Shaping Volga initiative looks to honor the past while forging town’s future

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A new “Shaping Volga” endowment and leadership team hopes to continue to revitalize and rejuvenate the small community.

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


Since it was established in 1851, the little town of Volga has seen residents devote their time and attention to shaping the rural community into what it is today, while preserving Volga’s history and providing for its future. The current generation is no different.


It’s that dedication to the place so many call home—and return to—that led to the formation of “Shaping Volga” and a leadership team, led by convener Tom Klingman, after a meeting in the fall of 2022, during which Klingman spoke with MJ Smith from the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. Smith told Klingman about an anonymous donor who “has a tender spot for small, rural communities in Iowa,” and wanted to help by establishing lasting endowment programs.


Klingman, with the assistance of Smith, applied for a grant. Volga was eventually approved for a $40,000 Small-Town Dreams Initiative Endowment Challenge Grant, becoming the 10th community to do so. 


According to a statement written by leadership team member Kim Hurley, to capture the grant, the 12-member team that consists of Klingman, Hurley, Melissa Fettkether, Deb Deitchler, Lanny Deitchler, George Duff, Ben Fettkether, Elaine Follon, Rhonda Fry and Bethany Klingman, has been challenged to raise $200,000 in local endowment donations over the next three years. In effect, this will build a $240,000 endowment with an annual payout of $12,000 to revitalize and rejuvenate Volga.


“As a group, we wanted to be sure the future of Volga has what it needs to help with ongoing improvements for the town and not have to worry about where funds are coming from to ensure projects are completed,” Bethany Klingman said.


The need to shape Volga’s future has been present throughout the town’s 171-year history and is marked by many who have endeavored to do so. Their memory lives on in history and in local imaginations, but the need to shape that future has become paramount in the aftermath of the flood of 1999, which devastated the community on both a structural and emotional level. Where there was once a vibrant small town, the floodwaters left derelict buildings and debris in its wake, as well as a sense of loss that has taken years to recover.


At the heart of that devastation was the iconic opera house, which stands out in Klingman’s mind, stating that shaping Volga is a “mission of love” that stems from conversations, memories and history of the town. In memories conjured in visits after the flood and how often it came up as a topic of conversation. That building sat vacant for years after the flood, but after a 13-year restoration process starting around 2010, it finally came back to life with help of volunteers and residents who, while maybe not be on the current leadership team, have had a hand in shaping Volga.


Fellow leadership team member, Follon, also serves on the Volga City Council and has a similar sentiment for being involved. Like Klingman, she was born and raised in Volga. After graduating from UNI, she moved away to places like New York City and San Francisco, but when it came time to retire, her heart brought her back to Volga. What she found was a city struggling to recover from the flood of 1999, with demolished houses. It was a Volga that looked “absolutely barren,” she said. 


Since then, Follon has made it a mission to volunteer and serve on committees and projects, doing whatever it takes to bring Volga back and continue moving forward. It’s something she has also been doing for over 15 years as a council member.


Follon accepted the invitation to join the leadership team because she cares passionately about the Volga’s future and because there are many things about Volga that are “very special” to her, whether it’s the interesting history of the town or her own history within it. 


“Small town America is definitely at risk today. So much that happens in state and federal government and in corporate America takes away from small, rural towns. A way of life is at risk and must be protected,” Follon added.


Similarly, Deb Deitchler moved back to Volga with husband Lanny to start a family, and has never looked back. Volga is their home. They’re both working with the Shaping Volga initiative because they “want to be a part of helping make Volga a viable option for anyone who would want to come back and make their home here.”


Like the others, Deitchler recalls the flood of 1999 and how it is a motivating factor, especially after witnessing the town being cut by almost a third in the devastation of the residential portion of Volga. With ongoing efforts, combined with this initiative, it’s hoped they can “bring back some of Volga’s vitality.”


“Volga’s richest resource is its members. It is a very unique town in that it still has the ‘anyone is your neighbor’ mentality. The Shaping Volga initiative would allow our town to not only improve the existing health and welfare of our town, but also give it the resources to branch out and make it more inviting for others,” Deitchler said.


That is a sentiment shared by Follon, who would like to see future projects aimed at cleaning up, beautifying and restoring buildings and infrastructure in the business district.


“It needs to be cleaned up and beautified because it’s the front door of Volga,” she said. “We also need to bring new businesses into the community and an attractive business district will help that.”


Infrastructure is an area Deitchler would like to focus on, especially to support the large number of EMS, fire and other community volunteers. 


Some of this has been done over the years, not just to beautify but also to protect the small town and its way of life. It started with the opera house and extended into other projects like the River Bluffs Reflection Park, which “highlights the natural beauty of the river,” said Klingman. 


At the heart of this initiative remains a challenge, and it is at the funding level, something accepted by all involved with the initiative. Volga is just a small town of around 200 people, giving it a very limited tax-base, which means many projects require volunteers and voluntary donations. 


While Volga has been fortunate to receive money from community members and grants, notably from the Upper Mississippi Gaming Corporation, even Follon admitted, “There is a limit to how much can be asked of such a small number of households.” 


In Follon’s view, the endowment fund could “provide an annual payout that would work wonders in the community without always having to reach into the pockets of community members.”


“Unfortunately, the work that needs to be done to keep a community looking good, functioning well and being a great place to live cannot happen with only good graces, good wishes and volunteer efforts. Money is required,” she added.   


The issue of funding was also voiced by Klingman, who stated, “Volga is a small community that has many hardworking families, but we lack deep pockets.” 


This endowment, which will pay out indefinitely, puts all possibilities and projects back on the table. It will “help tell Volga’s story from the past and present, all while building for the future.” It will also provide for future financial stability, Deitchler said.


Shaping Volga planned to hold its first fundraising event on New Year’s Eve, with a Passport into 2024 event at the Opera House, but it was canceled due to inclement weather. The idea behind it was to have an all day event “traveling” around the world to celebrate the ringing in of the new year. 


While future fundraising efforts are still being planned, Shaping Volga is about the age-old adage of leaving the world better than you found it. As Klingman elaborated, it is akin to the Seventh Generation Principle of the Iroquois Nation, which is the philosophy of making decisions today that result in a sustainable world for future generations. 


In relation to Shaping Volga, Klingman continued, “it simply means we want to be thinking of a Volga seven generations from now and think about what they might need.”


Anyone who wishes to donate can do so by cash, check or credit card, or through other means, including appreciated stock, IRA charitable rollover, real estate, charitable gift annuity or bequests. All contributions may be made out to Shaping Volga and sent to Melissa Fettkether at 27293 Basswood Ave., Volga, IA 52077.


“Volga has always had a pull over me. There’s a special magic of the people in this small town and how resilient the community and town truly are. I’ve often daydreamed about tidying up downtown and revitalizing it to its former heyday,” Klingman said.

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