In Neshkoro, they think to themselves, what a wonderful place

By Kathleen McGwin
A hand-painted sign sitting next to a bright blue pottery chicken in the tiled kitchen holds more meaning than one might realize as you walk through the empty halls of the once vibrant Neshkoro Elementary School.  And I think to myself what a wonderful place is not just a platitude stolen from a Louis Armstrong song.  It’s the heart and soul of an effort to prevent just one more abandoned elementary school in one more rural, small town, from becoming just one more empty dream.  This dream is not empty.  This dream is being realized as the Neshkoro Area Community Center (NACC), Inc takes ownership of the school from the Westfield School District and returns vibrancy, spirit, learning and the arts to its halls and rooms.

“This is a story of hope,” said Karen Holseth-Brokema, a key figure in the grass-roots effort to bring this dream of a community center to fruition.  “How does hope happen?   It happens when you see change happening and it grows and builds.”

A few years ago, Holseth-Brokema witnessed what the Neshkoro Enhancement Committee made happen over the past years and felt motivated to join in.  She says she watched first a park go up in the downtown, then benches, then the gazebo, then the murals.

“And all of that didn’t come from some big Federal grant,” she said.  “It came from brat fries and donations and volunteers.”
The Neshkoro Enhancement Committee’s work was recognized as one of three Top Initiative Awards given out by Wisconsin Rural Partners (WRP) in 2011.  And it didn’t stop there.  Instead of bemoaning the closing of the Neshkoro Elementary School, citizens, organized by Holseth-Brokema, began to talk about how the building could be used to further enhance the “little town that could,” a name used by many in the Village.  The non-profit Neshkoro Area Community Center corporation was formed and board members Mark Milbrandt, Ron Chase, Peter Hensler, Etta Hensler, Suzi Giesen, Larry Gohlke, Bill Kuehl, Karen Ingvoldstad, Cheryl Milbrandt, Lorry Sallee, and representatives of all three churches in Neshkoro with Holseth-Brokema as chair, began to plan.

“There was a lot of nervousness about the prospects of taking on the responsibility of this building,” said Holseth-Brokema.  “Then things started falling into place.”

In a serendipitous unfolding of opportunities, the Town of Neshkoro joined the Village of Neshkoro as a partner of the Neshkoro Library.   The Neshkoro Library Board, after being approached with the idea, voted to move the library to two, large, sunny rooms in the elementary school building.  Holseth-Brokema said that all the Neshkoro service organizations which include the Lions, Lionesses, VFW, and American Legion agreed to have a fund raiser this year for the library.  Central Wisconsin Health Partnership, a coalition of Adams, Juneau, Marquette, Waushara, Waupaca and Green Lake counties Health and Human Services Departments, has communicated intent to rent space in the school for joint services. 

“The NACC board developed a business plan for the center,” said Holseth-Brokema.  “And when an anonymous donor stepped forward with $5,000 toward the project, we knew we were moving forward.”

As it stands now, the Westfield School Board has accepted the offer for NACC to purchase the building.  The agreement with the Central Wisconsin Health Partnership is nearing closure for rental of space.  The renovation will begin soon on the two rooms for the library and the Neshkoro Library plans to move in May.

“Now people are believing,” said the consummate believer Holseth-Brokema who also dreamed about and successfully set up the Marquette County Children’s Dental Foundation in honor of her son, Shannon Nealis, who was killed at age 41 in a motorcycle accident in 2008. The foundation provides free dental services to scores of children each year who would not otherwise have access to the care.

Already at the Community Center, Yoga classes have been and will continue to be offered and Rural Rembrandts has held art classes for home-schooled children, carrying on the original purpose and intent of the building. There has been interest from someone wanting to start a charter school and use some space and NACC plans on setting up a commercial kitchen, something that will build on the already available industrial kitchen equipment from the school. 

This dream is not one to dissipate in a cloud of smoke or in the mists of time.   The board is made up of community-minded, practical, hard thinking folks who have a plan based on business acumen and real income.  Besides the space rented out to Central Wisconsin Health Partnership, Wagner’s Auction Service has rented the gym and plans to regularly rent it for auctions.  The income from the rental of space will be used to maintain the building as well as hire enough staff to keep the library and building open five days a week and Saturday mornings. 

You can find the Neshkoro Area Community Center on Facebook where activities are posted.  Right now you’ll find that Healthy Community Healthy Youth is offering open gym Mondays and Wednesdays, an example of how NACC is living up to its mission of being “dedicated to serving the regional community by providing quality opportunities for wellness, recreation, cultural enrichment, education and community gatherings.”

A major fund raising and grand opening celebration event will be held on May 10 beginning at 2 PM.  It will include the sale of artist created small canvasses and plans are to repeat the event each year, making the small, original works of art sought-after collectibles year after year.  The Wautoma High School Jazz Band will entertain.

“It’s really a story about hope,” Holseth-Brokema repeated.  “There’s an absence of hope in America today and a lot of fear and alarmist reaction.”

The Neshkoro Area Community Center is hope personified, made real, carried to fruition.  It began with hope and hope flows beneath each step as it is taken, but hope is not realized unless people believe and work toward a common good and think to themselves, what a wonderful place.