If you think about it, there are so many different lenses through which we can view community.
Is community defined through your work? Participation in city events? Your child’s activities? Your neighborhood?
We could keep going, which is to say that “community” is what you make of it.
But how well it serves you and provides fulfillment really depends on how well you serve those living in a community right along with you.
As always, it’s about the people, don’t you think?
Community builders like Nick Wendell of Brookings, South Dakota, understand this concept. And they embrace it.
Through guidance in his work at South Dakota State University, awareness of local families through a passion project, and, most importantly, perspective overall, Nick Wendell is making the most of it.
We hope today, he inspires you to make the most of it, too.
Brookings is a college town, home of South Dakota State University. The population is around 25,000, and half of those are bright-eyed students. They’re welcomed with open arms.
“We have a culturally diverse community — one that values arts, both because of the presence of students who are coming and going from all over the world, but also faculty and staff who bring in their own expertise and interest to a relatively small community,” Nick says. “SDSU is a huge part of Brookings, but it’s such a vibrant community to raise a family in as well.”
Nick has a seven-year-old daughter, so his commitment to Brookings is intentional.
“When you have children, you start to see them being protected by a community of people, and I love that feeling in Brookings,” Nick says. “All the faces we see are not just people on the street but are people we know and they know our story.”
“I think we have a huge responsibility to make the places we live better,” Nick says. “We all could just exist and consume resources and spend money to eat out and do things in our community, go to church on Sunday. We all could live that singular life. Because it’s easier, and life is stressful! But I think we do have a responsibility to make Brookings a place to feel proud of.”
For Nick, that story begins on the campus of SDSU, as the director of student engagement. In short, he is sincerely and genuinely dedicated to giving every student the most rewarding college experience possible.
“We’re building citizens of the world!” His arms are in the air. “I want them to be changed from the time they’re 18 and they come to us to the time they’re 22 and 23 and they depart, that they are ready to face the world with some confidences they got here that they didn’t have coming in.”
As an SDSU alum, Nick knows this starts by building relationships.
“I was so changed by my undergraduate experience,” he says. “I had an opportunity to interact with people who challenged me and encouraged me and excited me.”
So he fosters that kind of interaction today.
“At the Center for Student Engagement, we created a place that was an intersection of students who were thinking and working and growing all in this place,” he says. “I love the potential this time of year. It feels so hopeful.
“Great relationships are happening here among our students.”
Nick’s passion begins there, in watching those connections grow and develop into something that can serve a college experience. But then his role continues in guiding those relationships to a firm understanding of community investment.
And what better place to begin that kind of advocacy than under an institution rich in tradition, opportunity and support?
“The responsibility in roles like mine is not just to educate them as nurses and pharmacists, farmers and historians, teachers and engineers, but also to make sure that they understand how to be engaged in our communities — why it’s important to serve in the volunteer fire department, why it’s important to be on the school board, and go to your public library and have conversations around the dinner table about acceptance and diversity and being open-minded.
“Challenge yourself!” Nick exclaims.
Of course, that means Nick is challenging himself, too. Through a beautiful, community passion project of outreach — and completely separate from his SDSU career —
Nick is absolutely challenging himself, too.
Meet The Big Blue Birthday Box
After his daughter’s fifth birthday party a couple years ago, which was beautifully celebrated with cake and wrapped gifts and decorations abound, Nick couldn’t help but realize something.
“It just started to sit with me that there are too many children and too many families who are burdened by not being able to do that,” he explained. “So, for probably a year, I just kept thinking, I wish there was a way I could deliver a birthday celebration to these families.”
He knew there was a need.
“Brookings is a really easy community for poverty to hide in,” Nick says. “It’s a beautiful community, right? The streets are lined with flowers, we’ve got historic neighborhoods and all the amenities that an institution like SDSU brings. We’ve got a Children’s Museum, a great school system, great parks.
After a successful first year, Nick is hopeful that The Big Blue Birthday Box will extend to other communities in 2016.
“This has been life affirming that I do care deeply,” Nick says. “If I challenge myself to actually stand on the doorsteps of these homes that I’ve driven past 100 times and never saw before? It has started to make me evaluate, ‘What is important in my world, in my future?’ ”
“You can drive up and down the streets of Brookings and not really recognize any need, even if you’ve lived here for years and years, coupled with the fact that, if you’re like I am, you go about your day — you go to work, you go to church on the weekends, you go to SDSU football games, you shop downtown. I don’t intersect at lots of those activities with people who have tremendous need, because they don’t have season tickets to the Jacks, they aren’t shopping at the specialty shops downtown, they don’t have a membership to the Children’s Museum.
“So I can live in ignorant bliss every day if I choose to. It isn’t a hateful thing, it’s just the reality of the lives we get ourselves into.”
But Nick chose to start talking instead, and The Big Blue Birthday Box came to a lovely life.
“After you speak an idea out loud, you don’t really have any choice but to put some action behind those words,” he says. “So it started to develop, and the right people said yes.”
Those people include all local sponsors, who support Nick whole-heartedly and his passion to deliver celebrations to the doorsteps of families in need. Inside the box, Hy-Vee provides a cake; Party Depot provides a balloon, plates and napkins; and First Bank & Trust helps to provide a wrapped present. Nick reaches out to these families through a partnership with the Department of Social Services and a Facebook page. Almost a year in now, he’s delivering an average of one box a day.
Along with the compassion this brings into a community, Nick is confident in how significantly this can benefit Brookings in the long run.
“If the Big Blue Birthday Box — even if just for a couple days out of the year — makes one family with three kids feel like Brookings is a place that cares that they are here and wants them to be here, that’s a really cool byproduct of this effort — that maybe as a community, we feel like more of a hospitable place, no matter who you are, no matter what you do.
“I think we have to welcome every corner of the community and make everybody feel like it’s theirs.”
Through students at SDSU and then on the doorsteps of families in Brookings, Nick is doing the best he can.
What’s your perspective?
Through Nick’s work and dedication to Brookings, it’s so easy to find inspiration. It’s why we tell stories! But there’s something moving within his perspective, too.
Five months ago, Nick was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. During a time that The Big Blue Birthday Box was just starting to take off, Nick was suddenly saddled with fear, treatments, anger, questions. His fight continues today, but it hasn’t consumed him. And can’t you see? Nick is more alive than ever.
“It does change your whole perspective on your little place in the world and your connection with the people,” Nick says. But, “I have this whole life that I want to keep going!”
When we first met, it was almost two hours into our conversation before Nick told me of his diagnosis. And that is how he is living his life — so many other factors come first.
“I will forever be shaped by the fact that I had cancer and survived cancer, but I definitely will not be defined by it. I would much rather be defined by the fact that I have a 7-year-old daughter, that I work at SDSU and get to interact with really cool people and programs. I’d love it if people knew The Big Blue Birthday Box. I love all of those things.”
Nick is making the most of his work in Brookings, but maybe he realizes how we give our best to our communities — by making the most of our lives, too.