An awesome welcome; Group continues introducing new residents to town

Marco and Robin Garcia talk as they wait for the Austin Bruins, Minnesota Wilderness game to start at Riverside Arena Wednesday. New to town, the couple was taking advantage of the Awesome Austin program.  Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Marco and Robin Garcia talk as they wait for the Austin Bruins, Minnesota Wilderness game to start at Riverside Arena Wednesday. New to town, the couple was taking advantage of the Awesome Austin program. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

About 32 of Austin’s newest residents gathered in the Bear’s Den Wednesday to watch the Austin Bruins play the Minnesota Wilderness. Though the Bruins lost in a shootout, many considered the event a win for introducing newcomers and helping them make connections.

“It’s a good program,” said Marco Garcia as he watched the Bruins warmup.

“Yeah, it is fun,” his wife, Robin, added.

The Garcias moved from Minneapolis to Austin about a year and a half ago with their two children when Marco become the safety validation and lab services director at Hormel Foods Corp. After the move, the Garcias admitted it’s tough to meet new people outside of work and their neighborhood, which is where Community Concierge Kristen Olson and the Awesome Austin program came in.

Wednesday’s Bruins game was the second event in the second round of Awesome Austin events, which aim to introduce newcomers to each other, community leaders and major aspects of Austin. Robin and Marco also attended the first event of this series on Jan. 15, where they met Mayor Tom Stiehm and other community leaders.

People taking part in the Awesome Austin program talk in the Bear's Den before the start of the Austin Bruins, Minnesota Wilderness hockey game at Riverside Arena Wednesday. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

People taking part in the Awesome Austin program talk in the Bear’s Den before the start of the Austin Bruins, Minnesota Wilderness hockey game at Riverside Arena Wednesday. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

“It was great to meet other newcomers to the area,” Robin said. “It was really nice to learn about some of the different events and programs and activities around town.”

The couple may attend future Awesome Austin events, and they said they’ve enjoyed what the community has to offer.

“It was an adjustment moving from Minneapolis, but we felt really welcome,” Robin said. “It’s been a great place to live.”

But the Garcias weren’t the only ones making new connections Wednesday. When Craig and Anita Clark moved to Austin late last year for Craig to become the new city administrator, the family was accustomed to moving to new communities for his work. But Austin has been different.

“We’ve moved a lot, so we have a lot of experience being new in communities,” Anita said. “And I’d say this is by far the most welcoming community we’ve ever moved to.”

 Drawing from experience

Many of the leaders behind Awesome Austin and the community concierge program know what it’s like to be knew in town. Before before becoming community concierge, Kristen had been a trailing spouse during several moves. That’s because she’s moved several times with her husband, Eric Olson. The Olsons moved to Austin about three years ago when Eric took over as president and CEO of KSMQ Public Television.

Kristen has an extensive background. Her training focused on book publishing, and she was a managing editor for a Black and Decker series of publications. However, many trailing spouses have trouble finding jobs in their field, and there aren’t many book publishing opportunities outside specific cites. That’s led Kristen to get a variety of experience in other careers. She worked for the University of Minnesota, Duluth, the Hermantown Chamber of Commerce, and in real estate.

But early during her time in Austin, she met with chamber officials, who told her she’s the type of person who’s hard to find a job.

But that didn’t keep Kristen from getting involved in the community. She joined the Vision 2020 Business Friendly Environment committee.

People taking part in the Awesome Austin program watch the Minnesota Wilderness and Austin Bruins play at Riverside Arena. Eric johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

People taking part in the Awesome Austin program watch the Minnesota Wilderness and Austin Bruins play at Riverside Arena. Eric johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

“I understand the challenges of moving to a new community, of getting the family settled in,” she said.

The Olsons had two school-age children when they came to Austin: Claire, now 19, and Hugh, 14.

Moves can be difficult, especially when children have a hard time leaving friends, but Kristen said her children described the Austin children as friendly to them as new comers — more so than other communities they’d moved to.

“We felt very welcome when we came to Austin,” Kristen said.

Through her experiences as a trailing spouse and moving for work, Kristen found that getting involved is key. Her children are still active in music and theater, Hugh with Matchbox Children’s Theatre and Austin High School and Claire with Riverland Community College.

“I have found that getting involved in the community is a great way to meet people and feel like you’re a part of a community,” she said. “We felt that we were very well received here in Austin.”

Kristen described Austin as a great community for people who want to get involved and she said people are welcoming of newcomers and several clubs, groups and volunteer opportunities offer something for almost everyone. The new residents just need to be willing to put in a little effort, even if they have busy schedules.

“With this position, I’m trying very hard to help people feel welcome regardless of the amount of time they want to invest in outside activities outside of their home or job,” Kristen said.

Kristen estimates she’s helped about 110 newcomers since starting as the community concierge. She’s also helped about 10 trailing spouses find employment. Some simply come into her office at the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce after hearing about the program. Many are connected to Kristen through their employers, especially Hormel Foods Corp. and Mayo Clinic Health System in Austin — both contribute to funding Kristen’s position, along with the Hormel Foundation.

Mayo Clinic Health System physician recruiter Nakayla Warren has promoted the program to Austin hires, and it’s helped connect new workers to the community.

“I think it’s a beneficial program to have in the Austin community,” said Warren, who works with Mayo across much of southern Minnesota.

Kristen hopes to catch most through employers, and that way she can start the process before they come to town by helping them find housing and other things set up ahead of time.

Kristen is in the early stages of creating an Austin jobs database or resource website and to help find a home or apartment.

 A good response

Like the concierge program, Wednesday’s Bruins game brought a smattering of ages — people ranging from their 20s to middle-age.

So far, people have viewed Awesome Austin, like Wednesday’s game, as a positive way for people make connections with other residents in Austin.

“We have had just a really, really good response,” Kristen said.

While impressed by the program, the Clarks said the welcoming spirit hasn’t been limited to a select few. Craig and Anita said the people of Austin have been very welcoming to him.

Soon after moving, she took their three children sledding, and struck up a conversation with another resident.

“I have heard ‘Welcome to Austin’ probably 20 times since I’ve been here,” Anita said.

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