connection as being the thing you need. You can’t see a point to getting along with anyone — at home or at the carnival.
I’m not sure what the answer is here. But I know people need connection: to family, to friends, to God. They need to not feel lost. They need to know people care about them.
As a farm community, that might be the very best thing we have to offer. Can we bridge the massive divide that cuts through rural communities today?
Go into town. Figure out who needs help. Then help them connect.