Cody-Kilgore: Cowboy GRIT Inspires a Community

“A lot of adults underestimate our youth today. I’m beyond being surprised. With our youth today, I expect the conquering of the impossible because I've seen it. And if you empower those youth, they will rise to the occasion.” 


– John Johnson, retired teacher and chairman of the Cody Village Board 


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THE LOW DOWN: At first blush, it seems like your average small ranching town. Just like many you’d see while driving down Hwy 20 though the Nebraska Sandhills. But Cody is special. With a population of just over 150 residents, its school draws kids from all over North Central Nebraska. In fact, even though Cody is in one of the most sparsely populated areas of the state, its unified school district covers one of the largest geographic areas: 553 square miles, to be exact. That includes two time zones and three area codes. 

So how does this small town sustain such a powerful school? Because its residents think big. This big thinking led to a unique project to address a major community need in a way that encourages real-life learning, leadership and entrepreneurial spirit in its students. 

THE CHALLENGE: The Village of Cody, Nebraska hasn’t had a grocery store in more than a decade. Residents have to make the long drive to the town of Valentine, about 76 miles roundtrip, to purchase basic necessities. Students and community leaders recognized that a grocery market was essential to attracting residents and infusing new energy into the town. But they also recognized the opportunity to provide kids with valuable lessons in entrepreneurship, something the residents of Cody know a lot about. But how could one small town marry community needs with educational enrichment that gives its youngest residents a reason to stay engaged and connected to their hometown?

THE CHAMPIONS: Stacey Adamson and Tracee Ford – teachers and co-founders of Circle C Market; Terri Nollette – guidance counselor and business teacher; John Johnson – retired teacher and chairman of the Cody Village Board; George Johnson – owner, George Paul Vinegar; Kathie Starkweather from Center for Rural Affairs; Erin Heath – volunteer CPA; Janet Shelbourn, Resource Teacher; Todd Chessmore, superintendent and principal, Cody-Kilgore Unified Schools; Kate Fullerton, retired principal, Cody-Kilgore Unified Schools; all the members of Cowboy G.R.I.T. and the educators, alumni and community volunteers who made the Circle C Market a reality.

THE SOLUTION: The idea to build a grocery store in Cody, Nebraska originated from a combination of village leaders trying to attract more residents to the town, a teacher’s brainstorm, and a high school sophomore’s FFA project. Surprising? Not in Cody where entrepreneurial spirit runs deep. This seed of an idea struck a chord with school administrators and village leaders who knew that bringing a grocery store to Cody would help meet the needs of local businesses and residents. They also saw an opportunity to teach its students some valuable lessons that will serve them well long after high school.

To get things started, the school created Cowboy G.R.I.T., a student steering committee. G.R.I.T. stands for growing, revitalizing, investing and teamwork, and its members are the backbone of the project. From developing a business plan, to helping apply for grants and building permits, Cody-Kilgore students have spent the last three years building the foundation – both literally AND figuratively - for the Circle C Market.

The goal of the market was threefold: 

Make it easier for residents of Cody-Kilgore and the surrounding areas to purchase groceries and other necessities.

Use the business as a place for students to work and learn, giving them hands-on exposure to leadership and work principles that are key to success in business.

Give people another reason to stop in Cody.

Not surprising to the residents of Cody, the entire town rallied around the idea. The town board secured a grant to help build the facility. The Cowboy G.R.I.T. team earned a grant to help fund the education portion and necessary equipment for the project. The rest was up to the community. Students and residents worked to construct the straw-bale building, an environmentally-friendly design that uses straw as insulation. The building’s design also includes a classroom so students can learn on the job and at their desks. The kids manage every aspect of the store; from stocking shelves to placing orders from vendors. This model gives students a sense of ownership of their town and community, and teaches important leadership and employment principles, like coming to work on time, customer relations and basic business management skills.

THE RESULTS: Because many of Cody-Kilgore’s residents work in agriculture, children grow up understanding the value of hard work and physical labor. The grocery store project gives them exposure to the business side of the equation, making them well-rounded and better prepared for life after high school.

The Circle C Market project has also helped reach students who struggled with the traditional learning process. Everyone found ways to be involved – from helping with construction, to working on marketing materials or accounting. It has provided these students with an incentive to staying connected and engaged at school.

Rural communities are the backbone of our state. Encouraging entrepreneurship allows small towns like Cody-Kilgore to thrive by infusing them with new energy and purpose. The Circle C Market is about more than checking off items on a grocery list. It’s about seeing endless possibilities for a town, and about using the power and energy of its youngest residents to keep the flames of entrepreneurship very much alive.


Teach a man to fish: Certain lessons aren’t best learned from a textbook. The Circle C Market gives students an opportunity for real-life learning, and a way to study the various elements it takes to be a successful business owner. From marketing to customer service to accounting, hands-on experience helps boost comprehension of basic business practices that will serve the students well in the future.

Allow students to rise to the occasion: The idea for the Circle C Market originated to address a community challenge to attract new residents and was put into action by a group of dedicated students, proving that there’s no telling what our young people can accomplish when they are presented with opportunities to flex their creative muscles and tackle challenges.

Rally community support: The reason the Circle C Market project has been a success is because of the incomparable level of community support it received. From local business owners and parents, to students and teachers, the entire town and surrounding communities rallied around the idea, providing physical, financial and emotional support. If no man is an island, neither is a successful school. Securing community involvement is paramount to the success of any school project. In many cases, communities are more than willing to get involved with local schools, but they don’t always know how. Give them a way to take ownership of students’ success. Give community members specific ideas of how you want them to be involved.

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Cody-Kilgore Unified Schools web site:

Photos of the Circle C Market in Progress:

About Straw-Bale Construction:


NElovesPS MindMixer site: