ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There's a part of Minnesota that has more trees and lakes than people. It's beautiful, but the people who live there say it can also be lonely.
ANNA VIERKANDT: For me to go anywhere to see anyone that I know personally, it would be, like, a 30-mile drive.
SHAPIRO: That's Anna Vierkandt. She's one of an estimated 14 million rural Americans who have few people nearby to rely on. It's based on a recent poll by NPR looking at life in rural America. As NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports, a group in Anna's hometown is trying to reconnect the community.
JACK: Oops (unintelligible).
VIERKANDT: Hey, Jack, would you like to go outside?
RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Anna Vierkandt lives on a small farm in a rural town called McGregor. She's 20 years old, married and has two children.
VIERKANDT: The moon - you see the moon.
CHATTERJEE: She's trying to create the kind of family she didn't have growing up. When she was a kid, she and her family rarely saw their neighbors or friends. And there was this incredible distance within the family.
VIERKANDT: We'd just be there to eat or if we did talk or on the off chance there was a good table conversation, it would just be - you know, someone would be getting ridiculed.
CHATTERJEE: Anna's recently had a baby, and these memories of her childhood are weighing on her mind. She had three siblings and three half-siblings, and they were on their own a lot.
VIERKANDT: Being the oldest sister, I was expected to just help take care of the kids, so my mom wouldn't go out and play with them or anything like that. Sometimes we'd just be inside playing, and she'd be in her room or sitting on her phone.
CHATTERJEE: Her father lived in another town, and her stepfather worked long hours. Anna felt alone. By the time she was about 12, she was struggling with anxiety and depression. Studies show that social isolation and loneliness put people at risk for a range of physical and mental health problems. But one day, when Anna was in seventh grade, she finally found an escape from her loneliness. She saw flyers for an after-school program called AGE to age that connected kids with older people in the community, like Barbara Coplan.
BARBARA COPLAN: Gosh, you know, being old, memory's not so good.
CHATTERJEE: But Barb does remember Anna when they first met.
COPLAN: Very bubbly, happy girl, but she would be stressed and inward and I think she needed a little bit of encouragement to be more outgoing and to be Anna because Anna is a really cool person.
CHATTERJEE: So Barb got to work. Anna says they'd meet up after school and head out into the community.
VIERKANDT: I would help with the community meals. We went to a soup kitchen once, concession stands at school. Like, we did a bake sale. We did a flower sale. Like, anything really that they needed help with, I was usually there because I didn't want to be at home.
CHATTERJEE: As Anna got to know Barb better, she started to open up, talked about how isolated she and her family were and also how she was afraid to talk to people. Barb would say to her...
COPLAN: Hey, you're a great person, and you talk to people and communicate with them like you want. I mean, you're loving. You understand things. And if they don't want to talk to you, what's the very worst that can happen? They say away from me, OK?
CHATTERJEE: Barb and Anna worked together for about three or four years through this program. It's run by a local group called Kids Plus, and it connects about 175 children each year with about 30 seniors in the community. Cheryl Meld runs the organization.
CHERYL MELD: I would like to see a more connected community and one that sustains those connections.
CHATTERJEE: The poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health finds that 46% of rural Americans say they have few or no one nearby to rely on. Nearly 1 in 5 say they often or always feel isolated or lonely. Cheryl, who grew up in the next town over from McGregor, says things weren't always like this. These were once thriving, connected communities.
MELD: There were large families, so there were a lot of people doing things together and a real sense of neighbors and neighborhoods.
CHATTERJEE: That started to change a couple decades ago when the local economy began to decline. Stores like Walmart and Costco arrived, pushing out local businesses. Minnesota's timber industry, a big source of employment, began to struggle, and family farms did too as they became less profitable and young people moved away looking for other careers.
MELD: So we lost that sense of generational businesses and generational families living here. People don't just get together or drop by to visit. You don't see kids playing pickup games. You don't see them getting together just to play a game of softball.
CHATTERJEE: Cheryl says poverty and isolation are part of the reason for rising addiction rates here.
MELD: We see people trying to find happiness in self-medication or alcohol use or substance use.
CHATTERJEE: She's been working for about a decade on this program to give the town a different future, one with a sense of connection, for older people who may not get to see their kids or grandkids for months at a time, and for young people like Anna Vierkandt.
MELD: Yes, exactly (laughter).
VIERKANDT: Yeah, that's what my kids do, too.
CHATTERJEE: Anna recently stopped by the Kids Plus office to see Cheryl and her mentor Barb, who continues to look out for her.
COPLAN: And do you take me time? Because you need that, too, you know.
CHATTERJEE: Anna says Barb is like her second mother. She's the first person she texted with pictures after her baby was born. She says Barb changed her life by giving her...
VIERKANDT: A sense of purpose and belonging.
CHATTERJEE: There are programs like this one in 17 other rural communities in northeastern Minnesota. It's one of the few places in the country that's working to fight isolation on such a scale by connecting different generations. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.
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