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Supporting Inclusion and Social Connections in Rural Communities

Three inspiring programs — and three quick-tips

Three images showing signage and projects related to community engagement and inclusion

Courtesy images

Promotional signage for community engagement programs in Grand Island, Nebraska, and Yellow Springs, Ohio (left) and trail stations in Shawano, Wisconsin (right).

This article comes out of the lessons learned and shared through the AARP Rural Lab, a monthly online gathering of leaders from rural and remote communities invited by AARP state offices. Participants receive access to expert assistance and opportunities for connecting with peers nationwide.

Although the overall population numbers for rural America are decreasing, data from the 2020 U.S. Census shows that the residents are more racially and ethnically diverse than ever before.

Since communities that nurture inclusion and connections are often more resilient in the face of economic fluctuations and other changes, local leaders and nonprofits in several rural areas have worked to bring neighbors together, sometimes around food, gardening or a shared history.

Following are a few examples.

“Neighboring” in Grand Island, Nebraska

In 2016, the nonprofit Grow Grand Island, Inc., received an AARP Community Challenge grant to develop signage (or, as referred to in its application, “way-finding totems”) in English and in Spanish with information about the town’s history.

In 2022 the group received a second AARP Community Challenge grant, which it used for materials to support neighborhood gatherings similar to the National Night Out, which occurs in most places on the first Tuesday in August. The Grand Island tool kit encouraged residents to participate in gatherings with their neighbors. (Such events can include hosting a front yard ice cream social or a family-friendly corn hole tournament.) As stated in the book The Art of Neighboring, which is included in the kit, "the individuals we live next to have a big impact on the quality of our lives [yet] it's so easy to draw negative conclusions about the neighbors we've only glimpsed."

Asking Questions in Yellow Springs, Ohio

In the 1960s, a quarter of the residents of Yellow Spring, Ohio (population 3,750 and home of Antioch College) were Black. By 2000 that percentage decreased to 14 percent, in part due to the fall of the type of redlining policies that prevented Black people from living in many of the surrounding communities.

In 2023, as part of the community's work to develop an age-friendly action plan and various equity-related pilot programs (including one about universal basic income), the members of the Inclusive and Resilient Yellow Springs Coalition participated in justice, equity and diversity trainings and gathered information about the lived experience of exclusion. They looked at data, including the GINI index, a measure of economic inequality, and designed a community survey to ask residents questions about housing discrimination, the availability of activities for diverse populations, and people’s satisfaction with the community climate related to racism, diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Expressing Gratitude in Shawano, Wisconsin

On Thanksgiving of 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Matty Mathison, a trail and bicycle/pedestrian safety advocate in Shawano, Wisconsin, found herself sitting outside in 40-degree temperatures and visiting with her 95-year-old mother through a window.

Although the conditions of the visit were far from the norm, Mathison realized she had never enjoyed a better Thanksgiving.

Full of gratitude, she decided that her community needed a Grace Trail® (follow this link to learn more). Working with the nonprofit Shawano Pathways, she applied for and received an AARP Community Challenge grant, the local hospital provided funding for trail accessibility and an 11-year-old girl named Eve made the first donation for the Leopold benches placed at the trail’s five stations. In addition to a bench, each station has a boulder on which a Grace-inspired question, or meditation prompt, is displayed. (See the photo at top.)

  • What am I Grateful for?
  • What do I need to Release?
  • What do I need to Accept?
  • What is my next Challenge?
  • What can I Embrace as possible?

Since 10 percent of Shawano’s residents are members of the Menominee tribe and another 7 percent are Hispanic, the main word at each station is presented in English, Spanish and Menominee. 

Quick-Tips for Inclusivity

1. Do Research — Then Ask Questions

Before launching a community survey, look at existing data, if there is any. Some places to start:

  • Explore the AARP Livability Index to learn how the community compares with others.

  • Check out the U.S Census Bureau. To get the data, enter the community name and state in order to find the community profile. For instance, here’s what comes up for Shawano, Wisconsin. To find data about older residents, click on the “Populations and People” filter and choose “Older Population” from the dropdown list. Here are those results.

  • Examine the U.S. Census Bureau GINI Index, which measure of income equality. The index ranges from 0 to 1, with 0 indicating perfect income equality among all households in a community and 1 indicating complete inequality. The GINI index for the United States overall is 0.4817. (Use the filters under the “Geography” tab to learn about the GINI index for a specific state, county, or community.)

2. Build on Success

Shawano Pathways partnered with eight other organizations to develop a Born Learning Trail, a United Way curriculum that helps caregivers develop meaningful engagements with children through active learning. The project partnered with the Menominee Indian Language and Cultural Center to provide signs in Menominee as well as English. Seeing the excitement of the children when they saw their language on the trail signs sold the team on the importance of including multiple languages on future trail projects, such as the aforementioned Grace Trail.

3. Pursue Funding

The AARP Community Challenge has funded many innovative age-friendly projects that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in public spaces, transportation and housing.

Other sources of grant funding include community foundations as well as regional and local funders with an interest in aging and diversity.

For example, the Hannaford Foundation sponsored by Hannaford Supermarkets awarded $1.3 million to the Tri-State Learning Collaborative on Aging to address food insecurity and isolation in five northeast states, with an emphasis on programs that serve older people, especially LGBTQ+, indigenous people, and racial, ethnic, and cultural minorities. (Read about the CHEF Grant.)

To stay informed about grant opportunities, subscribe for free to the GrantStation Insider.

For small amounts of money, check with local civic organizations. The application process is often simpler and processed more quickly than those at large funding entities. National and local banks also make community grants. To find them, visit the bank’s website and look for sections or search results based on such terms as “grantmaking,” corporate responsibility,” “community giving,” “funding opportunities.”  

Patricia Oh, Ph.D., is a senior program manager at the University of Maine Center on Aging. She works closely with Maine's age-friendly and lifelong communities ( and with the AARP Livable Communities team, supporting outreach to rural communities and municipalities that have joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities

Page published January 2024

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