Emily and Karlie Albright carry feed for their 4-H steers. Karlie's last 4-H steer was sold to the Beef for Seniors program. / H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY
Despite the recession's hangover, shrinking budgets at all levels of government and gridlock in partisan Washington, communities are doing what they've always done: They are pulling together to solve their problems.
President Harry Truman said in 1947 that "America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand."
That mindset is evident today in four communities across the Midwest, visited by USA TODAY last week, where people are applying homegrown solutions to gun violence, high unemployment, neglected veterans' graves and senior citizens' needs.
They are taking on problems that seem intractable and urgent, such as causes of the gun violence that shattered families from Aurora, Colo., to Newtown, Conn. Other challenges -- crumbling and unkempt graves in a small-town cemetery -- might seem modest, but restoration projects are connecting youngsters to the sacrifices of generations of veterans, including those coming home now from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The key ingredients in these endeavors are collaboration and hard work, partners in the efforts say. Each community had to stretch for creative solutions. Individuals were reluctant to take credit. Obstacles were overcome by a shared sense that giving up was not an option.
A winding 1,000-mile path through four states, including Truman's Missouri, confirmed this: America's can-do spirit is intact.
Change begins with the courage to acknowledge problems, says Peoria, Ill., Mayor Jim Ardis, who is helping to lead an anti-violence campaign in a city where gun crimes have increased as gangs fight over turf and drugs.
"We can't sit around and wait for someone to solve this for us," Ardis says. "That just doesn't happen."
PEORIA, Ill. -- The death of 8-year-old Albert Billups-Wilson, who was asleep when a drive-by shooter's bullet struck him in 2011, was the last straw.
"That was really a bellwether event," Police Chief Steve Settingsgaard says. It was time for a new approach to gangs and guns.
The message from the community was clear, Ardis says: "We're fed up with this rising crime rate."
Police, prosecutors and elected officials are tailoring Don't Shoot, a program used by High Point, N.C., Cincinnati, Indianapolis and other cities, to fit Peoria's needs. The results â?? shootings are down about 20% this year â?? could give communities elsewhere a new and effective tool.
Offenders on parole or probation are confronted by law enforcement, victims' families and even emergency room doctors. The message they hear is direct and unrelenting: They must stop committing crimes, and they must share that mandate with fellow gang members. The alternative: a zero-tolerance approach in which police come down hard on any wrongdoing.
Those who cooperate get access to job training, health care and substance-abuse programs. Peoria applied for but didn't receive a $300,000 federal grant to run Don't Shoot. Settingsgaard says it's probably just as well. Because the community is paying for the program through donations, he says, it won't meet the fate of many anti-violence projects: "When the money runs out, the players run out."
Nikkos Clark, 24, was among 29 offenders summoned to the Civic Center in December to hear the Don't Shoot ultimatum. He was on parole after serving time for felony gun possession in a 2009 shooting that stemmed from a dispute over a video game. He was acquitted of murder in the case.
Clark is among 11 men, all on parole or probation, who pledged to extricate themselves from lives of violence. Ten other ex-offenders also have gotten involved. Clark is now enrolled in classes on weatherization installation.
A photo of Billups-Wilson's corpse was displayed at the December meeting. Clark says the horrific image reminded him of his own 2-year-old son. "You've got to want to change," he says. "I'm ready."
Officer Erin Barisch, a member of the police unit charged with making Don't Shoot work, says the program is "make or break."
"We're all in," he says. "We have no choice."
WEVER, Iowa -- When people began hearing rumors last year that an Egyptian company might build a fertilizer plant near this unincorporated village, the reaction was swift.
"We knew we needed this," says Larry Kruse, then a member of the Lee County Board of Supervisors. "We were ready to do whatever it took."
What it took was determination and unprecedented cooperation among towns, counties and economic development agencies accustomed to competing for projects.
"There's no one community that can do it by themselves these days," says Bob Winckler, president of the Fort Madison Economic Development Corp.
The $1.4 billion Iowa Fertilizer Co. plant, a subsidiary of Orascom Construction Industries, will employ 165 permanent workers and up to 3,500 temporary construction workers. It will create perhaps 700 permanent jobs in supporting businesses in this area. Work begins in March; it will open in mid-2015.
Putting an incentive package together took creativity: Bonds could be issued tax-free under a federal program to aid Midwestern states that were flooded in 2008. After tense negotiations, the company agreed to pay Lee County more than $16 million in lieu of 20 years of property taxes. Qualms about welcoming a foreign-owned company were overcome and environmental concerns allayed.
The deal almost fell through more than once. The first site here was in a flood plain. Illinois offered more incentives. At least one other Iowa community was competing for the plant. "It was like playing high-stakes poker," Kruse says.
When Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad announced that Wever would be the site, he said it had won by the "skin of our teeth."
Wever's success could be a template for the scores of communities around the country that have lost manufacturing jobs. Manufacturing's share of U.S. employment was 29% in 1960 and just 9% in 2011, the Labor Department reports.
Lee County has long wrestled with high unemployment; December's jobless rate was 9.1%, highest in the state. The poverty rate is about 14%. Population has shrunk by 2,431 since 2010.
The exhaustive effort restored hope and confidence through the battered countryside. Construction workers will need places to live. Stores, restaurants and gas stations will have new customers.
Real estate agent Dan Fraise expects a big boost for the housing market and other opportunities. "We'll probably get a Walmart out of this," he predicts, and new tax revenue will mean more money to hire police and teachers.
It is, says Lee County Supervisor Gary Folluo, "something to grow on."
MEXICO, Mo. -- Cadets Kane Anderson and Tyler Vaughan wander through toppled and broken tombstones at Elmwood Cemetery, hunting for veterans' graves.
They discover markers for veterans of the Civil War and World Wars I and II, brushing away moss to read faded inscriptions. Many tombstones and monuments are cracked, caked with dirt or in pieces.
Veterans "deserve better treatment than this," says Anderson, 16.
Of the 15,000 graves in Elmwood Cemetery, about 1,000 are veterans' resting places. Cadets from Missouri Military Academy, a private school for boys in grades 6 through 12, are making it their mission to clean, repair and restore dignity to them.
The suggestion that cadets make the cemetery a community service project came in a phone call from a Mexico resident to Academy math teacher Steve Wolf.
Community service links the young men, who come from around the world, to history and this town, he says. "They think about the time and the service the veterans gave. We're paying it back a little bit."
From coast to coast, young people have been stepping up to honor veterans' final resting places. Spider Cub Scout Troop 998 in Woodland, Calif., held a chili cook-off this month to raise money to buy headstones for two veterans who died in 1975 and 1977. Cub Scouts and Young Marines chapters in Jacksonville, N.C., helped place wreaths on veterans' graves this past November.
Eighteen cadets here plan to identify and fix every veterans' grave in the cemetery, where clay deposits have caused most tombstones to shift.
The project is more complex than initially envisioned: Because graves in the city-run cemetery are owned by occupants' heirs, cadets must first try to track down family members to seek permission. They are doing genealogical detective work with help from local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts and a funeral home.
Anderson, a sophomore from Bismarck, N.D., says he was shocked when he first visited Elmwood. Now he and Vaughan, 18, a junior, are researching the best way to clean headstones.
"It would be good to do something good for people who did so much for our country," Vaughan says.
Ten other cadets plan to rescue neglected graves at Rock Hill Cemetery, a smaller plot outside town. Hank Matlosz, an Army veteran whose parents and brother are buried there, says the project gives cadets "a chance to help a community they don't really know."
Academy President Tony McGeorge says the cemetery project will give students "a strong connection to the community. They need to give back."
Chuck Rentschler, executor of the estate of his late friend, Marvin McCowan, was among the first to give cadets permission to tend the family's graves. McCowan served in the Army Air Forces from 1942-45.
Rentschler says he hopes other towns will "see what a great idea this is and decide to do it in their communities."
Lt. Col. Tim Scherrer runs the Academy's community service programs, which include working at a food bank and a veterans' home. He says future cadets will continue this project.
"I don't think we'll ever finish," he says.
HOLTON, Kan. -- Tom Bishop was worried about young 4-H club members when he came up with the idea for the Beef for Seniors program.
"Times aren't the best," he says, and he wanted to help farm kids get good prices for livestock they raise and auction after the county fair.
So Bishop, executive director of the non-profit Homestead Affordable Housing Inc., decided to help those 4-Hers -- and a lot of other people. Homestead builds and operates housing projects for senior citizens.
Here's how Beef for Seniors works: Banks and community members donate money that's used to buy steers raised by area 4-H club members.
The meat is distributed at Homestead senior living projects in nine communities where many residents are on fixed incomes and have to make hard choices when they visit grocery stores.
Freezers to store the meat were purchased from Jayhawk TV & Appliances, funneling more money into the local economy. Owner Bruce Shaw says the program is good for his business and the entire community.
"People look after each other here," he says.
Beef for Seniors distributed 3,146 pounds of meat in 2010, its first year, 5,752 pounds in 2011 and 7,208 pounds last year.
Cara Robinson, a 4-H program manager, says the program has become increasingly important to farm families. "Buyers are tough to come by in this economy," she says.
Denison State Bank, which donates $4,000 to the program each year, considers it good advertising and "a great cause," executive vice president Mike Day says.
The money that Emily Albright, 11, and her sister Karlie, 9, earn from livestock auction proceeds goes into their college fund, a common practice in farm country. Meat from the steer Karlie showed at last summer's fair went to Homestead residents.
She didn't know that until she joined senior citizens for a barbecued beef dinner last week. When she saw how much they enjoyed it, she says, "I felt happy for them."
Seniors love the free meat and "everybody saves on grocery bills," says Sue Trucking, 72, who lives at Homestead's Holton housing project. Resident Wanola Buss, 87, says it's great for monthly group dinners. Her favorite recipe: "Minute steaks, browned and simmered in mushroom soup."
Bishop says Beef for Seniors could be implemented anywhere.
"Having so many people benefit from such a simple idea is just really special," he says. "There's need everywhere, and where there's need, there's always someone willing to help."
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Read the original story: Can-do communities: 4 towns look within to fix problems