The population in Albert Lea, Minnesota, has declined by approximately 1,600 since the year 2000. This is a discouraging situation, especially for those of us engaged in community development. Should we invest in new residential dwellings if we are worried about maintaining population? Should we continue to develop our downtown when we are worried about whether we’ll have a large-enough customer base in the coming years? Will local businesses remain viable and draw in a quality workforce? How can we plan for the future when we aren’t sure what the future will hold?

We aren’t alone in asking these questions. This kind of uncertainty can be crippling for small communities everywhere. And in the nonprofit world, it also prompts a fearful realization. We exist because of community support. As numbers dwindle and long-term employees leave the workforce to live off fixed incomes in these areas, it means there are fewer financial resources to work with.

And yet, last fall, during a visit to our community, walkability expert Dan Burden said, “Small towns are less complex, and for those that collaborate and focus on a common vision, they can act quicker and stay on course … the small towns of America will set the course for our nation.” 

Essentially, Burden was saying small towns are potentially more capable of innovative action than urban centers. It was a bold statement and something we don’t often hear.

I agree with him. Although the numbers of residents in our area may have dwindled, the quality of people continues to grow as more find their voices and become meaningfully engaged. I believe our communities have the resources we need to address the problems we face. We just need to approach those problems in a different way.

Here’s why I think that’s true: One of the first challenges I took on early in my career with the United Way was prescription drug abuse. As chair of Albert Lea’s Drug Education Task Force, I heard increasing stories of abuse, and I knew that it was an emerging issue with our youth. I also knew one of the greatest dangers of prescription drug abuse is that it’s uncertain what the outcomes will be when people mix drugs together. 

We handed out drug drop-box cards in the community to build awareness of local disposal options.

Working with Alice Englin, who was coordinator for the Drug Free Communities grant our community received, we discovered how to set up a drug drop-box. This would create a safe environment for people to dispose of drugs—to get them out of homes and workplaces so that others didn’t have access to them. It seemed like an easy solution, but there were many variables at play. We needed law enforcement staff to follow protocol for disposal. We needed the larger community to engage and use the box. We needed pharmacies to build awareness. As a small community, we had limited funds for disposal, so we also needed to figure out a means of sustainability.

Well, we succeeded. The first collection, back in 2011, yielded 25 pounds of prescription medication and 208 pounds for the entire year. The effort continues to bring in legal and illegal drugs, and ensures safe disposal. Today the program collects on average 125 pounds a month, with collections totaling 1,524 pounds in 2014. It is a self-sustaining operation.  

At the time, we couldn’t pinpoint the reasons why this effort worked, when other communities had not been successful with sustaining their drug-drop sites. But with hindsight, we distilled several lessons from our experience and believe these lessons may hold the key to success for other community efforts as well:

  • Be sure there’s a common vision. The drug drop-box effort was a significant undertaking and engaged local law enforcement, county, and city officials, as well as staff, nursing directors, the medical community, nonprofit organizations, local media, countless volunteers, and community members. Each group came to the table with a different understanding of the situation and the need—but when we left the table, we had a shared view of what needed to happen, why, and how.

  • Talk to everyone. We were well into discussions about how the process would work and had held several successful community collections when we learned there were policies in place at the state level that would keep local long-term care organizations from using the site we had selected for the drop-box. The long-term care facilities had significantly more medications than the general public and had been looking for a better way to dispose of it. We went outside of our community, talked to supervising pharmacists who oversaw disposal, and created a chain-of-command policy that sanctioned use of the site.

  • Tap all resources. Leave no stone unturned in getting people involved. Chief of Police Dwaine Winkels became one of the greatest supporters of the drug drop-box and ensured that his staff members were fully trained before assigning them the task of removing drugs from the drop box and transporting them to the incinerator. Our United Way gave a small grant for the construction of the box, and helped facilitate meetings, communication with local pharmacies and long-term care organizations, and engagement of the general community. Many organizations devoted staff time to ensure that proper protocols were in place, such as securing medication until law enforcement could arrange a collection. Local businesses agreed to provide a fee-for-service to cover the cost of disposal and staff time.

  • Believe that change is possible. Having confidence we would succeed helped us get past the initial barriers we faced and has continued to help us sustain the site as other challenges have emerged.

We set up the box shortly after the national United Way organization adopted the LIVE UNITED messaging, which focuses on advocating and volunteering. The messaging is a call to action and a statement about how many resources are available to help resolve community issues. I believe people are our best and most-underutilized resource; we were successful only because of the quality partners who were at the table.

Real change—true innovation—takes a great deal of work, and much of that work goes on beneath the radar for most of our society. We have created the systems we’re operating from, and we can change them. What matters are the reasons why we seek change—our intentions—and our ability to compel others to seek the same change. It is up to us to build new systems on a sense of common good and humanity for all.