Listen to this kid who worked to make Kansas better for everyone

September 18, 2020 4:00 am

Ashton Rickford, 14, has just started 9th grade at Rawlins County Junior/Senior High School, where he plays for the Buffaloes. (Submitted by Travis Rickford to Kansas Reflector)

Here’s a story about a promising young teenager with a heart of gold who fell into some real deep state stuff in Kansas.

The kid is Ashton Rickford, who just started 9th grade at Rawlins County Junior/Senior High School in Atwood, a town of about 1,200 people up near the Nebraska line, one county east of Colorado.

When Ashton’s family moved to Atwood three years ago, they left what he describes as the “really big” town of Hays. He likes the small town better.

“Mom wouldn’t let me walk to the grocery store during the summer to get something to eat in Hays because it’s really big,” he says. “There are a lot of fun things you can do in a big town, but you don’t have the freedom when you’re a kid.”

In Atwood it’s easy to walk to friends’ houses or the youth center, or go to the lake to kayak at night. He likes the fact that everyone in Atwood knows each other.

That’s where the Kansas government bureaucracy comes in.

Last summer, four state agencies that provide care and education for Kansas kids — the Department for Children and Families, the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Environment and the Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund — wanted to do a better job of coordinating all of their services throughout the state’s 105 counties.

That’s complicated not only because of differing needs in various places but also because all levels of government — federal, state, county, local — as well as private businesses and philanthropic organizations are involved in providing children’s education and services, explains Melissa Rooker, executive director of the Children’s Cabinet.

They didn’t want to make any wrong assumptions about what Kansans needed. So they created a website where everyone could upload their stories — anonymously — and explain how they did, or didn’t, get help.

For the project to work, they needed lots of stories. That’s where Ashton came in.

He was 13 when he heard about the project from his dad, the executive director at Livewell Northwest Kansas, a nonprofit in Colby. Ashton wanted to help.

They emailed everyone at the farm equipment company where his mom works and contacted all of her Facebook friends.

“They just have to write a story, if they’re thriving or just surviving,” Ashton told people.

He went door-to-door with print-outs, offering to enter people’s stories into the computer and then shred the paper so everything stayed anonymous.

Raising our family in a close-knit community has allowed our family to thrive most of our days. However, we recently experienced an unforeseen chapter in our lives when my husband became extremely ill. We almost instantly went from thriving to surviving. The days and months have been long, but with the support of our family and community, many have chosen to rally around us. Many eyes were on our family, but different individuals were led to support in different ways. Casseroles, driving, laundry, money, prayers, and listening ears were just a few things offered our family from the community. Once again, because of this community, our family has been able to thrive when we could have just survived.

– Anonymous

I feel like this winter and summer our family was just surviving. Mother nature played a huge role in our agricultural lives that there was very high stress. During this time the were many ups and downs and some depression. However we all worked together and supported each other and made it through.

– Anonymous

“Some people had very, very good stories,” he says. “There were stories about people who went through trauma and financial problems, even out here — farmers whose crops don’t grow good and they don’t get enough money from farming, they have to pay a lot for their equipment, and don’t make enough to support their families.”

He learned something a lot of us might have forgotten: You never know what someone’s going through.

Ashton Rickford answers questions at a conference in 2019. (Submitted by Travis Rickford to Kansas Reflector)

“I didn’t know so many people were struggling on farms, had financial problems, family members dying, trauma,” he says. “It really opens your eyes, because you don’t think right away that person’s going through something.”

Ultimately, the stories he collected helped shape the state’s early childhood strategic plan.

His service was invaluable, Rooker says.

“Ashton talked to families who live a pretty isolated lifestyle on their farms and ranches, who are generally not heard from when there are big studies done and data collected,” she says. “Ashton brought the voice of rural Kansas to life.”

In March, when the pandemic hit, the state opened the story portal again. People just needed to share what they were going through and, Rooker says, agencies could see needs emerging in real time and try to help.

In April, for example, they steered $500 grants to childcare providers who suddenly needed to buy personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies or come up with educational materials for kids in age groups they hadn’t served.

It is hard to find needed supplies for cleaning and healthy foods to provide for the children in my care. Health officials warn you to only go out as little as possible, but when the shelves are empty of needed items you need to go back and look again. Also I went from 8 children in care to 3 which limits my income and it is a struggle to get needed supplies and also keep up on monthly Bill's. I realize that utility companies will not disconnect services during this time, but when it is over, will I be able to catch up with one a reasonable amount of time ...

– Anonymous

Next time you see some conspiratorial hooey about a government “deep state,” remember this story. In reality, government is an incredibly complex structure where generally decent people use common resources to try to help each other.

Ashton doesn’t know too much about politics yet. Until I mention it, he hasn’t heard the term “urban-rural divide.”

I’m a little sad to even bring it up with him, but he tries to address my question.

“Obviously in big towns, people don’t know what it’s like to live in the country, and country people don’t know what it’s like to live in the big town,” he says.

He’s been to Wichita enough to know that you have to drive farther to get around. But moving from Hays to Atwood, he didn’t notice much difference in people.

“I feel like they’re the same,” he says.

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C.J. Janovy
C.J. Janovy

C.J. Janovy is a veteran journalist with deep roots in the Midwest. She was the Opinion Editor for the Kansas Reflector from launch unit l June 2021. Before joining the Reflector, she was an editor and reporter at Kansas City’s NPR affiliate, KCUR. Before that, she edited the city’s alt-weekly newspaper, The Pitch, where Janovy and her writers won numerous local, regional and national awards. Her book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas” was among the Kansas Notable Books of 2019.