GRAY COUNTY, Kan. (KSNW) – The USDA found that rural communities have seen declining populations over the past decade. In southwest Kansas, every county has seen a decrease in population. Some counties have seen up to a 20% population loss. 

However, one group is looking to change those statistics by offering a future for the younger generations of their communities.

“We love southwest Kansas and we know people will if they are exposed to it,” said Joe Coles, Independent Education Consultant.

It’s an initiative that started out focused on Gray County students alone. First referred to as the Gray County Consortium, it has now expanded its reach beyond the Gray County schools of Cimarron, Ingalls, and South Gray and has set its sights on southwest Kansas as a whole.

It’s now known as the Southwest Kansas School, Business, and Community Collaboration.

It’s a program aimed at helping younger generations find a future of success in southwest Kansas.

“If we don’t have careers for these families to want to make southwest Kansas home, then our schools and communities are going to suffer,” said Jay Zehr, Superintendent of South Gray Schools. “We’re working to keep our graduates in southwest Kansas, by providing them the chance to be trained and learn about the employment opportunities and fill the needs for local businesses and rural schools to stay open.”

The program offers students college scholarships, potential internships, and future careers.

Some career options include fields in welding, manufacturing, education, agriculture, and more.

It also offers a future for students that may decide college is not the path for them.

“We are trying to help those industries develop our kids, showing them that with a certification or you know some kind of vocational training, you can have a high paying job, and a career and raise your families in southwest Kansas,” said Zehr.

Students are engaged with local companies that give one-on-one insight to their businesses.

Some businesses such as MJE and Hy-Plains Feedyard have even brought students to their facilities to experience first-hand what it would be like to pursue a career in the two respective industries. 

“Now we’ve got some opportunities for kids. They’re finding out, hey there is a career in the dairy industry, there is a career in the feed, cattle feeding industry, there is a career at MJE, and you can be a part of it,” said Zehr.

The goal is to keep southwest Kansas kids, in southwest Kansas.

“We are wanting to keep graduates of our schools in southwest Kansas, finding careers and opportunities where they love what they do and would be happy to raise their families out here,” said Coles.

Those involved hope this will give a boost to rural communities that are otherwise slowly dying.

“If there were opportunities here, I really believe they would come back and raise their families here because there’s no better place,” Heather Jantz, Chief Operating Officer of MJE, LLC.

Those in the collaboration, say the main theme is to keep their ‘own at home’ and create an environment where native southwest Kansans can return to the area, find successful employment opportunities, and raise their families there.

“Let’s grow our own. We want to grow our children, our high school students, and our college-age students, into being employees and citizens of southwest Kansas,” said Jantz. “Find the intelligent, hardworking individual that likes southwest Kansas, and you can train them to do the job you need them to do.”

Collaborators believe this is a way to give smaller communities a better future.