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What I’ve gained through REDI are connections. If I need something here in my rural community, I’ve got someone I can call on. -Randolph Keaton

On any given weekday, in an unassuming building on Dream Avenue, men and women face computer screens to fill out job applications. They sign up for GED classes and computer training. They meet with corporate recruiters. They envision new futures for themselves, their families, and their rural Ransom community.

This is the scene at the Tri-County Job Center, a clearinghouse for life-changing opportunity for the residents of Bladen, Brunswick, and Columbus counties. The job center, based in the town of Delco, is an initiative of Men and Women United for Youth and Families, a small nonprofit organization that seeks to empower people who live in its three-county service area.

“We serve as a hub,” says Randolph Keaton, the group’s executive director. The job center is designed to provide the tools people need to improve their own lives and, in turn, strengthen the community as a whole. “In our rural communities, we are proud of the fact that we have hard-working people. We come from that place.

The job center is connected with the state’s career center network, providing everything from access to broadband internet service to assistance in filling out online job applications to career coaching to skills training courses. “They can do the same thing as if they were at their local Employment Security Commission in terms of looking for employment,” Keaton explains. “And then we provide the supportive services.”

As its name suggests, however, Men and Women United for Youth and Families also focuses on growing young leaders for these communities.

The organization’s youth outreach program serves teens between the ages of 14 and 19, offering leadership and life coaching, entrepreneurship programs, and mentorship. One program pairs teens with local farmers, who support the youth as they grow and sell produce from five local community gardens. The Youth Ambassadors for a Better Community program, which launched in 2015, seeks to inspire these teenagers to have a lasting impact on their hometowns. “If you work with them and say, ‘What do you like most in your community, and if you were a leader, what would you work on to change?’ they operate from a different place,” Keaton says. “They start to want to be more involved.”

Keaton understands this firsthand.

He grew up on a farm in eastern North Carolina, one of 12 children born to sharecropper parents. A first-generation college student, Keaton graduated from North Carolina A&T University and joined the Air Force. He felt the pull of his hometown—and the desire to make it a better place to live and work. After his military service, Keaton returned to eastern North Carolina and has spent the past two decades working in human services.

“You have to find what things you can do to advance your community,” he says.

That’s part of the reason Keaton was interested in attending the NC Rural Center’s Rural Economic Development Institute (REDI), the organization’s nearly 30-year old flagship leadership development program. With nearly 1,200 alumni located throughout the state, REDI offers participants the opportunity to learn collaborative leadership skills and rural development strategies to help them return home and make a meaningful difference in their rural communities

Interested in growing his own ability to have an impact in the tri-county region, Keaton applied for the REDI program and for a scholarship to fund his participation.

“As a small nonprofit director with a very small budget, if it had not been for the scholarships, I don’t think I would have been able to go.”

During the program, Keaton found particular value in the connections he made with other North Carolina leaders—fellow nonprofit executives, but also local government leaders, elected officials, and public policy experts. “I got to network with folks around the state who are doing similar work,” he says, “people who have a lot of knowledge about the challenges rural communities face.” These relationships led to new sources of information, new perspectives about the work Keaton and his small organization do every day.

“You get to hear from people who have had similar challenges or are having similar challenges, the best practices they have used to see some growth or change,” he says. “It was huge.”  

But just as significant, REDI opened doors to new funding sources, allowing Men and Women United for Youth and Families to apply for additional grant dollars from organizations such as the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. “We’ve been able to expand the reach of our programs and better engage the community,” Keaton says.

That reach is especially profound for the teenagers served by the youth outreach programming. “You do your community a disservice if you don’t have opportunities for the people you’ve invested in, for the next generation,” Keaton says. “You send them to school, invest in them through public education, and then they leave and take what they’ve learned to other places. To me, our rural communities can’t survive if we continue to operate that way.”

When the nonprofit first started serving youth in 2008, it provided two high school students with $500 scholarships. Today, its impact is so much greater.

The Tri-County Job Center now serves about 75 people each month. The youth engagement programming continues to expand, growing more and more produce—and stronger leaders for the area’s future. And this year, Men and Women United for Youth and Families awarded scholarships to seven teens across three counties. It has given out more than $40,000 in scholarships over the past decade.

“If our rural communities are going to thrive,” Keaton says, “we have to start with our young people.”