York Town Square

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How the grass roots in York County can – and do – bring about real change


Camp Stewartstown housed German prisoners of war in World War II. It operated on the Stewartstown playground next to the Presbyterian Church in the summers of 1944 and 1945.


In the 2020 census, York County will learn that its population again is up, reaching north of 450,000 people.

Our prime location as a hinge point in the mid-Altantic region has meant consistent growth since 1790.

Despite these growing numbers, fewer people are volunteering for nonprofits that do valuable work for kids, families and communities.

Volunteer fire companies, for example. Local historical groups. Our libraries. Service organizations. Houses of worship.

There’s another hurdle for these organizations, the collective glue that have helped form community in our towns decades. The day of big-gift philanthropy that has aided these community organizations is in its sunset.

There’s a partial solution on this giving piece.

The initiative Give Local York County is providing an opportunity for, say, 10,000 people to give $10 or more to help offset the loss of those $10,000 and $100,000 gifts that have buoyed our communities in the past.

On May 3, Give Local will sponsor a 24-hour online giving marathon.

“We are invested in bringing awareness to the community benefit organizations that make our community a vibrant place for us to live, work, and play,” the Give Local website states.

Success stories at the grass roots

When you think about it, there’s opportunity here.

Our big problems in America and in our communities aren’t best solved by big solutions.

They never really have been.

The best work comes when we break down our large problems into small pieces in our regular personal practices and community work.

Sometimes, these practices multiply and a grassroots problem-solving movement begins.

Washington, D.C., is full of people who promise sweeping solutions to problems. That happens on the local level, too. In other words, government is the solution. Somehow, that thinking seems out of place at a time and in a culture in which authority is not respected.

But if someone we respect starts doing something good for others or the community, we are more likely to join in. In York city, The Movement and York XL are two examples of growing grassroots initiatives that started with an seed.

Grass roots work in Stewartstown

I was thinking about such things at a recent dinner of the Stewartstown Area Historical Society, one of those groups that has long taken on important community projects and kept heritage in that region in the forefront.

I looked around the tables at those folks who had come out on a sunny Saturday night. Everyone there had given so much: sponsoring presentations, forming a museum, publishing books and working with the owner to restore the Hyson one-room school.

In the school project, history society leader Don Linebaugh, a University of Maryland dean, is serving as archaeologist, an example of a national-level expert contributed at the community level.

I had the opportunity to say a few things to the group and praised them for their work through the frame of a three quotes from Kentucky- based farmer/philosopher Wendell Berry.

Berry is a proponent of addressing big problems through our own personal practices.

In his best-known work of fiction, “Hannah Coulter,” Berry writes about Nathan Coulter’s return to the town of Port William after serving in World War II. He could have lived anywhere.

Narrator Hannah Coulter said about her husband: “He was where he wanted to be as I, too, was by then. Members of Port William aren’t trying to get some place. They think they are some place.”

I told the Stewartstown group that here they were together as a membership on a Saturday night, with a well-honed sense of place that has fueled the good work they’ve done for so many years. They think – they know – they are some place.

Berry also writes on a topic that is spot on for those assembled in Stewartstown: “And so the first right thing we must do today is to take thought of our history so as to prevent, so far as we can, the evils of yesterday from infecting today.”

I told members of the group that when they have presentations, as recently, of the German prisoner of war camp that operated in Stewartstown in World War II, then the community glimpses how deeply that war touched American soil. We had soldiers who had been under the command of Hitler living in our midst.

And I finished with a story from Berry’s novel “A Place on Earth.” He writes about how Port William’s Burley Coulter comes to Mat Feltner’s door in the dark to tell him about a flooding danger a family on a remote farm was facing.

“Well, Mat,” he said, “what I’ve come about really ain’t any of my business. I think it probably ain’t any of yours either, really. But the reason I come is that if it ain’t our business then it probably won’t be anybody’s.”

As it turned out, the flood had caused the family death and displacement, and the intervention of the two men, in the end, kept the family together.

Burley and Mat were devoted to community, and so are members of the Stewartstown Area Historical Society and countless other vital organizations like them.

Change at community level

Our best chance for change and problem solving simply rests with ourselves and at the community level.

And as for funding community work,  Give Local York County says it well:  “On May 3 we can all be philanthropists.”

A century ago, Stewartstown was a market center in the southeastern part of York County. The Stewartstown Railroad, now offering excursion rides, helped make it so. Here, speeders operate along the tracks.