After growing up on the land her ancestors homesteaded in 1874, and then leaving for more than a decade, Marci Penner does not want to move away from her native soil again.
With a master’s degree and a career in counseling, Penner came home to Inman, and along with her father, Milferd, a farmer who wrote photo essay books on Kansas, the two began a journey of a lifetime — to discover rural Kansas one town at a time.
“Our roots run deep to Kansas,” Penner said. “We realized Kansans don’t know their state very well, and they don’t network.”
The father/daughter journey began with a tour of every town in Kansas. And when the townspeople said they had nothing to offer, Penner found each community’s genuine beauty that keeps rural towns alive. Each town has unique qualities, she said, and they need support.
“They needed someone to coach them along and cheer them on,” said Penner. “We tried to create an environment so those towns could be somebody.”
It was at this point that Penner and her father, descendants of Mennonite Prussian stock, penned the “Kansas Guidebook,” which tells the tale of countless Kansas towns and what makes them special — from the widest Main Street in Plaines to the last remaining stagecoach stop on the Santa Fe Trail. Penner and her father cheerfully documented what made Kansas Kansas.
A fifth-generation Kansan, Penner has worked for more than 30 years helping rural towns realize their potential. She and her father founded the nonprofit Kansas Sampler Foundation in 1993, and since then, instituted lots of innovative programs, including the now-retired Kansas Sampler Festival, the Kansas Explorers Club and PowerUp Kansas — a way to engage 21- to 39-year-olds who are rural by choice.
Milferd Penner died in 2014, but the Kansas Sampler Foundation continues to go strong. Three years ago, Penner helped introduce We Kan!, a biannual conference designed for rural community leaders, volunteers, entrepreneurs and advocates. This year’s conference will be March 18 in Newton and will focus on the premise that being a rural town means opportunity. Topics at this year’s conference include funding, tourism, child care, rural health care, Main Street, trail development, workforce support, housing, small business information and community development.
During the odd years, Kansas Sampler holds brainstorming sessions known as the Big Rural Brainstorm. This event began three years ago.
“You bring these rural people together in a messy, overzealous environment to come up with ideas and action steps,” Penner said. “We address the issues from a solution, action-oriented perspective.”
By educating town leaders and volunteers and holding events, the foundation helps town leaders and citizens learn and network. Three quarters of the more than 600 incorporated Kansas towns are run by volunteers.
“The Kansas Sampler Foundation supports and encourages rural communities across the state to be the very best they can at being themselves,” said Christy Hopkins, director of Greeley County Community Development. “Marci and WenDee (Rowe, KSF assistant director) see boundless potential in the people and places in rural Kansas, and they excel at bringing people together to share ideas, resources and new approaches to help tackle the challenges communities face.”
In addition to the biannual conferences and brainstorming sessions, the Kansas Sampler Foundation initiated a three-county Kansas tour each year. From May 7-10, this year’s tour winds through Brown, Doniphan and Nemaha counties. Events include painting a barn quilt in Seneca, visiting a truck museum in Fairview, learning about President Abraham Lincoln’s trips to Doniphan County or eating apple, blackberry and pecan pies on neighbors’ porches in Highland.
“It’s just like a big open house,” Penner said. “The public is able to see rural towns with new eyes and educate Kansans about Kansans.”
The foundation tells residents to do what they do best and be good at being themselves.
“A day spent at a KSF event is sure to leave attendees inspired, more connected and with a renewed drive to ensure rural Kansas thrives,” Hopkins said.
Penner uses her years of playing and coaching basketball, training as a guidance counselor and her deep love of Kansas to propel the foundation. By following her instincts, this native Kansan asks questions and in so doing, finds out what the needs are.
“Section 27 Kansas dirt is where I’m content,” Penner said. “I don’t want to be anywhere else than on this dirt, working with these people (fellow Kansans).”
For more information and to register for You Kan!, visit kansassampler.org. Those who are interested in the road trip may visit Big Kansas Road Trip.