Durand Turns to its Youth for Solutions
How the “Village of Volunteers” teaches the spirit of innovation (Photo by tayj photography)
By Hannah Kucharzak
Read Time 5 minutes
January 22, 2024
Dubbed “The Village of Volunteers,” the town of Durand, Illinois prides itself on its residents’ dedication to pulling together and supporting the needs of the community. Looking at the town’s history, the motto makes sense—Durand founded Illinois’s first publicly funded volunteer fire department in 1926. But that’s not the only thing that made the nickname stick. The town has hosted several volunteer organizations over the years, such as the local Lion’s Club chapter, DARTS (Durand Area Retailers and Trade Services), and Durand Charm, a nonprofit dedicated to the revitalization of the town.
“All one needs to do is say there's a need, and someone (or multiple people!) step up to meet that need,” said Kelly Giovanine, Executive Director of Durand Charm. “It's important to show our students that finding creative or innovative solutions to problems is not only up to adults, but our youth, too.”
It would seem that Durand residents are born into a spirit of volunteerism.
Youth in Innovation
On December 7, 2023, residents gathered to listen to Durand’s leaders-in-the-making present their research-based projects about what they found to be the town’s most pressing issues. Students at Durand High School stood next to tri-fold boards that they’d crafted, spoke into a mic about what they see and experience as obstacles in their daily lives, and articulated how they intend to solve them. This was no small feat—this was, in fact, a competition. Monetary prizes were on the line, and their work was being evaluated by three celebrity judges from the town, including Durand’s mayor, Sheila Hoffman.
The night was organized as a culmination of “Youth in Innovation,” a program facilitated and funded by the Smithsonian Institution and Illinois Humanities in conjunction with Spark! Places of Innovation, a four-week-long exhibition celebrating innovation in rural America, with a companion exhibit about the history of the Durand Fire Department – the first municipal volunteer fire department in Illinois.
“Our children are our future. Innovative ideas will come from them,” said Kelly Giovanine of Durand Charm, which not only hosted Spark! earlier this winter, but also helped to organize this event. “I wanted to be able to show our students a direct correlation between what they'll see in Spark! and the positive impact they can have in their own community.”
Lessons in Innovation
Earlier in the semester, high school students in Ms. Riordon’s Junior Government class and Mr. Connery’s Junior English classes participated in a co-curricular unit about innovation, and how our country has been shaped by government policies, critical inventions, and community endeavors. Ms. Riordon formed her lesson plan around pivotal innovations that altered Americans’ lives, like the steam engine, the sewing machine, and the cotton gin, and led her students through a deep dive into the U.S. Constitution, a living document that continues to be amended over time.
After laying down the historical foundation, she then turned it over to her students: how do they view innovation, and what might they create and implement to improve their community? Tasked with examining their present-day experiences, students broke out into small groups to collaborate on a path forward.
Dozens of ideas emerged, from public health and safety (such as improved senior care centers, enforcing safer driving, and reducing teen vaping) to infrastructure advancements (such as walkability expansion, public transportation to cities around Durand, and solar farms). The topic of road and sidewalk repairs came up several times, as did mental health awareness, which Ms. Riordon commented that there had been “a large increase in the need for this information.”
Ms. Riordon was impressed with what her students came up with. “Before they realize it, they will be the next leaders of Durand,” she shared. “The project is important in many ways, the biggest being getting students to look at problems in their community and then coming up with a solution to the problem.” The teens seem to be advanced problem-solvers already—Ms. Riordon pointed out that her students already engage in community service as part of the high school’s requirements, and that their Youth in Innovation projects relate well to those activities.
“I am hoping that my students see that even though their community has problems (like every other community), they can be the solution to these problems,” Ms. Riordon said, adding that her goal is to encourage the students to be well-rounded community members.
Winners in Innovation
Students who completed the Youth in Innovation unit had the opportunity to enter the competition and convince the judges that their topic deserved a prize—$500 for 1st Place, $250 for 2nd Place, and $100 for 3rd. Around half of the groups who worked on the project in class stepped up to the challenge.
First place went to Rachel P., Reagan M., and Rhiannon R. for their project on adapting and creating a solar farm that would help residents lower their energy costs. Second place went to Brianna T. and Kiara M. for their project pitching a high school volunteer program at a senior center. Third place went to Samantha G., Izzabella W., and Rachel N. for their proposal to create standards for how house addresses are displayed to help improve emergency response times and enhance the look of the community.
The award-winning teams’ boards were on display during the Spark! exhibition, driving home the message that Durand’s history doesn’t live solely in the past—its youth are in the midst of creating the newest innovation in their town’s legacy.
About Spark! Places of Innovation
Spark! Places of Innovation, the newest Museum on Main Street exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and Illinois Humanities, will tour Illinois from June 17, 2023, to March 29, 2024. Organizations in seven communities statewide will host the exhibition and will produce companion exhibitions and public programs relating the subject matter of Spark! to their own local history and culture. Visit Spark! in a town near you!