Any place she has lived, Sheri Benson has made it a priority to get involved in the community.
She described Marshfield as a welcoming community, and that’s what helped her and her husband’s transition to the area. Benson is married to John Benson, the Marshfield City Administrator. As a public official’s wife, Benson said she has a gift for connecting people.
"When I first moved to Marshfield, I noticed the 'Welcome to Marshfield' sign outside on Exit 100, but the sign was so dark you couldn't see it. I thought about ways to light up the sign, so people on I-44 could see it and know we have a great community here. I cold called some people I didn't know at Webster County Electric Cooperative and Marshfield Electric, asking for their help in making it happen. They donated the supplies, the pole and the power. All the city has to do is pay $9 or $10 a month for keeping the light on. That just opened my eyes to what a great community we have."
The next thing was the community gardens. Sheri contacted to the University of Missouri Extension of Webster County and talked to the Master Gardeners Club. The club provided a gardener’s tool kit, and from that, Sheri was able to put together some forms and create a team that could make the community garden happen.
"A community member who was part of our think tank team said, 'I've got some wood. It's solid oak, and I'd like to donate it to you to make the garden boxes,'" said Benson. "I went to the sheltered workshop and asked them if they would be a part of putting it together, and they said yes. I went to Marshfield Lumber to see if they would be involved in donating the railroad ties, the brackets and screws to put everything together. They said yes. The city staff was instrumental in actually being a part of the labor work of bringing it to and from the gardens."
At the same time, Benson said GRO Marshfield was part of developing committees. Benson led the GRO Marshfield health committee, which became the partnering group for the gardeners.
Benson said that the committee morphed with the Webster County Health Unit into the Webster County Community Partnership, which came together as one committee. Benson said, "Through that committee, community members and business members, we put together a plan of action and implementation to put the gardens together."
It started out with one garden site and nine garden beds behind the Marshfield Community Center, according to Benson, who added that the Marshfield School Foundation donated the land to allow the committee to do the garden.
"It was very successful for two years," said Benson. "We decided we needed a second site. We did one at the Rapid Roberts, right beside that. It’s on private property owned by a business owner here in town, and we partnered with them to do that second site. A team and I went door to door throughout the whole area, surrounding that second site with flyers about the community garden, asking who would like to grow in the garden. We had them all full by the time the growing season started. They could literally walk to the gardens. Later, we created the Blessing Box, where overages of produce would go into the box."
Regarding the community gardens, Benson said she has now put together a team of people that will meet and have a community gardens think tank meeting without her to determine how to sustain the gardens. This year will be a transition year for the committee.
"We are going to look for a new nonprofit partner to work alongside the people that have been working on it thus far and try to come up with a plan of action for 2020-21 to keep the garden sustainable," said Benson.
Benson said another thing she’s proud of is bicycling. In June 2018, Benson made Marshfield as a lunch and water area for 550 riders participating in the Bicycles Across Missouri (BAM) Ride, a weeklong ride along Missouri’s Historic Route 66.
"When I saw Big BAM was going to come through Marshfield along the route, I called the director over the program and asked him if he would like to have a water stop here," said Benson. "He said we would love that, so he actually put it on the map. I called up all the community restaurants, the health department and did a call for action to all the community members to be a part of it. Boy, did they come here in droves. This made Marshfield stand out to the Big BAM group because of our welcoming spirit to the community."
Benson added that Big BAM has reached out to her about if they could have a full-fledged overnight stop in Marshfield and at the Webster County Fairgrounds, where they could bring in their trailers and sleep apparatus for their next event on Route 66.
"The Big BAM director will get in contact with me," said Benson. "When he does, I’ll make sure the right people get in touch, so more can be done with that."
Because of her involvement with GRO Marshfield, Benson understands the different aspects of the organization's economic development goals. One of the things is businesses and business entrepreneurs. With that, Benson said it’s important to support local businesses. Not only that, but she enjoys connecting people together.
"John and I were at a restaurant having breakfast," said Benson. "The waitress came over and apologized for the wait. She was a young girl, real energetic, and we only had to wait five minutes. She was so welcoming and so sweet, and I began to take an instant connection with her. The girl began talking to us about how she wanted to be an entrepreneur and maybe open a business up in Marshfield. Because of GRO Marshfield and knowing we wanted to cultivate this, I told her I know of a person I can connect you with to help put together a business plan, so you can move forward and have a road map to get you where you want to go. I put the two of them together and they've talked, and it’s moving forward."
Benson also worked with a team to organize the Chalk Festival during Harvest Fest in September. According to Benson, her hope is the community will continue to do the event on the square. She explained the committee hasn’t done it the last two years because the streets were uneven and hard to write on.
"After the streets on the square get replaced, I would recommend the community work with the Harvest Fest and have them continue that because it was so successful," said Benson. "We probably had 300 or 400 people come and be a part of that."
As a Route 66 enthusiast, Benson was happy to get involved with Route 66 Music Festival in Marshfield, which included vendors, musicians and other activities. She recommended the community continue support the event, along with the Route 66 Carnivor Festival, which was morphed into the Route 66 Music Festival.
From Marshfield, Benson said she and her husband, John, will be moving to Beeville, Texas, where she plans to get involved with a project to help impoverished people via a local coffee shop.
"The coffee shop is the Coffee Barrel, and its tagline is 'Coffee with a Cause,'" said Benson. "The profits from Coffee With a Cause go back to educational gardening programs for children and impoverished needs. The owner has raised beds outside the coffee shop back door. He partners with the school and other community businesses to oversee these plots, and they're well taken care of. I'm going to partner up with him on that team effort. He has a farm-to-table event frequently where the community can sit at a table and have a meal, which is prepared on site at the coffee shop and served on tables on the back patio, next to the community garden's raised beds."
With everything from the job to the community involvement opportunity, Benson said she believes it’s God who is leading her and John through the process. However, she stressed both she and John were extremely conflicted about leaving Marshfield.
“Marshfield has been very good to us and very good for us,” said Benson. “The opportunity to leave is because I have elderly parents in the area, two sons and grandchildren in the area we’re moving to, close by. That’s motivation to move, but it’s still going to be hard.”
Benson wanted to make it clear she and John had been on this path months ago, adding that the debate between the city hall and the Marshfield Board of Aldermen had nothing to do with their decision.
"We were on this path several months before any of that," said Benson. "It just happened that the announcement of the city hall and aldermen happened kind of at the same time. Most people know a position like this takes months to go forward. I just want to make that clear."
Because of her involvement in different events, Benson has received calls and information from others in the community, but she connects them. When asked how she knows all these individuals, Benson said, "You have to get involved in the community. You have to meet people and be a part of the people in this community. That's the only way you’re going to know what the needs are and what people are passionate about."
Benson gave a final remark, stating how grateful she is for the support and kindness the Marshfield community has shown to her and her husband, adding she will truly miss being in the area.