AND THE NICEST PLACE IN AMERICA IS …Columbiana, Ohio
No matter how big the need, no one in this joyful heartland town gets left behind
Everyone in town knows Ryan Houck, but not for the reasons you’d expect. He’s not the businessman who helped revitalize the downtown. He’s not the bakery owner who donates doughnuts and hot dog buns to local fund-raisers. He’s not the woman who dug into her retirement money to help rebuild Columbiana’s beloved Firestone Park.
He’s just a kid, and he has a lot of challenges. Ryan, five, has a rare disease called Miller-Dieker syndrome, a devastating developmental brain disorder that makes it impossible for him to speak or move. In fact, the doctors said Ryan wouldn’t live to see age two. For a long time, his parents, Dan and Meghan Houck, were stunned and heartbroken. “All the dreams and aspirations you had for your child kind of vanish,” Meghan says.
Then, when Ryan was 18 months old, the Houcks witnessed what you might call a miracle, if it didn’t happen all the time in Columbiana. They had heard about shows at the Main Street Theater featuring actors with all kinds of disabilities, from physical challenges to autism. Curious, they took Ryan to a meeting about the upcoming production of The Little Mermaid. Before long, he got a part—a juicy one. He was cast as King Triton, the merman-demigod who wields a lightning-shooting trident.
This Little Merman was a true family affair. On opening night, Ryan received a personalized star-shaped poster and walked the red carpet, just as all the actors in these Crown Theater Productions shows do, with his parents. Dan delivered Triton’s lines from the wings. Meghan, dressed in black to blend in with the background, stood onstage wearing a strap-on baby carrier with Ryan in it. She moved his limbs as he “acted” out the lines. When the Houcks finished their big scene, the crowd jumped to their feet to cheer for the most irresistible theatrical debut in Columbiana history.
“It was like watching him hit that home run that we thought we would never get to see,” says Meghan.
“This is our service to the community,” says Don Arthurs, who grew up watching movies at the theater in town, then moved back as an adult and now owns and runs the place with his wife, Dawn Arthurs. “It’s our ministry.”
COLUMBIANA DOESN’T HAVE an official motto, but if it did, it could well be “No person left behind.” Today, an irrepressible spirit of community infuses this town of 6,200 just as it has for the better part of a century, ever since tire magnate Harvey Firestone donated 52 acres of land to create the sprawling Firestone Park. Time and again, residents come together to boost their neighbors, whether it’s volunteering with Project MKC to deliver diapers to needy moms or donating money to help the Columbiana Community Foundation offer more service grants.
“A certain morale, an ethic, is instilled in everyone here from a young age,” says the mayor, Bryan Blakeman. “It’s a payitforward mentality.”
When Jared Channel and brothers Jon and Josh Dunn opened the Birdfish Brewing Company on Main Street almost five years ago, they were barely making ends meet and could afford to keep the doors open only two days a week. But they wanted to share whatever success they had, so they started Tips for a Cause, a program to donate a day’s tips every month to a different charity. The American Cancer Society received $1,038 the first month. The Akron Children’s Hospital recently got a check for $3,779.
“We opened a business to have fun, and if we can help the community, too, why not?” Channel says. They don’t just donate money. They also give the grains left over from the brewing process to Hogan’s Baking Company. Owner Shawn Hogan then shares the love by giving 1,000 hot dog buns to the annual picnic fundraiser for Heroes and Halos, a nonprofit that supports families with special needs.
When asked why he pitches in, Hogan hesitates, almost as if the answer is too obvious to put into words. “When there’s a need,” he says, “you help out.”
Nestled in the green, rolling hills of eastern Ohio, about halfway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, Columbiana is farm country—mostly cows and chickens. So perhaps it’s not surprising that community-minded projects tend to spring up organically, sometimes in the most literal way. Landscaper John Hippley always liked to putter around in his backyard. One year, he built an elaborate outdoor train set, complete with tunnels and a waterwheel. Then a life-size dollhouse. Then a children’s garden, with a giant Monopoly board, a piano that you play by walking on it (like in the movie Big), and a yellowbrick road surrounded by Wizard of Oz characters in honor of his girlfriend, Lynn, who died of cancer. Anyone is welcome to come hang out. You can even hold your wedding there, free of charge.
At the other end of town—and the other end of the helping-hand spectrum—is an unusual warehouse. In 1987, a Sunday school teacher named Jim Couchenour Sr. went searching for his alcoholic friend. Couchenour found him in a local dive bar called the Way Station, along with others in need of counsel. Couchenour became a teetotaling regular, setting up what he called his “bar ministry.” When the bar shut down, he bought the building that housed it and turned it into a clubhouse of sorts for people to come get sober, with the help of a sympathetic ear—Cheers without the booze. The clubhouse eventually outgrew its original mission, and today the Way Station’s services include a thrift store, a food pantry, a support group, a treatment facility for teens addicted to drugs and alcohol, and a jobs center.
“There’s not this ‘not in my backyard’ attitude. People genuinely care,” says Vicki Ritterspach, Couchenour’s daughter, who runs the Way Station.
The beauty of Columbiana is that residents band together in good times and in bad. Like so many places in the industrial Midwest, the region has been hit hard by opioids. When the police department lamented that there wasn’t enough money in the budget for a K-9 dog trained to sniff out drugs, the town took all of two months to raise $60,000 to buy and train Csuti, a German shepherd. (Girl Scout Troop 80191 sold a lot of cookies.)
“Tornadoes, floods, fires—there’s never a shortage of people who want to help,” says police chief Tim Gladis. “In fact, we often get more people than we can actually deploy or need.”
Perhaps Columbiana’s greatest symbol of this giving instinct is Firestone Park. Harvey Firestone was born on his grandfather’s farm here in 1868, and while he set up his manufacturing business in Akron, Ohio, he never forgot his hometown. He vacationed here (often with fellow industrialists Henry Ford and Thomas Edison), and in 1933 he donated part of the family homestead to create this oasis. It features a pool and waterslide, baseball and football fields, a track, and walking trails lined with deep brick gutters filled with fresh spring water— relics from the days when folks would water their horses here.
This crown jewel had tarnished a bit over the years. Pat Tingle, who was born, raised, and married in Columbiana, noticed the changes in 2000. An educator, she spent most of her adult life moving around the country with her husband, Brad Tingle, an executive with UPS. When Brad retired, there was only one place he wanted to be. “My husband said, ‘Let’s go home,’” Pat says.
The Tingles lived happily in Columbiana for many years. But Brad died in 2014, and their son, David Tingle, passed away three years later. “When I lost them both, I wanted to do something special for them and something special for the town,” Pat says. She cashed in some savings, added much of her husband’s life insurance money, and donated her remarkable nest egg—$500,000—to spruce up the family’s favorite spots.
“I always tell people I’m never sorry I came back. There’s something very good and solid about Columbiana,” Pat says while eating ice cream on one of the new park benches overlooking Mirror Lake and a plaque that honors her son’s memory.
YOU CAN WITNESS residents doing good by one another—and enjoying every minute of it—most vividly at the Crown Theater troupe’s special productions. If you show up for an audition, you get a part, even if they have to add more extras to the cast. Never acted before? No problem. Before Caleb Clapsadle debuted in Mulan, his only experience in front of a crowd was reading a Mother’s Day poem at church, and it didn’t go well. Caleb, 19, has Asperger’s syndrome and often has trouble connecting with others. “He just kept his head down and read it as fast as he could,” says his mother, Carla Clapsadle. “When he finished, he said, ‘I’m never going to talk out in front of everybody again.’”
Caleb was sure people would laugh at him when his mother suggested he try out for Mulan. But working with a supportive group that includes people with all sorts of challenges has helped him blossom. “He’s a totally different person,” says Carla. “It gives him a place where he belongs. He used to not hug, and now he’s hugging everybody.”
Next Caleb plans to audition for Shrek. In fact, he plans to audition to play Shrek. “I get to express how I’m feeling, who I am,” he says. Today, Caleb is a star, just like Ryan Houck.
A School That Saves Lives with a Goal
Fugees Academy in Clarkston
In 2019, every graduating student at this private school was the first in his or her family to make it past middle school, and these high achievers didn’t stop there: Every one of them was also accepted to college. The Fugees Academy recently opened a second school, in Ohio, and a third one is soon to follow. With any luck, they will all produce success stories like the girl who described herself in this biographical essay: “I’m sad when we get days off during snowstorms and holiday breaks. My name is Harwaa from Iraq and I lived past the age of nine.”
The academy’s name comes from the word refugees. All 90 graduates escaped extremely dangerous countries: Liberia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran. Their lives in the United States were often traumatic too. Psychological scars can make concentrating hard. Many reached middle school reading English, their second language, at a kindergarten level. Yet they thrive because of one woman, Luma Mufleh, and one game: soccer.
About 15 years ago, Mufleh, a coach who emigrated from Jordan and ended up in Georgia, stumbled upon some boys playing street soccer. As she got to know them and their struggles, especially in school, she kept thinking: What would I do if this were my kid?
Her answer: open a school for the students unlikely to get help elsewhere. “You want the kids who have a huge disciplinary file, or who can’t read a word,” Mufleh says. Her formula is to speak to them in the language of their sport, which infuses everything. They read about it and write papers comparing superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The biggest tool: teamwork. Report cards are read aloud, and if a grade is slipping, the entire student body decides how to fix it.
“We want them to see that there’s no shame in struggling,” Mufleh says. “We’re going to help no matter what.”
This year marks the 398th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving. Locals keep the welcoming spirit alive by serving holiday dinner to anyone new in town.
Port in a Storm
A tornado here destroyed an RV park, taking a child’s life. Karen George, a real estate agent, ached to help. So she posted her address online, telling anybody who needed a bed to come by. Families filled every room in her house— and camper. To people who offered to pay, George said, in typical Watford City fashion, “Just pay it forward.”
At the country’s largest American Legion post, up to 400 retirees show up every week to send goodies to soldiers via the Operation Shoebox campaign.
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