Beloved Ellinwood librarian retires after 20 years

The following article was originally published in the June 6 edition of the Ellinwood Leader. 

Just as avid readers become attached to their favorite characters, many children and community members alike have become attached to Ellinwood librarian Sharon Sturgis.

Sturgis will retire after 20 years of service to the Ellinwood School-Community Library and school system at the end of June. However, Sturgis formed connections with many children and adults during her years in the school system and those memories will not fade from memory any time soon.

Many students have gone through the summer reading program, more commonly known as story hour, with Sturgis. While former story hour assistant Michelle Miller never went through the program as a child, she witnessed Sturgis’ passion for the kids and reading during her time helping with the program.

“Sharon is so passionate about kids and having fun,” Miller said. “I can’t recall a single day that she didn’t come to library hour ready to play with the kids. Story hour was so much more than a job to her. Her enthusiasm was contagious and all of the kids loved being around her.”

Miller worked with the story hour program for six years and said she enjoyed working with Sturgis. She described Sturgis as passionate, entertaining and valuable.

“Sharon’s enthusiasm about reading, singing, dancing, and learning was contagious to everyone who worked with her,” Miller said. “Every time I walked into the library, I instantly felt better. I knew that it was going to be a great day full of fun, learning and laughter. The kids were always drawn to Sharon because she knew how to keep them engaged and active. She is an extremely talented woman.”

During story hour, Sturgis is known for engaging a variety of antics to keep the kids entertained. Miller said she thinks this is the reason kids form connections with her so easily.

“She is not afraid to act like a kid, because that is who she is,” Miller said. “Kids connect with her because she loves each and every one of them and she is honest with them.”

Miller is not the only one to recognize the dedication Sturgis has shown to the library and school system. Ellinwood School-Community Library board president-elect Rita Feist has known Sturgis for more than 10 years.

Feist has done her fair share of traveling to libraries around the region while serving on the executive committee for the Central Kansas Library System and says Ellinwood is losing an outstanding librarian.

“Sharon is extremely efficient, energetic, creative and enjoyable to be around,” Feist said. “She made the library a place where people want to go and really enhanced the library.”

Sturgis has been involved with more than just the library during her years in the Ellinwood school district. Fellow librarian Julie Blakeslee, who has worked with Sturgis for 14 years, said she is still amazed by Sturgis’ talents and creativity.

“The public has seen her musical talents with the summer theater productions,” Blakeslee said. “The students and Summer Reading participants have seen her creative talents with the decorations, bulletin boards and activities that have been a part of her 20 years as the Ellinwood School/Community Librarian.”

While Michele Martin has only worked with Sturgis at the library for two years, she said she will miss seeing her at work every day.

“Sharon is an amazing person,” Martin said. “She is a book that has many subjects: librarian, educator, decorator, musician, comedian, actor, mentor and friend. Sharon has such a big heart.”

As Sturgis prepares to retire from the library, former story hour assistant Michelle Miller has a message for her role model.

“Your enthusiasm and passion helped me to understand why I love kids and learning so much. Thanks for all your support over the years.”



Small town newspapers adapt to changing world of news

Print newspapers are said to be dying, but rural newspaper readership is still alive and well according to a 2010 survey from Missouri’s School of Journalism.

Survey data indicated 73 percent of small town residents read part of the local newspaper at least once a week. Additionally, half of the respondents said the newspaper was their primary source for news.

This marks a victory for smaller publications given the changes in the newspaper industry. However, small town newspapers are working to overcome challenges in order to maintain their readership.

The digital revolution
The change to digital has slowly made its way into community journalism and Baldwin City has tackled the challenge. The Lawrence Journal-World currently operates the Baldwin City Signal. In August 2013 My Baldwin City went online to provide another source for local news.

“The Signal was not covering everything that everybody thought it should I guess,” former My Baldwin City editor Rachel Hamilton said. “There’s kind of a need in a town to be able to cover small town sized stories.”

My Baldwin City is crowdsourced, meaning anyone can submit an article. It mainly promotes upcoming events or important local news. Hamilton said she thinks it has been good for the community.

“It’s giving the people of Baldwin a place where they can get their voice heard,” Hamilton said. “That was our intention.”


Joey Young, owner and publisher of the Andale Clarion, located in Andale, Kansas, has also toyed with a digital news component, but has not quite determined how to best put the internet to use at his publication.

“I think that if you’re going to give away all your content online for free, you might need to look at making your print product free,” Young said. “I know that’s like heresy for a lot of people that are old-school journalists, but I don’t think there’s a business model that exists that has you charging for a print product, but giving away your product online for free.”

For now, Young and the Clarion staff use their website to publish breaking news stories and other content such as video that cannot be incorporated into their print edition.

The many hats of small town journalists
Another problem facing small town newspapers is limited staff. Ellinwood Leader Assistant News Director Mike Courson said this has been a challenge.

“With revenue issues, papers cannot always afford a competitive wage compared to other jobs,” Courson said. “It’s sometimes difficult to land and hold talent that is capable of putting together a quality newspaper.”

Limited staff at Hi Neighbor Publications has resulted in Courson doing a little bit of everything for several newspapers. The infographic below breaks down Courson’s various responsibilities.

Juggling Responsibilities

Staffing issues have also been a problem for the Andale Clarion. Owner Joey Young has worked to compensate in two main ways.

“I’m a big believer in hiring multi-faceted people,” Young said. “I think there is something to be said for specializing in something, but having the ability to do more than one thing is more and more important in our industry.”

Young’s other solution is using stories from the KU Wire Service. Young said the Clarion cannot afford to have a reporter in Topeka and this has been a good option for the paper.

“We add a sentence or two to localize it and try to explain to our readers why it’s important to them,” Young said. “It helps localize a story that gives us Topeka coverage.”

Small town victories
Small town newspapers have their fair share of problems to overcome. These struggles do not come without occasional victories.

Before Mike Courson began working for the Ellinwood Leader, much of the content was put together in a different town. Courson said he thinks by working in Ellinwood and putting a local touch on the content, he has raised the bar in the community.

“The funny thing is when I started, I said there is no reason we cannot be the New York Times of weekly papers,” Courson said. “That’s what a paper should strive to be. Obviously, based on sheer population and scope, we’re not going to have the same stories as the Times.

“I know I’m not a Times-quality writer, but as Dan Patrick says, ‘Every day is the Super Bowl.’ The readers of our publications deserve quality writing so I have to approach each story as if it is important enough to belong in the Times.”

Small town snippets: Proposed rural solutions

Closures of post offices across the country have made headlines. In Dickinson County, 17 families have been without mail delivery since 2009. Geraldine Kohman, 75, has worked to make her voice heard but to little avail.

A primary topic of discussion at the recent Kansas Rural Opportunity Conference was the status of the state’s water supply. The drought has worsened the problem, which is now raising concerns in certain rural areas of the state.

The need for doctors in rural Kansas is becoming a key issue in the southern community of Arkansas City. Hospital officials are hoping to begin recruitment soon, but a lack of resources to draw potential doctors in could pose a problem.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working to support rural business owners. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the creation of the Rural Business Investment Program on April 21.

An expansion of the Medicaid program in the state could help the economy, according to a Kansas Center for Economic Growth report. According to the report, rural hospitals and those looking for jobs could benefit if the expansion were approved.

Ethnic diversity hard to find in rural communities

Diversity is lacking in small Kansas towns.

Many of these communities have populations that are at least 90 percent white, according to U.S. Census data. This is not a far cry from the percentages for Kansas and the country as a whole. The 2012 Census reported that Kansas had a population which was 87.2 percent white and the U.S. reported populations of 77.9 percent white.

While these small communities do not differ greatly from state and national percentages, the situation does not appear to be improving for Kansas. A March 2014 Census report showed a loss of nearly 27,000 people to other states with international migration to the state totaling only 17,000. For an ethnic breakdown of 15 small Kansas towns, check out the infographic below.

Click image to view larger.

Click image to view larger.

Small town acceptance
With the lack of ethnic diversity in small towns across the state, acceptance of ethnic minority groups can be an issue in these communities.

Brett Akagi, KU Media Coordinator and Content Strategist, grew up in the southwest Kansas town of Ulysses. Ulysses, population 6,200, has a primarily Hispanic population. As a Japanese-American, Akagi said he did not consider himself different.

“My parents didn’t want us to think we were ethnically different from everybody else,” Akagi said. “We lived in Ulysses, Kan., and that’s what we knew. We weren’t the Japanese family from Ulysses, Kan.”

During his career as a photographer for various TV stations, Akagi traveled a lot, including trips to many small towns. Akagi recalled one particular instance of racism at a small town diner in northeast Kansas.

“We went to go grab some lunch and I’m sitting there with the reporter and I don’t say anything and my reporter said ‘Hey, we’re hungry for lunch. What do you got?’” Akagi said. “This gal starts laying out the menu and she looks at me and she goes ‘Did you understand that?’ looking right at me and I said ‘I sure did, ma’am’ and her eyes got really big and she was like ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t think you were from around here.’”

Akagi was able to laugh this instance off and said he doesn’t get offended by moments like these, especially in small towns where they don’t see much ethnic diversity.

Bridging the gap
Kelsi Shannon, a KU junior majoring in social work, is from Meade, Kan. Meade is one of many small towns with a primarily white population, but said those of ethnic minority groups were accepted in her hometown. She said her hometown’s football program has helped with this.

“Growing up where I did, football was extremely important to not only the high schoolers but our whole town,” Shannon said. “We had Hispanic and African American players on our team and they were just like the other players. They all united as one and didn’t see those people for their skin color.”

Increasing diversity
With the lack of diversity prevalent in many areas across the country, organizations like the National Diversity Council are working to improve the situation. According to the NDC website, its vision is to “advance diversity and inclusion by transforming our work places and communities into inclusive environments where individuals are valued for their talents and empowered to reach their fullest potential.”

National Diversity Council Founder and CEO Dennis Kennedy said limited job availability, housing opportunities, social networks and cultural services have increased the homogeneity of small towns, but he thinks this trend could be reversed. However, this is not something that will happen overnight.

“These communities need to brand themselves as minority-friendly,” Kennedy said. “They need to show potential newcomers that they are willing to accept difference. Community leaders must seek partnerships with businesses that value diversity in order to bring in more diverse talent. Minorities need to feel respected and accepted as part of the community.”

Small town snippets: Business, medicine developments; veterans struggle with homelessness

The University of Kansas School of Business is working to make retirement easier for business owners. The RedTire program helps to match retiring business owners with buyers.

For parents and caregivers of children with autism in rural areas, a new technology could make it easier for these children to receive treatment. The care training is transmitted via interactive television to educate caregivers in the science of applied behavioral analysis.

While the problem of homelessness among veterans is improving in metropolitan areas, it is still an issue for veterans in more rural areas. With many veterans in rural communities living far from Veterans Affairs Department offices, these resources are often not being used to their full advantage.


Small town snippets: Budget cuts and program grants

The legislature’s allocation of school funds and elimination of teacher tenure left some school administrators in smaller districts feeling uncertain about the future. School officials in LaCrosse and Ellinwood said they think the decisions made by the legislature could potentially be more of a burden than a benefit.

Transportation in southeast Kansas will be undergoing changes due to redistribution of funds by the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation. Those who rely on these services in Pittsburg will see changes in the near future. The Southeast Kansas Community Action Program is working to minimize the effects of the budget cuts.

A family farm in Atwood, Kan. will be able to develop new technology allowing for mobile slaughter and processing of poultry. Chris Sramek was awarded a grant from the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program for the research and development of this new mobile unit.

A Sunday morning at the Lawrence Laundromat

Many people discuss the happenings of life over coffee or at a salon, but for some Lawrence residents, they develop friendships at the laundromat.

I spent about an hour and a half at the Lawrence Laundromat on April 6 talking to patrons, many from minority groups. While this was not my typical social spot, I decided to branch out and go somewhere where I could meet people from all walks of life.

I spent much of my time with Joe. Joe is a construction worker and former military brat. He spoke with me about his hope to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the military, but was not able to due to significant nerve damage.

Joe and I also talked about the state of marriage in America. While he will be celebrating his 14th wedding anniversary in September, he said he does not have one friend who is still married. Both of his parents had several marriages as well. The most interesting bit of information Joe told me was that a rock star once stole a woman from him whom he hoped to make his girlfriend, if not eventually his wife.

Later on the Holding couple joined us. Joe and the Holdings have become good friends after many Sundays spent at the Lawrence Laundromat. Joe and Mr. Holding both do construction work and spoke about safety conditions on the job, particularly during severe weather. Mrs. Holding recently began selling candles. She hopes to return to school so she can work in medical coding.

While these people are not your typical story sources, I enjoyed speaking with them and picked up several story ideas from them. They showed me that the best stories are often in the most unexpected places, like your local laundromat.