Palco pride resonates
By GAYLE WEBER
PALCO -- Lance and Sheri Bedore walked into Friday night's football game with a stream of four children behind them and one in a car seat in their arms.
The four mobile children ran off to play with friends while their parents sat down to enjoy high school football in Sheri's hometown. It's a ritual they do for most home Palco High School games, and it's a promising sign for the area.
"We lived in Ellis for a while, and then I really wanted to come back because my family's here," Sheri Bedore said. "I really like the small community."
And by all accounts, the small communities of Palco, Damar and Zurich like families like the Bedores, too.
"I'm hoping the young families stay around," said Mary Belisle, director of Little Roosters Daycare.
Belisle has a daughter and son-in-law who want to move back to the Palco area when their children reach school age, and it's a trend the area has seen during the last few years.
"We need to cater to those people," said Tom Benoit, USD 269 Board of Education president.
The district has been marketing itself for a few years, hoping to entice families with children to the area.
"Something's bringing the kids. I think that's probably part of it," Benoit said. "But I think what it is is you can let your kids go and they'll be gone for two hours and you don't have to worry about it. You know they're someplace downtown playing on a swing set or something."
And that's exactly why the Bedores now call Palco home. Sheri Bedore only hopes her five children, ranging in age from an eighth-grader to a baby, get to see the community grow during their time here.
"I would like to see it stay alive," Bedore said. "I would like my kids to graduate from here."
Many of the parents in the stands at Palco's football and volleyball games Friday night wore the same black and gold colors as their children a couple decades ago. They moved away to college or for other opportunities, but inevitably decided the Palco area is where they wanted to raise their family.
"It's pretty exciting," Jennifer Wahrman said. "Some of (the children) are using the same teachers."
Wahrman, who teaches business and computer classes at PHS, said her children enjoy hearing about what it was like growing up in the area, although, she admits, not much has changed.
"When my son goes speeding down Main Street in Palco, I can be assured someone's going to call me and tell me about it," Wahrman said.
That comfort and familiarity is what makes raising a family in the area so much easier.
Lisa Nyp, who lives near Zurich, said her sons even have the same bus driver she had while growing up.
"That's neat to see from generation to generation that people still have the interest to do that type of thing," Nyp said.
Daren Whisman, who farms north of Palco, said he expects more of the same in years to come.
"I know that two of my kids are going to come home to farm," Whisman said. "That's what their goals are -- go to college, get a better education, then come home."
When natives of the Palco area do return home, many turn to entrepreneurship in order to stay in the area.
"I liked the area, and I had a lot of family around," Myron Keller said about returning to Palco in the 1990s to start Quality Collision Repair.
"Now, the business has tied us to the community."
Wahrman said there always are opportunities for people to start their own business or service in the area.
"We have a plumber in Damar and an electrician in Damar and hairstylists in Damar and Palco," Wahrman said. "People have found a reason to stay here, and we support those people to make sure they stay."
If it weren't for entrepreneurs, the building of a community center in Damar wouldn't be as easy to accomplish, according to Mayor Brian Newell.
"We've got painters, carpenters, drywallers, electrical, plumbing, heating and air," Newell said. "We've got everything but the bricklaying right now."
Damar residents have pitched in to help with the project that started in March to give local people a place to meet.
"We haven't had a new building on Main Street in 25 years," Newell said. "That's our only opportunity of improving our Main Street is helping ourselves to try to get it done."
Even members of the Palco High School football team have pitched in to help after practice some nights.
"You can tackle these (projects) if you want to," Newell said. "And I think a lot of our kids are seeing that."
USD 269 feeds off of the efforts of three communities.
In Damar, Leona Newell and eight friends have taken on a project of revitalizing Main Street. They're fixing up storefronts and have inhabited one of them, opening Fleur-de-Lis in May.
"For a small town, we just wanted some place where they could get birthday cards, little gifts," Leona Newell said. "We've had real good luck with it."
Also downtown, the Damar Cafe has been under steady management since about 20 people bought shares in it to make sure it stayed open.
Laura Marcotte's father-in-law, Leverett, has been hired as the manager.
"He employs ... a lot of high school girls to waitress for him, and the moms have to be there sometimes while the girls are still at ball practice," Laura Marcotte said.
Brian Newell said everyone who lives or works in and around Damar tries to support what's there.
"We're hard to compete with as far as these little towns," Newell said. "You drive around, and you can just see the towns that have a will to survive."
Newell and Tim Benoit have been making sure quality housing is available. Instead of letting out-of-state hunters buy up vacant homes, the two have been buying them, fixing them up and renting them out to people who will enhance the community.
Meanwhile, Zurich has gone through changes since Nyp was a child there.
"Growing up, we had the grocery store and the church and there was a post office," Nyp said. "Any business in town (now) would just be the elevator. It's kind of unfortunate."
However, Plainville and Palco are short drives for Zurich residents needing services.
Down the road, Palco Community Development has done about $2.5 million worth of projects to better the town since 1990. That includes building a new city building, purchasing the Palco Cafe and being able to house satellite doctor's offices and a day care center, Monte Keller said.
"The projects we've done are always ones that reinforce keeping the community alive," said Keller, branch manager of Midwest Community Bank. "We knew that we had to offer services to encourage people to be here."
Rachel Keller, co-owner of Quality Collision Repair, said she thinks her husband's hometown still has a lot to offer.
"A lot of little towns are losing different facilities that help day-to-day functions," she said. "We still have a bank, grocery store and post office, pretty much all your essentials."
Despite declining enrollments in many small Kansas towns, USD 269 has seen an increase each of the last four years. Since the 2004-05 school year, enrollment has increased by 20 students.
"Basically what we're trying to do is let people know that we're here, we have a lot to offer students and to draw them into our communities," said Lisa Gehring, Palco Grade School and Damar Junior High principal.
In the last year, Gehring spearheaded an effort to define Palco Grade School. The students brainstormed ideas about a motto for the school, then the staff members were given a homework assignment to compile the ideas.
In the end, students and staff settled on "We Believe Together We Can Achieve," which now is engraved in a limestone rock in front of the school. The school also defined each letter in Palco -- "Positive. Achievement. Learning. Caring. Outstanding."
It's just one of the efforts, Gehring said, that makes USD 269 schools stand apart from neighboring districts.
Each Friday morning starts off with an assembly at PGS and likely the most exciting one will be at the end of September when the high school football team makes an appearance.
"These kids have a lot to offer, and these high school kids are the role models for my kids here at the grade school," Gehring said.
Gehring said some of the seniors on the team will be giving presentations about teamwork, then the entire team will sign autographs for the kindergarten through fifth-grade students at PGS.
Moms, armed with Hawaiian-themed clothing and food, streamed in and out of Palco High School throughout the day Friday.
They were preparing for the first back-to-school luau that followed Palco's Friday night football game.
"They're leaving the kids in the classroom to learn," Tom Benoit said. "If it wasn't for the community, we couldn't do it. They're just involved in everything we do."
In fact, they're involved in the schools' activities in a way Superintendent Kelly Arnberger never has seen before.
"I've never been in a community where we've had a back-to-school community-wide barbecue for the entire staff and all the students," Arnberger said. "The whole purpose of this was to introduce the community to all the staff."
Arnberger, in his first year at Palco, said he felt comfortable immediately after meeting school personnel.
"Every single adult that I ran into that had anything to do with the school was excited about the school," Arnberger said. "Everybody was happy to be here."
Arnberger, after grilling hamburgers and hot dogs for all district students Friday for lunch, said his first job this year is to make sure the high school is offering the best programs it can and educating students to the best of its abilities.
"We offer an ag program and a music program," Arnberger said."If we want to be known as a quality school, those two programs have to be highly successful."
Arnberger said his goal for the next few years is to increase ACT scores.
"(They) have gone up the last three years. We're very close to the state average composite, but we're not quite there yet," Arnberger said. "I think it's imperative for us to be able to prepare our children (so) that they do climb high above the state average.
"We are a small school, and we get to have a lot of one-on-one with our children. There's no reason why we shouldn't."
As tight as can be
While state budget cuts have affected all Kansas school districts in the last year, Palco is doing what it can to maintain programs, staff and a quality education.
"We are as tight as far as personnel as we can possibly be," Arnberger said.
"It has an impact on morale, and we don't talk about it a lot because I want teachers to teach kids and the kids to be happy about being here."
Arnberger said if things don't improve at the state level in the next couple of years, tough decisions will have to be made. But it's something Tom Benoit would rather not face.
"The last thing I would want to do is cut teacher-to-student ratio," he said.
The district has done a survey on energy use and determined it could install about $90,000 worth of equipment to save $200,000 or more on energy costs.
"If Uncle Sam don't interfere, we should be alright," Tom Benoit said.
Arnberger said the district has to make sure it's doing the best it can for its students.
"Otherwise, people will want adverse things for small schools," Arnberger said.
A lack of boys in Damar Junior High led to some changes on the football field this year.
When the team's anticipated quarterback went down with an injury just before the season started, Coach David Dryden had to make adjustments to allow the seven remaining junior high students to play a full slate of games.
"It was touch-and-go there at the start of the season," Dryden said.
So the team now plays football against its regular opponents with six players while still using eight-man rules.
However, it's not just boys playing junior high football this year in Damar.
"Last year was my first year playing volleyball," said seventh-grader Jaci Benoit. "And I didn't have the best experience."
This year, she decided to go out for football. Jaci Benoit, who plays end, said playing six-man football is a little different than the eight-man game she's watched her older brother play in high school.
"On the line's gotta work harder," she said. "We just have to work on getting off the line faster."
But for Colt Newell, a seventh-grader on the team, it's simply "exhausting" rotating between the seven players, and he's looking forward to playing in high school with more players.
"That way they can scrimmage against somebody," Dryden said.
Nyp, whose son, Stetson, plays on the team, said she wondered what it would be like to see only six players on the field before Thursday's game at Sylvan Grove. But she soon realized it wasn't much different.
"You still get wrapped up in the game," Nyp said. "It doesn't matter if you have six kids out there or 11, it's just awesome to see them out there playing."
The stands were packed Friday night for the kickoff of the Roosters' season against rival Northern Valley.
The anticipation of the new season quickly wore off when senior Landon Keller broke numerous tackles on his way to a 61-yard touchdown run.
"That's why it's fun," Tom Benoit said, pointing to Keller as he ran into the end zone.
The Roosters have their third coach in four years and are coming off back-to-back one-win seasons, but players such as junior Seth Wahrman remain optimistic with their goals for the season.
"Make it to the playoffs and at least win more games than we have the last three years," he said.
A 26-0 win Friday could go a long way toward those goals.
New coach Justin Pierce said his team isn't focused on beating certain teams, just improving.
"We're focusing on ourselves because the quickest way to get beat is to beat ourselves," Pierce said.
Despite just a few wins the last few seasons, fans like Belisle still come out to pack the stands at the football field.
"You can't beat high school football," Belisle said.
She had two sons on the Palco team that finished as state runner-up in 2005.
"That was the best year of my life," said Belisle, a Palco graduate herself. "Every time I drove by the football field, I got a lump in my throat. It was just such an awesome year."
Still, junior Randy Benoit said enthusiasm for the team hasn't worn off.
"I think the community's a big factor in how we play," he said. "We need a lot of support."
There's no doubt his dad, Tom Benoit, is one of those supporters.
"I haven't missed a home game since I graduated high school," the elder Benoit said. "I've probably only missed maybe two or three away games."
A year ago, the PDZ Recreation Commission was formed to provide children and adults with extracurricular activities following a vote from residents.
"It's a great way to pull all three communities together to benefit all three communities," said Nancy Handley, director of the commission.
Handley said the main force behind the creation of the recreation commission was a lack of funds for children's traveling sports teams.
"The kids have always been active doing softball, baseball (and) basketball, but there was never funding. So we were always asking local businesses or the parents to fund the sporting events," Handley said.
Through the election, voters approved a 1-percent mill levy increase for USD 269's budget, which facilitates funding for the commission. The PDZ Recreation Commission sponsors traveling children's sports teams and day trips for adults. And the programming list continues to grow, Handley said.
"Some kids are not into sports, and we want to make sure we hit the whole area," Handley said.
About four years ago, Palco Community Development raised money to start a day care. It was an opportunistic time for Belisle, who was quitting her in-home day care service after 25 years.
"We filled up immediately," Belisle said of Little Roosters Day Care.
The center has 15 to 20 children enrolled this year.
"We have three infants on the waiting list and two still in the oven on the waiting list," Belisle said. "It's going to be busy."
Maintaining a day care service is essential to many of the young people who recently have migrated to Palco to raise their families.
"Once you get your kids in another day care in another town, it's hard to get them back into our school system," Belisle said.
Instead, about $152,000 was raised to create the day care center in downtown Palco.
"The day care was critical," Monte Keller said. "You can't have young people if there's no place for day care."