One in five Ohioans lives somewhere outside a defined Metropolitan Area. In rural areas of the region like Wayne County, neighborhoods and neighborhood issues are hard to define -- particularly when the nearest neighbors may be miles away. In Part 2 of WKSU's series, "Here Goes the Neighborhood," a look at some of the issues facing people who are going the distance to foster a sense of community.

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At least one Monday a month, Pastor Mark Fowler of Mt. Eaton Community Church loads his minivan with coolers full of food. He brings hot lunches to about 30 Meals on Wheels clients along a winding, 50-mile route in rural Wayne County. Sometimes, Fowler's 11-year-old son Brock rides along.

FOWLER: Each house that we go to, he knows who has cancer and who " you know -- who's this and who's that and so, uh, it just really kind of serves two purposes: It gives him an opportunity to have some level of ministry, I guess you could say, getting to know the hearts of people and, uh, care for them; and gives us an opportunity to serve those people.

As they cruise the back roads, the Fowlers have gotten to know a lot about neighborhoods -- and what makes people neighborly. There's 'Ann,' of Kidron, whose last name is withheld for privacy's sake. For several years, Ann has allowed a developmentally-disabled man to live in a trailer on her farm. The man used to live with some of Ann's relatives, but they died. So she stepped up to help.

ANN: I think this community is a real caring and sharing community. We really do care about each other and try to help each other, when we know. Um-hum.

That's a common attitude among people in predominantly rural places like Wayne County, population about 114-thousand.

MANEESE: In a community like ours, home is a lot of different places.

Cameron Maneese is coordinator of the Wayne County Family and Children First Council.

MANEESE: It is the neighbor literally next door. It's the neighbor five miles away. I find that they take care of each other the same way.

Maneese heads an agency that's tasked with helping children stay physically and mentally healthy and do better in school. The council works with Wayne County's 10 school districts to solve problems like substance abuse, low attendance and teen pregnancy, because schools are key gathering places for neighbors who may be separated by great distance, but share common ground.

MANEESE: Whether or not they look at after-school programs or they're looking at community centers. They express themselves differently, but their goals are all the same.

In many ways, Wayne County is representative of most of rural Ohio. Building neighborhoods starts at the nearest decent-sized town, or even a crossroads. Since social service agencies tend to cluster in Wooster, the county seat, local gathering places take on even more importance. Small-town churches have a huge presence, even when the services they provide seem relatively mundane. Pastor Mark Fowler serves tiny Mt. Eaton as one big neighborhood through his church.

FOWLER: And we give about 10 different baskets of food to people. People in our church are " they go around and clean out the gutters of, you know, the elderly in town. And, uh, whatever. We've let the mayor know and we've let the uh, principal know that's what we want to do -- what can we to do to be a part of help.

While churches can bring people together and help define the important issues in rural neighborhoods, religion can sometimes play a negative role. Bobbi Douglas runs agencies that are geared toward helping Wayne County residents with substance-abuse problems, and victims of domestic violence. Douglas -- a deacon in her own church -- says religious beliefs in rural neighborhoods have hampered the agencies' efforts:

DOUGLAS: I've never forgotten this story: a woman who had a family member come to her after she left her husband -- who was extremely abusive -- and told her she needed to go back to her husband, even if -- even if he killed her, she would go to heaven.

Finding out exactly what neighborhoods want and need is a big challenge in rural communities. Even state agencies admit that. Heather Reed is administrator of the Ohio Department of Health's rural section. She says officials know, for example, that counties like Wayne have an aging population, so rising health costs and easy access to medical care are growing concerns. But getting hard numbers about who's affected by this change is not easy.

REED: We have lots of data available on our Website here at ODH, and we do have county-level data. But getting down to much more local data is very difficult, and then being able to make an assessment based on that data is challenging, because -- because of the population; it's a low number. So, sometimes it's hard to do statistical analyses and pull out rural counties, because, quite frankly, there just aren't enough people in the county.

At the United Way of Wayne and Holmes Counties, Executive Director Brenda Linnick says there's another big challenge facing neighborhood-builders: the very definition of who lives in rural neighborhoods has changed.

LINNICK: Particularly in Wayne County, we have a lot of single women who are head of household and we don't necessarily have all -- families don't look like the traditional family used to. And even the ones that look more like a traditional family, both of 'em are working.

Despite Wayne County's status as a rural area; it is defined by the federal government as a county where the economy is driven mainly by manufacturing. While recent job cuts by major employers such as Rubbermaid appear to have been offset by growth in small businesses and strong farm production, many young people continue to move away. Small communities like West Salem, isolated in the northwest corner of the county, are struggling to keep residents and attract new neighbors.

For more than a year, West Salem officials and the Wayne County Public Library have supported a volunteer-operated library in a former elementary school. Neighborhood activist Sylvia Epp and volunteer Kay Kelling say the library is more than just a refuge for book-lovers.

EPP/KELLING: (Epp) We provide the computers that they don't have at home. That's one of the main functions of the library, is we equalize. We give everybody access to the books, to the computers ... (Kelling) and we've had several people come in -- I'm sorry Sylvia -- several people come in and use the computers, adults, looking for job information.

While officials are debating if it's worth keeping the library past its initial two-year tryout, some longtime residents are trying to bring back a faded neighborhood gathering place in the village center.

On the second floor of West Salem's century-old City Hall is what's called the 'Opera House,' once used for vaudeville shows, graduations -- even a Civil Defense field hospital. The Opera House has stood vacant for decades and was badly damaged in a fire several years ago. Eloise Toth, wife of West Salem's mayor, isn't sure if a 15-year-long effort to restore and renovate the dusty space will bring people back.

TOTH: How can we guarantee that? We're just hoping that we can, through our historical society especially, increase the interest -- make them aware.

Largely through government grants, West Salem has raised half of an estimated $500,000 needed to fully restore City Hall. But preservationists worry that when Mayor Ed Toth retires next year -- after four terms as mayor -- saving the old building may not be a priority for their neighbors. That will be for the next group of village leaders to decide.




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