Cornerstones Blog

Three Towns. Three Challenges. One Solution. Engage Everyone.

The February issue of Colorado Municipalities magazine featured an article on Community Heart & Soul® and its impact in three communities--Cortez, Golden and the North Fork Valley. Each faced different challenges and all found that engaging residents made their communities stronger and more cohesive.

Reprinted with permission.


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By Alece Montez-Griego, Director of Programs, Orton Family Foundation

WHEN HIGHWAY 491 IN CORTEZ was slated for repaving by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), municipal officials saw an opportunity to turn an eyesore entryway into a welcoming gateway. The project happened to come up at the same time the City was busy engaging residents in Cortez Heart & Soul, which was the name Cortez chose for its Community Heart & Soul® project.

Developed by the Orton Family Foundation, the method brings a broad range of residents together to determine what they most value about where they live. Cortez’s story and the stories included here from other towns illustrate the power of resident-driven plans and action that is rooted in what matters most to them — in other words residents’ “heart and soul.” 

In Cortez, improving the appearance of downtown was one of those priorities. The Colorado Department of Transportation’s plans for South Broadway, as Highway 491 is called within municipal limits, did not align with what residents envisioned.

“The design was completely counter to what the Heart & Soul Team had been hearing from residents. I called it doubling down on ugly. We had this really ugly entrance. CDOT’s initial plan was to patch these old medians, and make them look like a calico cat that they would not touch again for another 40 years,” Cortez City Manager Shane Hale said.

The city council responded by allocating $650,000 to begin making changes downtown, no small amount for a municipality of 8,600 residents. Working with a design team of landscape architects and civil and traffic engineers, the City held several design charrettes with the community. Additionally, the Cortez City Council broadened the initial design to include several streets in the downtown core, ensuring that Cortez had a cohesive plan moving forward.

Knowing support existed among residents made the city council and the planning department case even stronger. Cortez approached the state with designs by the community and pushed for what they wanted. In the end, tired and broken concrete was replaced with drought-tolerant plants, trees, and shrubs. Unsafe streetlights were updated through a partnership between the City and Empire Electric Association. Following the project, two new businesses were built on vacant lots, welcome additions that countered the tide of development that had previously occurred only on the east side of town near Walmart. Getting CDOT to allow Cortez to codesign the highway was groundbreaking.

There was another groundbreaking aspect of the project — the role that the Ute Mountain Ute tribe played. Key tenets of Community Heart & Soul are to involve everyone and reach people whose voices had been missing. The City saw one element of the project as a chance to involve the tribe, including a missing voice and bridging a historical divide. Design of the welcome sign was given over to the tribe, as this is its entryway to Cortez. All of the design work was conducted on tribal lands, with very little input from city leadership, which was intentional. The significance of this went beyond the signage. Having communication with the tribe allowed the town to be aware of and honor the local culture and traditions. One tribal member said that because of Heart & Soul, the tribe and city met in a way that had not happened before, providing the opportunity to talk about  historical traumas and marking the start of a change in the relationship between the two.

What happened in Cortez illustrates how community engagement lifts up a community. Engaging residents helped the City establish priorities and push for change. The result was a gateway that attracted visitors and businesses and began a better relationship with neighbors. Involving a broad representation of residents and identifying what they love about where they live helps communities chart a course that leads to a better quality of life for everyone. Cortez is a good example of that. Here are other examples of Colorado towns that strengthened their communities in different ways through Community Heart & Soul. 

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How Storytelling Galvanized a Community around a Lost Piece of its History

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The story of the discovery of  an 1870s church built by a freed slave in Mount Holly Springs, Pennsylvania, illustrates the power of storytelling to not only illuminate the past, but to galvanize a community around an important piece of its history.

As often happens with discoveries, a combination of curiosity, timing, and coincidence began to align when high school students in Lindsay Varner’s oral history class found a newspaper article that mentioned an abandoned African-American church in Mount Holly Springs. It made sense that the area would have an African-American church. The Underground Railroad went through the area and Mount Holly Springs was home to a free black community that settled there before the Civil War.

Determined to find the church, Varner drove down a narrow, dirt road at the foot of a hill where she believed the church would be. She found only a few dozen gravestones leaning in a grassy lot.

Meanwhile, Varner’s attention turned to her role as project coordinator for the Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul, a Community Heart & Soul® project funded with a grant from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. A significant component of the project entailed gathering stories from community members to find out what matters most to them about where they live.

Among the people whose names surfaced for interviews were “the Gumby sisters,” three longtime residents of Mount Holly Springs. She set up an interview with the two younger sisters, both in their 80s, who, it turned out, had ties to the church. Their grandfather, a former slave and Civil War soldier, built the church and was its first pastor.

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Harriet Gumby took Varner to the church. The one room, weatherworn, wooden structure was cloaked in vines. Poison ivy created a natural barrier around the church. Vultures swooped out from the eaves, prompting Gumby to note that they were standing guard over the place. Varner peered inside and saw a scene frozen in time. The pastors’ chairs, pews, hymnals, religious comic books, an oil lamp, even a piano and pump organ were all in the building.

“It was like a time capsule. It was amazing. It was absolutely incredible. When I walked into the church I’d never seen anything like it,” Varner said.

Varner knew this was an important piece of history. She went to work assembling a team of local leaders, historians, and preservation experts, who all kept the discovery quiet until the building, which had a hole in the roof and was deep in dust, could be stabilized and the contents secured.

In September, Varner led a tour of the church. Among those on the tour was a family whose ancestor, U.S. Colored Troops veteran, was buried in the cemetery. They’d been searching for the burial place for years and were so moved when they found it, they offered to help locate a shipping container to temporarily house artifacts from the church. 

Today, the 1870s Mount Tabor AME Zion Church has brought the community together to work on preserving this piece of African-American history.

“This church is part of African-American history. It’s part of Mount Holly’s history. It’s part of Cumberland County’s history. It plays into a much wider narrative than just being a personal connection,” Varner said. “And that’s where we are at this moment, working to preserve both the items inside and the memory of the church as well as the cemetery.”

Finding Your Hometown’s Heartbeat: Community Engagement with Bouncy Castles, Beer Coasters, and Ball Games

When it comes to community engagement, high-tech tools and complicated processes often take center-stage, but Heart & Soul communities find that successful engagement comes from the simple act of connecting with residents to learn why they love their town.

As part of the Heart & Soul Talks series, three speakers joined Orton Family Foundation on January 26 to talk about successful community engagement. Their strategies weren’t traditional—block parties, living room conversations, and soccer tournaments—but they got results.

Jim Bennett, city manager in Biddeford, Maine, and past president of International City/County Management Association (ICMA), emphasized the importance of community pride in garnering engagement.

 “People love where they live—they want to be proud of their hometown. Having pride in the community is a powerful motive,” he said.

He should know. For years, Biddeford’s moniker “Trash Town” overshadowed its best assets—historic downtown buildings, affordability, family friendliness—preventing positive growth and investment. Community Heart & Soul® helped the whole community rediscover those things that make Biddeford a great place to live, restoring pride and spurring action to clean up downtown. Today, commercial real estate values in downtown have averaged a 60% increase in value since 2014, residential values are up by 12%, and 1.6 million square feet of previously abandoned mill space is almost full.

This remarkable turnaround began with community engagement.

 “There is something special in every community. The challenge is to find what that is—the heartbeat, why people care,” he shared.  

In Biddeford, that challenge was met through conversations between residents—activities like youth interviews with their grandparents, a storytelling hotline, neighborhood meetings, and listening to Franco elders at the local Franco-American festival.

In contrast to  Biddeford, Golden, Colorado, wasn’t struggling when it embarked on Heart & Soul in 2010, and it has only grown more prosperous since. Community engagement that included block parties with bouncy castles, hotdogs, and opportunities for citizens to connect with city staff were at the heart of the process. The result was a set of guiding principles that have stood the test of time.

Seven years later, the city is still seeing positive results, and the culture of citizen engagement, confidence in government, and a welcoming community has been verified by the National Citizen Survey and the Gallup Well-being Index.

Mike’s favorite tip for engagement comes from another town, Paonia, Colorado, where the Heart & Soul Team used bar coasters to collect input from 30-somethings at the local brewpub.

Kirsten Sackett, director of community development in Ellensburg, Washington, first experienced the benefits of Community Heart & Soul while working in Cortez, Colorado. She is leading a similar effort in Ellensburg, starting with deliberate outreach to community members. Kirsten and her staff are reaching residents in unlikely places, at least for city government. One of their first steps was a local soccer tournament, where they connected with parents during games. On the importance of intentional communication, Kirsten recommends, “Go to the places where people are most familiar, where people are available, and where trust can be built.”

Hear more from Jim, Mike and Kirsten in the Heart & Soul Talks recording:

10 Ways to Share the Love in Your Community this Valentine’s Day

It’s that time of year again, Valentine’s Day. This day is filled with flowers, chocolates, and cards from that one special person. Did you ever wonder how this tradition got started?  And who is Valentine anyway? 


Here’s what the Huffington Post had to say: “The most popular account of its origins date back to a temple priest named, not surprisingly, Valentine, a later-to-be-canonized saint who was executed in 270 A.D. by Emperor Claudius II for performing illegal marriage ceremonies on the Roman battlefield. Back then, as the story goes, the military-minded Claudius believed connubial bliss was bad for war and made it illegal for soldiers to wed. Imprisoned for his battlefield-betrothing ways, Valentine, a man of many talents, supposedly healed the blind daughter of his jailer while incarcerated and, the night before his execution, gave the newly sighted young lass a hand written card signed — you guessed it — ‘From Your Valentine.’”

Saint Valentine clearly touched many lives, so why do we think of this day as a time to celebrate the love of one person? Why not make Valentine’s Day a great excuse to highlight what we love about our communities?  Remember-elementary school, when we had to bring in valentines for the entire class. Why not extend our sharing of kindness and appreciation to our entire communities? Showing your community that you love and care can build a stronger sense of pride and respect in your town.

Here are some ideas for bringing bring Valentine’s Day to your community:

 1. Think like a kid

  • Get Valentine’s Day cards from a local store and bring the past to the present. Give a card to everyone you work with just like you did back in elementary school.Better yet, make homemade cards.

 2. Host a Red Ball

  • Have a get together at a local venue and invite the community to celebrate Valentine’s Day dressed all in red.

 3. The food we love

  • A community potluck isn’t just a fun summer event. Have people in the community sit down for a delicious meal in the winter. Bonus points if all the dishes are prepared in the shape of a heart.

 4. Guess again

  • Fill a jar with candy conversation hearts. Put the jar in a local community gathering place and ask community members to guess the number of hearts. The closest person to guess the correct amount, without going over, wins the jar.

 5. Let’s play games

  • Hide heart-shaped candies around town and have community members go on a scavenger hunt to find them. This would be a fun event for all ages.

 6. A service of love

  • Bake a cake or cookies and bring it to the local fire and/or police station. It is easy to forget that people are always watching out for you and protecting you. Bake some goodies and show those hardworking people that you care.

 7. What do you love?

  • Make a giant paper heart and put it downtown. Have community members each write down what they love about the community. Put the heart on display for everyone to see after it is finished.

 8. Some puppy love

  • Go to the local humane society and help take care of the dogs. Take them for walks and give them love. Who knows? Maybe you will end up with a new member of the family.

 9. Racing with love

  • Start a Valentine’s Day run in your town. It will be fun for people of all ages to come out and support their loved ones and community members as they run. It’s heart healthy too!

 10. Wine in the Library

  • Cocoa Beach, Florida does a Valentine’s Day wine tasting in their downtown library. This is a fun way of getting the community engaged while also introducing new people to the local library.

Whatever event you choose to do this Valentine’s Day, have fun and remember to show people in your community that you appreciate them. To see some creative ways towns have celebrated Valentine’s Day, check out this blog post:

Does your community do something fun for Valentine’s Day? Share it with us on social media. And don’t forget to follow The Orton Family Foundation on Twitter and Instagram @Ortonfoundation and Facebook @OrtonFamilyFoundation. Also, use the hashtag #CommunityMatters.

9 Ways to Get Public Input: Thinking Beyond the Survey

We are always amazed by the creative ways Community Heart & Soul® towns gather input from residents. In the process they not only get quality feedback, they also create opportunities for residents to engage with one another and build community. Here are nine examples we find especially compelling and fun!

1. Block party with a story booth

  • Golden Vision 2030, a Community Heart & Soul project, held a block party that drew more than 1,000 Golden, Colorado residents to have fun and discuss the future of the town. A pop up tent at the party was designated as a place where residents could tell stories and share what they love about Golden, and what they would change. This was a great way to receive public input while also enjoying a BBQ, drinks, and prizes.

2. Window graffiti in prominent public places for all to see

  • Writing on a public building with washable marker was a great engagement idea used by the Gardiner Heart & Soul Team in Gardiner, Maine. Temporary “graffiti” was a way for the whole community to see what their neighbors were thinking and stimulated conversation!

3. Capturing ideas on drink coasters

  • The North Folk Valley Heart & Soul Team, North Fork Valley, Colorado, used coasters to get public opinion by having residents write what they loved about their community and what they would leave behind. To celebrate they created their own locally made “Lovett or Leave It” beer (that won a best pale ale award!).

4. Photo contest with community discussions and an award

  • As part of Cortez Heart & Soul, the residents of Cortez, Colorado, were invited to take photos that showed off the both beautiful places in their town, and the not so beautiful places in a photo contest called “The Good, The Bad, the Ugly.” The photos were exhibited in local cultural center for the community to see.

5. Youth murals

  • Galesburg on Track, the Heart & Soul® project in this Illinois town, turned to children for help to figure out what was loved in their community. Volunteers took big sheets of paper to classrooms and the children drew what they loved about Galesburg. The results were colorful, insightful, and creative!

6. Post cards/rack cards

  • The Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul Team in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, placed post cards around town, in libraries, and churches. People were asked what they loved about their community and could weigh in on the back of the cards. The cards were then displayed so that everyone could see all the reasons their community is special.

7. Heart Spots phone line with locations throughout the town

  • Biddeford Heart & Soul gathered stories about what people loved about Biddeford, Maine. The Team kept hearing about locations around the town that held special meaning. So, they hung signs in these “Heart Spots” with a phone number to call and leave a voicemail about what this one place means to them. The voicemails were turned into an mp3 recording so everyone could hear stories about their community.

8. Candy corn in jars to identify priorities

  • In Damariscotta, Maine the Heart & Soul Team used candy corn, that popular seasonal Halloween candy, to entice community members to give their opinions. At the annual Pumpkin Fest, which draws thousands to the town, attendees could vote on what makes the town special by putting candy corn in jars. This offered a fun and light way for residents to get involved and learn about the Heart & Soul project.

9. Remote polling using cell phones

  • Re-imagine Laconia a Heart & Soul project in Laconia, New Hampshire, posted signs asking people to text in something they liked about their town. They also asked community members to text a headline that captured something they envisioned for the future. “Colonial Theater Reopens as Community Arts Center” was one example of a headline one resident wanted to see.

The number of ways to engage the community are about as limitless as the imagination. Hopefully you found some helpful hints in this post to try in your community! Follow us on Facebook (The Orton Family Foundation) and Twitter (@OrtonFoundation) for updates on Heart & Soul towns and our organization.

To read more about effective engagement check out this blog post on Top Ten Best Ways for Inclusive Engagement. Or check out our resource for public engagement methods:

#DowntownDecorations Winners

Over the past few weeks we have asked our friends on Facebook to send in pictures of their dressed up downtowns. We want to thank everyone who submitted pictures from Millinocket, Maine to San Elizario,Texas and in between. All of your towns looked beautiful all decked out for the holiday season.

From the submissions we randomly drew three lucky winners of a Vermont Country Store gift card.


  • Jim Brett of Paonia, Colorado

  • 125th Birthday Celebration of New Kensington, Pennsylvania

  • Patti Spencer- Yost with the Brunswick Downtown Association, Brunswick, Maine

The three lucky winners of #DowntownDecorations!  Please continue following the Orton Family Foundation for more fun contests, interesting stories, and ways to make your communities thrive.

To see all of the submissions go to



Why Small Towns are Buzzing About Rural Creative Placemaking

By Becky McCray

Over 300 people from 38 states gathered in Iowa last month under the banner of the first Next Generation Rural Creative Placemaking Summit. What generated all that excitement? And what does it mean for your town? 

First, let's tackle placemaking. It's a bit of a buzzword itself. Placemaking means local people working together to make the public spaces in their town better, with a focus on building a stronger community. Public spaces are all the places we share, like downtown, parks, squares, sidewalks, streets, and more. These all belong to us. They are the places where community building actually happens. It's really about our shared quality of life. 

Now that we have placemaking, what is creative placemaking? It's still about local people working together on public spaces to build community. What's different is the focus on using our creative skills, our arts, crafts, music, and everything creative, to improve our quality of life. 

Why rural? That is the most exciting part, to me. We are seeing an entire movement emerge that's focused on small towns and rural places and how the arts help make rural places better. 

What does rural creative placemaking look like? 

Here are some examples that came up at the summit:

  • Camille Ferguson with American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association highlighted how the National Park Service cooperated with Native American tribes around the Grand Canyon to turn an old, tacky, gift shop into a vibrant display and demonstration space for Native artists.
  • Nikiko Masumoto with Masumoto Family Farm in California, talked about how their family farm went from thinking of themselves just as producers of fruits and vegetables, to thinking of the farm as a meeting place. Instead of thinking only about the end product for people to eat, they have begun to consider the experiences that people can have at their farm, how the fields and orchards look and feel, and how that affects visitors. 
  • In Iowa, a community theater held a professional wrestling event in their main room and a poetry reading in their bar area, on the same night each week. The two crowds avoided each other until the third week, when a few wrestlers ventured over and admitted they also write poetry. By the fourth month, they were connecting, and after that, they had to coordinate times so people could go to both the wrestling and the poetry reading. Now they always try to schedule two crowds they used to think of as opposite on the same night, Zach Mannheimer with Iowa Business Growth said. 
  • Zuni, New Mexico, is transforming from a town with no formal economy and no public spaces to share, into a place where everyone can come and informal businesses can get a start and grow from pop-ups to mobile street vendor carts, Ted Jojola of the Indigenous Design + Planning Institute explained. It's an example of the seventh generation principle they like to use at Zuni Pueblo and many other Native communities, considering the point of view of your great-grandparents, your grandparents, your parents, you, your children, your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren. 

Finding Allies, Involving Everyone 

While I was at the summit, I was struck by how similar the conversations with artists and creatives were to conversations I have had with chambers of commerce, economic developers and all kinds of civic-minded local businesses. I wanted to bring the creative types together with the business types to see if we could bring the conversations together and take action with more people locally.

So I created a checklist of local organizations to help you find other groups in your rural place who might want to talk with you about creative placemaking and better quality of life. There's also a short video with a little explanation. Find them both here:

What creative placemaking  ideas do you have for your community? Can you envision any unlikely alliances like poets and wrestlers?


Video archive 

Photos on Storify 


Checklist for finding allies 

About the author: Becky McCray started Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share rural business and community building stories and ideas with other small town business people. She and her husband own a retail liquor store in Alva, Oklahoma, and a small cattle ranch nearby. Becky is an international speaker on small business.

Creating Connections One Meal at a Time


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If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him. …The people who give you their food give you their heart. -Cesar Chavez

With Thanksgiving and the holidays right around the corner, we thought it would be a good time to reflect on the power of food and meals to bring us together. The relatively simple gesture of preparing and serving food can build relationships and trust.

Take the case of McComb, Ohio, where a cookout put on by the Community Heart & Soul® team there led several significant, positive changes including,  greater diversity on the team, a new Spanish-language translator for the schools, and a boost that got a catering business off the ground. 

With the Heart & Soul™ principle “Involve Everyone” in mind, the team decided to reach out to the predominantly Hispanic Cora Street neighborhood. Project Coordinator Joe Wasson, who grew up in McComb, said he and others on the team had never been to the mobile home park.  Armed with a grill, meat, and fixings, plus a big, inflatable, bounce house for the kids, the team set out to hear from the residents. What they ended up getting was so much more.

For one thing, they got an invitation to a potluck in the park the following week. Wasson and others on the team went. Wasson thought he’d get a bite to eat and say hello. He stayed for three hours.

“It was such a neat experience,” he recalled. “Not only did we eat this amazing food, we just hung out for hours talking.”

The potluck in the park led to more connections.  Immediately Wasson noticed that when he was visiting in the schools or the grocery store, people from the neighborhood recognized him and waved to him. This happened to others on the team as well.

A Hispanic woman got involved in the Heart & Soul project and that led to her working with the school as a translator.

When the Heart & Soul team was having a training, a woman from the Cora Street neighborhood was hired to do the catering.

Guadalupe Hernandez didn’t want to get paid for the job, however, because she considered it an opportunity to test the business she and her husband Leonardo Bernal hoped to start one day. Wasson insisted on paying. The food was fantastic, and another connection was cemented that lead to even more possibilities. 

Wasson learned that the couple wanted to take their catering on the road, so to speak, in a food truck. English is not the couple’s first language so Wasson offered to help them navigate the paperwork and permits they would need to get started. He spoke with a lawyer about creating an LLC and an accountant about helping with financials. He pulled together a template for a business plan and paperwork for various permits. He even called the cookie factory, which employs 1,700, and got the OK to have the truck pull up during lunch break.

Wasson was fairly confident the concept would be a hit. He knew the food would be good. He also knew, from the Heart & Soul work he was doing, that locals wanted more dining options.

“Through our data we saw that people are really screaming ‘We want restaurants.’ A food truck might not be exactly what they are thinking, but it’s a start.”

Just like the cookout on Cora Street was just a start.  

Here are some other tempting ideas for engaging residents and making connections through food.

Celebrate a Celebration: Hearing from people in the Hispanic community was a priority for the Cortez Heart & Soul project. One effective way that has happened was at a block party on September 16, Mexican Independence Day. The Heart & Soul team supported the event with a small grant, but the neighborhood organized it. A potluck was at the center of the celebration with traditional foods like tamales, toastadas, and beans and rice. A key to the event's success was that it was organized and presented by the neighborhood, said Monica Palmquist, Heart & Soul team member. Connections made at the event built trust and have had a positive and lasting effect, she said. 

image of potluck

Vote with Your Appetite: Even the simple act of choosing what to eat can bring a group together. In Essex, Vermont, residents are giving input on a school district merger through a series of meetings. Attendees are asked to "vote" with stickers on a big sheet of paper for what they'd like to eat at the next meeting.

"It was a really easy way for people to feel like their voice made a difference, and it was a powerful way too, because at the next meeting, there was the food they voted for,” said Susan McCormack, senior associate with Everyday Democracy, who facilitates the meetings and was a project coordinator for Heart & Soul of Essex. 

Quid pro pie: The North Fork Valley Heart & Soul project in Colorado held a series of community conversations called “Your Slice of the Pie.” Residents were invited to share their “piece of the story” about what makes where they live unique and worth preserving. In exchange, attendees were treated to a slice of delicious locally baked pie. 
“While many people did come for the pie, they left knowing more about both strangers and friends, and began thinking about their own ideas for the future,” said Alexis Halbert, who was project coordinator at the time, and is a senior associate at Orton.