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Day of Caring unites 1,400 volunteers working on 121 Ozarks community projects

The 141-year-old Wommack Mill, also known as the Boegel and Hines Mill, in Fair Grove on Thursday, June 13, 2024.
Gregory Holman/KSMU
The 141-year-old Wommack Mill, also known as the Boegel and Hines Mill, in Fair Grove on Thursday, June 13, 2024.

For three decades and counting, United Way of the Ozarks has put on a Day of Caring each year. It's a chance for volunteers to help out on worthwhile community projects — including Fair Grove's historic Wommack Mill.

This is a story about the power of Ozarks volunteers and how it can be harnessed to protect priceless cultural and community resources. Resources like the old mill in historic Fair Grove. It was built in 1883. 141 years later, on Thursday, a team of volunteers under the United Way banner worked on fixing up the 7-acre property: running construction equipment to clear a creek bed, excavate a retaining wall and complete other heavy-duty tasks.

2024 marks the first year the Fair Grove Historical and Preservation Society joined up with United Way Day of Caring. I got to the Fair Grove historic center early to watch the volunteers in action.

The scene was bucolic, small-town America. I met Mary Sue Hoban, chief spokesperson for United Way, near a footbridge leading to the historic Wommack Mill. A sign on the bridge says, ‘"In memory of all those in the military who gave their lives for our freedom,’donated by Frank and Jan Wommack."

Hoban explained that 2024 is the 32nd year for United Way Day of Caring.

"It's the largest single-day volunteer event in southwest Missouri," she said. "This year 1,400 volunteers from companies, from organizations, from governmental agencies are coming together to do work at nonprofits. And it's work that nonprofits don't have the staff or the budget to achieve. They pick the projects. United Way pairs them up with the volunteers, and they get out there and do good work in good fellowship and teamwork together — all day, one day.”

Hoban introduced me to the president of the Fair Grove Historical and Preservation Society, Mary Terry. She's been a Fair Grove resident since she was nine years old.

Before leading the historical society, Terry retired from a career in banking and business. She told me the Wommack Mill was central to Fair Grove’s history as a farming community. But in 1969, the mill stopped grinding grain into livestock feed and closed for business. It lay dormant and run-down until the early 1980s, a few years after the historical society began holding a fall festival on the property.

“This will be our 47th year for the festival, and that's in the fall," Terry said. "It's in the fall last full weekend September, which is September 28th and 29th. Today is just, I, I can't thank United Way to be, to come — "

Terry's voice was almost choked up. I said, "You're grasping your heart as you're talking to me. Why is [today's volunteer work] that emotional?”

“Well, because we need the help," Terry responded. "Unfortunately, our group is getting smaller every year. And, you know, and I can go back 20 years and 30 years ago, and the group would have been 60 people, you know?"

"How many is it now?" I asked.

"20?" Terry said. "You know, and at our meetings, if we even get 12 there, we’re lucky.”

"So this like a big shot in the the arm?"

"This is," Terry said. "Because this something we just could not do. And we've been needing to do.”

Dustin Keyes is one of the volunteers who came out to the Wommack Mill on Thursday. He’s a Fair Grove resident who works for City of Springfield Public Works. They volunteered a handful of staff and some heavy equipment for the mill project, joined by workers with John Deere Reman. Keyes spoke with me after running a backhoe near the property’s history museum, recapping the tasks he and his group were taking care of on Thursday: “So we got this retaining wall that we’re taking out. We got some dirt over there that we got to flatten out, cleaning this whole waterway. And that's about it."

Keyes said the feeling of going above and beyond to pitch in is pretty great: "Yeah, I mean, it's, it's just a good feeling. You know, I mean, it's pretty cool that you know, a small community can come together and have those functions and everything and then the old mill, you know, it's a big part of Fair Grove. So it's kind of nice to be able to come out here and help with that.”

In places like the European Union or Japan, the national taxpayer might be more likely to directly fund this kind of effort. But here in the American heartland, the bulk of the work gets done with sweat equity provided by members of the public.

Gregory Holman is a KSMU reporter and editor focusing on public affairs.