Lindsay Varner is not the type of person who tells people what to do.
She sees herself more as a facilitator for volunteers and staff members to carry out with passion the mission of the Cumberland County Historical Society.
“For me, leadership is letting people do what they do best,” said Varner, community outreach director. “It’s important just to have an open door for people to come in, share ideas and see if we can make it happen. Let people do what they love to do and run with it.”
Born in Chambersburg, Varner moved with her family to Dickinson Township when she was in kindergarten. She graduated from Carlisle High School in 2004 before earning a bachelor’s degree in history and government/political affairs from Millersville University in 2008.
Varner took a year off during which she married her high school sweetheart before heading to England to study at Durham University. There, she earned masters and doctorate degrees in history. The couple returned to Carlisle in 2015.
Her association with the historical society began when Varner became director of the Heart and Soul Project, which collects stories from residents to gain an understanding of what is important to the community. An outgrowth of the Orton Family Foundation, the local project receives its funding from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and South Mountain Partnership.
“As project director, I learned it’s incredibly important sometimes just to sit and listen, to let people have their say and a voice in something,” Varner said. “I’ve found just being able to be open we seem to be getting a lot done.”
A collection of stories from Mount Holly Springs uncovered the plight of the old AME Zion Church on Cedar Street that was a ramshackle remnant of a once-thriving black neighborhood. Today, the church is the focal point of a unified effort to bring to the forefront and preserve what was mostly forgotten history.
Though Heart and Soul revealed that local residents value history and cultural heritage, it also identified a gap that the historical society filled with the creation of its community outreach department in January 2018. One goal is to focus attention on events and preservation activities. The role of the department will expand in the near future to include marketing and membership initiatives.
In recent years, CCHS has developed a Preservation Opportunities Watch List to highlight endangered historic landmarks and landscapes. CCHS has also introduced annual preservation awards to recognize the efforts of individuals and organizations.
When volunteers suggested shaping an event around the theme of a speakeasy, Varner gave them the flexibility to coordinate the whole thing. “I’m very much ‘go with the flow,’” she said. “We’ve had some great success in terms of events just by letting our volunteers and staff members have fun and do what they see best.”
Family: Husband, two cats and a dog
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Profession: community outreach director for the Cumberland County Historical Society
Birth place: Chambersburg, grew up in Dickinson Township
Where you live now: Carlisle
What do you like best about what you do?
There are so many things that I love about what I do. I like the fact that I get to be out in the community and see lots of fun places across Cumberland County. I get to meet a lot of people doing fantastic preservation and historical work who are really invested in the cultural heritage of Cumberland County and the surrounding region.
What is the toughest challenge you face?
There is so much to do. If you look at a countywide organization in terms of community outreach, there are a lot of different places to reach out to and different aspects to the position. There is some program. There is some preservation work. The events and rentals fall within my department as well. It’s a lot of different things to juggle. It does take a lot of work to pull them all together.
What do you like best about working or living in Cumberland County?
I love the history of the area. It’s such a privilege to work for the Historical Society and get to not only share that history but research it.
What are the key elements you see in effective leadership?
For me, it’s about being willing to listen to other people’s ideas and thoughts, especially when dealing with community outreach. I’m working with a lot of different community members and everybody has their own feelings, thoughts and opinions on certain projects and things that are happening in their community.
What’s left to do?
I would really like to see the county as a whole have a much more active preservation stance. On May 4, CCHS added two more properties to its Preservation Opportunities Watch List. My hope is one day we will not need a watch list, that everyone will see the value of these spaces.
“For me, leadership is letting people do what they do best. It’s important just to have an open door for people to come in, share ideas and see if we can make it happen.” — Lindsay Varner