EMPORIUM — Growing up in small town, Jessica Herzing always felt like she was missing out.
“Then, if you’re like me, you move away for whatever reason to someplace bigger, and you really start to see what you left behind. Your neighbors, the ability to go hiking on a whim, the quiet of a small town in the middle of the night, even the ability to see the stars. We’re lucky in Cameron County to be a day trip from Pittsburgh, Erie, or Buffalo – and we get to come home to this hidden gem of natural beauty, safety and great neighbors,” Herzing said.
As she grew older, she realized how much was actually going on — from recreation opportunities to organizations looking to offer more to resdients. These experiences rooted the Cameron County Project.
Herzing, an accountant in Emporium, has taken on being the director of the Cameron County Project. Being raised in Emporium and being a 2005 graduate of Cameron County High School, she left the area before moving back to the area in 2011 to raise her son near family.
“In October of 2016, I was invited to attend a Orton Family Foundation and Pennsylvania Humanities Council workshop on Community Heart and Soul with Tina Solak Johns of the Cameron County Chamber of Commerce and Lori Reed, a Cameron County commissioner, where we learned about the Orton Family Foundation Heart and Soul Community model,” said Herzing, who added that the process was so inspiring she jumped in to make a difference.
“It was so inspiring this idea of resident driven, community pride building centered on finding the heart of the community by simply asking residents what they love about living here and why and what they would like to change. I think what spoke to me most about their model is that everyone gets a say, everyone matters, because you’re taking the collective idea bucket to them, where they are – and by focusing on that shared love for our community, that unites us, it builds trust in the community, our decision makers, and organizations and breeds this sense of positivity and inclusion and pride in our community.”
Herzing used that experience to start a community-wide visioning project, which has become known as the Cameron County Project.
She started laying the foundation for what would become the Cameron County Project immediately following the workshop and spent 2017 developing a leadership committee, branding the project, and securing a fiscal partner, The Cameron County Community Chest – who brought the project under their 501(c)3 umbrella.
“With the Community Chest board in agreeance of the project’s mission, in September we launched the Cameron County Project’s Facebook page, website, followed by the the post card home survey — it was meant to see if residents would be willing to share their stories of Cameron County and see if the project was viable for a bigger launch. We were amazed at the responses,” Herzing said. “Our county residents were so thoughtful, and their love of our community is so pure and their stories were so inspiring. In three months, we had 130 responses. All of this was meant to prepare us to apply for a grant that would give our county the designation of a Heart and Soul Community, but it wasn’t offered this year. So my leadership committee and I decided to move forward based on the foundation we had created and do a grassroots community visioning project, based on the literature and resources freely available from the Orton Family Foundation on their Heart and Soul Community to ensure we stayed true to their model. Why re-invent the wheel, when such a great resource was available to us.”
The goal of the group is to complete a two year, county-wide visioning survey and produce a report based on the stories of what residents love about the county. In trying to reach all residents it possibly can, it will use those stories to create community action statements centered on what residents love and what they can agree makes the county such a special place to live, how they would like to see change come to the community, and what they would like to see preserved.
“It is our hope that this data can be used to guide decision making in our community, help organizations decide on program offerings or seek funding, and help businesses see what opportunities are here that they could capitalize on,” Herzing said. “We also hope this process empowers residents re-engage with our community and feel heard and valued for what they bring to the table and that the positive approach to starting these conversations, will breed pride and change the lens we view our county through from one of negativity to one of positive optimism.”
Herzing said she got involved in the project because she used to be a complainer. She shifted that role, taking her complaints to the source of where they came from with a goal to understand what the root of the issue is, how decisions are made, and how to be a part of the discussion.
“I was so warmly welcomed to everything I attended. So many organizations are begging for new people to take an interest, volunteer, show up and be heard – and I wish for everyone to feel that sense of value and be involved in a way that makes sense to them,” Herzing said.
She added, “Cameron County residents would be a force to be reckoned with if they knew how important they are to what goes on in our county, and that their ideas are vital and necessary for our growth. We have leaders we’ve never heard from, and visionaries that just can’t attend the right meetings, or worse yet, feel like they shouldn’t attend or have a “why bother?” mentality. I want to talk to them, to hear them out, hear about their love for this community, what is important to them here, how that lead to some idea they have or some need they see isn’t being filled. Making sure those voices are heard and accounted for, too, is the motivation behind this project, because I, personally, feel that once everyone knows how important they are, and how valued they are as residents and start to touch and feel the community by being invited to get involved where they are – it will help change the conversations we have about our community and what is going on here from negative to positive.”
The Cameron County Project is in many ways a call to action. It is currently looking for volunteers and community connectors to help it take the next step in the Heart and Soul Model – which is gathering stories from residents, where they are though meetings or engagement events. This year it is planning a community dinner and street dance for residents to come and break bread together and enjoy each other’s company and pay homage to the old Super Saturdays (this is an event people in the community have said they missed, according to Herzing). It is also planning a fall photography competition and calendar fundraiser for the Cameron County Community Chest.
“There is an opportunity for everyone to help, whether you want to help plan the events, volunteer to gather stories, or help from the comfort of your own home doing data entry or proofreading. Every single resident is a community connector and if they are just willing to share our survey with a neighbor, or introduce one of us to someone so we can talk them about what they love about Cameron County, it helps us ensure we reach everyone,” Herzing said.
“I hope that in the coming years we see residents’ pride in our community grow as they start to own our county by investing their time, presence, and money here, and take advantage of all the offerings and opportunities the county has to offer them. I’m also really excited to see what new leaders emerge, and what their new ideas or ways of doing things will add to our community.”