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Sims plans to carry Roanoke lessons forward

I was riding on a bus in Auburn when I got an email describing a civic adventure of sorts. It promised an experience in a small Alabama town that involved learning how communities function.

The program, aptly named “Living Democracy”, is designed to expose students to the minute details of how our democracies function, how towns are run in America. Because of my 10 weeks in Roanoke, I began to understand the intricacies of local civic life a bit better.  But, more importantly, I’ve discovered the peculiar kind of spirit Roanoke has, and I love it.

My first experience this summer involved hiking around with students participating in the Randolph County Youth Development Initiative, headed by Marian Royston and advised by Cotina Terry, my community partners. Meeting and hanging out with the students from across Randolph County was pleasant. They made me feel welcomed.

During the next three weeks, I devoted most of my time to working with the Youth Development Initiative. After getting to know the students and helping with their social event and graduation ceremony, I realized what a gift the program is.

Here we have a concerted effort, supported by some concerned citizens, to help students across Randolph County grow their interpersonal and professional skills. In an era rife with cynicism toward public programs, the Youth Development Initiative is a fantastic example of the potential benefits they can produce.

After working with the Youth Development Initiative, I began working on Randolph County’s marketing video. The video project was especially beneficial to me because it required interviewing a variety of sources. This gave me a more holistic view not only of Roanoke but of Randolph County as well. 

I interviewed all sorts of people from different walks of life: farmers, the mayor of Roanoke, school administrators, business leaders, and many others. I’d ask them questions like “What makes Randolph County genuinely different?” or about the benefits of doing business in this area.

After a few interviews, I noticed a pattern that remained consistent through the vast majority of my interviews: people love the interconnectedness that comes with small-town life.  

There’s a familial attitude that comes from living in Roanoke. People see their friends all the time around town, waves are regularly exchanged going down the road, and people are brought up to date on each other’s lives all the time.

In this way, peoples’ lives are more interconnected than you’ll find in larger towns. In this way, one lady’s success is the success of several other people. One family’s mourning is a burden shared across town.

Handley High school’s extracurricular programs do a fine job of solidifying this interconnectedness. Everyone seems to be proud to attend Handley football games or drama productions. It’s not just entertainment. It’s a community ritual of sorts. People speak of attending these events with pride.

Coming from Athens, Alabama, a town I considered small (though it’s about four times the size of Roanoke), I assumed I understood the level of interconnectedness that was to be discovered in Roanoke. I didn’t.

Throughout my stay here, I’ve had more than a handful of people offer me dinners, company and a place to stay. I felt like I was a part of an extended family.

Mr. Ronald, the president of the Utility Board and Roanoke Fire Chief, let me stay in the fire station. I had an enormous room, complete with a bathroom and a kitchen, as well as three beautiful fire trucks right outside my door.

Then Mrs. Kesa, a local lawyer whose tenacity has built her a strong reputation in town, offered me a chance to live in the loft her and her husband own downtown. One of the most beautiful things about the loft, aside from its interior majesty, is that it’s only a block or so from Gerson’s Garden, my favorite restaurant in the area. I was able to waltz on down the street and get the best guacamole pretty much whenever I pleased. I’m thankful for folks like Ronald and Kesa.

Throughout my ten weeks in Roanoke, I observed some of the inner-workings of the Economic Development Authority. I attended regional economic planning meetings, an EDA board meeting and a Tour East Alabama meeting.

Cotina, the executive director of the Economic Development Board, kept busy with something called Project Deer, which involves an industry that may be interested in doing business here in Randolph County.

Seeing her day-to-day process showed me the amount of work that goes into helping Roanoke’s economy succeed. It seemed that every ten minutes she would get a call on her Bluetooth earpiece concerning the project or something else EDA related.

While in Roanoke, I’ve interacted with and observed several different elements of the community. I see how the decisions of a City Council have concrete effects all the way up to someone’s front doorstep. While growing up in Athens, I never took the time to attend local government meetings or really analyzed what was happening around town civically.

In Roanoke, I’ve been given the opportunity to meet and interview several community leaders and watch their roles affect the community. I never realized the sheer amount of effort that goes into making things run smoothly.   Watching Marian and Cotina guide the students through planning for events was a thought-provoking example of this. Every little detail had to be mentally juggled with a thousand other details that included prices of equipment, dates, times, and a myriad of other logistics.

Experiencing all of this first-hand inspired me to vow to keep up with Auburn’s local community life and to see where I can partake in shaping it when I return to college. For that, I want to thank my community partners and everyone I’ve met in Roanoke, Alabama. It’s been a formative and sweet summer.