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.”

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.”

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.

Small towns provide opportunities for entrepreneurs

Baldwin City may be a small town, but that hasn't stopped this community from supporting unique businesses.

Baldwin City may be a small town, but that has not stopped this community from supporting unique businesses.

When soon-to-be college graduates begin their job search, rural communities typically are not the first place they look, but maybe they should be.

Many college students immediately look to the big cities as the land of opportunity. While larger communities may boast a greater variety of industries in which to find work, rural America could provide the chance for young entrepreneurs to create some of these same types of businesses.

For Mike Bosch, co-founder of Reflective Group in Baldwin City, he decided to start a business which would usually not be found in a small town. Reflective Group works on a variety of projects, including graphic design, app development, telephone service, tech support and video. Since its opening in 2011, Reflective Group employees have worked on a number of projects, including putting Wi-Fi in the underground salt mine in Hutchinson. While this was a challenging task, the “self-proclaimed geeks” at Reflective Group decided to tackle it anyway.

“That was a challenge that a small community brought to us and said, ‘this is what we’d love to have. This is the quote we got which we clearly can’t afford. Can you guys create something in between?'” Bosch said. “We said ‘sure, we’ll take a look at it.'”

Video Transcript

Reversing the rural brain drain
The rural brain drain has posed a problem for communities like Baldwin City. This concept refers to the migration of young people from their small communities to larger cities, according to an article from the Huffington Post. The brain drain has posed problems in Midwestern states like Kansas, but Bosch and Reflective Group are doing their part to reverse the rural brain drain.

“Ultimately if they don’t return home, what we’re left with is an aging population and we don’t get the new vibrancy that youth bring,” Bosch said. “Reflective Group being a technology geek shop essentially, that’s definitely something that the millennials, that 16-36 age group, really draws to. Being involved in an industry that attracts millennials really helps.”

Although small towns may not be the ideal destination for young people, small businesses, those which employ five or fewer, in both rural and urban areas do comprise roughly 80 percent of businesses in Kansas and create a large number of jobs, according to Will Katz, KU Small Business Development Center Director.

While Katz said he thinks being from the community in which you start a business could help with investment and a beginning client base, small communities are looking for new businesses to come in and will not turn away new faces.

Obstacles for small town entrepreneurs
Katz and the staff at the KU Small Business Development Center think small town businesses are worthwhile investments, but they also recognize the challenges associated with these areas.

“Are there really enough people in the small communities that will pay money for your product or service that you’re hoping to provide?” Katz asked. “It can be a challenge when the population is smaller.”

In his work with approximately 1500 young entrepreneurs, Katz said he has heard many reasons for wanting to start a small business. He said he wants to remind those looking to make it big that many small business owners will not take home the big bucks.

“People start businesses because they have a vision,” Katz said. “They see some service that isn’t provided or maybe they don’t think it’s provided at the standard they’d like to see it or they just think ‘I could do that a little bit better.'”

Bosch and Crawford both mentioned that small business owners wear a lot of hats, including the role of janitor. They said it is just part of the job.

Additionally, Bosch said the stigma associated with small towns is one obstacle his business has had to overcome.

“People who don’t live in small towns have images of Mayberry running through their mind,” Bosch said. “Here we are, a cutting edge software company, and a lot of times it takes them a second to say ‘they just happen to live in a small town, but these guys can do great work.’

“We do this because we’re good at what we do and we love being in small towns.”


Big Rural Brainstorm creates a community of doers

Rural Kansas is making a comeback, but it will take a group effort. People from across the state gathered in Newton on Friday for the Big Rural Brainstorm.

The Big Rural Brainstorm aimed to connect those dedicated to rural life.  The resource wall allowed attendees to offer their services to other attendees.

The Big Rural Brainstorm aimed to connect those dedicated to rural life. The resource wall allowed attendees to offer their services to other attendees.

Attendees addressed a variety of issues facing rural communities including housing, entertainment, and tourism. The conference was intended to bring people together to create solutions for issues facing rural Kansas.

Kansas Sampler Foundation Executive Director Marci Penner played a large role in organizing the Big Rural Brainstorm and said that the conference is important in creating a network of Kansans who want to see positive change in rural communities.

“I think the people that are here are the doers,” Penner said. “In your town you might have people that are really negative so everybody here needs to be around positive people that believe.”

While PowerUps and PowerOns made up the majority of conference attendees, one high school student attended.

Cody Gettler has been involved in his community, serving as a city commission student representative and helping with the Cornstock festival. He said Anderson County does a good job of integrating students into their communities through community service.

“It’s a great way to encourage them to get involved with several organizations and get to know leaders in the community, which is one of the biggest things that will decide whether they come back or not,” Gettler said.

Big Rural Brainstorm attendees said they hope to take what they learned at the conference and implement the ideas in their own communities.