The Van Wert County Courthouse

Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018

DAVE MOSIER/independent editor

Some people say the best way to see the true value of something is through another person’s eyes. If so, Van Wert residents should be pleased with the picture of Van Wert provided by Niswonger Foundation scholarship recipients who came here this week to visit local institutions and with community leaders, as well as work on community volunteer projects.

Niswonger Scholars serve lunch to United Way Executive Director Vicki Smith on Wednesday at The Salvation Army. Dave Mosier/Van Wert independent

Niswonger Scholars serve lunch to United Way Executive Director Vicki Smith on Wednesday at The Salvation Army. Dave Mosier/Van Wert independent

Nikki Niswonger, wife of Scott Niswonger, and Dr. Nancy Dishner, who heads the foundation, accompanied a group of young college students to the Niswongers’ hometown this week. The scholarship program recipients visited Central Insurance Companies, helped spread mulch at the Children’s Garden in Smiley Park and in front of the YWCA, visited Brumback Library, the Van Wert County Historical Museum, Wassenberg Art Center, The Marsh Foundation, Crisis Care Center, Family Health Care of Northwest Ohio, and served food for the Salvation Army’s hot meal feeding program.

The students worked hard, but said they enjoyed the experience — and loved the community.

Katie Shields, a native of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, home of Dolly Parton’s Dollyland, and a graduate of the University of Tennessee with a degree in agriculture education, was visiting Van Wert for the second time and said she had a chance to more deeply explore the community this time around.

“The first time it was astounding and almost overwhelming how great everything was,” Shields said, noting she was particularly impressed with how the community serves its residents.

“From the smallest kids, to the oldest adults, to people having troubles, it’s incredible to see a community that focuses on all areas,” Shields said, adding that most communities she’s seen typically focus on just one of those populations.

Christian Dalton, a Sneedville, Tennessee, native who just completed his freshman year at the University of Tennessee majoring in agricultural extension, said the level of volunteering in Van Wert impressed him.

“Everything is just so focused on helping people,” Dalton said. “I just fell in love with Van Wert.”

Dalton added that, while he was impressed with the Children’s Garden while volunteering there, he also loved the fact that a large number of community members also came out to help prepare the gardens for the summer.

“There’s not many communities around where you have 50 people just show up to spread mulch,” he said.

Dalton, who wants to work in agriculture research and youth development after graduation, said he also enjoyed seeing the different types of agriculture here, compared to northeast Tennessee, noting that his community has mostly livestock operations because of the mountains, while this area, being flatter, has more cropland.

The Niswonger Scholars program provides several students from small towns in northeast Tennessee, the area where the Niswongers now live, the opportunity to obtain an education, learn leadership skills, travel, and give back to their school and home communities.

Each class of scholarship recipients receives monthly leadership training, as well as opportunities to study abroad, help with paid internships, and travel opportunities.

After their freshman year, students travel to The Bahamas with Scott Niswonger, who gets to know the students and provides them with insight into his background and the importance of the “Learn, Earn, and Return” philosophy he developed, and which drives the scholarship program.

“He learns who they are, and what makes them tick,” Dishner said.

After their sophomore year, Niswonger scholars participate in an Outward Bound-style leadership course, while those ending their junior year travel to New York City to learn about living in a big city.

The program culminates with a trip to London and Paris after scholars’ senior year that involves several days at the site of the Normandy invasion during World War II.

In return, scholarship recipients sign a contract stating they will return to their home communities for a number of years. That’s the Return part of Niswonger’s “Learn, Earn, and Return” philosophy.

“We’re building generations of leaders who are going to come back and serve our people (in northeast Tennessee),” Dr. Dishner noted. “We understand that, in small communities, if we don’t do that, we’re going to lose the best and the brightest of our kids, and the potential of what they can do in the future.”

Volunteering is also an important facet of the Niswonger Scholars program, with recipients committed to doing at least 40 hours of community service work a semester in their school communities.

Dr. Dishner said the students have a “passion” for volunteering, adding that it’s not uncommon for students to put in as many as 100 hours or more a semester in volunteer work.

She also noted that the visits to Van Wert every two years are a special part of the Niswonger Scholars program, since it gives students a chance to see — and give back — to Scott and Nikki Niswonger’s hometown — the city that shaped the couple’s lives and still holds a special place in their hearts.

Students are also enthusiastic about visiting Van Wert, and especially appreciate the way Van Wert residents work together to help those less fortunate.


Dr. Dishner said the students typically look forward to returning to Van Wert after the first trip here, because they come to love the community, as well as the way it builds on its history so effectively, with different generations of community leaders contributing to the whole.

The first trip is also a bonding time for new students, most of whom attend different schools and haven’t interacted much yet with the other scholarship classes.

One thing they all agree on, though, is that they love and appreciate Van Wert, not only for its unique institutions and traditions, but because it’s the hometown of Scott and Nikki Niswonger, who they come to respect as mentors and role models.

POSTED: 05/18/17 at 9:39 am. FILED UNDER: News