By Karen Price
Staying connected in the thick of a pandemic was challenging for everyone, but imagine trying to launch a program that hinges on a tremendous amount of community involvement.
That was the situation in which the Dillsburg Community Heart & Soul team found itself during the past 20 months.
“It’s kind of hard to get strangers to talk to each other when everyone is telling you to stay apart,” program coordinator Kelly Falck said. “Not only were people not going to anything, but they certainly weren’t going to something they’d never heard of or weren’t exactly sure what it was.”
Dillsburg is a town of 2,500 located in northern York County, near Harrisburg, at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A group of local volunteers had recently formed the Community Heart & Soul team and were in the initial phase of the four-step process of engaging the community to shape its future when covid-19 hit in early 2020.
They adapted to the challenge of lockdown by meeting regularly online to continue working on their goals and laying the groundwork for the next step. That kept them connected, but they wondered about Phase 2. That stage involves gathering stories from residents to form Heart & Soul Statements identifying the town’s priorities and what the people love and value most. They needed to hear what brought their neighbors to Dillsburg, why they stayed, what they loved about it and what they hoped for in the future.
But how do you do that when health and safety concerns discourage people from gathering in the settings where those conversations would normally take place?
The team soon found its answers.
Katelyn Beam, a sustainability studies major from Messiah University in nearby Mechanicsburg, came on as an intern and took on the role of establishing Dillsburg Community Heart & Soul’s social media presence. In February 2021, she launched a photo contest asking residents to submit their favorite shots in categories including “heart of Dillsburg,” “only in Dillsburg,” “best scenic view,” “favorite place to spend time outdoors” and “favorite place to eat.” The submissions are now displayed in a photo gallery on the Dillsburg Heart & Soul website.
“I highly recommend it to be part of the process for any team,” Falck said. “(Beam) did a great job of getting our social media presence off the ground. She made a great splash and built our recognition in the community through social media.”
Winners were announced in April, and while they continued to make space for people to share their stories on the website and social media, the team also took advantage of the willingness to gather outdoors in the nicer weather. A few volunteers were already regulars at the local farmer’s market, so they set up a table as a way to introduce themselves to more members of the community and gather more stories.
It was a great success.
“We were like, ‘Hey, that worked. Let’s do that again. And what else is coming up?’” Falck said. “We started showing up at anything the community was doing and just asking if we could have a table, and eventually people started asking us, ‘We’re doing this event, could you come?’ It built a lot of trust and credibility by showing up at events in our community.”
They went to outdoor events including food truck nights, the Dillsburg Pickle Fest, a chalk art celebration at the middle school, a garden club tour, concerts in the park and National Night Out.
In October, they shared some of their findings and continued to chat with neighbors at the 106th Annual Farmers Fair, a treasured Dillsburg tradition. Although it rained that Saturday, the Heart & Soul team was set up on the covered porch of the historic Quay House and everyone welcomed the opportunity to interact while staying dry.
“The most beautiful thing about the stories we’ve gathered is that we are finding those common threads so easily,” Falck said. “Like any little city or town across America, our little town is extremely politically divided and divided over masks or no masks, vaccine or no vaccine, and we’ve had some contentious school board meetings. And yet our themes are the same regardless of political persuasion. The things people want are so very similar.”
For instance, she said, people love the rural aspect of Dillsburg and value open space. They want to contain development and make sure that the rural and agricultural areas surrounding the downtown center don’t get lost. And while people remain largely unexcited by the thought of big box stores moving in, they are interested in the revitalization of their downtown area into a place where they can shop and eat.
Not wanting to exclude the younger residents, the team also went to all four elementary schools in the district and asked students to either draw a picture or write what they loved about Dillsburg and what they wished could be added to the town.
The kids listed all sorts of things, Falck said, and many were quite insightful.
“They talked a lot about liking open space, baseball and soccer fields, hiking trails, and all that stuff,” said Falck, adding that the team is currently asking the same questions of area middle school students. “Then their big wishes were everything from amusement parks to some really crazy things. Certainly a water park and a pool.”
The team is now nearing the end of Phase 2 and will be using what they learned during the story gathering process to create their Heart & Soul Statements. In Phase 3, they’ll develop action plans to guide future town planning based on those statements. They are currently seeking additional volunteers as well as a paid, part-time project coordinator and a social media intern.
Falck said she’s been so impressed by what their group has been able to accomplish, even with a smaller leadership team compared to some Heart & Soul communities. She encourages others not to be dismayed if they, too, have smaller numbers.
“I think that Dillsburg is really on the cusp of taking some strides forward in defining what we want to be and really owning who we are and making the most of it,” she said. “I hope Heart & Soul makes people feel excited about that.”
PA Heart & Soul in Dillsburg is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and South Mountain Partnership, through funds from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).