On the southern edge of the Sandhills, in the center of Nebraska, you’ll find the Calamus Reservoir and state park, located on the border between Loup and Garfield Counties. If you visit late in July you’ll also find Nebraska’s Big Rodeo, one of the nation’s oldest. But no matter when you travel to the Calamus area, you’re sure to find a group of big-hearted people who show their love for their community in lots of big ways.

Fewer than 15 miles separate the counties’ two towns of Taylor and Burwell. The natural assets afforded by the Calamus River and Reservoir create a strong bond between the communities. At its core is an organization whose leaders have cared for the well being and progress of their collective “community” for more than 20 years.

The Calamus Area Community Fund was known as the Burwell Community Fund for most if its history. Established in 1996, it is one of Nebraska Community Foundation's oldest affiliated funds. A few years ago, the volunteer fund advisory committee members determined that a name change was in order.

“We decided to rebrand ourselves to embrace who we really serve, and that is the people of both Loup and Garfield counties and the towns of Taylor and Burwell," said Dan Bird, superintendent of Burwell Public Schools and the current chair of the Calamus Area Community Fund. "We’re trying to expand beyond the Burwell borders."

The new name also reflects the Fund’s most future-focused and visionary effort, building the Calamus Endowment, which will impact many more opportunities than those found only in the town of Burwell. An endowment is a fund in which the principal is never spent; only a portion of the annual earnings are used to make grants to the community. In this way, the endowment continues to grow.

Dan Bird credits the Fund’s early leaders, such as Lorajane Bolli, Terry DeGroff and the late Bob Essig, with having the foresight to establish the Calamus Endowment. The endowment got a big boost in 2007 when “Doc” Essig, a respected veterinarian and community leader, made a gift of $50,000 to the endowment and challenged the community to match his gift, three-to-one, with local contributions. That challenge was met, and the endowment has continued to grow. It now is valued at nearly $348,000.

Bird points to the Fund’s grassroots approach as a reason for its financial success.

“When the Fund started in 1996 there was great leadership. They had a lot of credibility and they reached out to a lot of people. There was broad community buy-in and no contribution was too small,” Bird said. “Donors through the years have given to the Fund many times through memorials and annual memberships. They see the projects that they have contributed to completed as planned.

“I joined the fund advisory committee in 2001, and I would say that great leadership and our grassroots approach were key to our long-term success,” Bird said.

The Calamus Area Community Fund now has total assets of more than $1.5 million. Funding from its 20 different accounts supports community projects at the parks, county fairgrounds, the library, the community center and more.

In 2005, the community built Burwell Public School’s eight-lane, all-weather track almost entirely with charitable contributions funneled through the Calamus Area Community Fund. The project included a new lighting system and brick entrance to the stadium. The track is open to the community and is used by joggers and walkers year-round.

A new baseball diamond, the “Field of Dreams,” and the beautiful Veteran’s Memorial Park, located in downtown Burwell, were also volunteer led and charitably funded projects.

The Calamus Endowment has provided annual grants to projects such as air conditioning in the 4-H building, new community signage, the Taylor Arboretum, concrete for handicap parking at the fairgrounds, funding for the local TeamMates chapter, and dozens of other causes.

Nearly everyone in the community has ties to one or more of the designated projects completed over the past decade. And more than 100 people make contributions each year.

High visibility, community awareness and donor loyalty have resulted in several major estate gifts to establish separate endowments within the Calamus Area Community Fund. Much of this generosity is benefiting students of area high schools.

In 2006, Rolland Ramsthel established an endowed scholarship in honor of his wife, Irene, for the specific purpose of helping graduates of several area high schools studying to be registered nurses. He felt deeply grateful for the care his late wife had received from her nurses before her death, and he wanted to encourage more students to consider a nursing career in rural Nebraska. Rolland Ramsthel grew up in a working-class family, and in his youth, sold copies of the Grand Island newspaper for pennies a day. “That’s where I learned to save money,” he told an audience at a meeting of the Fund where the first nursing scholarship was presented.

Mr. Ramsthel’s original gift was supplemented with further estate gifts upon his death in 2008, and today, the Rolland Ramsthel Endowment has grown to nearly $444,000. To date, 22 students have received scholarships totaling $54,000.

In 2013, Calamus area residents celebrated the lives and generosity of two longtime friends, Gaylord and Alta Wallace. The couple spent most of their lives working on their Hill Ranch north of Burwell. They were strong supporters of their community and were deeply appreciative of its culture and history. Gaylord passed away at the age of 99 in January 2013. His wife, Alta, preceded him in death several years earlier.

Before his death, Gaylord had carefully arranged planned gifts to benefit the organizations and causes he and Alta cared deeply about.

“Throughout the process, it was Gaylord’s hope that his gifts would encourage others to give to the community and see how important it is,” said his niece, Marilyn Harris of Denver. “He put a lot of care and forethought into his gifts. Gaylord would be thrilled to think that people were holding a gathering event with coffee and pie to honor him and his gifts. Gaylord loved pie!” said Harris.

Included in Mr. Wallace’s estate was a gift of $250,000 to benefit several community causes including the Calamus Endowment and an endowment to provide college scholarships to Burwell and Loup County High School students.

According to Harris, Gaylord Wallace was concerned about declining population in rural areas and felt it was important for hometowns to have a community fund to invest in initiatives that attract new residents and help communities like Burwell and Taylor thrive.

That appears to be happening in Loup and Garfield Counties, where the population is beginning to stabilize. The 2010 Census showed a seven percent increase in Burwell’s population. And school enrollment in the Burwell Public School system has remined fairly constant at about 300 students for several years.

Many of these students will benefit in the future from another endowment established with the Calamus Area Community Fund, through the estate of Mary Lou Wewerka, a Burwell High School alumnus. The Calamus Area Community Fund received the gift earlier this year, and it is now valued at nearly $350,000. The annual earnings will provide ongoing support for educational enhancements in the community and scholarships for careers in health and education.

Superintendent Dan Bird said the school is now working with educational groups and community partners to best determine a strategy for using the dollars in ways that will have the most community impact.

Scholarships, brick and mortar projects, playground equipment, sports and recreation opportunities are all recognized as important to a thriving community and worthy of charitable support. However, an unrestricted endowment is important because of its lasting impact, according to Lin Jeffres, a farmer and rancher who serves on the Calamus Area Community Fund advisory committee.

“An endowment is forever. I can’t tell what my kids will want or need 20 years down the road. That will be for them to decide,” Jeffres said. “If someone is hoping to leave a legacy, an endowment is the way to do it. The fund and the annual payout will continue to grow and support many different projects,” he said.

Colleen Snell, the Fund’s treasurer, agreed. “It is hard for folks to wrap their head around the idea that we will receive money every year forever, for whatever is needed. It’s like having a really great, flexible savings account!”

Members of the Calamus Area Community Fund are busy these days helping people “wrap their heads around” the potential of increasing their already healthy unrestricted endowment by another $300,000.

The Fund is one of 12 Nebraska Community Foundation affiliated funds selected to participate in a challenge grant opportunity. The community is working to raise $200,000 by December 31, 2018 to receive a matching grant of $100,000 from a private foundation.

“I am hoping people will understand what an unrestricted endowment really is. It’s a way to support the community forever!” Jeffres said.

Over the past 20 years, hundreds of Calamus area donors have gifted more than $3 million to their beloved communities, situated in the sweet spot between Nebraska’s Sandhills and corn fields. It’s nice to know that, through the generosity of people today, children of future generations will have even more to love about the good life in greater Nebraska.

Learn more about the people and projects of the Calamus Area Community Fund. For information on communities served by Nebraska Community Foundation visit NebraskaHometown.org.

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