IU Center for Rural Engagement’s Partnership to Enrich Life in Washington County

By Tiffany Cooke

Improve, discover, build, work, educate, and demonstrate – the goals of the Indiana University Center for Rural Engagement – inspire a mission targeted to small communities near Bloomington.

Using resources from IU Bloomington, the center connects members in rural communities with a relationship to the university. Provost and Executive Vice President at Bloomington’s campus, Lauren Robel, conducted a series of listening tours and consulted with the Battelle Institute’s study of the Indiana Uplands to unveil evidence-based and data-backed challenges that exist in rural communities in Indiana. The Center for Rural Engagement aims to provide and discover solutions to these problems related to health and wellness, quality of place, and resilience.

Since its launch in May 2018, the center has partnered with 35 communities and started 125 initiatives focused on these aspects. Washington County is, and was one of the first, partnerships in this project.

“The mission of the center is to partner with rural communities to improve Hoosier lives,” Kerry Thomson, the executive director of the Center for Rural Engagement said. “It provides rural communities and small regional cities with access to IU’s cultural assets, research, data, community-engaged teaching, and student service.”

Activities provided by the center are specified to accommodate each area’s community and their needs expressed in listening and discussion sessions. Washington County expressed interest in increasing access to cultural offerings for local students and residents, according to Thomson.

IU Jacobs School of Music, initiated by the center, joined Salem Schools bands director Bonnie Harmon for masterclasses and a side-by-side performance at Salem Middle School. (Photo Courtesy of Kayla Deckard)

This influenced the development of the rural arts series, including cinema screenings, masterclasses and side-by-side concert performances, creative writing workshops, and other arts-focused programs.

Jon Vickers, the founding director of IU Cinema, heads a part of this series by launching ‘pop-up’ film screenings in program areas which no longer have operating cinemas. These screenings are paid for and marketed by the Center for Rural Engagement, and the materials are then sent to the community.

Vickers wants to create a theater for all, proposing and showing films that are independent, documentary, or international – films the community can’t see in their neighboring towns. These films are chosen for being insightful or able to generate conversation.

“My favorite part of working with the center is providing experiences that would not be there if we were not doing what we are doing,” Vickers said. “If we can help build community and start conversations around films, I am happy.”

He proposed this project to be added to the center’s arts series because it brings him back to his roots of small-town Three Oaks, Michigan where he and his wife opened a cinema. He witnessed the cinema bring hundreds of people together in the town every week. He hopes that these screenings will, over time, have this same impact.

“It is a passion project, which is completely outside of my duties and obligations for my role as director of IU Cinema, adding hours to an already above capacity workload,” Vickers said. “It just seems like it was the right thing to do.”

Washington County is one of the communities working with Vickers to provide this experience. While the start-up was slow and attendance is slow to grow, Vickers said that those who attend appreciate the screenings. Still, for this to work long-term, he needs a strong commitment from community partners to help market the events.

These film screenings are just one part of the center’s program offerings. In addition to the arts, the center has launched a parks and recreation opportunity mapping project, compiling an inventory of all parks, recreation, and tourism resources in Washington County. The center has also grown health and wellness resources in communities, increasing rural health access with home health visits and screenings in partnership with the School of Nursing. As the center grows, more initiatives will be introduced.

All these services are focused on improving the health and wellness, quality of place, and resilience of the rural areas involved in the program, while encouraging community engagement. Thomson believes that this is an important part of her mission to better the lives of Indiana residents in these communities.

“I’ve witnessed this impact in residents who are implementing ideas they’ve held for years, just hoping for the right partner to help them build it into reality,” Thomson said.

In the spring, the center, with the IU Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance, shared a performance and insights into the student experience in the arts at IU with Salem High School students. (Photo Courtesy of Kayla Deckard)

Because the Center for Rural Engagement provides this partnership, Thomson sees communities increase cultural and artistic awareness, and members express a passion for service, impact, and connection.

In a year of operation, the center reached more that 1,500 residents, providing 500 hours on in-home nursing care, 70,000 hours of mental health services, and dozens of arts programs to engage and inspire – all focused on increasing the quality of Hoosier life, especially within rural areas like Washington County.

“When we are mentally and physically active, creative, and engaged with our community, we thrive,” Thomson said.

Her work – and the work of other Indiana University leaders like Vickers – within the Center for Rural Engagement intend to achieve this thrive.

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