Small Towns, Big Hearts

updated 09/14/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Oakley, Kans.

When the last of four movie theaters in this struggling farm town shut its doors in 2001, teens started a game called "Manhunt," in which they walked across town—through people's backyards. "Mischief skyrocketed," says Police Chief Dan Shanks. "Our kids had nothing to do."

That bothered high school business teacher Jim Keenan, whose daughter Nicole, then 17, was a Manhunt enthusiast. Then he had a brainstorm: Why not reopen the theater, with teens in charge? "It'd be a community service," Jim, 49, recalls thinking, "and teach kids business."

Five years along, the experiment is a runaway success. Each year a small group of senior business students negotiate movie schedules, pay bills, take tickets and man the snack stand. Run as a nonprofit, the theater has broken even, attracting weekend crowds of 250 who pay $5 to see first-run films like Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Night at the Museum 2 and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.

The students, who get class credit and up to $1,000 college scholarships, say the experience is priceless. "After this," says Taylor Ellegood, 17, "I feel I could start my own business." And no one is more pleased than Chief Shanks. "Now our youth has entertainment," he says. "They're invested in this theater and in their community."

Greenfield, Ohio

In the past year, this car-industry town has had to lay off its police dispatcher, half its firefighters and the city treasurer. But when Fred Everhart learned last winter that budget cuts were going to shutter the Little League, he'd had about enough. "I played when I was a boy, and I coached my son," says Fred, 52, an insurance salesman and volunteer parks commissioner. "Not having summer baseball would be like canceling the Fourth of July."

With a core of volunteers—they dubbed themselves the "Gang of Nine"—Fred and his pals took charge. They cut costs by eliminating night games and recruiting townspeople to mow the 27-acre park that hosted games. Fund-raisers like raffles and rummage sales raised $7,000; donations of balls, gloves and other equipment poured in from across the country. In July the Greenfield Little League wrapped up its 48th season—an unforgettable one for first basewoman Malea Montavon, 10, whose team went undefeated. "Baseball," she says, "is my favorite sport."

Colebrook, N.H.

Every morning for the past eight years, French-born couple Verlaine Daeron, 51, and Marc Ounis, 62, have risen at 3 a.m. to roll dough and mold madeleines for customers of their bakery Le Rendez-Vous Cafe. But their American dream came crashing down in March, when Verlaine went to Paris to renew her U.S. visa and was denied because her business was deemed "marginal."

Not to residents of Colebrook (pop. 2,600), who loved their little piece of Paris and considered its French proprietors their own. "They're good, decent people, and there's not too many of those left," says Caleb Skousen, a Rendez-Vous regular.

After the couple's friend Beno Lamontagne persuaded the local paper to do a story on their plight, hundreds of people sent letters of support; Verlaine forwarded a 2-lb. stack of testimonials to the U.S. embassy in Paris. Her visa renewal was granted in May, and she and Marc are back to baking. The publicity has led to a flood of tourists and much-needed business for the town. "In a small town," Verlaine says, "everyone's behind you."


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