Rising Above the Storm

Rising Above the Storm


When the torrential rains of Tropical Storm Lee pelted central Pennsylvania without mercy from September 5th to 9th, 2011, the deluge destroyed more than 2,500 homes and businesses, rendered roadways impassable, knocked out power for days, and forced the cancellation of the iconic Bloomsburg Fair for the first time in its 157-year history.

Parts of the fairground were covered in 12 feet of water, transforming the tradition-steeped grounds into a deep and desolate muddy river.

Lee was Part Two of a meteorological “one-two” punch, raging in on the heels of Hurricane Irene, which had torn through the region from August 26th through 29th. With Irene’s total saturation of the grounds of Columbia County, Lee’s oceans of rain caused almost immediate flash flooding and devastating river flooding.

On Sept. 9, 2011, the Susquehanna River crested at an alarming 32.75 feet in Bloomsburg. Flood stage is 19 feet.

It was the second highest flood level ever reached at that location.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the double-shot of storms never washed away the spirt of the communities around the swollen Susquehanna River and nearby streams and creeks. Nor did it sink the spirit of the leaders of First Columbia Bank and Trust Company in Bloomsburg, which has been alive and well for 115 years. They were the sun after the storm.

In many ways, the flood was a force that buoyed Bloomsburg to rise again, bigger and better than before.

What may have been an anchor on the community became a rallying point.

It was First Columbia’s healing hands in rebuilding a popular playground known as Kidsburg – the centerpiece of Bloomsburg – after the record-setting flood that earned them a “President’s Award” in the “Grow Your Community Awards” from PACB.

The tragedy demonstrated like no other civic-minded gesture that this beloved community bank not only does business locally; its 200 employees at 13 branches are all about making the community a better place to live, work and play.

Their contributions are not just about giving money—although they did that in abundance as well. They also gave freely of their time, tools, and sweat equity.

Of special priority to them are children. In addition to the beloved playground in picturesque Bloomsburg Town Park, they have transformed many blossoming lives through their gifts to young people’s academics, athletics and the performing arts.

Because of that superlative devotion, the PACB “Grow Your Community Award” is not the only trophy on their shelf. First Columbia Bank also emerged as the Grand Prize winner of a national competition from the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA).

ICBA’s 2014 Community Bank Service Award honored FCBT’s work with the Teen Star Musical Competition, calling it a shining example of how to create meaningful opportunities for children. Inspired by TV’s mega-hit “American Idol,” vocalists and instrumentalists perform before an independent panel of judges, who select the finalists. The competition gives musicians in grades 9 through 12 who live or attend school in Columbia County – a county of 67,000 strong – a venue to perform publicly and showcase their talents in a supportive setting.

According to the bank’s Marketing Director Maria Valles, since the program’s launch four years ago, First Columbia has given away $20,000 in prize money to contest winners and raised an additional $20,000 in ticket proceeds and donations for local high school music departments. The schools have used that money to purchase sound equipment, new instruments, sheet music and other necessities.

“It is exciting to see kids perform and showcase their talents in a competitive format,” said Lance Diehl, bank CEO and President.

Bank employees sell tickets, serve on committees, and work as greeters at the event. About 50 students audition each year and a dozen make the finals. Nearly 1,000 people usually attend the Teen Star event, held at their expansive hometown college campus, Bloomsburg University.

“Sometimes performing arts take a back seat to athletics,” Diehl said. But here, pianists and sopranos are as enthusiastically applauded as quarterbacks and home run hitters.

With that love for young people, Kidsburg was a natural choice for Diehl, who has a 12-year-old daughter of his own.

He is proud to see that the bank’s entire market area uses the asset.

Diehl’s roots in the community run deep. In 1988, he graduated from nearby Bloomsburg University and earned his MBA from Lehigh University in 1990.

He started working as a bank teller while in college, and then as a college intern in the bank’s accounting department.

He has worked for First Columbia full-time since 1995.

“I grew up here in the community, and I always knew I wanted to stay here,” Diehl said.

When they were approached in late 2012 about helping to rebuild Kidsburg in a campaign known as Kidsburg 2.0, Diehl said the answer from his team was a unanimous “Yes!” Like his co-workers, he hated viewing the empty spot where the playground had once stood, since it first attracted running, laughing children as a new fixture in 1993.

He recalls the flood as “the worst tragic situation our area experienced from a natural phenomenon. It was terrible.People needed access to the basics, like food, shelter, and water.” In a few days’ time, a peaceful riverside suburban enclave became like a Third World country.

After the flood, the bank came through with first-rate support. They convened a board meeting immediately after the flood. Here they decided to give $100,000 within a few days to the relief and recovery efforts of the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and a community service organization known as Agape.

Diehl recalls taking part in three major post-flood check presentations. Their gratitude ran as deep as the river of swirling floodwater that had nearly drowned their town for good.

“It was a very emotional experience,” Diehl said.

Besides the playground, the bank helped their community recover by offering $4.3 million in low- or no-interest loans and loan repayment flexibility.

The bank’s contributions were even more remarkable because the bank and employees themselves were among the many victims. One of their branches, located right on Market Street, was so overcome by river waters, it had to be demolished. Their Benton branch also sustained “significant flooding,” Diehl said, that caused “moderate damage.”

And while vital infrastructure was the first priority in the region’s rebuilding effort, the playground took a back seat—until 2012.

The bank jump-started the Kidsburg 2.0 campaign when it gave $50,000—one of its largest single donations to date, and a full one-fifth of the $250,000 project cost. The announcement of their donation triggered a flood of others.

But “It wasn’t simply ‘here’s a check,’ although that helped,” Diehl said.

The bank conducted employee dress-down days and participated in other fundraisers for the playground. Maria Valles noted that the bank has held 73 dress-down days for 47 causes in the past three years, raising $20,000 in employee donations, and proving that Kidsburg was far from just a one-time deal.

The Kidsburg 2.0 project involved six core volunteers. Through its network of 13 branch locations, the bank promoted the many fundraising campaigns to both employees and customers.

Taylor Farr, Commercial Lender, and Sabrina Bankes, Online Banking Specialist, played pivotal roles in two major fundraising events for Kidsburg: they dealt cards and rolled the dice at the roulette and blackjack tables of a successful Casino Night, and poured drinks as a Guest Bartenders at an animated event at the Lightstreet Hotel.

In April 2014, the building began. Hundreds of people worked together like a well-trained army. Bank employees delved right in. They grabbed hammers, paintbrushes and shovels, and pitched in on a giant Community Build Day. Groups were divided into skilled and unskilled workers. The unskilled shoveled tan bark and painted, while the skilled tool-men and women did their handiwork.

“It was like ants on an ant mound,” Farr recalled.

In May 2014, Kidsburg opened to rave reviews. The playground features old standbys like monkey bars and benches, along with new features like a pirate ship, fireman’s pull-up, and tree house slide.

As a younger banker, Farr, who has also been known to double as Boris the Bankasaurus at community events, recalls playing at the playground years ago.

He saw “a piece of his childhood wiped out by a force of nature.”

He remembers employees gave “time, money, rigor, and sweat equity.”

Today, people come from miles around to play there. The equipment is all updated.

The bank holds a pizza party every year at the playground for an elementary school. Men and women wearing suits and ties join kids wearing shorts and smiles for fresh air and friendships.

“It’s exciting to be able to continue the tradition,” Diehl said.

It is also exciting for them to see kids race from place to place with their friends in tow, and to witness this symbol of resilience and community unity, inspired by the community, for the community.

Diehl noted that when they annually evaluate their employees, a key part of the appraisal is “What have they done to make the community a better place to live.”

After Lee and Irene, the bank realized the destructive power of water—to move walls, to form rust and mold, to turn prized possessions into water-logged debris, and to wash away cherished photographs and important documents.

But they also realized the power of people.

“Community banking is alive and well,” Diehl said. “We can be proud of the things they do.”

Of his bank’s two prestigious awards, he said with modesty, “We appreciate the recognition, but we know that other banks are doing the same things too to help their communities prosper.”

“It is heartwarming to see the nature of employees and the community, helping a small town keep that smalltown feel,” Farr said.

The community was grateful for the bank’s involvement, but so were bank employees. “There was a lot of pride from our employees that our bank was taking such a leadership role,” Diehl said.

“It reaffirms my personal decision to stay in this community where I grew up and also reaffirms what community is all about,” Diehl said.

The new playground is built on higher ground. The bank has achieved that level as well.

This article can be found featured in the November 2014 issue of Transactions. Not a subscriber? Visit the Transactions page on this website or call PACB at 717-231-7447 to start receiving the magazine.