Hillsboro creates new community engagement coordinator position


Cara Duell is the new Community Engagement Coordinator in Hillsboro. In addition to running the Hillsboro Family Aquatic Center during the summer and being in charge of themuseums in Hillsboro, Duell serves as a liason between the school district, Tabor and the city in order to build programs among all three.

Colt Bechtold and Bexley Shahan get hands-on with an old typewriter at an exhibit during Down Home Christmas earlier this month. Many of the museums in Hillsboro have been redesigned to be more interactive.

Kids and adults alike are encouraged to ring the bell at the old schoolhouse in Hillsboro.


The museums in Hillsboro have been getting facelifts and new displays so that kids and adults alike can have more hands-on experiences. There are many changes and exciting events planned.

In addition to many Mennonite cultural items, there are fun historical and story items gathered at the museums and Hillsboro Visitor’s Center including a size 37 pair of shoes.


Like many towns in Marion County, Hillsboro recently hosted a day of Christmas-themed activities, and many around town kept hearing about all of the fun things going on at the museums in town. Thanks to the hard work of Cara Duell and her new position as Hillsboro’s Community Engagement Coordinator, kids and adults alike got to have a different experience than usual at Hillsboro’s Annual Down Home Christmas earlier this month and it’s just the start of some of the events and ideas that Duell has planned.

Duell was recently hired by the city to revamp the museum program and come up with new ideas.

Hillsboro City Administrator Matt Stiles said that the city knew there was going to be a change at the museum with the previous director leaving and knew there was going to be an opportunity there.

“In talking to the board and looking at things, we knew that we wanted to do more as we felt like we had underutilized the museum. We felt like we had done a really good job catering to the market that is interested in the Mennonite history piece, but there are a lot of other stories to be told about Hillsboro. There’s a lot more out there that we knew we could do a better job with and we wanted to start doing that,” said Stiles.

Duell instantly came to mind for Stiles for many reasons. She had been a teacher at Canton Galva previously and then had been substitute teaching for USD 410 for the past few years. She not only knew about education, she knew the kids and families in Hillsboro.

“With Cara, we have someone who has been a teacher, someone who has the passion for education and who has done other things for us. She managed the pool for us so she has a background with that. So we have hired her to be our Community Engagement Coordinator. The theory there is that she runs the pool for us in the summer and runs the museum for us the rest of the time. She works with the school district and Tabor College and engages them with things that the city is doing so that we can have a real cohesive approach to that which is something that we haven’t done really well in the past. She has the exact right profile for that and she was interested in it. We were like okay, we can use that skill set and put her to work,” said Stiles.

Duell points out that she is also a natural historian because as a teacher who taught English Literature, she had to know history so that she could know the backstory and be able to give students context about what was going on in the time period the story was set in.

Duell says it’s good to know about the past and what happened but it is also important to be open to learning and doing things differently.

”We can’t get so stuck in the past that we don’t see the present or the future,” said Duell.

She also knows what gets kids excited.

“Cara has been focusing more on trying to get young people focused more on the museum. Previously, it had been a destination on the field trip circuit. Everybody of a certain generation would have a story of how they would go through the Adobe house and the schoolhouse and see the mill and the Schaeffler House. There was this history with that, but then we have really dropped off on that because our museum has gone without a director or had one with just volunteer support. If we are gonna do anything productive with this and really go for it, we really need to have someone who is going to be there more of the time. That is one of the things the board expressed is that they want someone who is going to be there more,” Stiles said.

And she has already been doing this.

“You won’t find any ‘Do not touch’ signs anywhere. People need to touch things and really experience them. And we have so many duplicates of items and not everything is fragile. If it’s something I’m concerned about getting damaged, it won’t be accessible,” Duell said.

One example of the type of the hands-on learning that Duell is implementing is how she found and readied slate boards for the schoolhouse and how she and another staff member Sue Wadkins have painted chalkboard on the walls so that when kids come, they can actually work out math problems just like kids used to when they attended one room schoolhouses.

“Cara and Sue both deserve pats on the back for rolling up their sleeves and doing what needed to be done to make this happen. Lots of hard work, cleaning, organizing and researching to also do it carefully and properly. Both have been making room to get rid of duplicates and damaged items to help and preserve and organize the rest of the priceless items and make them more accessible,” said Staci Silhan, a board member of the Hillsboro Museum, Convention and Visitor Center.

Silhan has already been impressed by Duell’s efforts and stated that she has gotten so much positive feedback from people.

Silhan said, “At Down Home Christmas, I heard a lot of people saying things about how stuff used to be piled up everywhere and now it’s easy to walk through and look at which is exactly what was needed. And now we have more of an accurate reflection and portrayal of Hillsboro’s history which involved various ethnic and religious backgrounds from J.G. Hill, Dr. Flippin who pre-dated the Mennonite’s arrival—Dr. Flippin actually sold his land to the Gnadenau settlement— to the Schaeffler family and the Lutheran Church. It is important to truthfully share history so we can better learn from it.

Just spending a few minutes with Duell and listening to her talk about her work can let you know how passionate she is about what she does.

“You know what they say about don’t get a job you hate going to every day. I love doing what I do so much. I love the people that I work for and I love what I do. Every day I am learning something new.

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