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From Bale Committee to State Legislator

Doug Cunningham was barely 26 years old when he moved back to his hometown of Wausa, Nebraska (pop. 600) and bought the corner grocery store. An enterprising and entrepreneurial grocer, Doug soon learned that lots of potential customers were driving to the supermarkets in the larger towns down the road, so he made a point of keeping his prices competitive. He also offered up some niche specialties (handmade pizza, for example) that the larger stores couldn't do.

Cunningham also got his introduction to community leadership through a simple and unique strategy that this community had used for many years to get young people involved: the Abale Committee.?

First, though, some background. Wausa is a small town with a strong Swedish heritage. Each fall, the town celebrates that heritage with a big community festival, complete with smorgasbord and a parade. Bands, floats and clowns march up Main Street as members of the community watch and cheer. But as there is no place for viewers to sit, an inexpensive and creative solution had to be found.?

That's where the bales come in. A committee of townsfolk is recruited to contact area farmers and ask if they can borrow a few hay bales for the day. Committee members divide up the work of driving out to pick up the bales, putting them on Main Street for seating during the parade, and then getting them back to the farm. Simple. Neat. Effective.?

But the real power of the idea is that it gets people started on the road to community leadership through a small, short-term task that anyone can understand: Get some bales, take them back.

"First, you get asked to be on the Bale Committee. Then you chair the Bale Committee. Pretty soon you are the president of the Chamber of Commerce," said Cunningham. And soon he was.

That was nearly 15 years ago. Today, Doug is State Senator Doug Cunningham, a member of Nebraska's unique one-house legislature, where he serves his northeast Nebraska district. And, when he goes home, goes back to work at his corner grocery store

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