In 2009, 78 residents lived in the town of Dawn, Mo. Mail arrived at the old post office not far from the Daybreak Cafe. Each morning, a small group of men gathered at the cafe for breakfast before heading out to work on their land.
One morning, a bigger group from town gathered there to meet with Dafna Michaelson, a woman traveling in from Denver. Dafna wanted to know what challenges were facing the small town and how the citizens were tackling the problems. Folks were worried that unless they could find new ways to keep the town prospering, the population would continue to shrink as kids moved away after high school and the elderly passed away. Traditions like the Friday fish-fry brought in locals from nearby towns but the residents knew that Dawn’s survival and prosperity would depend on much more than fish-fry Fridays.
Similar problems faced Roslyn, S.D., which was so small it didn’t appear on most maps. When Dafna met with citizens there, she learned that Roslyn’s luck had changed when Lawrence Diggs, an African American writer from San Francisco, moved to town. Diggs was a vinegar expert and thought that a museum about vinegar could draw tourists to the town, thereby helping its economy and growth. Fast forward a few years. Visitors buy tickets to the International Vinegar Museum at 500 Main St. in Roslyn and learn about the 101 different uses of vinegar or how vinegar is made.
Roslyn is reminiscent of many small towns across America, including Lander, Wyo., where Dafna met Linda Barton. After Linda moved from California to Lander and married a local resident, she saw that kids in the community were getting into trouble after school, partly because there wasn’t anything to keep them busy. So, Linda used her financial and organizational skills to create Lights on Lander, a program to help kids with homework and provide after-school activities like sports. The program’s success was evident when the crime rate and emergency room visits decreased and kids’ grades and test scores improved.
These are three examples out of hundreds which Dafna came across during the year she interviewed people in all 50 states. Her primary goal was to understand how regular people across America were solving problems in their community, document their stories, and complete the project in 50 weeks. It wasn’t simply a whim or a casual interest for Dafna. In 2008, she quit her job at a healthcare organization in Denver, cashed in her 401K and bought a camera and tripod. She made arrangements with her ex-husband and some friends to care for her two children several days per week while she was on the road, and tackled a whirlwind of details from flights to rental cars. She wasn’t sure how she would pull all of it off, yet she remained determined and focused on her goal.
Across the country, she found people who were eager to share their experiences. In Arkansas, she met Barbara Harmony, a Jewish woman who worked with Native Americans to save a healing water well that had dried up. In Anchorage, Alaska, she spent time with Elgin “Pops” Jones, an elderly, blind man who started Pop’s Kids Kitchen. Jones started off bringing food to small groups of kids, and through the years, the organization ultimately provided over one million meals to children in impoverished communities. Dafna met Mao Tosi, a former NFL player who taught high school dropouts the skills necessary to earn an income while earning their GED, and Dan West, the Indiana farmer who started Heifer International, a nonprofit organization working to sustain communities through donations of livestock.
By the end of 52 weeks crisscrossing every state boundary, Dafna had interviewed over 500 people tackling problems in their communities with creative, real-world solutions and strategies. Their accomplishments are documented in her book, “It Takes a Little Crazy to Make a Difference” (published in 2015) and on the website journeyinstitute.org. Currently, Dafna Michaelson Jenet represents House District 30 in the Colorado State Legislature where she remains focused on bringing social change and community improvement to life in Colorado.
Julie Richman is a freelance writer, project manager and consultant. She and her family have lived on Colorado Springs’ northeast side for 21 years. Contact Julie with comments or ideas for her column at email@example.com.