Serving in a new way: A conversation in Ellis, Kan.

Participants at Saturday's "community conversation" in Ellis, Kan., discuss what they like most about their city.

The director of the Ellis Alliance had been thinking about a “community roundtable discussion” for some time.  But, says Dena Patee, she was reluctant to propose, let alone lead, such an event herself. In a city of just 2,000 residents, she knew it would be difficult to appear neutral. “There’s a tendency to think you’re taking sides, or promoting one idea or another,” Patee said.

Ellis Alliance Director Dena Patee, left, and Alliance Board member JoAnn Schoenthaler discuss what would make Ellis even better.

Enter Cheryl Lyn Higgins, the coordinator of Neighborhood Initiatives and the leader of last Saturday’s “community conversation” in Ellis.

One of the many goals of Neighborhood Initiatives, which is a new office of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, is to reach out to communities where sisters serve and offer whatever assistance is needed in bringing people together to talk about challenges and solutions.

Sister Doris Marie Flax has served as pastoral minister at St. Mary’s Church in Ellis since 1994, and introduced Higgins to Patee and several other community leaders. As a result, Higgins offered her services — free of charge — to organize the Saturday meeting and then walk the 20 or so participants through the process of really looking at their community.

“In a small community, it’s sometimes difficult to lay out the facts when you’re there with all your neighbors and people you’ve known all your life,” Higgins explained. “Somebody coming in from the outside can say things that someone inside the community cannot always say. But someone has to say, ‘Elected officials can’t do everything’ and ‘We have to be citizens in our community.’ ”

According to Patee, Higgins was exactly the person needed to start the conversation.

“It was so much nicer that Cheryl Lyn came out and did the facilitation,” she said. “She was so comfortable and calm; she was flawless in her presentation.”

And, she notes, everyone at the meeting knew that Higgins was just there to help.

Higgins’ assistance — and, in fact, the creation of Neighborhood Initiatives in 2010 — continue a tradition the Sisters of St. Joseph have lived out since their founding 128 years ago. In their early days in Kansas, the congregation founded schools and hospitals to educate young people and provide health care, services that were crucial in the communities where they lived and served.

As the need arose, they founded orphanages and nursing homes to provide care for children and elders who needed it.

“Those were all needs relevant to their times,” Higgins explained. “Today rural communities are concerned about sustainability — that’s what makes these community conversations relevant to this time and to the communities where sisters serve.”

The process began with small groups listing “What we like about Ellis,” and items like good schools and active organizations were included by almost every group.

Then came a harder question: What would make Ellis even better?

Participants came up with a list of 14 suggestions, ranging from developing more housing of all types to creating a business incubator and building a community center.

The final two questions were the hardest: What are the priorities and who will work toward them?

Ultimately, four topics made that list — housing, business development and a business incubator, a community center and cleanup of Big Creek — and participants volunteered to serve on a committee for each one.

“My dream is that everyone who signed up to volunteer will show up and take an active role,” Patee said with a laugh. “That may not happen, but this was very, very positive.”

The next step in the process, Higgins said, is to present the four goals, as well as other information from the meeting, to the Ellis Alliance Board of Directors and then to the Ellis City Commission. That should happen early in October.

Meanwhile, Higgins is looking at other cities where there are Sisters of St. Joseph with the hope that Neighborhood Initiatives can be of service there, too. The program is funded by the Sisters of St. Joseph so there is no cost to the cities that participate.

3 thoughts on “Serving in a new way: A conversation in Ellis, Kan.

  • October 25, 2011 at 6:42 am

    Sleeves rolled up, venturing into the neighborhood of untended need.
    Thanks for providing that stepping stone for the CSJ Mission.

  • October 20, 2011 at 9:54 am

    A great report on the event in Ellis. Lots of enthusiaism and hope generated for moving into the future!
    Thanks, Cheryl Lyn, for bringing “Neighborhood Initiatives” to its next stages.
    Sr. Beth

  • September 23, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    Cheryl Lyn, What a gift, you and we are offering, may it grow and flourish.

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