Making a Difference

Marci Penner

Marci Penner never imagined that a road trip she took 21 years ago would end up changing her life. Traveling with her father through their home state of Kansas, Penner stopped at countless small towns in search of local culture. "Very often," Penner recalls, "residents would say, 'Go to the next town. We don't have anything.'" Penner soon discovered that just the opposite was true. In 1993, she formed the nonprofit Kansas Sampler Foundation, which produces guidebooks and newsletters, partners with state tourism agencies, organizes the annual Kansas Sampler Festival (which drew 8,100 visitors last year), and runs a long list of Kansas-centric programs—to bring attention to the cultural and historic assets of the state's rural communities. Penner assesses a community's strengths using what she calls "the eight rural cultural elements"—architecture, art, commerce, cuisine, customs, geography, history, and people—to help residents determine "who they are and what they have, and help the public see communities with new eyes." In tiny Stark (pop. 100), for example, the restoration of a shuttered grocery store, deemed an integral part of the one-block downtown, helped revive the town. "My affection for Kansas continues to grow," she says. "And despite the plight of rural communities, I still feel like there's a lot of opportunity that can come out of innovative thinking and creativity."    

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