This innovative student fellowship program aims to attract new residents to Wabash County

It might be winter now, but it’s never too early to start planning those summertime adventures.

Imagine One 85 in partnership with Visit Wabash County is hoping its new, one-of-a-kind fellowship program will help young professionals and college students have an unforgettable summer. A few months so enjoyable, educational, and enriching that they might decide to stay in town to kickstart their professional careers. The Wabash County Fellowship Program is a full-time paid internship that will provide adventure-style luxury RV housing, community engagement, professional development, and networking opportunities. 

The goal is to bring more people to the area, to address the small town of Wabash’s population challenge, located just 45 miles Southwest of Fort Wayne. 

In Wabash County natural resources including the rivers, reservoirs, forests, and fields contribute to 15,050 acres of land, making up five percent of the county’s total land area.Alex Downard is the director of ImagineOne 85, a comprehensive plan for Wabash County, and the fellowship program director. The unprecedented countywide collaboration aims to develop a bold growth and prosperity plan for the community. 

“In 2019, there was a community study that was done that showed the biggest threat to Wabash County’s future was four consecutive decades of population decline, “ Downard says. “In the last 40 years, Wabash County has lost almost 14 percent of its population. At that point, the leaders from Grow Wabash County and The Community Foundation of Wabash County got all of our cities, towns, and county commissioners together to create a countywide comprehensive plan to move Wabash County forward.”

The comprehensive plan shows that between 50 and 100 households have left the county each year, and estimates that by 2050, Wabash County could have 5,000 fewer residents than present-day. In a concentrated effort to keep residents, their energy, talent, ambition, and families in the community, the plan has 85 unique actions and initiatives to cultivate growth in the county. 

As the population decreases, and the workforce ages, and employees in critical industries like manufacturing and agriculture near retirement age, labor scarcity increases even more. Employers in Wabash County are facing labor shortages and being forced to think creatively to attract and retain employees. One of the Imagine One 85 initiatives is to help build a workforce pipeline through a more robust internship program. 

Enter The Wabash County Fellowship program, which launched its application at the end of November. Applications are open to incoming juniors and seniors in college and are due January 19.

“We have partnered with 10 Wabash County employers that will host a full-time paid intern in the summer of 2024, from June to August,” Downard says. “Things that make the program a little different is that we are going to provide housing in the form of luxury RVs. Each fellow will get their own luxury RV on the riverfront in a big RV park rented out for the entire summer. Our 10 fellows will have the glamping experience, and events throughout the summer are all geared around that outdoor adventure theme.”

The goal is to address the population problem and provide college students who might have otherwise never considered living in Wabash County with a place they’re proud to call their new home. 

In an effort to attract employees and future residents to the community, the Wabash County Fellowship Program aims to showcase the best assets of the area. The natural resources including the rivers, reservoirs, forests, and fields contribute to 15,050 acres of land, making up five percent of the county’s total land area. What better way to enjoy a transformative summer fellowship than to live in a luxury RV in a micro-community with other fellows? 

Fellows can enjoy and explore new projects, experience growth personally and professionally, and connect with a new community. The luxury RVs are provided by Zoomers RV of Indiana and amenities include WiFi, laundry service, free parking, and free gym membership. 

“Wabash County is really unique in that we have riverfronts running through four of our cities and towns. We have the Wabash River that runs right in front of the campground in downtown Wabash, and we have the Eel River that runs in North Manchester and Roann. We’ve got a state forest, the Salamonie River State Forest in the county. A lot of our programming is geared around that outdoor summer adventure series.”

The Fellowship program is also partnered with the Questa Education Foundation, providing participants with student loan forgiveness. 

“All of our participating employers will have the option to partner with Questa, and if they get an intern or fellow that does a really nice job, they offer them a job after graduation, they can also contribute to a forgivable student loan account to help that student pay for college and come to work for them when they graduate,” Downard says. 

Open internship positions include a fraud analyst at Crossroads Bank, an engineering/administrative/manufacturing role and a foundry role at Ford Meter Box, a marketing/communications/advancement role at Josiah White’s, an engineer at Wabash MPI/Carver, a management development program at MPS Eggs, a maintenance engineer and technical planner at PaperWorks, strategy role at Parkview Health, mechanical engineer at Schlemmer Brothers Metalworks, assistant IT specialist and marketing manager at Strauss Dairy, and title clerk/general admin/content creator at Zoomers RV of Indiana. 

The Wabash County Fellowship Program aims to showcase the best assets of the area.“We are very fortunate in Wabash County to have generational, family-owned-and-operated companies that have been doing business here for hundreds of years,” Downard says. “We have Ford Meter Box as a partner employer, which is our largest employer in Wabash County. We have MPS Eggs, which is the sixth-largest egg producer in the country. These companies have been around for four generations plus, so we’re excited to have those large employers participating in the program.” 

These large national corporations with a local footprint are hoping to land the next generation of talent right here in Wabash. One of those participating companies is a nonprofit, Josiah White’s.

“A lot of people don’t know all of the work that Josiah White’s does, and how large they truly are,” Downard says. “They’re located in the southern part of the county, and are a nonprofit focused on supporting troubled youth.”

Josiah White’s President and CEO Matthew Purkey says he is excited to be a participating employer with the brand-new fellowship program.

“We have been serving Indiana’s youth and their families for over 170 years at Josiah White’s,” Purkey says. “Attracting the right talent is crucial to ensure we can continue to serve and grow our organization for the next generation. We are extremely excited to be a part of innovative programs like these that not only create new workforce pipelines for Josiah White’s, but benefit the growth and strength of the entire Wabash County community.”

The fellowship program applications are due next month, interviews will take place in February, and offers will be made in March. Internships will run from June through August. There is no application fee. 

Downard hopes the innovative program has a successful two-year pilot program and can help grow the community. 

“We’re excited to welcome ten folks in, we’re going to roll out the red carpet, wrap around these folks, and show them all the good things we have to offer here in Wabash County,” he says.

Wabash is the focus of our Partner City series underwritten by Visit Wabash County. This series will capture the story of talent, creativity, investment, innovation, and emerging assets shaping the future of Wabash County, about an hour Southwest of Fort Wayne.
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Read more articles by Sarah Spohn.

Sarah Spohn is a Michigan native, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over the Midwest. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, nonprofits, and community.