Empathizing with rural struggles

Michelle De Le Isla visits Yates Center to learn about the challenges residents have faced in recent months.

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September 17, 2020 - 10:28 AM

Bill Steiner, who owns a barbershop on the Yates Center square, shows Michelle De La Isla some tonsorial memorabilia from the past. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

From the moment she arrived in Yates Center, Michelle De Le Isla — mayor of Topeka and now running for Congress — was asking questions, trying to get a sense of the place and the challenges faced by its people.

That means empathizing … a lot.

“I’m dying for this virus to be done,” she said, while touring the downtown square with residents.

“I’m looking forward to the day I don’t have to wear a mask and I’m able to talk to people at a human level.”

Her remarks drew laughs of agreement, but launched an afternoon-long conversation about how residents were coping in the midst of the pandemic, as well as addressing the challenges faced by rural Americans more generally.

Michelle De La Isla talks with Hairbenders Salon owner Delana Jeffery about the challenges presented by COVID-19. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

DELANA Jeffery, who’s been in business at Hairbenders Salon for 47 years, talked to De La Isla about the difficulty of having to shut down during the pandemic, and the seven weeks of uncertainty that accompanied it.

“Everything is good now?” asked De La Isla.

Thanks to tenacity and help from a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), Jeffery said things were at least looking better.

Bill Steiner, who’s operated a local barber shop for 56 years, has also faced hardships due to the virus, such as a lengthy shut-down period and having to purchase significant amounts of Personal Protective Equipment and cleaning supplies while still only charging $10 per haircut.

On a sunnier note, he and De La Isla discovered a mutual love of horses, and talked about using horses in therapy, especially for veterans with PTSD.

“Ah, you break ‘em and they’ll be your buddies,” Steiner said.

Michelle De La Isla stops to pet a dog.Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

DE LE ISLA and teacher Gary Morris spoke about the housing situation in town, remarking on the number of vacant buildings.

They both sensed the economic development potential in Woodson County with De Le Isla enthusiastically saying to an imaginary owner: “You’re not doing anything with that building. Let’s do something cool here. Look at all the cool things that could be popping up!”

She asked Morris about property values, and he noted how although housing prices have been going up, most local people don’t have the financial means to make a significant home purchase.

The duo then discussed the problem of owners being willing to sell buildings, but those properties having damage that would be too costly to fix.

Morris also outlined some of the strategies of RevitalizeY.C., a local nonprofit, including launching a land bank, obtaining grants and using online real estate programs like L.O.I.S.

J.J. Edwards, Gary Morris and Michelle De La Isla tour the Yates Center square, chatting with residents.Photo by Trevor Hoag

DE LA ISLA spoke with J.J. Edwards, a real estate agent, about what federal and other monies might be available for revitalization, and it was noted how the primary issue is not necessarily the absence of dollars to help rural places; it’s creating dedicated institutions or positions whereby people can procure and distribute funds.

“There are basic pieces of development infrastructure that don’t exist here,” such as a Yates Center city manager to help facilitate such things.

De La Isla asked Edwards about supporting businesses though the Chamber of Commerce, and the prospect of having different levels of membership.

He noted that a program of that very kind had recently been developed and had already seen some success.

Edwards further mentioned the struggles facing local farmers, and highlighted the damage to agricultural commodity prices brought about by COVID-19.

“There are a lot of challenges,” he said, though espoused an optimistic attitude about the future of rural America moving forward, despite its imperfections.

“Nobody’s perfect,” laughed De La Isla. “If that would’ve been the case, Jesus would have never had to die.”

IT’S a philosophy she apparently takes with regard to political rivals as well.

She invited conversation with supporters of Jake LaTurner, for example, and had nothing disparaging to say about “the young man I’m running against.”

De La Isla faces off against LaTurner in the November general election, where the winner will have the honor of representing Kansas’ 2nd Congressional District.

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