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Secrets of a Safe Community

In a growing world with rising crime rates, the good old days of leaving your front door open and leaving your car unlocked, may be over.

Michiana’s safest communities, however, are still utilizing an old-school system in the 21st century to draw in young families.

Only a few miles from the hustle and bustle on Main St. in Mishawaka, rain clouds darken a wanderer’s path in Wakarusa; a horse and buggy are headed to the unknown in Nappanee; the magnificence and brute strength of Lake Michigan takes center stage in Stevensville; and in the village of Eau Claire, another busy day serving generations at the general store.

Main streets in these communities take on a different tone.

There’s simplicity in the smiles.

A trust among neighbors these four old fashioned towns can feel.

Janet was born and raised in Stevensville, but on this day the journey took her down this road to the timeless Wakarusa Dime Store.

The iconic treasure is part of the fabric of Wakarusa, dating back to the early 1900’s when it was a general store.

Mac McNally and his wife have now owned the gem for nearly a quarter century.

“When my son was growing up, several years ago let’s say, he knew he could be in trouble with anybody in town. So if he did something wrong, there were more than just my eyes on him,” said McNally.

 The eyes and ears of everyone is a constant that makes the community of Wakarusa one of the safest in Indiana.

In fact, according to areavibes.com, the overall crime rate there is 64 percent lower than the national average.

Jeff Troxel is a former deputy with the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department and is now the Wakarusa – Town Manager.

“I guess we try to be the example. You know I grew up in this community. As long as I can remember, Wakarusa has been a safe place to live. It’s a community where you want to raise your kids.  I never strayed far from this community.  I wanted to raise my kids and we have a lot of people who come back because of that,” said Troxel.

Just seven and a half miles down State Road 19 is the City of Nappanee.

Fresh out of the academy, South Bend native Steve Rulli was narrowing potential job opportunities.

“Some of the friends I had in law enforcement were giving me advice about where I should put it. A lot of the different people that I spoke to said ‘you gotta go to Nappanee. I said ‘what’s different. It’s the people. It’s the officers. If you can go anywhere, you should go there,” said Rulli.

That was 15 years ago.

Rulli took the advice and moved his family there.

He now serves as the Chief of Police for the City of Nappanee, which is widely regarded as one of the safest place to live in Michiana.

Nappanee is nearly 65 percent safer than any other U.S. city, according to areavibes.com.

 “The town is not the administration, it’s not the government, it’s not the police department, it’s the people in it. And we represent those people,” said Rulli.   

Not quite as north as the North Pole, a Michigan village that warms the heart.

Known for cherries and cheer, the small community situated by the St. Joseph River, is cherished not only for its century old Fruit Exchange, but for the good faith of friends.

The 25.8 percent crime rate, provided by City-Data.com  is the lowest in the region.

Heidi Miller is the hardware manager at the Eau Claire Fruit Exchange.

“Everyone knows everyone here. The nice thing about it is when you have people come in from Chicago area, they felt welcomed as well. So everyone is a family. It’s a family oriented community.”

 Further down the fruit-belt, another one of the safest stomping grounds in Michigan.

Stevensville is located within Lincoln Township in Berrien County.

With a population of just over 1,300, in Stevensville you have a 1 in 146 chance of becoming a victim of any crime.

 Gary Soper is the interim police chief of Stevensville.

“We’ve got a large area to cover. And we do that with 11 officers, including me,” said Soper.

 While Tuesday was his first day on the job as interim chief of police, Soper is no rookie.

 Soper has lived and worked in the Stevensville area his entire life.

 A large area to cover, but a trusted partnership with neighbors and other agencies lessens the load.

 “It’s nice to know the numbers are the way they are, knowing we don’t have an officer every mile or every half mile,” said Soper.

And the numbers he is referring to are not a surprise to anyone in any of the communities we visited.

Overall livability ratings exceed average U.S. towns and cities for all four of these communities, making them “extremely livable.”

While grades for amenities, housing and education differ, their crime rates are undisputed.

Wakarusa, Nappanee, Eau Claire and Stevensville all scored an “A” or higher, according to areavibes.com.

In every case, their rates ranged from 70 to 80 percent below the national average.

While petty theft and smaller crimes like vandalism and burglary still exist, major crimes like murder, rape or armed robbery are rare.

But what’s the secret to making these communities so safe?

The old saying goes, “a good chef never reveals his secret,” but in these kitchens the true test lies with those who live there.

“I think when people grow up in Nappanee, I want to do everything I can to get out of Nappanee and experience the world. Once they get married and start having kids, they realize what they have in Nappanee. And it is something really special that we often times take for granted,” said Nappanee Mayor Phil Jenkins.

In these communities, change comes slowly.

It’s felt in the leaves that shift with the seasons and surf that washes ashore and shapes these rocks.

The more these winds seem to change, the more things stay the same.

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