Californian Anya Poplavska came to Allen County this summer to learn more about the Midwest and work on environmental projects.
She left last week with a better understanding about what it means to be part of a community.
Her introduction to Allen County, though, came with an eye-opening city council meeting in a small town. She felt the judgmental stare from a local resident, who seemed to be sizing her up as a West Coast elitist.
“I’d never experienced anything like that, and it was a taste of my own medicine,” she said. “It made me realize we like to put people in boxes. We think we understand people before we even get to know them.”
Poplavska spent just about a month in Iola, working as an intern for Thrive Allen County. Though it was a relatively brief time, she took advantage of the opportunity to throw herself into a couple of projects she hopes will benefit the community for years to come.
More importantly, she said, she challenged her own assumptions and developed a greater appreciation for the region.
“It’s so clear people in this town are dedicated to the health and wellness of the community,” she said.
She pointed to the trails and open spaces, to Thrive’s bike share program and the fact that everything is within walking or biking distance. She mentioned the Allen County Farmers Market, that allows local producers to sell fresh food directly to consumers.
“All of those things contribute to your happiness as an individual,” she said.
But what impressed her the most was the sense of community, of neighbors helping neighbors. Most of the people she met are volunteers for things like the recycling program or Meals on Wheels.
“I never see that where I’m from. No one goes out of their way to get to know their neighbor or volunteer,” she said. “It’s really nice.”
Poplavska was born in the Ukraine, then moved to London and then California, where she grew up in the Silicon Valley area. She is a junior at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, pursuing a bachelor of science degree in environmental studies.
“My parents worked very hard to get me to this country,” she said.
She’s always been interested in climate change, especially the intersection of politics and environmental issues.
In California, Poplavska frequently ran into Arjav Rawal. They have similar interests, and he told her about his plans to move to Iola to work as an environmental projects intern at Thrive and attend Allen Community College.
The idea of working on environment issues in Kansas appealed to Poplavska, so she secured her own internship with Thrive, albeit on a much reduced timescale. She started working with Thrive on Aug. 11; her last day was this past Wednesday.
She joined Arjav on an ongoing project to bring an electric vehicle charging station to downtown Iola.
She helped with research and planning for such a project, which could increase tourism and foot traffic in the downtown area.
It takes a few hours to charge an electric vehicle, and few small communities offer those types of stations. By having one downtown, vehicle owners can spend their time exploring local businesses and restaurants.
The project has been discussed for years, and Poplavska said she was pleased to have played a small role.
While at Thrive, she also taught herself to code using Python, a computer programming language, in order to develop a computer simulation about climate change. The program will collect data such as air pollution, in order to understand how climate conditions might affect Allen County’s future growth and business development.
In addition to her work at Thrive, Poplavska visited the World War I memorial in Kansas City, the University of Kansas campus at Lawrence, and areas in Wichita.
She was most impressed, though, by the visiting Smithsonian exhibit, “Crossroads: Change in Rural America,” now on display at the Bowlus FIne Arts Center. She also enjoyed the Lehigh Trails System in Iola.
She learned a great deal in a short time.
“This has taught me that people and places are not a monolith. They’re different than what you expect,” she said.
“Getting to know individuals here changed my perspective and assumptions I had made that people from a certain area all have the same political opinions or ideology.
“I learned the value of community building, and that local success is just as important — maybe more important — than global success.”