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New Group Gives $1,000 Per Month to Local Changemakers

by and on June 18, 2018 5:00 AM

A new organization is working to help community members find a means to create the changes they want to see in the State College area, and to make the connections they need to feel more at home here.

The organization is called Trailhead. Its founder, Spud Marshall, knows firsthand how valuable a connection with the right person can be.

A Lancaster native and 2008 mechanical engineering graduate of Penn State, Marshall had returned to State College after living in Sweden while obtaining a master’s degree in sustainability. He and a childhood friend, Christian Baum, were working on developing New Leaf Initiative, a community space for entrepreneurial-minded individuals in downtown State College. At the time, they were sleeping on friends’ couches.

“A community member (Cindy Way) walked into our office and she asked us about our story and where we were living. ... Twenty-four hours later, she came back in and said, ‘You’re going to move in with me, and your rent is going to be that you have to play board games with me once a week,’” Marshall said. “She was like our second mom. She set us up in her basement and we lived with her for three years. ... Without her, we would have left this town. It taught us the value of getting introduced to a regular community member.”

This was a lesson that would shape much of Marshall’s future endeavors, including the formation of Trailhead.

Trailhead has two main components: connecting and funding. The basic idea behind the connecting piece is to create a database of “connectors.” The premise is that people who are new to the area or who are just looking to get plugged into a certain aspect of the community can come to Trailhead for guidance, much like one might ask a park ranger for guidance in a state park, Marshall said.

“So, if you’re really into rock climbing, or food trucks, or whatever your thing is, and you approach a Trailhead guide, their job is to figure out within 10 minutes who the one person is in this town that is super knowledgeable about that scene and to help you connect with that person,” Marshall explained. “The simple act of a connection transforms people’s experience of this town. That’s the culture I want to bring into the community.”

Trailhead guides are a part of a tiered membership community that local individuals can join through the Trailhead website. "Guides" find connections, "Allies" volunteer to host events and "Trustees" contribute $100 each month. This is where the “funding” component of Trailhead comes in.

With the funds contributed by the Trustees, Trailhead awards a $1,000 grant once a month to an individual or organization that has an idea for making the Centre Region a better place to live. 

“That could take on a lot of different angles, and we’re intentionally keeping the scope very, very wide,” Marshall said. “But there tend to be common themes and interests in terms of the people that are interested in writing the grants — themes like community involvement, civic engagement, sustainability, local food, environment, those kinds of things.”

The application process is rolling with no real deadlines, Marshall said, but on the last Wednesday of every month, the Trustees meet to go over all of the applications that have been received and to vote on that month’s recipient of the $1,000 grant.

“One of the things I love about it is that there’s no fancy report to fill out about how you spent the money,” Marshall said. “We trust that you’re going to do it. We’re not going to oversee or guide you too much; it’s just: here’s money, make your idea happen, and if it fails, it fails. That’s part of the risk.”

Trailhead’s first grant was awarded June 1 to Shelby Caraway for a project involving picnic tables and block parties.

“The idea was to give out picnic tables to various neighborhoods in the region who agree to host a block party,” Marshall said. “The whole premise is, many people don’t know how to just be a good neighbor; this project is meant to help people learn how to be better neighbors.”

Marshall has been working on building a local culture of connection since 2010, first with New Leaf Initiative, and then with the development of “the,” a boarding home on Nittany Avenue for Penn State students and young professionals interested in cultivating a changemaking community. Marshall and his wife also host monthly potluck brainstorming sessions in their home, during which local community members who care about a particular issue are welcome to come and talk about ways to make it better.

Ultimately, Marshall wants to see local people take charge of State College’s identity.

“As a community, we often let people outside of this town shape the narrative of who we’re supposed to be — a football town, a drinking town, a four-year vacation spot,” he said. “Trailhead, personally, for me, is, let’s give the folks who want to contribute to the future of this town and its cultural identity the building blocks they need.”

Marshall said he is currently in the process of looking for a physical space to house Trailhead. Until then, community members interested in learning more should visit


This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

Karen Walker
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