Recognizing the Opportunities in the Venango Area

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with about 20 students ages 13-19 from the Venango Area at the Oil Region Youth Entrepreneur Program. These students spent two days learning about becoming entrepreneurs and hearing from local business owners and leaders.

My presentation was about the Be Here initiative and the FLEX young professional group. I explained to students that there are opportunities in the area if they choose to stay or come back someday. After I spoke, Jessica Ewing-Falco, a local entrepreneur and young professional, spoke to the students about helping run her family’s business, C&S Hilltop Hardware and Landscaping Connections, and gave them advice for their futures.

Jessica and I then led a teambuilding exercise called the “Marshmallow Challenge.” The students were required to work in teams and create a tower out of tape, string, and dry spaghetti, with a marshmallow at the top.

Many thoughts went through my head as we were working with these students. First, I was amazed at the organization of this program by Gibbons Business Solutions and all the information these students were able to soak in during these short two days. Not only were they given a booklet filled with entrepreneur-related tips and were able to participate in various activities and lessons, but they heard from local business owners, chamber of commerce professionals, non-profit leaders, and city and county leadership.

Second, it became even more apparent to me that our area is full of talented, hardworking people, many of those being young professionals. I caught the end of County Commissioner Chip Abramovic’s speech when I arrived and it was nothing short of motivational to these students. Then, Jessica’s story was extremely interesting and impressive. She, like many young people in the area, thought she wanted to move away and never come back after graduating high school. After serving in the Navy for five years, and getting her college degree during her service, she decided to move home to Franklin and manage her family’s business. Chip and Jessica are just two examples of the many experienced, dedicated people making a difference in our community.

Third, I appreciated the opportunity to share the message of Be Here and FLEX with these young students. When I was in high school, I often heard: “You have to get out of here. You can’t be successful in Venango County.” Now that I’ve graduated college and moved back to the area, I know this is anything but true, and I take any chance I get to spread this message to young people.

Lastly, and most importantly, I couldn’t get past the energy and hopefulness of these students. I started my presentation by asking “How many of you plan to leave the area after graduating high school?” and saw maybe 6 or 7 hands raised with some giggles. I then asked “How many of you could see yourself staying in Venango County?” and even more hands were raised, which I was not expecting. As I chatted more with the students, I learned that some have already started small businesses here, such as mowing grass and selling crocheted items, and many have big dreams for businesses or careers someday.

Not once during my time there did I hear “there are no jobs here” or “we need to bring manufacturing back.” These students were excited about the future and quietly listened as I told them about what our area has to offer, many even smiling and nodding their heads as I spoke.

I was sure to make them aware that I wasn’t saying our area is perfect—I know we have challenges that need to be addressed like any other area. These students are still in high school and don’t necessarily understand some of the complicated issues we face and weren’t around when our area was “booming” (neither was I), but at the same time, we can learn a lesson from them.

Rather than see a problem in the area and dwell on it, why don’t we work together to come up with a way to solve it? Instead of complaining that we don’t have more restaurants or stores, why not step up to make that happen, or support a local entrepreneur? If you don’t agree with a way something is done, why not volunteer or join a committee?

Our area isn’t perfect, but it’s full of amazing people, educational programs, successful businesses, and students, like the ones I met last week, with a hope for the future. Rather than focus on the negatives, let’s recognize the opportunities for more positives in the Venango Area.