by Wendy Nugent
Special to the Free Press
Marci Penner and Wendee LaPlant with the Kansas Sampler Foundation embarked June 12, 2012, on a 40,000-mile journey throughout Kansas, hoping to visit every incorporated city in the state, which numbers at a whopping 626.
For the trip, which is called Explorer Research Voyage, they?re traveling county by county. So far, they?ve been to 53 counties with 52 to go.
?This is our other big project we?re working on most right now,? said Penner, KSF director. ?The research is for our next ?Kansas Guidebook for Explorers? book.?
The first ?Kansas Guidebook for Explorers? came out in 2005. Penner and LaPlant are visiting counties at random, and they aren?t announcing dates of locales they plan to visit.
?Those who follow the trip on Facebook will have a heads up about the whereabouts of ERV,? according to the KSF website.
Research and fun times
It appears during their trips, LaPlant and Penner have done a lot of research and had a great deal of fun, as written in the Explorer Research Voyage blog at kansassampler.org.
There?s entries with information about a variety of towns, including McCracken, Coats, Sawyer, Agenda (population 66) and Courtland.
Also on their trips, they are observing ?the key elements in sustaining communities,? according to kansassampler.org.
On the McCracken blog entry, there?s a photo of Inman native Penner hugging a woman. ?Shirley is my touchstone. Therefore, so is McCracken,? is written under the photo. ?There?s something about this town, population 180, that always grabs my heartstrings.?
The blog described some of the town?s changes from when Penner visited it 10 years ago. The swimming pool is open again, and the cafe had a successful run for a few years before closing again. The museum has a variety of displays, including one with memorabilia from the movie ?Paper Moon? that was filmed in town during the 1970s. It starred Tatum and Ryan O?Neal.
For their journey, Penner and LaPlant use their Explorer Research Vehicle with ?Explorer Research Voyage? written on the side; the vehicle is a 2012 GMC Terrain loaned to them and wrapped by Midway Motors of McPherson.
Origins of KSF
Before this project started, though, KSF was launched in 1992 by Penner and her father, Milferd Penner.
They started it for a variety of reasons.
?Dad and I were going around the state in 1990 to research for our first guidebook, and we became aware that Kansans didn?t know their own state very well, and there wasn?t a good way to share solutions at the grassroots level,? Penner said. ?The foundation was formed to accomplish both. The KSF mission was to preserve and sustain rural culture.?
The foundation has several goals, which are to have activities that support and network rural communities and teach Kansas residents about their state. The foundation does this in a variety of ways.
For example, in educating people about Kansas, they have such activities as Kansas Explorers Club, Kansas Sampler Festival and guidebooks. In helping with networking and supporting rural communities, they have PowerUp Movement, Big Rural Brainstorm and We Can Conference.
?We?ve been able to fill a unique niche,? Penner said, adding they don?t know of another organization like theirs.
?Other states have called to inquire, and I?ve shared information but haven?t seen another organization happen,? she said.
The foundation?s latest project is KANSTARTER, which is a volunteer-sourcing, crowd-funding site at kanstarter.com. It has four pilot projects and is built by Reflective Group.
?The idea is to streng?then communities by helping find a large crowd of people to chip in with donations or as volunteers,? Penner said.
The pilot projects and their funding goals include $5,090 for non-profit grocery store land in Plains, $18,900 for a Wilson marquee restoration project, $7,600 for Yates Center?s South Owl Lake recreational trail project first phase archway, and $10,900 for restoring and enhancing a public miniature golf course in Burdett.
The site will be opened in January 2015 to towns of any size with eligible community projects. These projects should be ?non-profit, community-initiated projects that strengthen community.?
?We?re looking for projects that push the envelope with creativity and purpose, projects that help a community be the best it can be,? Penner said.
Other projects and activities include:
? Kansas Explorer Club. Those who belong to the club will get six printed newsletters per year that contain information about day trips and info on Kansas. Now, there are 1,500 members.
?Our main goal is to provide information that will make you want to jump in your car and head down Kansas roads,? kansassampler.org stated.
? The We Kan! network is an information flow and support group between rural communities. We Can! projects include KAN?STARTER, We Kan! Tidbits E-Blasts, Power Up Move?ment, Events Calendars and Big Rural Brainstorm.
About 200 attend the rural brainstorm ?sharing ideas on how to move rural Kansas forward.? The event is during even-numbered years.
Also under the We Can! heading is the Kansas Sampler Festival and 8 Wonders of Kansas. The sampler festival gives the public a sample of Kansas, of what there is to learn, buy, taste, see, hear and do. The next festival will be May 2 and 3 at the city park in Wamego.
The 8 Wonders of Kansas consists of previous contests and a guidebook.
?The purpose of the 8 Wonders contests and guidebook is to help the world get to know Kansas and to encourage the public to explore Kansas,? according to kansassampler.org.
There are a variety of ?8 Wonders,? including the original 8 Wonders of Kansas, the 8 Wonders of Kansas Art, 8 Wonders of Kansas Customs, 8 Wonders of Kansas People and others.
? Many programs and speeches.
Penner does seem to love Kansas, as she?s residing on the family farm near Inman in a home that looks like a nice barn; this also is where the KSF is located.
?I?m a big fan,? Penner said about her home state.