Keystone Group kickstarted to give voice to Sauk Valley’s younger generations

Generation Z and millennials called upon to join group, help develop community’s future

Newly sworn in alderman Joe Strabala-Bright applauds the swearing in of new mayor Diana Merdian Monday, May 1, 2023 at Sterling’s City Council meeting.

STERLING – The Sauk Valley Area Chamber of Commerce and Sterling Main Street are gearing up the next generation of community leaders through the rejuvenation of the Keystone Group, made up of local members of generation Z and millennials.

They’ve scheduled three events for those ages 19 to 40 to kickstart involvement in the group:

  • Family Fun Night, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. May 3 at the YMCA in Sterling, a social event geared toward parents with young children
  • Keystone Meeting, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. May 15 at Sterling Township for a tour of the new building and an opportunity to discuss current issues in the community
  • Keystone Social Event, from 6 to 8 p.m. May 23 at Whoop Your Axe for ax throwing and an opportunity to socialize with others in the community

The Keystone Group began as the Millennial Group in 2018 “kind of by accident,” Kris Noble, Sauk Valley Area Chamber of Commerce executive director, said in an interview with Shaw Local News Network.

That year, the chamber partnered with the University of Illinois Extension on a workshop called “Attracting and Retaining Youth in Rural Communities” at Sauk Valley Community College. During the workshop, five millennials who lived and worked in the Sauk Valley led a discussion in front of a group of about 40 people, Noble said.

Within the next week, the chamber was flooded with calls asking to start a group of millennials in the area, so Noble partnered with Janna Groharing, executive director at Sterling Main Street, to form the Millennial Group, now known as the Keystone Group.

For a while, a group of nine people acted as a makeshift advisory board and led the group through meetings to discuss various causes that were important to them. They attended City Council meetings and developed relationships through social events.

Some people even met their current spouses through their involvement with the group, said Joe Bright, the 2nd Ward alderman in Sterling who is one of the group’s original members.

They met every other month, discussing “quality of life, housing – anything they needed to decide that they were going to stay here,” Noble said.

Most notably, the group developed Dogwood Acres Dog Park in Sterling.

“We kind of jumped on the idea, [saying], ‘Hey I think this would be pretty simple to get started.’ ... We thought it could be a fun activity,” Vanessa Wahl of Sauk Valley Bank said in an interview with Shaw Local.

Wahl was one of the original members of the group back in 2018. Now 30, she got married, had a baby, works full time at the Sauk Valley Bank and started a dog-training business.

Through various fundraising efforts, they raised more than $50,000 to build the dog park and partnered with the Sterling Park District, Sterling Fence and Sauk Valley Community College to bring their idea to life.

“A big discussion for us ... was there’s just nothing to do here,” Wahl said.

In a statement that sounds all too familiar for many in generation Z and millennials today in rural communities, Noble had a similar conversation with her 26-year-old son, who moved to Iowa.

“He’s said, ‘I like who I work with, but I don’t know that that’s who I’m going to run with,’ so it’s like, are there groups for people of [a] younger age to, say, just meet other people?” Noble said.

She’s raised an important question: How do I get involved in the community and meet other people?

“We haven’t really done a great job with your generation ... so it’s partly that social aspect, but then also, ‘What do I need to improve the quality of life here, and how do I be part of that?’” Noble said.

The Keystone Group was created as an answer to that question, and for a while it thrived in the community. Then the pandemic hit, many group members got busy with other things in life and, overall, they began to get discouraged.

The dog park was a huge success – and a quick one – but after that, meetings and efforts within the group turned into what seemed to be “talking about things” rather than seeing tangible results, Wahl said.

All of that contributed to the downtick in involvement and overall stagnation of the group.

However, the positive influence of the group is seen throughout the community. Members had successfully created the dog park, and their voices were heard in discussions with the city about the Sterling Riverfront Reimagined project.

As a result of their involvement, many members of the group joined different organizations, including Bright as a 2nd Ward alderman, Josh Johnson as a 3rd Ward alderman and Kaitlyn Ekquist as an alderman at-large. They’re all in their 30s.

Noble highlighted a similar result in her board of directors, with “five people under the age of 40 and a couple of them under the age of 30,” she said.

“I have a very young and progressive board of directors, which is amazing because it’s really important to them that we stick with this,” Noble said.

One of the big issues this generation is discussing is the housing challenge. Many of the housing options in the Sauk Valley need repairs, and there’s not a lot of affordable options.

Older generations are not aware that it’s an issue because they “bought their house in the ‘70s and haven’t looked since,” Bright said.

Other issues include revitalizing murals in the downtown area and the continued revitalization of the riverfront.

“Their voice is valuable, and their history and their knowledge, but you have too many of the same people at the table, and everybody thinks the same way,” Noble said.

Bright said that they’re really pushing to get younger people involved, as many of the original members have gotten busy with work or family life.

The Family Fun Night event is $10 a family, and the Keystone Social Event is $15 a person to attend. The Keystone Meeting always is free to attend, and no registration is required.

For information, visit SVACC online.

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Payton Felix

Payton Felix

Payton Felix reports on local news in the Sauk Valley for the Shaw Local News Network. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago in May of 2023.