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50 years of Fairmont CER

ABOVE: Fairmont Community Education and Recreation Director, Stephanie Busiahn, and former directors Gary Hamman and Roni Dauer. Fairmont CER celebrates 50 years in the community this month.

FAIRMONT– Fairmont Community Education and Recreation, a long-time pillar in the community, celebrates 50 years this month. The local organization got its start in 1972 and has had just three directors over the past five decades.

Gary Hamman, the first long-time director, explained that it was started by community involvement and interest, primarily by dentist, Bob Arneson.

“Bob talked with the school board and the city council and encouraged them to look at it. He was the push to get the school board and city council to form a joint powers committee and eventually they decided to fund the program through the city and school monies and they split evenly the cost for operating,” Hamman explained.

Once started, Tom McMullen was actually the first director and held the role for nine months. Hamman, who was newly graduated with a degree in parks and recreation, was looking for a job to put on his resume when he was invited to interview for the role in Fairmont.

“For some reason a couple people on the advisory council liked me and I was offered the job,” Hamman said with a laugh.

He and his wife moved from Mankato to Fairmont. Hamman started as executive director in 1973 and hired Roni Dauer in 1974, which he said was one of the smartest moves he ever made.

While Hamman’s background was in parks and recreation, Dauer had a background in education. The two said they complimented each other well and worked well together because they believed in CER’s philosophy and mission, which is to provide lifelong learning and leisure opportunities for all ages.

In the beginning, the CER office was housed in the quonset huts which were attached to the middle school. Over 50 years, the CER office has been in several locations including the high school and most recently, Fairmont Elementary School. In 2021, the CER office relocated to the Southern Minnesota Educational Campus, which is the first time it hasn’t been in a school building.

Hamman and Dauer shared what CER was like in the beginning.

“When we started there was nothing. There was no recreation programs except boy’s baseball. There weren’t any girl’s programs and nothing much for women,” Hamman said, adding that there was some 4-H programming and Boy Scout programming.

“This community was so hungry for programming and things to do, that anything we tried was so successful because of what was not here at the time,” Hamman said.

Fairmont CER was actually one of the first in the state. Dauer said they were a charter member of community ed.

CER has seen a number of successful programs throughout its years. One notable program in the 80s was a roller skating program.

“Part of the city’s contributions to CER was they paid for the operation of the old armory building. We used that facility for many community ed programs,” Hamman said.

He said the roller skating program, which happened one or two nights a week, was huge with 100 to150 people attending each night.

Another successful program was the day camp program at Cedar Creek Park that Dauer was instrumental in starting.

“It was the first program we did. Never had anything like it,” Hamman said.

It was a day-long program over the span of several weeks in the summer. Children were picked up by bus, ate at the park and played out there. The program went on for three years until Hamman said it got too expensive to operate.

Friday night rec nights were also very popular during their time. Hamman said he’s heard of many people who have fond memories of those nights.

Rec nights took place at the middle school were for students starting 5th to 12th grade and Hamman said they were a little controversial at the time because they were a boy-girl activity.

“We had to have a lot of chaperones,” Dauer said.

They went on for about 20 years. Dauer said there was always a Friday night activity, not every Friday night, but most of them.

One thing that has always aided the success of CER programs are volunteers and support staff. Since the beginning, there have been both high school and college interns working for community ed, especially in the summer. Today CER partners with the Minnesota Valley Action Council to get interns.

“Volunteers have been key to the success of most of the programs,” Dauer said.

Another force of support has been the advisory council, which Hamman said they were required by the state to have from the start.

“Our advisory council has always been the liaison with the community. They’re the ones we want to hear what is going on and bring it back to us,” Dauer said.

After 33 years with CER, Hamman retired in 2006, at which point Dauer stepped in as executive director. She held the role until she retired in 2021. It was then that Stephanie Busiahn took over.

“I stepped into a fantastic foundation with Roni’s leadership, who had Gary’s leadership,” Busiahn said.

In the last few decades, Dauer said with the increase in technology there was a need to become more efficient and the CER webstore was added, though the iconic CER activity booklet is still mailed out about twice a year.

Dauer said that Covid also had a big impact and made them move into more technology and offer Zoom classes and trainings. Busiahn said she’s seeing the back end of Covid now and is surprised to find out that some people prefer virtual classes.

“But we have some classes that just aren’t taking off because it wasn’t offered for three years so they found another way to fill those needs,” Busiahn explained.

She said they’re at a point where they need to listen to the community and fill the needs of the community.

“Programming has changed because of the offerings. When they started community ed, to Gary’s point, there was nothing for programing. Now when you stop and think of all the entities that offer programming, there’s a ton of things,” Busiahn said.

One CER program that has always done well and that Busiahn said is doing well now is youth sports, which includes soccer, t-ball, softball and more.

“I’m thankful that community ed has taken the instructional approach and continued to and I feel like that is the direction I will continue to push,” Busiahn said.

She added that not every kid is cut out for competitive, intense weekly weekend tournaments and that she’s glad community ed can serve those kids and give them experience and opportunities.

“Kids need the opportunity to try new things without being intimidated by competition and having to win,” Dauer said.

She said that philosophy transfers over to other age groups and activities as well.

As for funding, Busiahn said there’s a balance between charging enough for a class that you don’t go in the hole, and not charging too much so that people can’t afford it.

“We have some scholarship funds. At the end of the day, we never want to turn anyone away who is willing and interested in participating,” Busiahn said.

One key aspect that’s always been needed to make CER successful is support and that support goes both ways.

“People can support community ed by not only taking classes, but sharing their talents by teaching or volunteering,” Dauer said.

Busiahn added that there are sponsorship opportunities and instruction and volunteer opportunities. She said community ed is as successful as the community wants it to be.

When it comes down to it, community education and recreation is for the community.

“We have worked really hard to keep it as broad as we can and meet the needs of all,” Dauer said.

When asked if she’d like to see it continue for another 50 years, Dauer said yes, but that it won’t look the same– and shouldn’t.

“Community ed is a dynamic program and needs to continue changing with the changing needs of the community, but learning is still a lifelong adventure whether it’s in recreation or leisure or education,” Dauer said.

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