Holt County extended her an invitation, now she's paying it forward
O'NEILL, Neb. -- When Emily Morrow brought her marketing skills to O’Neill Community Foundation Fund in Summer 2021 as a Hometown Intern, she said she would love to come back to Holt County at some point in her life. That point is now.
“It feels great,” she said. “I always knew I wanted to come back, but it worked out that it was sooner than I expected. It’s great knowing I got to come back and choose my path.”
During the day, Morrow works for West Holt Medical Services as its Foundation and Marketing Director. Outside of work, she wears enough hats to open a haberdashery. Now, when she’s not excelling at West Holt Medical Services, Morrow is helping other local organizations succeed. She’s a member of OCFF’s advisory committee, contracts work with local radio stations, assists the chamber of commerce, and more.
Woven through all those roles is a unifying thread. Morrow wants to ensure those younger than her feel just as welcome to get involved in Holt County as she did at their age. She sees herself as another link in a long chain of county residents working to build a community that welcomes youth to play important roles in planning its future.
Morrow credits her internship with reinforcing her inclination to return home someday. Through her experience working with OCFF, she discovered that her impact in Holt County would be more tangible than if she applied her talents in a larger community like Lincoln, Omaha, or beyond.
“It solidified my purpose in coming back,” Morrow said.
She appreciates that her employer understands the importance of taking time to help the community progress. It’s a culture that celebrates cooperation in the face of a world that increasingly silos people into roles disconnected from community at large.
“They see the importance in that, and they see the benefit in employees being involved in the community,” Morrow said. “Not everyone has that connection.”
Morrow and others represent a wave of Nebraskans spurning the myth of fortune favoring those who venture far from home in seek of bigger cities. Or maybe the definition of “fortune” is shifting.
Even in the last few years, Morrow said she’s witnessed more peers either return to the area or express an interest in coming home.
“I think in the last five years that mentality has shifted a lot,” she said.
Nebraska Community Foundation’s youth surveys indicate such a shift. Student respondents expressed a strong preference for small communities. Only 4% of 2022 respondents say they would like to live a community larger than those that exist in Nebraska. Safety, good schools, and proximity to family continue to be the top characteristics of their ideal community and the vast majority say there is no stigma associated with returning to your hometown as an adult.
“Students feel their communities are engaging places, where they have strong ‘family ties,’” wrote Josie Schafer, director of UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research, in her analysis of 2022 data. “The results of this survey, like in prior years, present a hopeful future for Greater Nebraska with many youths planning to be a part of their communities for a long time.”
Morrow does her part in helping dispel myths about opportunities—or the lack thereof—in Greater Nebraska. She talks with high schoolers, lets her peers know about potential jobs, even helps people track down rentals. Whatever she can do to help young people know there’s a bright future in Holt County.
“Coming home isn’t necessarily a scary, daunting thing,” she said. “It’s attainable, it’s reachable. There’s so much to do.”
Morrow isn’t the only Hometown Intern to return to her former stomping grounds. At least six interns, including Morrow, have returned to Greater Nebraska after graduating. Among them is Norfolk’s Austin Truex, who returned home to open a business with his fiancé. That business, an escape room named Encrypt, is doing well and even provided entertainment for NCF’s Annual Celebration in 2022.
“It’s going very well and we’re very lucky and we’re very blessed,” Truex said. “But it wouldn’t have happened without the support and the networking that I received through the Nebraska Community Foundation internship.”
Truex said he had an urge to return to Norfolk, but didn’t know how he could pursue his goals in his hometown. His internship changed that perspective.
“Nebraska Community Foundation filled that gap and closed that void,” he said. “They offered an opportunity for me to do that in my hometown.”
Morrow is eager to show other young Nebraskans that there is a place for them in their hometowns. Greater Nebraska offers the opportunity to pursue dreams and play an important role in building the future of our state. Like a growing number of young Nebraskans, Morrow is enthusiastic about her hometown’s future.
“I’m very excited,” Morrow said. “I just got a house in O’Neill. I want to plant my roots and I’m not afraid to say it.”
Fund advisory committees across the state have benefited from having local college students return to their hometowns and bring their skills to the community-building table. In turn, Hometown Interns have gained a deeper appreciation for the places where they grew up, with many deciding to return home after college.