Students discuss positive change, challenges and opportunities in Somerset-Pulaski County
There’s a growing sense of community in Somerset-Pulaski County, and recent high school graduates are pointing to that as the reason they will consider coming back after college.
“I feel like for a while, there was a period where it didn’t feel like a community here,” Pulaski County High School (PCHS) graduate and Western Kentucky University student Erin Atwell said. “But I think we are on that track to that community idea again. I think that’s really helping. I think it’s the diverse ideas, it’s the festivals, it’s shedding light on all different kinds of ideas. I think (before) it was very like-minded, if you weren’t in the community you weren’t in it. And now I think it’s getting broader. I think that’s definitely a highlight and I think that’s drawing people in.”
Atwell was one of six high school graduates who recently participated in a Somerset-Pulaski Economic Development Authority (SPEDA) focus group, part of the capstone project for the organization’s summer internship. Each year, the summer intern assembles a group to hear their perspectives on what they would like to see in their community in order to consider building a future here. The project also includes preparing a report that summarizes the focus group and internship experience.
This year’s intern, Somerset High School (SHS) graduate and Centre College student Jackson Prather, wrote in his report that conversations like these are effective when people feel comfortable being vulnerable and sharing their opinions — and this focus group was successful in this way.
“The conversation went on for hours, diving into deep thought, and it was a true honor getting to sit at the table with some of Somerset’s finest and brightest young ladies and gentlemen,” Prather wrote in his report.
One of the participants, SHS graduate Tate Madden, has already chosen Somerset as his home, having entered the workforce soon after graduating so he and his brother could run his family business. As he interacts with customers, he said, he often hears their perspectives about the community — and they are increasingly positive.
“I worked for a lady the other day who talked about how when she first moved here to Somerset 30 to 40 years ago, how much it’s changed as far as just the community coming together,” Madden said. “Everybody used to have their own ideas, and now they’re pretty much just putting them together and working them out. She said from what it was to now, it’s 100 times better. And I said, ‘I completely agree with you on that.’”
SHS graduate and University of Kentucky student Jonathan Ramsey said the community is successfully growing while keeping a “small-town feeling.”
“Somerset is growing, but it still feels like a small town everybody loves,” Ramsey said. “That’s what I think would bring me back the most, is knowing people in the community but also having stuff to do on top of that.”
But the community is not without challenges, and each of the participants spent time talking about the things they’d like to change here, like having more and higher-paying jobs of the future, more advanced health care, and healthier restaurant options. But the opioid crisis and homelessness were at the top of the list, each student’s life having been touched by one or the other in some way.
Ramsey, who intends to go to medical school along with focus group participant Aryan Patel, discussed his experience in seeing the effects of the opioid crisis in the medical clinic he’s currently working in. SHS graduate and Eastern Kentucky University student Kannon Tucker, an aspiring attorney, talked about how he would like to see more focus on rehabilitation efforts as opposed to jail time for drug offenders in the system.
In his report, Prather pointed out that Somerset’s challenges are not unique.
“These issues don’t define the town, it’s what we do to fix them and there’s no doubt with SPEDA, Mayor Keck and many others that they will continue to do all they can to make Somerset a better place than they found it,” Prather wrote.
Tucker said he is inspired by how people and businesses take care of one another in Somerset-Pulaski County, and how much community pride has grown here since his youth.
“I think it’s especially important to be prideful of your community,” Tucker said. “We have every reason to be proud of this community. From where we were when we were in middle school to where we are now is amazing. I mean, who would have ever thought we would have a festival downtown with over a thousand people there? I wouldn’t.”
SPEDA President and CEO Chris Girdler said he was inspired listening to these students talk about how far Somerset and Pulaski County have come in such a short time. And he’s encouraged that the community’s decades-long brain drain may be reversing itself, he said.
“What we’ve experienced for the last three to four decades is seeing our best and brightest go off to school and never come back,” Girdler said. “Much of SPEDA’s work is focused on improving the quality of life in Somerset and Pulaski County so we can make this a place students want to come back to, to raise their families and have meaningful lives and careers. For our community to grow, we have to stop the brain drain. And I am so encouraged every time we host this focus group that our young people are considering this a place to come back to once again, and that they are deeply invested in making it a better place for future generations.”
For some, living and raising a family anywhere else is just not in the cards.
“We were all raised here. I can’t see myself being anywhere else, raising my kids when I start a family,” PCHS graduate and rising Georgetown College freshman Chandler Godby said. “I can’t see myself being anywhere else but here.”
“I am very grateful and excited to one day be able to start my family here in Somerset, instilling the pride that I have in my children,” Prather wrote in his report. “I want to one day be able to sit down and know that I have helped change and push Somerset in a positive direction allowing for economic growth, which as I have learned leads to many things such as family satisfaction and family retention. Because we all know Somerset would not be Somerset without the great and kind people that make up the Capital of Lake Cumberland.”