Emily Firman Pieper is trying so hard.
She’s a big thinker in a rural community, a tenacious doer with a patient soul, a zealous visionary who never gives up, and in Flandreau, South Dakota, she sees nothing but possibility.
For over a decade now, Emily has been trying to build up the community she calls home. She grew up in Flandreau, and she remembers fondly the bustling neighborhoods, the busy families, the Christmas parade downtown.
Things are different now, but with three kids of her own, she’s determined to still give them the rich life she once had there.
They deserve that, but her community does, too.
And so Emily has gotten to work. She’s organized community events, dance classes, peewee soccer, summer recreation, community theater, yoga, Zumba, tea parties and women’s groups, to name a few. And all on her own.
“I feel like I am the keeper of all these ideas, and if I don’t act on them, it’s not going to get done,” Emily says.
And she hasn’t really been wrong. “I’ve backed off on several things, but it just fades out!” she says. “Sometimes it has to go into the ashes before people realize it’s gone.”
But she knows her rural town is capable of more. So she prevails. She rejoices when someone puts up a farmers market or when a business downtown succeeds or when an old building comes back to life, because that’s all part of the vision she dreams of.
An active, thriving Flandreau with camaraderie, support and fellowship.
“I don’t want to have to get in my car and drive to Minneapolis to get my refuel of artsy or civilization,” she says. “We’ve got it right here. We just haven’t realized it all yet.”
“Yes, it’s a struggle to balance motherhood and entrepreneurship and creative thinking and small town,” she says. “But I know it’s possible.”
Flandreau is more than home to Emily. It’s her livelihood, her heartbeat, her hope.
And all she wants is for her fellow community to feel the same.
Even though Emily was born in Flandreau, her parents are transplants, and that seems to make a difference in her perspective of community today. Her dad grew up in Philadelphia, and her mom was from Minnesota. Her dad eventually came to South Dakota to work at the Flandreau Indian School. It’s where he met Emily’s mother, and they’ve been in Flandreau ever since.
“But we never had the childhood that my neighbors and classmates had, because our family was elsewhere,” Emily recalls. “In the summer, I remember looking out the front window, and you could see the park down the street where they had T-ball. And I remember sitting there watching all these kids line up to take their turn batting … as we were packing the van to head to Pennsylvania.”
So as she longs today to give her family the childhood she knew growing up, it’s almost as if it’s a childhood she knew from afar.
But it was enough.
“In retrospect, I always felt grateful of that outside vision of where I lived, because it gives me now a different kind of appreciation of what we do have here.”
And she knows what once was.
“I look back at my parents’ generation and how engaged they were, and I’m not seeing that same engagement today,” Emily says. “Is it a generational shift? Is it what is expected of parenting in the current sense? I don’t know why we don’t have the Jaycees or the Lion’s Club anymore, but I think it’s just a matter of having the people to do it.”
And she has taken it upon herself to be that person.
“I’m hopeful that by taking on a community-wide Halloween party or an Easter egg hunt for toddlers, we are able to say, ‘If we want these things, we need to do it. It’s our turn.’ ”
If there is anything she needs her community to hear, it would be that: It is our turn. Let’s do this together.
Can’t you hear her?
Away and back again
Emily left Flandreau to go to school at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, and it would be a while before she returned home.
She would eventually, but after school, she taught in Buffalo, Minnesota, for a while, and she enjoyed it. “But I never really felt like I was settled there.”
So she moved back to Vermillion, this time to get her masters degree, and then went on to Minneapolis, maybe explore theater.
None of it was enough. “I didn’t have that sense of community where I was.”
And, family wasn’t there. So she went to where family was, and she went home. Her brother was having kids, and her dad was having heart troubles, “and it was in that moment that I knew I was not where I was supposed to be.
“I wasn’t where I felt needed.”
Flandreau is that place.
But it wasn’t easy at first. When she moved home, she took an english teaching position at the high school, and the commitments immediately began.
The independent doer took over.
“I was really happy to put myself out there for everything,” she says. Within only a year, she took over the all-school play, oral interp, the one-act play and coached flag corp for the band. While still grading papers and assigning homework for her students.
“I burned myself out, completely,” she says. “The school was taking advantage of a new teacher, but I let my excitement inform my decisions.”
She left after that first year and began a youth ministry program with a local priest.
“When I was back in the school system, I really started to get to know these kids,” she says. “And I saw that they were looking for a connection and looking for hope.”
She even began studying theology to give her students the fair education she knew they deserved. That effort became a great source for the community, and it lasted for three years.
But she also became a mother during this time, and it was difficult.
“The artsy whim thing does not go well with nursing and diapers and nap time,” Emily smiles. “My world and parenting collided. It took me a long time to figure out how to have that creative thing and be a good mom.”
As always, she found a way. Her mind was always spinning with ideas.
“It would be super simple to sit down with my three kids and pull out some paints and do a little art project, right?” Emily admits. “But my head goes, ‘If my kids enjoy this, I bet the neighbor kids would like it, too … And we should just have a space where we can get the kids together!”
Of course, that’s what she did.
Her own business, and an offering to Flandreau
Three years ago, Emily opened Studio 52, a space for community education, diverse programming and classes for all ages. They paint, they practice yoga, and there’s puppet theater in the back.
“Studio 52 is filling gaps,” Emily says. “We just want to give kids opportunity.”
And the possibilities are endless.
“The Studio became this opportunity where we just started doing things that brought people together,” Emily says. “And that’s what I like about it! It can keep cultivating itself. It recreates into what the community needs it to be.”
And it’s been really therapeutic for Emily. It appeases the myriad ideas she continues to have, and it’s an answer to something that was once lacking.
“You come into a small town, and you know what’s missing,” Emily says. “This has been a real growing experience.”
Not that she’s settled. There’s always something to be done in a rural town! And lately on Emily’s mind has been the possibility of a business incubator downtown.
“I was thinking about motherhood, small town, entrepreneurship, ideas and how to make things grow and be sustainable,” she says. “To me, the solution is to turn the old dentist office into a business incubator.”
That’s even probably what the incubator would be called. “The Old Dentist Office.”
“Because we’re landmark people!”
The building has eight or nine bays that can serve as individual offices, and anyone is welcome.
“There’s a lot of isolation in a small town,” Emily says. “There’s a lot of isolation in entrepreneurship. This space allows people to come together and talk about what’s important to them.”
She believes Flandreau can make this happen.
“We as a community can definitely come together and figure out how to build those spaces up and make it something amazing and possible,” Emily says. “We’ve got nothing but potential.”
She’s a mighty advocate, for a town that doesn’t even realize what she’s capable of. Perhaps Emily herself doesn’t either. But soon enough, Flandreau will begin to realize its strengths, and it will be because people like Emily never gave up.
It will be because she never stopped believing in a rural town called Flandreau.
“I choose to live here,” she says. “So I’m going to invest.”
And we’re going to listen.
The Trailblazers program is sponsored by Midco®, the regional provider of business and residential internet and networking, cable TV, phone and commercial IT services.