How art helps small towns recover from disasters

Delmont, South Dakota (pop 234), was struck by a tornado in 2015. Several people were injured, and the whole town was evacuated for safety. You could forgive the people of Delmont for despairing for the future of their town. Would anyone ever come back?

Clean up and repairs started, and the town slowly made progress on recovering. In the months after, community members were meeting to talk through ongoing recovery efforts.

Kenny Sherin, South Dakota State University Center for Community Vitality, was there for the meetings, and he shared this story with me. At one of those community meetings, he suggested they consider doing an art project to bring people together and continue the healing process. They liked it and decided on the cardinal, a symbol of death, birth and renewal.

Some people got together and made a template for wooden cardinals. Students in the high school shop class helped cut out over a thousand cardinals. Community groups like the Girl Scouts got together and held cardinal painting parties.

Together, the 234 people of Delmont completed and hung a cardinal in 1,400 trees.

What I love about this:

  1. Everyone in town could contribute in a small but meaningful way. There were many chances to get involved from the idea stage, to making birds, to painting, to hanging them out, to even being a host to a bird in a tree on your property. This is the Take Small Steps part of the Idea Friendly Method.
  2. Art helps communities address issues and feelings that are hard to reach with things that are only practical and logical. People in town talked about the spark of color, the symbolism and the sense of community recovery. It’s just as important to defeat the feeling of despair as it is to rebuild the infrastructure.

I want you to think about your community. What are some issues or feelings that art or creativity could help you address in your town?