Custer Volunteers Inspire Awards – and Fun!
By: Andrea Schmidt
How many community volunteer programs can say they have 123 people working together to build a better community? The Custer, SD, Recreation and Wellness Initiative can, and the results are amazing.
In 2019, Custer, population just under 2,000, earned the Dakota Resources Innovative Community Award. They also won a 2019 Healthy Hometown powered by Wellmark Community Award. More awards are coming their way in 2020, but the details are still under wraps.
Colleen Hennessy is the tireless leader of the Recreation and Wellness Committee. Like many of her fellow volunteers, she isn’t a native of Custer, or even of South Dakota. She and her husband retired in Custer from Michigan in 2000. They fell in love with the town while vacationing there in 1991 and decided to spend their retirement years there.
She got involved with the Recreation and Wellness Initiative simply because she takes advantage of the town’s recreational opportunities herself. For example, she doesn’t drive, and the trail system makes it easy for her to walk everywhere.
The Initiative began about 10 years ago as part of an overall strategic plan during Custer’s Community Coaching with Dakota Resources. Hennessy took it over when they did another community assessment in 2016.
“At that time wellness was separated and they were really trying to build our new hospital, which is now done,” she explains. “I was more intrigued with recreation. I first wrote a summary of recreation opportunities here – like swimming, biking, running, dancing, yoga, and all the things different businesses were offering, so that really gave me a nice idea of what was available.”
Hennessy worked with Dakota Resources Community Coach Kristi Wagner and also Angie Brown from Healthy Hometown, a service from Wellmark.
“Kristi came in through Dakota Resources, who started the Custer assessment,” says Hennessey. “Her attitude is so great and I love it when she comes to the meetings. Angie has been amazing, too.”
Together, they started identifying tasks to work on in 2018, and suddenly the team was moving full steam ahead. So far, they are doing research to install solar lighting along Mickelson Trail, developed a Recreation Service Providers Report for the city website, and are supportive of a therapy walking track and a wellness garden in conjunction with the new hospital.
“What’s really nice now, with the virus, when families cannot visit their loved ones in the hospital, they can be brought into the garden where their family can meet them,” Hennessy says.
Completing projects for a better way of life
Right now, the initiative volunteers are completing two large tasks. They received a grant from Black Hills Energy to install bike racks, which are purchased and ready to be placed on the Mickelson Trail and on the Custer State Park Spur. Installation is on hold due to the pandemic.
“We are also installing wayfinding signs,” Hennessy says. “I have ten major locations in town, such as the sheriffs’ department, city hall, the library, the Chamber and so on. Again, we’re just waiting to get them installed.”
Other projects that are completed or near completion include a Bark Park by the park committee and an enhancement of a veteran’s memorial park created by the local VFW and the American Legion.
That seems like a lot of accomplishments in just a few short years. But this group of volunteers isn’t slowing down anytime soon. With so much energy and momentum, they already have more projects planned.
“We have a list of almost a hundred different tasks to look at once we can get together again,” says Hennessy, “and then we can choose which ones we’re going to do. That will get us all revved back up. One big thing was raising $14,000 for the community – school garden.”
The garden is the community garden that’s already in the works. The volunteers will work with the city and school system to build the gardens themselves, along with raised beds, fencing and sheds. They will incorporate a food class to use the garden for growing vegetables to create different dishes. Plus, the school lunch program will have fresh vegetables at their disposal.
“Whenever we have a surplus, they’re going to be freezing them for the wintertime,” says Hennessy. “Of course, we have some local producers anyway that always work with the school for the farm to school program.”
Success breeds success – and volunteers
The core group of volunteers is about 20 people – many of whom are retired and full of energy. They include a former superintendent of Mount Rushmore and the city commissioner. They are already motivated.
“It’s the volunteers who are passionate about Custer,” says Hennessy. “In a small town like this, we rely on people to do things. I think that’s the biggest thing. Believe me, these ladies are something else. You want something done then you need to do it. We recently got a retired Rapid City teacher involved. She’s a brand-new resident. We met her at a grant workshop, and we have four grants that have already been accepted.”
The Recreation and Wellness team has an excellent reputation around town, and the word spreads quickly. They now have 123 people on their Basecamp site, so they can track what’s happening and step in when needed.
As Hennessy puts it, “If you have a good reputation, people feel more confident with you. We have a track record of producing. We’re just always going and I think that helps. It sounds really exciting, and it is rewarding.”
If your community is planning improvement projects in 2021, we want to hear about it. Share with us at [email protected].
Read part one of this story here.