STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now let's come back to the United States now to meet two men who decided to stay home. They're from Wilmington, Ohio and they said they saw opportunity in the economic devastation of their hometown. They decided to put aside work in the Peace Corps to see what they could do to help fix their own community. NPR's Pam Fessler has this report.
PAM FESSLER: Mark Rembert and Taylor Stuckert are as surprised as anyone to find themselves back in Wilmington, a rural community southeast of Dayton. When they graduated from the local high school in 2003, they couldn't get out of here fast enough.
Mr. TAYLOR STUCKERT: If you asked me six months ago if I would want to live in Wilmington, Ohio, if it meant that I got to work closely with the community, be around my family, you know, earn nothing, when I had a really high-paying job in New York, I would say, no, absolutely not.
FESSLER: That's Stuckert. He's 23 and still has a boyish face and blond wavy hair. Until last fall, he was in the Peace Corps in Bolivia, but had to be evacuated because of unrest there. Earlier he worked at a law firm in New York. Stuckert was trying to figure out what to do next when his good friend urged him to return home.
Mr. MARK REMBERT: I was like, you have to come back. There's so much energy here right now.
FESSLER: Mark Rembert is 24, with dark hair and a beard. He almost bounces with enthusiasm. Rembert was also headed for the Peace Corps, but then last year DHL Express, Wilmington's largest employer, announced that it was going to shut down domestic operations, leaving thousands without jobs.
Mr. REMBERT: As soon as that announcement came out, I knew, wow, this is going to be some sort of case study in how a small community deals with, you know, an incredible economic shock. So you know, I came back and I immediately started a blog.
FESSLER: Which was his way of trying to figure out what to do. Rembert and Stuckert like to talk things over a lot. And they began to think - hey, maybe some of that Peace Corps philosophy of helping communities help themselves might be just what Wilmington and surrounding Clinton County needed, that this might be a chance for some real economic change. Something, says Stuckert, that would last.
Mr. STUCKERT: We think of development as building homes and putting people to work. But if the home doesn't stand up throughout the years and if the job doesn't stay, then the development really wasn't development because it wasn't sustainable. And that was something the Peace Corps really taught, that it's not about going in and doing these huge projects.
FESSLER: But teaching people with smaller projects how to take charge of their own economic fate and not to be dependent on a single employer. So Mark wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper with an idea.
Mr. STUCKERT: Let's designate Clinton County as the first green enterprise zone. We had no idea what that meant.
FESSLER: But it did get people talking, which is what they wanted. Soon they had a Web site and an organization called Energize Clinton County. A local businessman gave them an empty storefront to set up shop. Rembert and Stuckert developed a more specific plan - to get funding to weatherize thousands of county homes. They say it will create more than a thousand jobs and save homeowners $3 million a year in energy costs. Stuckert says it can also be a model for the nation.
STUCKERT: What if we come to this understanding that, wow, weatherizing a lot of homes at once creates a quick return, a huge economic stimulus. Then we don't have to have this debate in Washington about whether or not weatherization is a viable economic stimulus. We'll know.
FESSLER: So now they're waiting to hear whether their bid for $30 million in federal stimulus funds will be accepted. They've also proposed tax incentives for green businesses and are working on a plan to create community gardens.
Local leaders have been very supportive. David Raizk is Wilmington's mayor.
Mayor DAVID RAIZK (Wilmington, Ohio): You know, I watched those kids in high school. And you know, they've come up with an idea. We're going to make sure that we can do whatever we can to try to help them with that idea. I couldn't be prouder to be mayor of a community like that.
FESSLER: And really, at this point people here are willing to try almost anything. Rembert says he knows that he and Stuckert might not be getting so much attention if people weren't so desperate — and scared — because none of the old rules seem to be working.
Mr. STUCKERT: The rules in Clinton County were, if you work hard, you show up to work on time, you know, you'll have enough money to have a decent life, to send your kids to college, you know, sort of the American contract. And that rule doesn't apply to a lot of people now in this county, and people are trying to figure out - well, what's the new rule?
FESSLER: That's where they hope they can help — with some ideas and energy, and maybe some inspiration. They think that the current economic crisis will be their generation's defining moment. They wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.