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Leading Locally: Barton County Community Foundation

On the western edge of the Ozarks is Barton County, home to ag-driven acreage with fields of farmland, the longest-running free fair in the state of Missouri, and famous names like U.S. President Harry S Truman and Wyatt Earp, who served as constable before beginning a frontier adventure

Affiliate foundations

Lamar-based foundation works to serve all of Barton County

Ozarks history lives in the present in Barton County. It’s the place where President Harry S Truman was born, is still home to both an on-the-square movie theater (dating to 1938) and a drive-in theater on the edge of town, and a rich agricultural legacy that has thrived for generations.

Yet while some elements of its history have a lasting impact, the Barton County Community Foundation presents a united effort to help support and propel the area’s success into the future.

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Barton County still has its Plaza Theater, which dates to 1938 and operates on the square in Lamar.

Since 2013, the BCCF has supported a wide range of needs throughout the community of Lamar, Barton County’s seat where a statuesque red-brick courthouse dates to 1887 — and throughout the county, an area filled with a few characteristic Ozarks hills but greater acreage of flat farmland that produces corn, wheat and more.

“We’ve had projects in Golden City, we’ve had projects in Liberal, so all the communities have been involved, even though Lamar is the county seat,” says Martin Bunton, president of the BCCF, of towns within the county. “We take seriously trying to be the county’s community foundation.”

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Barton County Memorial Park, once the location of Lamar's hospital, has been transformed into a greenspace and place honoring U.S. military veterans.

Those efforts to help as much as possible extend to causes as well as locations — and are of such significance that the BCCF was chosen as the CFO’s affiliate of the year in 2023.

“One thing that we’ve done that I’m proud of is trying to reach a diverse body of needs,” says Nancy Curless, a founding member and current communications secretary for the BCCF.

She lists some examples: “Park improvements, preschool, recreation at the park, sports at school, meals through the backpack program, bedding through the Dream Big Little One, Memorial Park — things that would benefit small groups, individuals personally, as well as community improvement.”

Those efforts to serve led Curless and others to form an independent foundation in 2013. It later joined the CFO in 2015.

“Once we got connected with the CFO and became an affiliate, we really saw a lot of progress,” Curless says. “It amplified what we were doing and progress we were making.”

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Barton County, located along the Kansas-Missouri state line, has a significant agricultural base.

Those projects are fueled by partnerships — such as through the Show-Me Youth Agriculture Academy, which holds a fund within the BCCF — to funds from local donors, as well as the BCCF’s annual gala. In 2023, Fiesta with Friends is set for Sept. 30, and includes dinner, a silent auction and the foundation’s annual grant presentation.

Curless also points to another benefit of board service: Having a heart for community needs in a place where all hands are needed.

“When I was growing up, anytime we would feel like we didn’t have to do something, Mom would get out the Little Red Hen book,” Curless says, referencing the children’s story that shares the need to work for reward. “That’s made a big impression; my sisters and I still talk about that. It’s been a guiding thought: If you want something done, if you want to sit at the table, you better help provide.”

Looking forward: Greater awareness and education

Over its decade of existence, the BCCF has spent a considerable amount of time to help share information about the foundation.

“I always looked at our meetings and events as outreach. If one new person comes in and hears our story, it’s worth doing,” Curless says of her mindset around events. “For the 10 years early on, that’s why I was plugging along: Just got to get one more person to hear this story. That was one of our early challenges with explaining to people what we’re about, what we are.”

While those educational efforts still exist today, another layer of information the board wishes to share is around what kinds of gifts are possible — and that other contributions, such as land and livestock, are also gladly accepted, and particularly relevant in the agricultural area.

“The Kansas line really ought to move over two thirds of a county because we’re dirt farmers, grain-based, not so much cattle and all the things that you’d see in ‘real’ Ozarks,” Bunton says. “Somewhere in there would be the line ‘Gateway to the Ozarks,’ which has been used in the past. Agriculture is big business.”

In addition to continuing that mission of education, the BCCF board is currently seeking its first-ever foundation coordinator. This part-time role will work with the CFO staff and the affiliate board to coordinate advancement and administrative activities in the Barton County area. Once hired, the coordinator will support the BCCF’s operations to help ease needs for board and community members.

“We’re kind of excited about what that might bring to the table,” Bunton says. “How much more we can accomplish with someone.”

In their own words

Why do you serve?

Martin Bunton Barton County CF

“I am a product of this community, this area, the people here and feel a strong compulsion to give back. My life's success – whatever I’ve achieved – is largely because of this area. And I would like to see that go forward in the future for other people.”

Martin Bunton, BCCF board president

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We want to be diverse; spreading out assistance as much as we can and reaching as many people as we can. You’re also surrounded by a good quality bunch of people (through the board). And that makes it rewarding.”

Nancy Curless, BCCF board communications secretary

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