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8/28/2017 5:14:00 PM
Rocks, gardens, pumpkin races: Ideas to make Elkhart County more hip set to go
NorthWood Middle School teacher Tom Barnett poses for a portrait Friday near one of the areas in which he hopes to build and maintain a garden with his students in Wakarusa. The Waky Gardens project will happed as a result of a Little Big Idea Grant given last week by Vibrant Communities. Staff photo by Michael Caterina
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NorthWood Middle School teacher Tom Barnett poses for a portrait Friday near one of the areas in which he hopes to build and maintain a garden with his students in Wakarusa. The Waky Gardens project will happed as a result of a Little Big Idea Grant given last week by Vibrant Communities. Staff photo by Michael Caterina

Marshall V. King, South Bend Tribune Columnist

The first Little Big Idea Grants in Elkhart County are investing in people using rocks, pumpkins and garden plants to make the community cooler.

Last week, a few folks gathered in the cafeteria at NorthWood Middle School as those working at Vibrant Communities in Elkhart County gave out the stipends. Arvis Dawson and Suzie Weirich, now co-chairs of the Vibrant Communities steering committee, touted the new program, as did Steve Gruber, who is working to help administer the small grants aimed at making Elkhart County hip and more livable.

It’s not a new idea. Many communities do it. In South Bend, people can apply for grants from the local chapter of The Awesome Foundation. That chapter is one of dozens worldwide.

In Elkhart County, Vibrant Communities is leading the effort as nearly 1,000 people attended meetings or workshops to consider what could be done to enhance each community.

Out of nearly 4,000 comments and suggestions came an action agenda aimed at connecting bike trails, doing more in and with parks and making communities safer, among other things.

The plan is a good one. The question is where to go from here. Elkhart County doesn’t need another nonprofit to oversee the action agenda, but getting buy-in from other groups becomes the challenge. At this point the question is who takes action on the action agenda.

The Elkhart County Convention & Visitors Bureau is focusing on far more than “Amish Country” in the county by touting the community and its resources not just to tourists but to those who live here. The Community Foundation of Elkhart County has money to help finance a range of projects in the county, but can’t keep up with people’s expectations of what it should fund.

The two organizations are contributing to the efforts of Vibrant Communities, including $50,000 for the grants. (In full disclosure, I’ve done freelance work for both agencies and worked with its leaders on regional projects.)

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