By Todd Cohen
RALEIGH, N.C. — Born and raised in rural Jones County, one of North Carolina’s poorest counties, Chris Meadows opted after college to stay rather than join the exodus of young adults moving out of the county.
Now, as principal of Jones Senior High School in Trenton, Meadows wants to inspire other young people to remain, and give them tools to succeed.
In a collaborative initiative that includes the N.C. Rural Center, the Jones County affiliate of the North Carolina Community Foundation is working to raise $10,000 to create an endowment fund to support an entrepreneurship program at the high school.
“If we get our kids to come back and start a business and be successful, they will start a cycle of transferring wealth from one generation to the next and keep the wealth here instead of going out of state or out of the county,” Meadows says.
The Jones County initiative is part of a larger effort by the Rural Center and the North Carolina Community Foundation, and their counterparts in states throughout the U.S., to reverse the flow of wealth and residents from rural counties.
“Throughout rural America, kids are leaving because there aren’t jobs,” says Jason Gray, director of research and innovation at the Rural Center. “Homegrown philanthropy can and should be a resource to plug into targeted community economic-development work that makes these communities a place where their children can stay.”
Over the last two decades, while the statewide population under age 18 grew 22 percent and the population age 24 to 30 grew 5 percent, 22 rural counties lost population under age 18, and 54 rural counties lost those age 24 to 30, including 15 counties that lost over 20 percent of that age group.
In Jones County, for example, the number of residents age 24 to 30 fell by 232 from 1990 to 2010, or 23.4 percent.
The Jones County initiative has the goals of inspiring students to launch local businesses, and inspiring donors to invest in endowment funds to boost the local economy while retaining philanthropic assets in the community.
Beth Boney Jenkins, vice president for development at the North Carolina Community Foundation, says a local couple has pledged to give $1,000 to create the new Jones County fund if the foundation’s local affiliate can raise $10,000.
“Rural development philanthropy,” she says, involves “bringing people in rural communities together to teach them how to use philanthropy to raise local dollars to address their own needs.”
Sally Migliore, director of community leadership at the North Carolina Community Foundation, says the Jones County initiative can serve as a model for other rural counties, each of which can identify and address its own needs, “inspiring and promoting philanthropy over the long haul” to address local needs.
Gray says the Jones County initiative is part of a larger effort by the Rural Center to help rural communities retain and support youth and young adults.
Meadows says a key goal of the entrepreneurial fund will be to “showcase the potential” of staying and working in the county.
“That’s one of our biggest challenges,” he says. “We just have to show kids there’s a lot we can do in Jones County if we decide to stay here.”