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LINCOLN — The Nebraska Community Foundation recently celebrated 25 years of building stronger communities and a greater Nebraska with the biggest event in its history.

The 2019 annual celebration on Nov. 14, which included an all-day volunteer training and evening banquet, drew more than 360 trainees representing more than 100 Nebraska communities.

The all-day event took place at York's Holthus Convention Center and featured 15 training sessions led by volunteer community leaders, aimed at building the capacity, competence and confidence to inspire, lead and support progress in their places. Topics included fundraising, embracing diversity and engaging youth.

The noon plenary featured rural sociologist Ben Winchester, who discussed findings from his decades of research on small communities and the realities surrounding demographic changes over time. Winchester provided evidence that in the U.S., rural populations have actually increased by 11% since 1970.

Evening speakers included Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce & Industry; Lorena Beckius of Keith County; Kiel VanderVeen of Nebraska City; Cindy Huff of McCook; Yesenia Peck of Omaha; and Jeff Yost and KC Belitz, chief executive officer and chief operating officer of Nebraska Community Foundation, respectively. All spoke about the bright future ahead for hometowns across Nebraska.

The arts were integrated into many aspects of the annual celebration, including training sessions centered on the arts as a community and economic development tool. Two live performances from "The Dream Switch" were presented by an all-Nebraska ensemble of musicians. This original song cycle about finding your way back home was written by the award-winning, Nebraska-based musical theater team of Becky Boesen and David von Kampen, and performed by vocalist Andrea von Kampen. Artist Greg Gersch also created two large-scale murals using feedback from community volunteers about their accomplishments and dreams for the future.

In the past five years, 44,476 contributions have been made to Nebraska Community Foundation and its affiliated funds. Since 1994, the foundation has reinvested $353.3 million in Nebraska's people and places.

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