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Leading Locally: Aurora Area Community Foundation

Located in a place formerly known as Elk Horn Prairie, Aurora came to be in 1870. The Lawrence County town had rapid initial growth as a mining town, and today has multiple signs of its heritage — including a small white houn' dog, which was originally tied to local World War I soldiers and is seen on signage all over town.

Affiliate foundations

Lawrence County affiliate focuses on "sense of place" and local needs

Settlers came to today’s Lawrence County looking for land. They found it, and more — specifically, galena ore, which was discovered during the digging of a well. That was a key moment in the history of Aurora, a community which was officially founded on May 9, 1870, after Stephen G. Elliott and his wife, Anna, donated 40 acres of land for its creation.

The discovery led to a mining boom, which saw the town’s size swell to 10,000 at the turn of the 20th century. It was just one of several defining chapters in the town that is reminded of its history through three colorful murals that now line the downtown area and proclaim that “All Roads Lead Home.”

That unique history and heritage is also supported by the Aurora Area Community Foundation. The AACF has assets totaling $4,361,162 as of June 30, and since its start in 2006, has also disbursed $2.1 million in grants and scholarships to the community.

“The biggest thing to me is the growth of the amount of money that we’re putting back into the community,” says Mike Thach, president of the AACF. He shares that when the board formed, he recalls a figure of around $18,000 being distributed annually. “Just through our giving fund, now we’re up to like $40,000.

“The thing about the foundation is that it’s not us. It’s everyone that donates to it and supports it. Everything is going back to the community,” he says.

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Aurora, a town of about 7,200 people, is located in Lawrence County.

Some of the many efforts supported by the AACF include For the Kids, which provides clothing and other essentials to foster families; the local pregnancy care center; and equipment for local volunteer fire departments.

“Just with our fund, we’ve averaged funding at least 18 different things a year,” says Thach. “That doesn’t include the other things that are funded through scholarships, and everything else that is also under our little umbrella of the Aurora Area Community Foundation as well.”

That giving will take a leap forward in 2023, as the AACF launches its first giving circle. Named Hometown Partners, the giving circle allows community members to contribute an annual amount — dues in 2023 are $100 per participant — which in turn are distributed to community causes members decide by vote.

“We realized that Aurora is a little bit of a different animal, a little bit different community, and we wanted something that gave everybody some skin in the game and created across-the-board stakeholders,” says Kim McCully-Mobley, AACF board member. “We didn’t want to set the minimum amount really high, because we wanted everybody to be able to think that they could be a part of it. We thought that’s how you create momentum. That’s how the magic happens; that’s how you get fellowship, camaraderie, trust.”

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Aurora's Youth Empowerment Project chapter has helped fund murals that emphasize a sense of place.

The connections with the CFO are seen in other ways, too, such as Aurora’s participation in the Growth in the Rural Ozarks program. The initiative, founded in 2016 and initially supported by the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, offers training and economic-development coaching to towns in an effort to increase local prosperity.

Aurora’s Youth Empowerment Project chapter — led by McCully-Mobley — is also one of the most active — and was the conduit for those murals being painted around town, which, like town founder Stephen Elliot’s painted portrait, help foster a sense of place.

“It’s important for me to let kids know that they live someplace really special,” says Mobley. “That some really cool stuff has gone on here. That some really neat people came from here, and have done wonderful things.

“They want to be part of something really special, too. I think it’s all about preserving, promoting and protecting those stories from the past so you can build on them in the future.”

Looking ahead: Launching a giving circle

More than 15 years since its founding, the AACF has made great growth in recent months. One example is its giving circle, which brought both a new way to give and a level playing field on how to impact change. Members are welcome to donate higher amounts than the $100 dues, but they still receive just one vote. The deadline for contributing to the circle is Dec. 31, and donations may be made online.

That work is supported by another shift for the AACF in recent months: The hire of Michele Parbury as its first foundation coordinator in late 2022. As a central point for information and communication, Parbury helps the AACF’s work be more streamlined than ever before.

In their own words

Why do you serve?

“What really piqued my interest in the whole thing is what the foundation was doing for the community. When I was teaching here, the kids’ view of the community made me sad. And I wanted to change their perception about what this community is and was and what it can be. I think one of the best ways to do it is through the foundation.”

—Mike Thach, AACF board president

“We always talk about a legacy. How do we want to be remembered? What’s our legacy? But I think this gives us a collective legacy for the town, for our families, for this friendship and professional group that we’ve been able to forge and maintain through the years. To me, it’s going to transcend things long after we’re gone. And I like that.”

—Kim McCully-Mobley, AACF board member

“We’re just filling the spots that need to be filled. And if somebody else comes along and wants to fill the spot, then awesome. We’ve made a good impression and continued the traditions and the desire to make things better.”

—Michele Parbury, AACF coordinator

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