Rural communities without economic development staff or chambers of commerce still have resources available to them if they are members of Missouri Community Betterment, which held its annual fall conference Sunday and Monday at Heritage Fields in Mexico. The organization launched a new assessment tool for these communities to evaluate and prioritize community projects.

There are around 69 member communities ranging in populations from zero to 7,500 and up.

"Our smallest is Allendale with 55 people and our largest is Hannibal with about 17,000. Our sweet spot is around 5,000 or less," Executive Director Teresa Synder said.

These communities may not have the resources to conduct betterment projects, which is why member communities have access to information on resources they could access, according to the Betterment website.

"A lot of times it's volunteers doing the work and they either may not know about the resources that are available or they don't know who to contact," Snyder said, adding Missouri Community Betterment is that conduit.

There were around 13 member communities who attended the conference. Mexico was selected as the conference host city from the suggestion of board member Commerce Bank President Ron Hopkins of Mexico.

"We were kind of wanting to get out in the rural communities, so that's how that came to be. This venue has worked well. We can support a smaller community" Snyder said.

Missouri Community Betterment has created a community self-assessment tool known as Measuring and Awarding Progress or Community M.A.P. Tool. It looks at four community areas — who or the people, where or plans-of-action, what or financial resources, infrastructure and assets and how or quality of life.

Residents, law enforcement, health care organizations, seniors, youth, education centers, businesses, city and county elected leadership, agencies, arts and entertainment venues, clubs and service organizations and faith-based organizations are encouraged to take part in a community betterment survey. That then gives betterment committee members an idea of how to score and work toward shared goals.

Awards were given to youth members, youth groups and adult members and groups Monday. Conference sessions were guided by guest speakers on topics such as media consumption and dissemination, how money really is filtering through a community, and methods to promote the community in light of the Missouri Bicentennial in 2021.

The organization encourages youth membership and the creation of youth community betterment groups Snyder said.

"Typically they're between the ages of 14-18 and we have a youth advisory board that is youth from throughout the state," she said, adding there are 10 members on that board.

It is the youth advisory board that helps plan events, the annual conference and youth Civic Leaders Summit in March, Synder said. "They are civic and community-service minded," she said.

Having youth membership helps with community succession plans, she said. This allows the communities to know it will be taken care of as older members may need to leave the organization for a variety of reasons.

"When you can plant the seed with the youth here and in the communities and they have some investment in the projects and achievements in the communities, you stand a lot better chance of them someday returning," Snyder said.

Since the youth are putting the work in now, they already know their community is willing to do the work to create betterment projects and opportunities, she said. They also are protective of the projects on which they have worked, she added.