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Food Features

Traditional Flavors of the Midwest

The Midwest, also known as America’s Heartland, is home to a myriad of cultures. Immigration, over hundreds of years, has played a key role in developing its diverse food traditions, evident in its variety of delicious dishes—like classic Swedish meatballs, Polish perogies, German bratwurst, and hearty macaroni and cheese casseroles.

Midwest food expert Capri Cafaro hosts the podcast “Eat Your Heartland Out” and regularly features guests from all over this area to discuss its many food traditions. Born and raised in Ohio, Cafaro is well-versed in Midwestern food and the different cultural influences on the region’s culinary scene.

In this interview, she discusses the importance of county and state fairs in building community and showcasing different local foods and agricultural practices. We also talk about unusual dishes in the Midwest, such as “dessert salads,” and the prevalence of farm-to-table schemes, such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, which allow city dwellers to enjoy fresh produce from local farms.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q. How do you think immigration has influenced the Midwest culinary sphere?

Midwestern food and culture are incredibly diverse. I often think that Midwestern food is perceived as either bland, or industrial, or just typical fast food. Those things are somewhat true, and have some historical context based on companies like General Mills, Kellogg’s, and Kraft, which all originated in the Midwest. However, Midwestern food has a great deal more depth and variety, precisely because of both the immigration and migration patterns of individuals who have come to the Midwest over the last 200 years or more.

The purpose of my podcast, “Eat Your Heartland Out,” is to show how different immigrants have shaped the face of food in the Midwest—like Germans in Wisconsin, and Scandinavians in places like Minnesota.

Q. Can you give us an example of an interesting Midwestern food tradition that is still practiced today?

One of the things I personally associate with as a food tradition—and something I actually did a podcast episode about—are the Lenten traditions surrounding the Easter holiday, and the fish fries that churches and restaurants sponsor on Fridays throughout Lent.

They each take on the color of their particular communities and the churches they represent. For instance, some places serve macaroni and cheese as a side dish; some serve perogies because they have a larger Slavic community; some serve haluski, an Eastern European type of noodle dish.

They also serve as a way to bring the community together every Friday during the Lenten season.

(Photo credits: Emily Raw)

Q. Are there any distinctive dishes that you would only associate with the Midwest?

The Minnesota hot dish is a landmark recipe from the 1930s that calls for hamburger meat, onions, celery, canned peas, canned tomato soup, and Creamettes—a special Minnesotan macaroni—all to be stirred together and baked. It’s not a typical casserole because it is intended to be the main meal.

Then, there is the runza (a cross between a Hot Pocket and a burger), which is like a meat pie with Russian origins that became very popular in places like Nebraska. There is also Cincinnati chili, a stew-like meat sauce served with spaghetti, that I am not particularly a fan of, but which is very popular in that region of Ohio.

Q. Can you tell us more about the unique Midwest “salad dishes” and how they came about?

Jell-O salads, which can also be served as desserts, originated when it was discovered that bone marrow could be used to make gelatin. This discovery occurred just in time to be featured at the 1904 World’s Fair, held in St. Louis, Missouri, where gelatin was showcased as a brand-new food item.

As mechanization and industrialization came about, women were trying to spend less time in the kitchen and were looking for something that was easy and simple to make in a fast and affordable manner. Recipe books were published by companies in the Midwest, like General Mills, Kellogg’s, and Kraft, as a way to promote this new gelatin product. You can still find these well-used Jell-O cookbooks in many Midwest kitchens.

Jell-O salads remain very popular with hostesses, who find them convenient and easy to make and serve, either as a salad or for dessert. They are also easy to make and transport to church suppers or potlucks.

(Photo credits: Emily Raw)

Q. County and state fairs are a celebrated tradition in the Midwest. What are some typical foods served there?

That depends on where you go. In my neck of the woods—northeastern Ohio—you will always find pasta and meatballs due to the many Italians living here. Perogies are also a popular fair item where there are a lot of Eastern Europeans.

County and state fairs have their roots in agricultural production, in sharing agricultural techniques, and in bringing your bounty to market. You have dairy products that are often on display. For instance, in my area, people line up for the milkshake stands every year at the Ashtabula county fair because it’s the one place every year that you can get the freshest milkshakes in many different flavors.

The places where you really find the local foods at the fair are the ones that are affiliated with a local organization. So, sometimes the local 4-H club [a national youth organization] will run specialty food stands, but you also have fraternal organizations—like the Lions Club, Kiwanis, or Rotary—that will have their own stands to promote local food traditions, as well as to raise money for their various organizations.

Q. What do county/state fairs say about the American ideal of agricultural bounty and the desire to celebrate that?

Even though more and more people are moving out of rural communities and into suburban and urban areas, there is still a large part of our country that continues to rely on rural agriculture. The Midwest, in particular, has always been known as the breadbasket of the nation—even of the world. That’s because it is one of the major grain producers—including corn, soy, and wheat—as well as a major producer of livestock and dairy products.

Fairs have this sense of nostalgia and provide a magnet for urban dwellers to go back to their roots, at least annually—sometimes even if they have never lived in that particular state or county. There is also a sense that, while you may not necessarily be involved or affiliated directly with agriculture, you want to be engaged in supporting it, one way or another.

While farming may look very different today than it once did, the popularity of county and state fairs continues. Our nation’s politicians certainly appreciate that fact when they regularly visit these fairs to meet and greet voters, and to taste the most outrageous new food items, like fried ice cream or doughnut burgers.

Fried Goat Cheese Cherry Balls. The dish originated in Michigan. (Photo credits: Emily Raw)

Q. What do you think about the trend in farm-to-table schemes like the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs that allow urban and suburban communities to enjoy fresh, local produce?

CSAs have been a part of daily life in a lot of Midwestern cities and towns for decades. Nearby farmers and small-batch artisans promote CSAs as a kind of direct-to-household or farmers market activity, and as a way for even urban dwellers to have regular farm-fresh produce. You get your box of whatever produce is in-season every week, or every two weeks. That way you are supporting local agriculture, even if you may not live directly near it.

CSAs are becoming very popular in urban centers across America, not only in the Midwest. I think there is a misconception that the Midwest doesn’t necessarily set trends, but I would beg to differ. These programs are one longstanding Midwestern trend that is now catching on in other places.

Q. Do you have a specific Midwestern dish that you particularly enjoy?

I’m from the part of the Midwest that is highly Southern and Eastern European. So for me, my favorite comfort foods involve pasta. Also, anything that includes cheese, because some of the largest cheese producers are located in the Midwest.

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Features National Parks The Great Outdoors

Scaling the Olympic Peaks

Nate Brown’s deep appreciation for the Pacific Northwest stems from a four-day road trip across the Olympic Peninsula in 2013, during which he surveyed snow-capped mountains and lush forests nestled between the coastlines. An Army mission had brought Brown there, and he was captivated by the landscape that stood before him. After retiring from the Army in 2018, he made it his mission to fully explore the Olympic Mountains by climbing 30 summits within a period of just three years. In September 2021, after hiking over 500 miles and climbing an astonishing 160,000 feet, he achieved just that.

A high alpine lake, aptly named Lake Beauty, in the Olympic mountains. (Courtesy of Nate Brown)

While serving in the Army, Brown had set foot in almost every corner of the United States but had not traversed the Pacific Northwest. So after a break from active duty, he decided to re-enlist under the condition that he be placed in Washington. Stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, southwest of Tacoma, Washington, Brown was blown away by the natural beauty of the mountainous terrain. When his mission ended in March 2018, he was ordered to leave his base and serve at a different location—but he politely declined. After 13 years of service, Brown deemed it time to spend the rest of his life in the picturesque Pacific Northwest. Since then, Brown has adopted Washington as his chosen home with no plans to ever leave.

A Passion for Mountaineering

Veterans from Veterans Expeditions climbing to the summit of Mount Hood, the tallest peak in Oregon. (Courtesy of Nate Brown)

While in the Army in 2015, Brown was trained in technical alpine climbing by The Mountaineers—a nonprofit community on a mission to share knowledge and encourage others to partake in outdoor activities such as alpine climbing, mountaineering, wilderness navigation, sea kayaking, and snowshoeing. Brown’s class lasted for about six months and took place in the evenings at the community center. Students learned technical alpine climbing theory before going down to Mount Rainier for a few weekends a month to put their knowledge to the test.

The most important thing Brown learned was that in order to improve in technical alpine climbing, he needed to find a core group of climbing partners whom he trusted. An individual’s fitness level is important to take into consideration. According to Brown, finding someone with approximately the same fitness level is best, so nobody struggles to keep up during a climb. Another key factor is having good judgment: many people encounter “summit fever” and become adamant about reaching the top regardless of conditions. That mentality presents many hazards, not just for the individual but for the entire group. Lastly, remaining humble is key. As Brown explained, “no matter how much you know and how good you are when you are in a contest between you and the mountains, the mountains will always win.”

A group of veterans from Veterans Expeditions on the summit of Mount Saint Helens in a winter storm. (Courtesy of Nate Brown)

While still on active duty, he discovered Veterans Expeditions, a Colorado-based organization that encourages veterans to explore the outdoors. “They [the group] would come to the Pacific Northwest every now and then and climb mountains, like Mount Rainier and Mount Hood,” he said. One day, Brown reached out and offered to accompany them as a photographer on their trips, taking pictures of veterans that they could keep or give to sponsors. So Brown connected with the group and started climbing peaks with them—as “the guy in the background with the camera,” he laughed.

After a year or two, Brown was asked whether he would be interested in leading some trips of his own, as he was more experienced in mountain climbing. So in 2020, Brown led a three-part volcano climb series involving beginner-friendly treks to Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, and Mount Hood. He and two other experienced mountaineers assumed leadership of groups of eight veterans each. The entire expedition lasted a few months, and the leaders taught veterans important skills like how to use ice axes and wear crampons (metal traction devices that attach to shoes, improving snow mobility).

The Olympic Mountain Project

A sunlight forest valley in the backcountry of the Olympic mountains. (Courtesy of Nate Brown)

In May 2019, Brown decided to embark on a new endeavor. A friend asked him what his favorite place in Washington was, and Brown instantly replied the Olympic Mountains. But as they sat down and peered at a giant folding map of Washington, Brown observed that though he claimed it as his favorite place, he hadn’t ever fully explored the Olympic Peninsula. “I realized I had really only been on the outside edges—because the Olympic Mountains are a circular cluster,” he explained. “I should climb enough mountains spread out throughout the entire Olympic complex to say without a shadow of a doubt, I have seen the Olympics.” He immediately started planning his project. He set out to explore 30 mountains, not only from the outer edges but also from the hard-to-reach interior areas.

Through the expedition, Brown, who has a full-time job working for a federal government agency, also hoped to raise awareness of the issues facing the Olympics, including underfunding and climate change, by partnering with Washington’s National Park Fund (the official philanthropic partner of the three major Washington National Parks including Olympic National Park) and donating 25 percent of the profits from selling his photo prints to the organization. He wanted to use those funds to support the organization in keeping the parks open for all to enjoy.

A deer in the Olympic forest. (Courtesy of Nate Brown)

Planning such an extensive project was no easy feat; Brown admitted that he spent more time researching than actually climbing the mountains—as the inner mountain peaks were relatively uncharted. Of the 30 peaks he would climb, only four of them had trails leading to the top. Brown had to research the rest and plan for unexpected obstacles as much as possible, hoping to ensure safe paths through the wilderness. After many hours and days poring over various maps of the Olympics, he finally mastered the layout of the mountains. “I don’t even have to reference a map anymore. I have it memorized,” said Brown.

Cruising Through Rocky Paths

In 2020, Brown was hit with an unforeseen predicament: the pandemic. National parks faced extended closures from April to July, due to measures set forth by the Washington governor. According to Brown, those months are considered prime climbing season; as some of the snow has melted, travel is easier and the risk of avalanches is low. During that time, he also had difficulty convincing climbing partners to join him on his trips, which sometimes required hiking 60 miles just to climb one peak. As a result, he went on several trips by himself. Brown’s drive to achieve his goal of exploring the Olympics was the fundamental factor that led him to continue his great expedition. “This is my favorite place in the entire world, and I’m going to see the whole thing. I just needed to see it through,” he said.

Mountain climbers often travel in groups for safety. On his trek up Mount Olympus, Brown was accompanied by six of his friends, and together they formed glacier rope teams. A six-person team is the standard for safe glacier travel, Brown explained. “If you had two ropes, each rope would have three people on it—then you can get yourself out of any tough situation,” said Brown.

A black bear in the Olympic forest. (Courtesy of Nate Brown)

His mountaineering project lasted for nearly three years, during which time Brown encountered much wildlife, including black bears, elk, and marmots. “I encountered so many bears that I would come to be completely numb to them,” he laughed. He explained that there are mostly black bears in the Olympics, which are often less aggressive than grizzly bears. He also photographed pikas in the Cascade Mountains. Brown said that he even spotted paw prints belonging to mountain lions, though he never saw one in the flesh.

When he’s not climbing mountains, Brown is often seen, camera in hand, capturing the beautiful landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. He admits that on any given trip, he shoots a minimum of 300 photos. On longer trips, it’s not unusual for him to return with upwards of 1,000 photos. The pandemic has allowed Brown ample time to revisit images and reflect on the memories and places he captured. Through this, he discovered photos he had previously overlooked. 

The 30 Peaks

The path to success is seldom smooth, and Brown learned that there are many unforeseen obstacles even after extensive planning. Bodies of water are typically represented on maps by squiggly blue lines, but one never truly knows whether those might represent a creek, a two-foot water ditch, or a raging river, Brown admitted. The seasons also play a big part in the depth and intensity of water features, with spring bringing increased water flow compared to fall when water tends to evaporate more quickly. “There were several times where I got to a point where I had to cross this body of water and there was no safe way to do it,” said Brown. He would have to turn around and reevaluate his plan, or completely remove a peak from his list and replace it with another one. “That was a benefit of choosing my own peaks—I got to move the pieces around as I thought fit,” he said.

Upon visiting certain peaks in the summer and revisiting them in the colder months, Brown noticed striking differences in appearance and captured them through photos. A mountain slope usually covered in bushes, shrubs, and small trees would appear entirely flat in winter, buried under a thick blanket of snow. The few trees that remained uncovered would take on different shapes, blown by icy gusts and frozen in place. 

Trekking across the snow. (Courtesy of Nate Brown)

Brown carefully handpicked the 30 peaks, making sure they spanned the entirety of the Olympics, but he had to consider many factors to make the expedition achievable. He said that the Olympic Mountains are known for having brittle, crumbly rock composed of ancient seafloor, so the danger of rockfall is always imminent, especially during vertical climbs. Whenever possible, Brown and company would climb side-by-side, so no one would be in front of another. The few times when this wasn’t an option, whoever was behind would hide in a cubby, or hole, while the person in front climbed up, stopped, and gave the all-clear. Communication was very important in those instances; otherwise, said Brown, one might send rocks flying down onto the person below.

A glacier-fed alpine lake in the Olympic backcountry, with McCartney Peak behind it. (Courtesy of Nate Brown)

In early September 2021, Brown concluded his expedition by climbing Mount Steel. As he stood at the summit over 6,000 feet above, the sun rose from behind the distant mountains and thick clouds swirled down below. “I stood eye to eye with each of the peaks I had climbed previously. It felt as though they were all standing in silent unison, giving me this one last moment to forget about everything below. One last morning where for a moment, nothing else existed; just me and the Olympic Mountains I have spent so much time in,” Brown wrote in a Facebook post. He scanned the horizon, naming and thanking each peak for seeing him safely up and down its jagged slopes. After climbing over 160,000 feet and traversing 500 miles, Brown had safely and proudly made it to the finish line. He felt relief and gratitude. Although the adventure ended, Brown would never forget his time in the Olympic Mountains, and the photos he captured during his journey would remain a testament to his accomplishments.

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Features

Milton Hershey’s Philanthropy

One could say that philanthropy is good for the nation and good for the soul.

In fact, philanthropy is a key component permeating the backbone of America’s success: American communities have benefited from private initiatives long after the benefactors have passed on.

Such is the case with one of America’s most beloved innovators: Milton S. Hershey. The wealthy industrialist invented legendary chocolates known the world over. However, Hershey’s legacy of philanthropy started with a belief in moral responsibility to others in need. “What good is money unless you use it for the benefit of the community and of humanity in general?” he was quoted as saying.

Milton 1887. (Courtesy of Milton Hershey School)

Born in Pennsylvania in 1857, Hershey had experienced hunger and poverty throughout his youth. Although loved, Hershey was accustomed to a routinely absent father. With limited choices, he left school at 14 and began a series of apprenticeships; he found success in the candy making industry 12 years later with his own business, Lancaster Caramel Company. It was his thriftiness, ingenuity, and hard work that placed Hershey in a position to give back. After selling his caramel business for $1 million in 1900, he made plans to build the Hershey Chocolate Company near where he grew up in Derry Church, Pennsylvania. There, he could mass-produce affordable, yet delicious, milk chocolate candies; create employment opportunities for others; and utilize the rich, creamy products from the dairy farming community.

Without heirs, Hershey and his wife Catherine dedicated their lives to philanthropic opportunities through the creation of the Hershey Theatre, the Hershey Amusement Park, and the Hershey Industrial School. The latter started out as an orphanage on the old homestead in the early 1900s. Today, Hershey’s legacy lives on as thousands of students have benefited from attending the well-endowed Milton Hershey School (as it is now known), a cost-free, private school for boys and girls from low-income families. As a home and school, MHS covers 100 percent of the cost of medical, dental, and psychological care, housing, clothing, food, extracurricular activities, and more for its students, allowing them to focus on their personal growth. This year’s enrollment consists of 2,000 students.

MHS Elementary school student enjoying art class. (Courtesy of Milton Hershey School)

Josh Kelly, like so many students before him, comes from an adverse background. Students who experience neglect, poverty, or negative environments apply for free admission and find themselves on a new path of opportunity. Kelly, a bright senior who hails from Philadelphia, plays ice hockey, works as a lifeguard at the school’s pool, and plans to further his education in the field of business or finance after graduation.

“When I was younger, my dad was never around. I was getting into trouble because I didn’t know how to express my emotions of anger very well,” said Kelly of his time as a troubled 1st grader. He and his older sister arrived at Milton Hershey School to get away from home and school dilemmas. Upon arrival at the Milton Hershey School, Kelly credits his elementary school houseparents for their tremendous influence on his emotional growth and well-being.
“They always push you to do better because they want you to succeed,” he added. “I didn’t have parent figures, so to speak, so they really set me up for a better future.”

Houseparent with students. (Courtesy of Milton Hershey School)

A better future, asserts School Historian Susan Alger, is why Hershey’s visionary ideals led him and Catherine to contribute to and support an institution like no other—a private establishment that not only educates but offers support and balance in family life.

“Students can relate to Milton Hershey’s story, who experienced a meager existence in a dysfunctional family. He wanted students to be useful citizens with stability,” Alger explained. “He just always said he wanted to get away from the idea of institutions and give them a happy life.”

In the beginning, Hershey’s Industrial School was an all-male enterprise. Aside from studies, everyone helped with daily chores, from gardening to milking cows. And the school grew in numbers. Being completely self-contained with truck patch farming, the students and employees grew everything they needed.

After Catherine Hershey passed away in 1915, Milton Hershey endeavored to be more involved in all aspects of the school’s success, providing opportunities in trades for students and financially ensuring needs were met.

According to Alger, his direct involvement of care and concern for the school was essentially fatherly. Being a bit sentimental and shy, Hershey would take boys for rides in his car and visit their student homes. Hershey was quoted as saying, “If we had helped a hundred children it would have all been worthwhile.”

Even during World Wars I and II, the school continued its deliberate mission to educate youth from troubled homes. Originally, the Deed of Trust allowed boys ages 4 through 8 to attend if the father was deceased; however, about the time of the Great Depression, the age restriction expanded to ages 4 to 14 with either mother or father deceased. Even when enrollment was down during World War II, it was due to those who chose to serve. “Close to 1,000 served, and we annually honor our Gold Star alumni who gave their life to service,” Alger stated.

While other philanthropists, in their generosity, give away partial or complete estates after their passing, Hershey was different. “He gave the bulk of his entire wealth while still alive,” Alger said. With the success of the Hershey Chocolate Company, Hershey quietly and humbly transferred the entirety of his company’s shares in 1918 to the school. But this fact was not known until a few years later.

With heart and will bent toward benevolence, Hershey was motivated by his own upbringing but also motivated through innovation.

“I wanted to get away from the idea of institutions and charity and compulsion, and to give as many boys as possible real homes, real comforts, education, and training, so they would be useful and happy citizens,” he said of his school. “Most of them [students] have better chances for character building and education than ever before. Perhaps they don’t have the chance to make as much money as some individuals have made, but they will lead to happier lives.”

Milton Hershey with children. (Courtesy of Milton Hershey School)

Historical records and oral histories indicate that Milton Hershey was a fair man. “He always gave the benefit of the doubt. As a problem solver, he wanted things to be right and ethical. He wanted people to live honestly.”

And unlike his contemporaries, she added, Hershey was grounded. As an example, in comparison to other wealthy philanthropists like the Fords, Wrigleys, and Vanderbilts, Hershey built a modest yet graceful home, High Point Mansion.

And though Hershey passed away in 1945, his innovative school continued to cultivate an education that helped hundreds of students. In 1977, the founder’s original dreams expanded, admitting girls from disadvantaged homes or tragic backgrounds.

“My dad tragically died when I was 4 years old,” said Christine Cook, a recently retired kindergarten teacher of 35 years at the Milton Hershey School.

Cook remarked on her own journey as the first female to graduate.

“I arrived in 10th grade as a sophomore from Philadelphia. We were taught intangibles—to work hard and to be kind. And we were taught tangibles like milking cows at 5:30 in the morning on the coldest of winter days or in the middle of the summer with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees. This is good, character-building stuff.”

Even if students didn’t like the chores, it was part of the overall experience. But Cook admits she was fortunate. Other students came from families with tragic, even abusive, backgrounds. Leaving family behind and starting fresh can be extremely challenging for the students and their families.

“I remember it being difficult for my mother. It was a tough decision, but a great one. So many parent supports exist today that help families experiencing feelings of guilt, […] giving up their children even though the school provides them with better opportunities,” Cook continued.

She would know. Before Cook graduated as the first alumna in 1981, she had played field hockey, basketball, and softball. She was a member of the school’s band, earned a spot in the National Honor Society, and held positions in student leadership. She graduated from college and returned to the school to teach the hallmark values, ideals, and integrity so instilled from her own experiences at the school. Cook believes that if Milton Hershey were alive today, he would be impressed by the vast majority of alumni who have successfully graduated and are employed in solid leadership positions. The school’s alumni have surpassed 11,000.

Cook was named the Alumna of the Year in May 2021, and she attests to the amazing honor of being a student. Her experiences led her to contribute in many ways to countless others who came through her classroom. In fact, she taught just under 500 students over her 35-year tenure.

“Hershey’s idea of success was making your mark in society in a positive way. A successful person is one who helps others. Hershey was big on helping the other guy, making the world a better place,” Cook added.

When her students graduate, she makes a point to stay in touch with those who are considered “Lifers”—having attended from kindergarten through their senior year. For the seniors, she invites them over to her house, cooks a homemade meal, and breaks out photos to share memories. When a Lifer graduates, she makes sure her congratulatory card includes a copy of his or her kindergarten report card.

“As you graduate, you understand the needs of the kids; it makes you work harder. I would tell my kindergartners that they attend the best school in the whole wide world.”

These kids are the lucky ones because no other school subscribes to what Milton Hershey stood for, she added. He left a mark in the world and lived up to his words.

Christine Cook, former kindergarten teacher for 35 years at MHS. (Courtesy of Milton Hershey School)

The philanthropic mission of Milton Hershey has been good for the students and employees. As School Historian Alger put it, “There’s one quote of Milton Hershey that sums up what he wanted, and it’s what we still do today: ‘One is only happy in proportion as he makes others feel happy and only useful as he contributes his influences for the finer callings in life.’”

It’s an adage that Kelly appreciates. Every year, he and the other students become philanthropists of sorts. With community service days, they learn to give back, too. He appreciates the opportunities awaiting him after graduation, thankful for the founder he never met who helped turn his life around.

If Milton Hershey’s philanthropic success continues from within the hallways of his hometown private initiative, it will be good for America, for his legacy of education lives on with students long after they graduate. One could say his gratefulness and generosity echo beyond the grave: “I hope to see the school carry on to new heights. After a man dies, he cannot spend his money, and it has been a pleasure for me to spend mine as I have done.”

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Features

Discovering Maine with the Man Who Talks to Everyone

Jim Burch, the founder of Discover Maine Magazine, is not a shy man. Raised in Bath, Maine, he realized early in life that he could talk with anyone and everyone. It was for that reason, perhaps, that he excelled in sales, which requires extraordinarily thick skin. In his 20s, in New York City, he trained himself to sell by phone, offering health food products to shops across the country.

The Discover Maine magazine. (Tatsiana Moon for American Essence)

When he came back to Maine in 1985, he worked for a company selling “reader ads”—small blocks of text sold to businesses that were then included in full-page newspaper ads pre-purchased by the ad company. These early experiences gave him the confidence to embark on a path that would eventually lead to the creation of “Maine’s Original History Magazine,” which has been going strong for 30 years.

Discover Maine publishes eight regional editions per year, from Aroostook County to York. It’s a free, glossy, 8×10-inch magazine that has about 60 pages per issue and is distributed to around 2,000 “drop points” in each region, with a print run of 15,000 copies.

The bottom halves of most pages contain ads purchased by businesses within each region. It’s the top half of each page that has made the magazine a much-loved and eagerly awaited periodical. Each edition is filled with the history of the towns of that region, going all the way back to colonial times.

I found the 2021 Southern & Coastal Maine Edition, published in October, a very timely edition, with what might be a comforting article about “Brunswick’s Great Snow of 1717” by Charles Francis. Comforting in the sense that we hope that the snows this year are nothing like the storms described in the article.

Francis stated that the town of Brunswick was hit by four snowstorms in a row, with the last one so large that Puritan leader Cotton Mather wrote, “As mighty a snow, as perhaps has been known in the memory of man, is at this time lying on the ground.” Francis added, “Immediately after the worst of the great storm, snow to a depth of five feet was reported as routine. Drifts of fifteen feet were common.”

Burch started the magazine in 1991 after experimenting with flyers filled with reader ads that he sold to businesses. He knew that he needed to offer something more to the people who would read his publication, so he decided to include articles about the history of Maine.

He bootstrapped the business, selling the ads himself, and assembling the magazine on his living room floor. “It was a lot of work,” he told me.

He found two freelancers to write the stories and slowly expanded. Now, after 30 years, he has a staff of five and an office in Portland’s Old Port managed by his son Dennis. The magazine is a success, both financially and as a product of value to his readers. Prior to the Covid outbreak, his revenues were over half a million dollars. They’ve decreased a bit because of the economic impact of the last two years, but it’s especially impressive that his revenues are still high considering the downgrades that many print publications have had to make in the last two decades.

The revenue is a good thing, but for Burch, the most important aspect of his business is that the magazine has proven to be a lasting inspiration to its hundreds of thousands of readers in Maine and a special set of about a hundred subscribers across the country. One out-of-state subscriber wrote:

“Maine is a love affair you never get over. Thank you for publishing a terrific magazine. P.S. The magazine I have went from Maine to California to Florida to Connecticut.”

I asked Jim what he thought was the core value of the magazine, and he replied, “Home-town pride. Maine pride.” He added:

“Maine people love their state so much, and that is what drove the magazine, and me, to create it. Because I knew that Maine people have such pride in our state. That’s what kept my vision strong. I love Maine. I think most Maine people do too. The more north you go, the more love people have for our state.”

Burch isn’t speculating about the attitudes of Mainers. He’s traveled all over Maine and has been on almost every road in the state over the decades, developing a huge list of distribution sites or “drop points.” His market research was hands-on.

“The way we know how extremely popular the magazine is, is when we’re out distributing it. We’re going into the stores and the restaurants and the diners and barbershops and places like that. And as you’re walking in with a pile of magazines that you’re going to drop off, people are saying, ‘Oh, can I have one of those? I love that magazine.’ They collect them. They don’t throw it away. It’s history, so it’s timeless.

“If you grew up in Mars Hill, and you’re eating at the Mars Hill Diner, and you see copies of an Aroostook County edition of the magazine, with stories about Presque Isle, Caribou, Mars Hill, Fort Fairfield, you want that. And you keep it. People actually collect our magazines. I was at a flea market north of Searsport, and I’m looking at a booth, and he’s selling the magazines. It’s a free magazine, and they’re charging five dollars for it, and they’re selling them. And another guy is selling our magazines for 10 dollars online. And it says ‘Free’ right on the magazine.”

Jim’s business plan when he started was bold. In the beginning, when he distributed the magazine, he would visit the advertisers because, for the first 20 years, they didn’t prepay for their ads. The company took a risk and allowed advertisers to pay when the magazine was distributed. Now, around 70% of the advertisers prepay. Ninety percent of them are repeat customers, although the staff constantly push for new advertisers.

“I love calling new businesses,” Jim said. “Three years ago, we were doing the Aroostook County edition, and I just wanted to get back on the phone and see if I still had the magic. Over the course of six weeks, I sold 90-plus ads. I couldn’t believe it, and I had so much fun.”

Of course, it helped that almost all of the businesses knew about the magazine.

The magazine has become a Maine institution. At the 2021 annual Maine Policy Institute fundraiser that honored L. L. Bean’s granddaughter Linda Bean for her charitable work in the state, Bean insisted that Jim sit at the head table. In her remarks, she pointed to him and thanked “Jimmy Burch” for his great work with Discover Maine Magazine.

Jim started out as a salesman with grit, a good Yankee salesman who could talk to anyone. He still can, in fact, but he’s most proud of how the magazine’s historical content has been valued by the people of Maine.

“I feel like I’m contributing to the heritage of our state,” he said. “That’s my biggest joy, that when I die, in my obituary maybe, they’ll say something about that.”

Categories
Small Farms Features

The Farmer Who Skis Upside Down

If honeybees could ruminate on the idea of skis, they might be jealous of Dan Marion. To travel through the air on skis, with one’s head pointed at the earth, and to then win a silver medal for doing so, is something that honeybees simply cannot attempt. Fortunately, they’re content with making the honey that Marion and his team at Fresh Pickins farm package into jars to sell to customers in Southern Maine.

Marion won his medal at the North American Open Pipe Finals on February 24, 2008, in Breckenridge, Colorado. He was 21. For those familiar with the sport, which is rather like skiing in a huge skateboard park, but much faster and much higher in the air, Marion won the silver “with a 9, a switch 7 and an alley-oop flatspin.”

His mother, Vicki, was not at all surprised that he won the silver medal. She and her husband, Peter, put Marion on skis when he was 2 years old and watched him grow in skill until he started racing at age 10, and then entered the world of sponsored, pro-skiing at 17 when he graduated from Windham High School. He competed in events all over North America, including ESPN’s Winter X Games, where he finished third at the 2009 World Skiing Invitational (superpipe) in Whistler, British Columbia, in Canada.

Although Marion kept skiing professionally until 2012, his life and career were upended in 2008, when he met a fellow skier named Abe at the Open Pipe Finals. Abe Zacharias was from York, Maine, and they discovered that they had the same friend group back in Maine. They also had parents who loved the land. Dan’s parents were naturalists and beekeepers, and Abe’s father owned Zach’s Farm in York.

Dan Marion on his tractor. (Michael Clark)

As Marion recalls, “My passion for farming and ambitions to start my own farm had me trading him a pair of skis for flower seeds the following week. Before I knew it, I was scribbling and rescribbling business plans and budgets while frequently finding my thoughts wandering to the upcoming summer.”

Since one cannot easily ski when the snow melts, Marion recruited his cousin Elliot to help him plow the fields of his grandfather’s land in Limington, Maine. He was planning to plant flowers to sell at farmer’s markets in Southern Maine. His efforts were complicated when his cousin “came down with one of the worst cases of poison ivy” that Marion had ever seen. He discovered that the entire farm was covered with poison ivy. But, since Marion was immune, he kept plowing and planting and attended as many farmer’s markets as he could. Marion was joined by his mother and more helpers as time went by. They grew 30 varieties of flowers, including sunflowers, zinnias, amaranthus, green mist dill, eucalyptus, and even basil.

Marion had obtained a degree in Environmental Science and had a big picture, macro view of farming. With Fresh Pickins Farm doing well in Limington, Marion hired a young lady and snowboarder named Dominic Thibault. Thibault was skilled in marketing and design and had a degree in Scenography, “the practice of crafting stage environments or atmospheres.” Her work and designs can be seen in many plays, including the 2021-2022 run of the play “Le cas Joé Ferguson” at the Théâtre du Trident in Quebec.3

Thibault is a “detail person” with strong organizational skills. She and Marion also share an intuitive sense of what is right for the land. In 2015, Marion, Thibault, and Vicki decided to lease 20 acres of the Ram Island Farm property owned by the descendants of P. Shaw Sprague. The land sits on the ocean in Cape Elizabeth and has proven ideal for Fresh Pickins, and is closer to the markets of the Portland area. They moved the operation from Limington, leaving the honeybees in the careful hands of Vicki in Windham. They currently use about five acres of the Ram Island property.

Thibault has helped rebrand Marion’s venture, dropping the word “farm” from the name, and has created a new look and feel for their website and the designs of the many flower and herb-based products they sell in local stores. They have branched out from the original crops of flowers, although flowers are still a mainstay, with the farm supplying as many as 600 bouquets a week to Whole Foods and many more to other vendors and markets.

Their venture into value-added products like lip balm, honeys, and skin creams has been very successful and has provided year-round income since the products are not perishable. Marion and Thibault also spend time engaged in sustainable wild foraging for plants like wild ramps and the Chaga medicinal mushroom, which they sell under the Fresh Pickins label.

Fresh Pickins products. (Natalya DeSena)

The farm’s off-season products are developed with a particular demographic in mind: for those who pursue an active lifestyle like surfing, skiing, or hiking. The formula is working, and in 2021, revenues grew by 60 percent. Marion employs 10 summer employees, most who came without advertising, all who returned for a second season in 2021. The staff has become adept, to the point that Marion and Thibault could step away, and the farm would continue to run. They’re now focused on building the brand and strengthening community relations.

I was impressed with Dan’s dedication to his work, a work ethic that seemed to match his first career as a professional skier. Hard work is good, as bees will affirm, especially for farmers who ski upside down. But I was even more impressed by Dan’s sensitivity to the land. We had a fascinating discussion about his view of the land as a living organism and the humbling experience of working with the land as a partner, and the importance of being aware of what the land and the plants needed. Our conversation grew quite metaphysical, and Marion told me about a watershed experience he had in 2017:

“I once had a clear moment that, as a farmer, I had a big responsibility. That I’m the bridge between the land and the food or the medicines that people need. I’m the one that is harvesting the fruits of this organism. It wasn’t meant to be scary. It was just to let me know that that’s what I was, and it was a big responsibility. That shaped me.”

After 13 years of farming, working 10-hour days, six days a week, Marion’s efforts, joined by the work of his mother, Vicki, his partner, Thibault, and their excellent staff, have all demonstrated that attitude and creativity make a huge difference.

Marion and Thibault keep their spirits and imaginations fresh by “adventuring” between the months of December and March. They hop in their specially outfitted van and travel far and wide, researching farm and product ideas, hiking in the wilderness, relaxing and meditating, and yes, sometimes, if they’re in the mood, skiing upside down.

Categories
Features

Honoring and Protecting Life

In October of 2009, Linda Znachko heard a news story about a baby who had been abandoned in a dumpster. Like many, she found this story to be deeply troubling. She didn’t realize, though, that its effect on her would change the trajectory of her life. She made one call, and another, and then ultimately a series of calls. Her work to provide acknowledgment for every human life and to comfort “those who mourn” had begun.

Znachko’s resolve was that no baby should die without a name and proper burial. She established He Knows Your Name Ministries in Indiana and its website, HeKnowsYourName.org. Through the website, she has worked to ensure that every baby who dies under similar circumstances receives a name and that a celebration of life is held. Her book, “He Knows Your Name: How One Abandoned Baby Inspired Me to Say Yes to God,” was published in 2016. She explained that when she talked with a coroner and learned that there was no provision for babies who died in tragic circumstances to be acknowledged and respected, her life’s mission became clear.

Another service of Znachko’s nonprofit, Cuddle Cots, provides a unique gift to grieving families. 25,000 still births occur each year. Many hospitals are not prepared to serve the needs of these deceased babies’ families. Cuddle Cots are equipped with a cooling method that provides the gift of time to grieving families. The family can dress the baby, take footprints, take photographs, and just share the physical presence of the baby, for the longest time possible. “It’s my goal to lift the stigma of loss and help families grieve in a healthy way,” Znachko said. Cuddle Cots allow families to have the baby’s physical presence with them through much of the mother’s maternity stay. This facilitates closure and helps to set grieving families on the path toward recovery. The Bible says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Znachko worked with one mother who, under great stress, had taken the life of her own baby. Ultimately, Znachko made all of the arrangements for this baby boy and officiated his memorial service, allowing the broken-hearted family to honor him and begin the difficult path toward recovery. The mother has now committed herself, even while serving a 12-year prison sentence, to helping others prevent the tragedy that her baby and her family experienced.

National Safe Haven laws provide for parents to be able to deliver their babies to hospitals, and in some states to other places, too, like fire stations, with “no questions asked.” If the babies are not injured, the parents will not be prosecuted. These laws are unique to each state. Some states have a form for both parents to complete, primarily for medical purposes, but this form is optional. The National Safe Haven Alliance maintains a 24/7 Crisis Hotline at 1-888-510-BABY (2229). Their website is NationalSafeHavenAlliance.org.

Anonymity, to some degree, is provided by NSH laws for parents under stress. However, some parents, for whatever reasons, may need even more anonymity than they perceive in the NSH process, which calls for them to personally take their infants to a hospital or other facility to relinquish them. These parents in distress may need complete anonymity, in order to move forward in a constructive way.

The Safe Haven Baby Box program, shbb.org, tries to meet this occasional need for complete anonymity, for whatever reasons parents may have. With the SHBB program, distraught parents can take their newborn infants to a hospital or firehouse and place the babies into a completely anonymous “safe chamber,” allowing medical personnel to provide relatively immediate care.

The chamber provides a comfortable bassinet for the infant. It contains an alarm system that alerts personnel inside the establishment that a baby has been placed in the chamber—but to the parent and the infant, the alarm is silent. The safe chamber is checked daily by facility staff, as a double-check. Callers to SHBB’s Safe Haven Crisis Hotline also can be assured of complete anonymity, “if they desire it.” The number is 1-866-99BABY1 (992-2291).

Znachko sees the influence of “a higher power” in her work to partner with the Safe Haven Baby Box program. The complete anonymity that it provides may make the difference between life and death for a child whose parent is stressed to the point of considering infanticide. The SHBB program has achieved a strong success rate in Znachko’s home state of Indiana. Representatives of nonprofit organizations who share her commitment to preventing avoidable tragic infant deaths are now studying the program for possible implementation in their own states.

The successes of the Safe Haven Baby Box program have led to several states adopting it—Arkansas, Florida, Ohio, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania. They have chosen to enhance National Safe Haven laws with the complete anonymity provided by the SHBB program.

“As we learned from the mother mentioned earlier, who killed her baby,” Znachko said, “if mothers at the height of their panic and distress know that they have a safe, reliable, and completely anonymous way to place their baby into the hands of those who will care for the child, without facing prosecution for making a heartbreaking decision, I believe it will be possible to save the lives of thousands of babies every year and also to spare these mothers lifelong pain and remorse.”

Znachko has found her collaboration with the Safe Haven Baby Box program to be particularly meaningful. She learned about SHBB through the death of a baby whose body was found by a hiker in December of 2014. When the news story aired, the baby was shown wearing a Vincennes University Aviation Department sweatshirt. Criminal investigators hoped that the sweatshirt might lead to someone coming forward to identify the parents. Znachko explained that when she saw the news report, she knew immediately that she would name the baby Amelia, for Amelia Earhart, because of the words on her shirt.

Monica Kelsey, founder of the Safe Haven Baby Box program, subsequently invited Znachko to testify before the Indiana Senate and House of Representatives. “I wanted to help them understand that abandoned babies are far more than mere statistics or numbers. They’re human beings,” Znachko said. She showed the senators and representatives Amelia’s footprint. “You may not have expected to have anything in common with an abandoned baby,” she told them, “but you do—because you have a footprint, and so does she.” Kelsey observed the impact of this message on the legislators. They subsequently voted to enhance National Safe Haven laws by incorporating the SHBB completely-anonymous-surrender service into Indiana’s protection for infants. Kelsey subsequently incorporated baby Amelia’s footprint into the SHBB logo.

Znachko and her husband, Steve, have five children, four of whom are adults. In 2020, Znachko’s work for babies in tragic circumstances took a personal turn. She heard from an adoption attorney who was looking for adoptive parents for a baby girl who was critically ill. Once the attorney realized that the baby wouldn’t be adoptable because she had extensive brain damage and was expected to die, he phoned Znachko to inquire if she would take care of the child. She thought he meant taking care of the baby’s final arrangements in the way that she usually does, but the attorney explained that he was asking for more than this. He was asking her to become the baby’s legal guardian, for as long as she survived. Znachko stepped up.

After learning the physician’s recommendation that the baby be taken off of life support, Znachko agreed to allow that to be done, but she wanted to spend time with her first. She said that Neonatal Intensive Care Unit staff give babies who will be adopted the description “BUFA,” meaning “baby up for adoption.” Originally, the attorney had thought that she might be adoptable, so Znachko realized that the baby girl had never been named. She told NICU staff that the baby’s name was “Abigail,” and that she should be called this, and that she wanted Abigail to be dressed in a sleeper, rather than only a diaper. The next day, Znachko and her husband went to the NICU to be with Abigail as the medical staff took her off of life support. Znachko and her husband spent the day with her.

When life support was removed, they were told that Abigail probably would live about two minutes, but she lived for two hours, Znachko reported. Her birth and death certificates have Znachko’s last name. Znachko’s four children chose the name Elise as Abigail’s middle name. “Abigail” means “a father’s joy,” and “Elise” means “beloved.” Posthumously, Znachko and her husband became Abigail’s adoptive parents.

Znachko said that she and Steve dressed Abigail in a beautiful white dress, prayed over her, baptized her, and anointed her with oil.

Znachko’s work began with the simple desire to honor babies who had died and to comfort those who mourn. But her He Knows Your Name Ministries has become an organization that now works to protect and preserve every precious human life. To safeguard each life—with the hope that the work to comfort family members of lost babies in situations like these will ultimately no longer be needed.

Christine Colbert holds a master’s degree in journalism. She has written for and edited varied media. Her preferred “beat” is good news.

Categories
Arts & Letters American Artists Features

Madama Butterfly

Maria Callas was of Greek decent, born in New York in December 1923. Just one year later, in 1924, Giacomo Puccini, who was from the small town of Lucca in Italy, died. They never met. They never even knew each other, and yet their lives will be forever entwined.

Maria Callas, of course, would come to know Puccini intimately through the miraculous beauty of his work. But it seems almost a tragedy that Giacomo Puccini would never know the woman, or hear the phenomenal voice, that would give such flight to his work.

It is almost inconceivable that Maria Callas, one of the most renowned and influential sopranos of the 20th century, detested her own voice. She thought it too nasal! The first time she listened to a recording of one of her performances, she broke down in tears. She had wanted to give up singing entirely. Though she later said she was able to accept her voice and be objective about it, it seems impossible that she might well have been the only person on earth left unmoved by the fluid power, that lilting delicacy and startling expression of authentic emotion, that brought audiences to their knees.

Given her tumultuous childhood, perhaps the very thing that gave her access to such raw emotion, it seems understandable that she might have viewed herself with a sense of remote disconnection. She commented often that “Callas,” the woman who went up on stage, was another person.

While the tone or quality of her voice might have been subjective—and there were detractors—through her style and phrasing, her voice came to be revered as the most telling, the most expressive and true voice of her time. With the fiery passion and theatricality she brought to each performance, she captured the hearts of audiences the world over.

But more: Victor de Sabata, the acclaimed conductor and composer, noted, “If the public could only understand, as we do, how deeply and utterly musical Callas is, they would be stunned.” Tullio Serafin, another conducting giant of the time, considered her musicality “extraordinary, almost frightening.” And indeed, Callas viewed herself foremost as a musician, the first instrument of the orchestra, though she never thought of herself as “good enough.”

Thirty-five years after her death, she was still one of classical music’s best-selling artists. While the press named her the first “diva” of the opera and concentrated on the drama and spectacle of her private life, those who actually listened to her voice were transported to another world: a world where each moment caught your breath, where each phrase, in the best tradition of opera, was love—life or death.

Maria Callas’ first performance in a leading role was that of Tosca, written, of course, by Giacomo Puccini. Callas went on to sing the arias from every one of Puccini’s most popular operas.

Maria Callas’ first leading role was in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. Cover of the libretto for Tosca, 1899, by Alfredo Montalti. (Public Domain)

Puccini came from a lineage of musicians who were well established in Italy. While they were certainly not wealthy, Puccini’s grandfather, after whom he was named, was the organ player and chief conductor at the Cathedral of St. Martin in Lucca. Members of the Puccini family had occupied that position going back to 1740!

After the death of his father, the family fell on difficult times. Giacomo was said to have been an unruly child, often playing truant from school, and at one point being accused of stealing the lead pipes from the church organ to buy cigarettes! Later on, he would actually elope to marry his wife, so it is clear he was not exactly a shrinking violet. There was a vibrancy to his personality, and it showed in the myriad colors of his work.

Composer Giacomo Puccini in a studio photograph. (US-PD)

At age 17, he literally walked from Lucca to Pisa to see a performance of Verdi’s latest opera, “Aida.” At that point, Verdi was the rock star of Italian opera. Apparently, Puccini had no money and no ticket, but that did not stop him. It would not be long before Verdi’s ardent fan would equal his fame.

It was expected that Giacomo would follow in the family’s musical tradition. He was sent to study at the Conservatory of Milan, where he lived the bohemian life of the starving artist. His adventures there would inspire his later opera,

Set Design for Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” 2010, by Reginald gray.

Apparently, apart from enjoying the nightlife of Milan, his schooling bored him to tears. But the Conservatory required he compose a piece as part of his thesis. Puccini responded with a composition for full orchestra entitled “Capriccio Sinfonico.” Writing for full orchestra, with just pen and paper, is an unfathomable skill. But Puccini’s remarkable symphonic talent and style were immediately clear.

It might have been expected that a man from such a background would become an excellent composer, but that doesn’t explain the incomparable genius that gave the world the operas “La Bohème,” “Tosca,” “Madama Butterfly,” and “Turandot.” It is an unparalleled contribution of such magnificence that words simply fail. To this day, these works still thrill audiences around the world.

Later in life. “Una fotografia del” compositore of Giacomo Puccini. (Public Domain)

As a musical dramatist, he was unequaled. As a writer of the most memorable arias, with melodies such as the impassioned “Nessun Dorma,” which became the theme for the 1990 soccer World Cup, he broke through the elitist notions of opera, bringing that magical world of imagination to the common people.

But neither Giacomo Puccini nor Maria Callas were common people. They may have grown up on the same streets as the common people, but the miracle of their uncommon gift was to distill everything of the human experience, from our highest ideals to our lowest cravings—the fears and secrets hidden in the corners of our hearts, desires, heartbreaks, the sacred and the profane—and reflect every one of us back upon ourselves.

It is a rare gift—so rare, in fact, that we still know the names of those few who have been able to do it. Their lives and their work enrich us all with a greater sense of the meaning, the depth and width, of our existence.

Giacomo Puccini and Maria Callas were not alike in terms of their personalities, but in their work, they appear as almost the same person. Their brilliance, of both sheer technical skill and deep, human, expressive passion, is truly as one. It is as if Callas was born specifically to bring ultimate expression to Puccini’s work.

Screen set on Madame Butterfly. “Collina presso Nagasaki,” 1906, by Alexandre Bailly and Marcel Jambon. (Storico Ricordi, Collezione Digitale Ricordi, ICON000079 – Restoration. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

I mentioned that they never actually met. Puccini was leaving this world just as Callas was coming into it. But there is a song, “Un Bel Dì, Vedremo” (one fine day we will see). It is an aria for soprano from the second act of Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly.” If you never listen to another piece of opera in your life, just read the outline to the story of Cio Cio San, and then listen to Maria Callas perform it. It is a piece of such searing drama and delicate beauty that it leaves me speechless each time I hear it. And each time I hear it, I am more convinced that Giacomo Puccini must be standing right there in the wings, listening.

Pete McGrain is a professional writer, director, and composer best known for the film “Ethos,” which stars Woody Harrelson. Currently living in Los Angeles, Pete hails from Dublin, Ireland, where he studied at Trinity College.

Categories
Features National Parks The Great Outdoors

From Ashes to Beauty

Nature has always been at the forefront of photographer Colin Tyler Bogucki’s life. Growing up, he and his family lived in Outing—a small town in “Lake Country” in Northern Minnesota. Surrounded by woodland and lakes, he felt it was the perfect place to grow up. “I was outside all the time and always connected to nature,” he said. Swimming, fishing, and hunting were a few of his passions. In 1991, Tyler attended college, studying psychology. After completing his coursework in 1995, he traveled to Alaska for an internship at a counseling center, where he immediately fell in love with the untamed wilderness.

Journey to Alaska

December Sunrise, Eagle River Nature Center, Alaska. (Colin Tyler Bogucki)

Equipped with a Minolta point-and-shoot film camera, he drove all the way to “the last frontier” in his little Toyota pickup truck. Tyler considers that trip as the greatest journey of his life. Struck by the natural beauty and scenery, he was hit with newfound inspiration. Words flew from his pen onto paper, taking the form of elaborate poems. “And I just had to keep pulling over and writing all these lines that were coming to me as I was driving,” he said. Tyler would go on to spend many days capturing the many wonders of wildlife through pictures and poems. “I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want to arrive in Anchorage—I just wanted to keep journeying because it was so inspiring,” he said.

After finishing his internship, Tyler decided to stay as a substance abuse assessment counselor. However, he was far from happy. “It just wasn’t for me,” he said. Outside of work, he would take every opportunity to practice his photography skills. It was not until a few grueling years that he decided to take the plunge and leave his job to work on his art. In 1996, after being gifted his first professional camera for Christmas—a Nikon SLR film camera—Tyler had one of his photos published in the Anchorage Daily News. Even when offered a lucrative career opportunity with the federal probation system in Alaska, Tyler instead chose to follow his heart. “I knew I was walking away from financial stability,” he admitted. “But I could not bring myself to do that work.”

Struggles and Setbacks

Tyler spent the next few years in Minnesota, juggling between bartending and manual labor jobs while honing his photography skills. Finally, in 2007, Tyler moved back to Alaska and found work in a small portrait studio where he learned portrait photography and studio lighting. “I ran that for about five or six years in the little town of Eagle River, which is where I live now,” he said. While Tyler enjoyed the skills and techniques he learned while working at the portrait studio, he primarily sees himself as “a nature and wildlife guy.” After leaving the studio in 2013, he was once again at a crossroads, battling for financial stability. He fought off many moments of regret for not going on to graduate school or seeking what he called a “professional career.” Despite many things seeming hopeless, Tyler was very grateful to be renting a small cabin on two acres of land in the woods of Alaska, located on the end of a road, with a creek running in the back of it. Tyler and his cat, Spike, lived a life that many would only dream of. In the summer, wildflowers and strawberries would grow all around the house. “There was also a deck out back where I could play my guitar and listen to the creek,” he said.

Tyler playing guitar in Akaroa, New Zealand. (Joshua Dean West)

April 22, 2013—Earth Day—Tyler was awoken to smoke alarms screaming. The cabin was on fire. “And I did everything I could. I had a couple of fire extinguishers and I started in the front,” he told me. “I emptied the extinguishers, I threw snow at it from outside. I couldn’t control it.” At some point, Tyler ran out of the back door but then attempted to go back in for his cat, who had gotten into the basement; however, a blast of smoke and heat nearly knocked him over. This was the point when it dawned on him that he would probably not be able to rescue his beloved friend. “I stood there and yelled and yelled for him,” he said, his voice breaking.

He spent the next few hours in his neighbor’s house, who had called the fire department after waking up early and witnessing the horrific event. Tyler explained that where he was living, there were no official firefighters—only volunteers. “So it was more than an hour before they were there spraying; then a tree came down, power lines came down and blocked their path so they couldn’t get near it because of the live power lines,” he said. As the fire got bigger and bigger, Tyler’s hopes became smaller. “I was at my neighbor’s, watching, thinking okay, they get here soon, maybe the house can be salvaged. Okay, maybe not. Maybe my cat can be saved, maybe not.” By the time the firefighters were done battling the fire and smoke, the cabin had been reduced to rubble. Spike had also passed away due to smoke inhalation. This event left Tyler pondering the reasons for such a catastrophe during a time when he was already experiencing so many setbacks. Today, he realizes that he had to go through this to discover his life’s true purpose.

Double rainbow, Eagle River Valley, Alaska. (Colin Tyler Bogucki)

Rising From the Ashes

Tyler always expressed a deep desire to travel and explore the world. He was often approached by friends asking him to accompany them on their photography travels. He would always decline. In 2012—the year before the house fire—a good friend of his from Montana invited him to explore India with him for two months. “I said, man, I’d love to join you but I can’t. I have this house, I have a cat—I can’t leave for two months,” he explained. A year later, after the house fire, Tyler was reminded of his friend’s offer and realized there was no longer anything stopping him. He had kept important documents in a file cabinet, but most of the contents in it had been destroyed in the fire—except for his passport. Firefighters found the document on top of the snow, completely intact. “I didn’t realize how significant of a sign that was until a few weeks later. I called my friend and said, well, you know, if the invite is still open, I want to join you. I want to go to Asia and India with you.”

A Bengal tiger on the trail of a tigress in Bandhavgarh National Park, India. (Colin Tyler Bogucki)

The pair traveled to Thailand and Cambodia before spending a whole month in India photographing tigers in various national parks. Tyler considers his trip to India as an inspiring, transformational journey that allowed him a means to express himself through his photography like never before. In India, they visited four parks and only managed to spot a tiger in their third park. During this time, he found that many people on social media waited eagerly for new updates on his journey. “People were following my story with anticipation. They would learn on Facebook every day and see what happened next,” he said.

The day they had their first encounter with a tiger, Tyler said that he could almost feel it nearby. “It was like I was hunting again, waiting for something. I just had this feeling in my gut that my cat was there with me and that today was the day.” When attempting to locate tigers, one should try to listen out for any warning calls from other animals. Sure enough, the call from a nearby deer confirmed his instincts. “We drove up the road, and there was this giant male Bengal tiger right in front of the jeep,” he said. The pair of friends were ecstatic by their discovery after all their effort. By the time Tyler sat back down in the jeep, he was trembling, and his eyes were watering. “We went all this way for this reason,” he said. Tyler had brought some of his cat’s ashes to India in a little container that he carried with him inside his camera bag. The day after spotting his first tiger, he returned and left his companion’s remains in a watering hole close to where he had spotted the tiger. That same day, either through fate or a stroke of luck, he had a rare encounter with another big cat, this time a leopard.

Spotted leopard in Bandhavgarh National Park, India. (Colin Tyler Bogucki)

Before the fire, Tyler admitted that he never would have thought about traveling around the world, but “life changes really quickly.” After his trip around Asia, he spent a brief amount of time back home in Minnesota before embarking on yet another extended trip to New Zealand. There, he took part in a program designed to connect willing workers with organic farms around the country, in exchange for food and lodging. “Sometimes it’s just a home with very elaborate gardens and landscaping. Others are actual farms or wineries,” said Tyler. He noted that it was a great way to meet locals and other travelers and that none of this would have been possible if it hadn’t been for the fire.

From Hunter to Photographer

After a summer in Valdez, Tyler decided to move to Eagle River Nature Center in Alaska—close to where he had been living before—in October 2014, as a resident volunteer. He has since been living there as a resident staff member and has acquired the position of Assistant Manager. His backyard now consists of the beautiful Chugach State Park with its abundance of wildlife.

Living in Alaska and observing the wondrous wildlife caused Tyler to view animals through a different lens. Hunting with family used to be one of his favorite pastimes; however, through photographing animals, Tyler developed a new admiration for them, and a softer, more compassionate side of him was awoken. Having the opportunity to express himself through various creative outlets played a great role in this transformation. “I had an English composition writing instructor who really inspired me with poetry. And that was in high school. He had a profound influence on me,” he said. Years later, Tyler sent him copies of his poetry, and the pair stayed in touch for a brief period. After the fire, he was pleased to discover that his little book of poems, which he had worked on during his first drive up to Alaska, had remained intact. “I thought they were gone forever,” he said. “I was just so overwhelmed that I was in tears.”

Some of his first wildlife photographs took place in the late ‘90s in the vast natural plains of Alaska, particularly in Denali National Park. He was just starting to learn about composition and lighting—which were all new to him. A significant turning point for Tyler was when he traveled to Katmai National Park and Preserve in 1999 to photograph bears. “I just had a wonderful time because there was beautiful scenery and just bears all around,” he said. He loved photographing those bears and felt very connected to them. “I just gained a great appreciation and respect for them.” To this day, Tyler considers this experience pivotal in helping him establish his passion for wildlife photography. 

Alaskan brown bear looking for salmon in autumn. Eagle River Nature Center/Chugach State Park, Alaska. (Colin Tyler Bogucki)

Photographing wildlife helped Tyler experience a greater connection to nature than ever before. Through collecting pictures, rather than trophies, he began to appreciate nature for what it truly was. By appreciating smaller aspects of the scenery, smaller animals, and even insects, he has developed a keen interest in animal behavior, and his relationship with wildlife has only increased. “I’ve learned to read their body language, and just developed such a different appreciation for the natural world because it’s no longer just a target.” Now, he simply wishes to capture these brief magical encounters with wildlife through his photos, and share them with the rest of the world. What initially started as a hobby has blossomed into a full-time career, a passion, and a goal. “People appreciate what I do and what I share as it brings them joy, inspiration, and a sense of serenity,” he added. For this reason, exploring, creating, and sharing his photography with the world has become a central focus of Tyler’s life; it is in these moments when he truly feels he is accomplishing what he was born to do.

Male Bengal tiger in Bandhavgarh National Park, India. Recognized by National Geographic editors and placed in the Top 10 out of nearly 12,000 images. (Colin Tyler Bogucki)

Tyler’s work has often been recognized in National Geographic, where he won numerous photography competitions over the years. His image of a male Bengal tiger was selected as one of the winning images in National Geographic’s “My Shot” photo contest, out of a total of 12,000 entries. His Northern Lights photography also captured the attention of the United States Postal Service and was featured in one of their commemorative stamp sheets as part of a collaborative arctic climate research project.

Sharing the Magic of Wildlife

With the successful sales of his photography prints, Tyler managed to travel again. He visited Australia for a few weeks, and then Cuba, where he provided photography tours to keen wildlife enthusiasts. This new endeavor brought Tyler newfound joy and inspiration. Traveling to different parts of the world and photographing wildlife had become his passion, so he and a photographer friend decided on creating Nat Expo Tours. According to their website, their mission is to share the amazing natural wonders of the planet while offering photo tips and techniques to touring participants. Future tours are planned to take place in three exotic locations: Iceland, Cuba, and Namibia.

The tours allowed Tyler to look inward and share his knowledge and appreciation of photography with others. “Seeing them grasp the concepts and start to understand things is a great feeling,” he said. Tyler believes the best feeling for him is when people attend the tours and come away with something that they wouldn’t have otherwise captured. “It’s just wonderful.”

Tyler photographing the Fagradalsfjall Volcano in Iceland. (Courtesy of Colin Tyler Bogucki)

Tyler enjoys exploring different creative media to express his art, with videography being his newest venture. In late 2021, he released a mini-documentary featuring the active Fagradalsfjall Volcano near Reykjavik, Iceland, during one of his photo tours. Tyler looks forward to incorporating this new form of storytelling into his art.

Tyler and his cat, Spike, in front of their cabin in 2007. (Michael Gandolfo)

Constantly on the move, traveling from one location to the next and photographing stunning wildlife while meeting people from all cultures and backgrounds, Tyler has established lasting connections with the world around him. Pursuing a career in wildlife photography has led to each day being different from the last.

Through loss and grief, he has discovered adventure. His travels have taught him more about himself and led him into discovering his true purpose in life, and while he often misses his furry companion, he believes that he was liberated from a life of fear and uncertainty to one full of excitement and creativity. “As long as I’m exploring, creating, and sharing, then I feel like I’m where I need to be,” he said. Today, he proudly displays a tattoo of Spike’s paw print on his right shoulder—a tribute to their everlasting friendship.

 

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Veterans Features

Healing Waters

In the spring of 2014, while returning from “a whirlwind RV road trip” to his sister’s wedding, Josh and Neysa Grzywa and their two children learned that two more of Josh’s military “brothers” had committed suicide. Both of these suicides happened within a week. Eight of his military friends had died this way. All eight died within a six-week span. As a result of these significant tragedies, Deep Sea Valkyries, or DSV, was born.

Josh and Neysa began to consider why Josh, who had served 15 years in the Army and had been deployed multiple times in support of the global war on terror, had been able to readjust successfully after his back surgeries and his return from the military. In 2014, he was medically retired because of severe spinal injuries that he sustained in a mortar attack in Iraq. He received the Purple Heart.

“I could no longer do skydiving or rock climbing,” Josh remembered, “so diving became essential to my recovery.” This awareness led to the couple’s founding Deep Sea Valkyries (DeepSeaValkyries.com), a veterans’ trauma-counseling retreat program.

“We chose scuba diving as the primary activity because of its unique benefit for people with physical trauma,” Josh explained. “Amputees, people with partial paralysis, and those with neurological conditions can all participate.”

DSV is open to vets of all eras, and it’s tailored specifically toward combating post-traumatic stress disorder. DSV has served vets from the present time all the way back to those from the Vietnam War, according to Neysa, who is the director of business operations.

“Diving was the activity that Josh took up as a new hobby, because regardless of one’s disability or injury, she or he is weightless in the water and can participate fully,” she said.

DSV’s first retreat was held in July of 2016. Josh, who is president, emphasized the importance of meaningful counseling, in which the veteran can be fully invested. Vets often begin counseling with the Veterans Administration for an hour each week. But around that, Josh said, they are bombarded with all of the issues that we all deal with day to day, which can be overwhelming for them.

Jason W. on a DSV trip. (Courtesy of Neysa Grzywa)

DSV’s retreat program takes vets out of the home setting. They don’t have Wi-Fi or cell phones. Being separated, they are free of concern about what family members or friends might think of their counseling sessions, he explained. “They only need to focus on themselves and how to shift the trajectory of their lives.”

“Treating trauma effectively doesn’t happen in a week,” Josh observed. “There’s no quick fitting of a cast and prescribing medication for pain, as one would receive with a broken bone. Trauma counseling takes time.”

Rich M. on a DSV trip. (Courtesy of Neysa Grzywa)

“We tell people right up front, we’re not going to fix you in a week,” Josh continued. “They need to shift the trajectory of their lives. We try to arm them with tools so that after they return home, they will seek out treatment in long-term care programs, so that they’ll be in a better place with friends or whatever the case may be.”

He said that when many of the vets return home, they don’t have large vet groups in their communities. “One of our members has participated with his daughter. After the vets’ initial retreat, they can include family members.”

“People with soft-tissue injuries are freed by being under water,” Josh explained. “The only sound is the sound of their own breathing. Very tranquil. It’s well known that breathing exercises help to bring people who have suffered trauma back to the present moment and remove them from painful memories.”

In February of 2022, DSV will hold a reunion event in the same place where the alums’ first retreat took place, Josh said. “They will be engaged in physical activities together, and they open up to share the beginning of the changed trajectory that flowed from the first retreat. This helps family members to connect in deeper, more meaningful ways.”

Tyson G. on a DSV trip. (Courtesy of Neysa Grzywa)

The essential goal of their week at sea is to shift the trajectory of their lives, according to Josh. “The vets who join us are not happy with the status quo of their lives. They’re looking for a change. Many have participated in VA programs in which they haven’t really had needs met,” he explained.

He indicated that the objective is to get them on a path of greater hope and for them to have a brighter outlook. Josh and Neysa said they know firsthand that there are challenges that vets face with some of the organizations that serve them.

“We try to be very careful not to over-promise or to guarantee that we can do something that we can’t,” Josh emphasized.

Primary retreats are held each summer, and the window for applying to participate usually runs through the entire month of December. Each retreat departs out of Nassau, Bahamas, for a week. Participants will be at sea the entire time, according to Neysa.

She reflected that each day begins and ends with a devotional, led by DSV’s military chaplain, who focuses on the moral injuries of war. DSV is open to vets from all religions and to those without religious affiliation, but it was founded on Christian principles. This is a prominent foundation of the program, she said.

All participants are expected to participate in all aspects of counseling. There are morning and evening group-counseling sessions, facilitated by a licensed counselor who focuses on combat PTSD. Travis, the current counselor, who served in the Marines, also works as a counselor for the VA.

A former Navy fighter pilot and current counselor helped to create the DSV program, she said. Jeff Hensley still serves as DSV’s director of clinical services and oversees the content of the counseling materials. He retired from the Navy after 21 years and went through the VA counseling system himself. He experienced all of the shortfalls of that system, and this prompted him to go back to school to become licensed so that he could help other vets.

According to Neysa, the program has added two additional counselors. Both are vets.

Participants must be dive-certified before their first event, she explained. DSV works with local dive shops to arrange training for applicants who aren’t certified, so that they can become dive-certified and open-water scuba-certified prior to the retreat.

DSV provides all gear needed by participants, so there is no cost to vets to participate. Patriots for Disabled Divers, an affiliate organization, provides dive training on a year-round basis, if the vet lives in an area with one of their affiliate shops. Vets need to apply separately for this service, she indicated.

During retreats, participants typically dive three to four times, depending on the day. Opportunities for deep-sea fishing and exploration of remote, uninhabited islands also are provided. “A lot of vets who join us heard about DSV from word-of-mouth referrals from other vets.

“These activities reinvigorate participants, allowing them to experience again, service-related camaraderie, while equipping them with tools for dealing with issues that many vets face when transitioning from service,” she explained.

Former participants often return in various staff roles, as a way to pay it forward to other vets. The present primary counselor, Travis, was a participant in 2018, and he has returned for the last three retreats as a counselor.

A current dive master, Matt, was a participant in 2017. He has returned in three subsequent years in staff roles, she said.

A 2019 participant, Felipe, had never dived prior to applying to the program, and he has now worked his way up to the highest level of instructor, through the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, PADI, and is working in the dive shop that trained him, according to Neysa. He now trains other vets. He returned as a dive-master in the recent retreat, which had to be rescheduled because of the pandemic.

Previous participants have gone on to either start school, return to school, or open their own businesses and give back in various volunteer roles to other nonprofits serving vets, as well as programs that serve communities.

“It has been such an honor to be a part of their healing process, as they write their next chapter, post-service,” Neysa said.

Up Armor, a new project that was created by Project Healing Heroes founder and CEO Lieutenant Colonel David Tharp, will partner with DSV in January 2022 to provide continuing care via Zoom counseling sessions, Josh and Neysa said. “He has graciously partnered with us to be an extension of our program.” Meetings will take place once or twice a week, led by a psychologist. Up Armor will focus on some of the same issues that the primary retreat dealt with.

Up Armor will serve vets from around the world, Josh said. Those from Japan and Australia, for example, and from across this country, will meet in real time for these Zoom meetings. This will allow them to maintain their connection within the vet community, and it will encourage their continuation of care.

Both of Neysa’s brothers served in the military. Aaron Fulsome served in the Marines, while Owen served in the Army and was stationed in Iraq, along with Josh. Owen was wounded in Samarra, Iraq. Neysa explained that when she traveled to visit Owen, she met Josh. Owen, like Josh, received the Purple Heart. Josh and Neysa’s two children are Sydney, 10, and Killian, 8.

“Sydney just completed her junior open-water scuba certification through PADI and is a natural at diving,” Neysa reported. “Killian can’t wait to turn 10, so he can get certified as well.”

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Features

Fighting Suicide Through Camaraderie and Combat Boots

Irreverent Warriors is an organization that was built from the ground up to address suicide. It does not use conventional methods but instead uses laughter, shared suffering, and familiarity to fight suicide. It works with those most vulnerable to suicide: the veteran population. The Irreverent Warriors mission is “to bring veterans together using humor and camaraderie to improve mental health and prevent veteran suicide.”

Suicide is a national crisis. In 2019 alone, there were an estimated 1.38 million attempts and a total of 47,511 suicides, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Unfortunately, suicide affects active military and veterans disproportionately. When separated from the national averages, it turns out that veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide over nonveterans, according to a 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

(Courtesy of Irreverent Warriors)

Combat-related deaths of military servicemen since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, total 7,057, according to a new report released by the Pentagon. These numbers include all deaths related to combat operations all over the world.

But this number pales in comparison to the number of military and veteran suicides for the same period. The most recent numbers are estimated at somewhere just over 30,000 suicides for those who served in all the combat operations of the post-9/11 combat theaters. These numbers are just those who have served after the terrorist attacks. The actual total number of veteran suicides between 2005 and 2018 was 89,100, according to a recent Department of Veteran Affairs report.

And these numbers on suicide are not going down. Each year since 2008, the number of veteran suicides has been over 6,300.

Addressing the Crisis From Another Angle

There are no easy solutions to this crisis, but there are some creative programs fighting veteran suicide.

Since 2015, Irreverent Warriors has been hosting events it calls “hikes” that have attracted over 50,000 participants in over 100 cities in 35 states to date.

How does this nonprofit accomplish this? It organizes close to 60 hiking events a year all over the country. These events are designed to accomplish several goals. They get veterans to come out and have an enjoyable experience around other veterans, where they can meet other vets and build a network of people they trust. There are also cookouts and camping trips and other events, but the majority of the events are hikes that are held all over the country and throughout the year.

The organization has a massive network of volunteer coordinators throughout the country. They are tasked with organizing events and building relationships with local businesses and organizations to strengthen the community resources available to veterans at the local level. The national level also works to build partnerships and collaborations that can reach more veterans, with national and local media campaigns to inform veterans of resources for reducing and preventing suicide.

The events are designed to bring together veterans from all eras and from all conflicts in an environment of camaraderie and friendship. Many veterans isolate themselves from society for various reasons and have very few friends. Aside from work, they do not socialize much. These hikes provide opportunities for veterans to get together with others who are like-minded, or who served together during their time in the military. This is also a time when community organizations can speak to veterans about suicide prevention programs and invite veterans to participate in them.

There are always activities that provide information on the local services and programs to prevent suicide. There is also the community itself, which is a supportive and positive one where participants build friendships that can become the emotional support veterans might need when thoughts of suicide occur.

‘Literally Saved My Life’

Jonathan Miller, 51, an Operation Desert Storm era veteran and now a traveling construction worker, got involved with Irreverent Warriors a little over four years ago. “My mental state was a mess,” he said. He was depressed and through Facebook found a local upcoming hike. “I’ve been to close to 40 hikes since that first one.”

“IW has literally saved my life. When I lost my service animal, I spiraled downhill quickly. I’ve made friends that I can trust and open up to, without fear of being looked down on or ridiculed. I’ve had fellow veterans call me when they needed someone just to talk to.”

A Navy chaplain he met through Irreverent Warriors was able to arrange a special visit for him to Arlington National Cemetery, where he was able to say goodbye to a Marine he had served with.

“Through humor and camaraderie, my mental health was improved and prevented this veteran from committing suicide,” said Miller.

Hikes and the Number 22

The hikes themselves encourage conversation, and volunteers build in fun activities while the hike is going on, including during scheduled stops to rest and rehydrate along the way. These hikes can be from 5 to 8 kilometers (about 3 to 5 miles), usually at a relaxed pace. At the end of the hike there is always a small celebration, where old friends and new ones can exchange info or make plans for the day. The hikes are open to all military regardless of when they served, peacetime or wartime, and almost any physical disability can be accommodated.

There is also the occasional signature hike, in which the participants do a 22-kilometer hike (about 14 miles) wearing 22 kilograms (about 49 pounds) of gear in a rucksack and in combat boots. The number 22 is to remind everyone that everyday there are 22 veterans who commit suicide in America.

The hikes usually begin in spring and end in late fall. An untold number of veterans have avoided a dark path and taken the bright path offered by Irreverent Warriors.

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Your Stories Features

Home Grown

Of all my 10 uncles, Uncle Bob was my favorite. Not only was he the family historian and a talented writer, he was the quintessential family man who involved his family in every aspect of his life, including his life’s work—operating a very successful greenhouse that has remained in his family for almost 50 years.

Upon his death in 2014, my Uncle Bob’s granddaughter Amanda memorialized him perfectly. She offered her hand and said, “Shake my hand. For when you do, you’ll have shaken the hand that shook the hand of the man who planted many seeds, watered and cared for them, and watched with eager eyes as they spread throughout the world. Take my hand and you’ll have grasped the hand of the man who cultivated a beautiful garden of life.”

My uncle was born in Minnesota, one of eight children. Most families were close back then, and his was no exception. This deep sense of family loyalty and service proved to be a guiding light throughout his life. As a young man, Bob helped an uncle who owned a small greenhouse in North Dakota, and his charismatic personality and strong work ethic undoubtedly served him well even at a young age.

Years later, he would refer to his life’s work as “people business.”

Bob took basic science courses in college and later served in both World War II and the Korean War. He married Clare, the love of his life, and together they had nine children. Working in a greenhouse was in his blood, and after the war, he advertised in a national florist magazine for a business. After receiving almost 100 replies to his ad, his dream of owning his own business soon came to fruition. In 1972, he purchased a small greenhouse in Centerville, Iowa, that would become his life’s work and his family’s legacy.

The property needed cleaning and repairing, and he engaged the help of his older children. Together, they hauled away 52 truckloads of junk to a landfill. From the start, the greenhouse was a family endeavor.

“A lot of the family could get involved with it,” he said. “Even an 8- or 10-year-old boy or girl can do something productive in a greenhouse. It’s strictly a family business with all members of the family helping out.”

He got into the business initially because he saw people wanting to improve their yards and homes, and “they needed someone to help.” Years later, he told his son David that the business also afforded his children “the pursuit of higher learning through college, and subsequently allowed each to pursue his/her journey in life.”

(Courtesy of Karen Brazas)

Operating a greenhouse isn’t for the faint of heart. “But,” my uncle said, “it’s one of the most satisfying jobs anyone could have … watching your work literally grow and become healthy right before your eyes.” And grow it did! Over the years, he and his sons renovated older buildings and added new ones. New lighting was installed and generators were frequently updated. What had once been a local retail business turned into a large wholesale operation serving several states.

As Uncle Bob said, “It’s like farming. You have to make hay when the sun shines.” During the busy spring season, the family worked from sunrise to sunset—13 to 14 hours a day. Success depended on the rain and the sun. Ice storms could knock out power, insects could ruin plants, and molds could kill flowers and trees. At times, things were hectic.

But “Centerville Greenhouses” survived, and over the past 49 years, three generations of the Bob Lind family have worked hard together. Some might call it a labor of love.

When Bob retired, his son Rob and his family took over. And these days, Rob’s sons Pete and Alex run the business with help from other family members. The family believes that “there is no better worker than a ‘home grown’ one.”

(Courtesy of Karen Brazas)

Grandson Pete says the greenhouse industry is “competitive, but everyone is friendly. There is a tradition of honesty and pride in the business. Everyone works toward helping the industry survive. They take pride in what they sell.” He and his brother Alex have hired several other workers now that the business has expanded with new buildings, renovated spaces, and more inventory.

“The biggest challenge these days,” he says, “is keeping up with marketing concepts and the demands of the consumer.” But they enjoy their jobs and are proud to maintain the work ethic and the family traditions passed along to them.

Their Uncle David said his father’s legacy was, “Always strive to do your best, but initiate a deep faith to provide the necessary guidance.”

I have no doubt they would echo their cousin Amanda’s final message to her beloved grandfather: “Love is the seed from which your tree has grown. It is the water and the sun. It is the care and the tenderness. It is all that is necessary. And I am so grateful, so moved, so happy to be one of its many leaves, forever connected to it, regardless of which way the wind blows.”

Karen Brazas is a retired high school English teacher and creative writing instructor who taught in California, China, and Lithuania. She worked and studied in 35 countries with the Semester at Sea program. Karen is a wife, mother, and grandmother, and now lives in Nevada City, California, and Channel Islands, California.

Categories
American Success Features

Rhonda Sciortino: Empowering Survivors

I went from homeless to millionaire, but it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t overnight. Here’s my story.

I was homeless when I was 8 years old as a result of an uninsured fire in the little shack where I lived with my mentally ill grandfather and alcoholic and addicted grandmother. My parents were both long gone.

That time of being homeless made a powerful impression on me. When I think about it now, decades later, I can still feel the emotions of being scared, dirty, and hungry. I went to school every day for months, through fall and into winter, wearing the same filthy little dress and dime store flip-flops that I was wearing on the day of the fire. We slept in the back of our old pickup truck usually at a nearby lake. We fished and we dug around in trash cans for something to eat. When someone gave us a box of used clothes, some of which almost fit me, I was so excited. For me, it was like someone had handed me a million dollars. I didn’t know it then, but I can see clearly now that there was dignity in that box.

When I was 15 years old, I read that I could become an emancipated minor. Wow! No more living in filth (or staying with people who didn’t want us there), being screamed at, or being hit for any reason or no reason at all. I got a ride down to the courthouse, and I asked anyone who would speak to me how to get emancipated. I didn’t know that you were supposed to go with a lawyer or a social worker. My social worker had closed my case years prior, labeling me “unadoptable” because, she said, “no one wants to adopt school-aged children.”

After hours of hanging around the courthouse pestering people, a bailiff had mercy on me and escorted me back to a judge’s chambers. I stood outside the door while the man in the uniform went in and spoke to the judge. When he came out to get me, he said, “You’ve got 5 minutes.”

I told the judge that my parents had been gone for years, and that I wanted to be emancipated. “I can do it, your honor. I know how to take care of myself.” To my surprise, the judge didn’t summarily dismiss me and have the bailiff escort me out. Instead, he said, “OK, if you want to be emancipated, here’s what you’ll need. You might want to write this down. You’ll need to bring me a paycheck stub showing that you have a steady job, a lease for an apartment and a utility bill in your name showing me that you have a place to live, the registration for a vehicle to prove that you have a way to get to school and work, and passbooks for both checking and savings accounts.” I think he thought he’d never see me again.

I left there so excited! I went back to the ROP (Regional Occupational Program) office at the high school where I attended and asked them to help me find a job. They sent me on two job interviews—one at a bank and one in a little insurance office. I didn’t get the bank job, but the insurance agent hired me on the spot. Of course he did, because every time he asked me if I knew how to do something, I told him I was an expert at that! Most of what he asked about was a complete mystery to me, but I figured that I would learn and work hard and have a good attitude, and that all those things would make up for what I didn’t know how to do.

When that insurance agent taught me about homeowners insurance, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was stunned to hear that this thing called “insurance” existed, which would have rebuilt our little shack, replaced our clothes and furniture, and put us up in a house while they were rebuilding our place after it had been destroyed by fire. It was like this man had lit an unquenchable fire in me. I became passionate about selling homeowner insurance because I never wanted anyone to go through what we had gone through. The only problem was that I was 16 years old and unlicensed.

I filed my application for an insurance license and was turned down. The rules were that applicants had to be at least 18 years old before they could take the test. I was completely dejected. I had taken everything the judge required for emancipation down to the courthouse, and had been declared an emancipated minor. I felt like I could do anything! But the Department of Insurance burst my bubble. My boss, the man who had lit the fire in me, prompted me to appeal. After all, as an emancipated minor, I could be tried as an adult if I committed a crime! So I appealed. I was declined. I appealed again. I was declined again. On the sixth appeal, my boss suggested I write a letter to the then sitting Insurance Commissioner saying that I was going to be at his office every morning when he arrived until he allowed me to take the test. I was approved.

(Jennifer Schneider for American Essence)

Successful Survivors

I passed that test, and I spent the next 40 years in insurance. Most of that time I was in my own business, Child Welfare Insurance Services, an organization that was founded solely to protect and defend the good people and organizations that care for children who have been abused. In that business, we educated the insurance industry on how to properly rate premiums for child welfare organizations that had previously been charged premiums as though they were hospitals or insane asylums. As a result, we put millions of dollars back into the budgets of the organizations we served. That was money that was spent on children rather than insurance.

I sold my company and decided to spend the rest of my life helping other people succeed because of what they’ve been through. That was exactly what I had experienced.

I realized that the most painful experiences of my life became the stepping stones to personal and professional success. The abandonment I experienced when my parents left taught me self-reliance. The poverty I experienced taught me how to manage money and how to appreciate even the simplest things like warm running water, clean sheets, and food in the pantry. Child abuse gave me an empathy for victims of abuse that can be acquired only through lived experience. Being homeless as a result of an uninsured fire gave me a passion for the very thing that would be the vehicle through which I could help hundreds of nonprofit organizations, and indirectly, thousands of wounded children.

I founded an educational nonprofit, Successful Survivors Foundation, for the purpose of helping others create their own successful lives. We launched the Love Is Action Community Initiative to encourage people in neighborhoods to come together to help to eradicate social isolation and the societal ills that emanate from it, including child abuse, domestic violence, human trafficking, substance abuse, suicide, and all the others.

In this second half of my life, I’m trying to help as many people as possible. Because I can only be one place at a time, I began to write. And I launched a podcast called Empowering Resilience. I’ve written 14 books, the most recent of which, “30 Days to Love,” is scheduled for release in November 2021. I’m working on turning my Your Real Success curriculum into a series of micro-learning courses, in the wild aspiration of helping millions of people to find and fulfill the purpose for which they were born and perfectly matched.

And the most recent fun I’m having is doing the interviews for the American Success segment of American Essence Magazine. There are so many truly remarkable people throughout our great country who live quiet and peaceful lives of service to others. In their own unique way, each one is making the world a better place. It’s such a privilege to be able to tell their stories. I hope you’ll check in with me monthly for the next story. And who knows, maybe one of these days, the story will be about you.

(Jennifer Schneider for American Essence)

What challenges or hardships have you faced and overcome?

“I’ve overcome abandonment, abuse, poverty, and many other adversities. The most important aspect of facing challenges and hardships is discovering the truth that despite how difficult or painful it may be in the moment, suffering is optional. We can choose to be positive, be good to others as best we can, and expect good things to happen. This is my formula, if you will, for turning our adversities into our advantages. Adversities give us priceless opportunities to develop character traits, such as empathy, and learned abilities that we cannot acquire any other way.”

Tell us about the life that you live now.

“I am happily married to my husband of 30 years, Nick Sciortino. When I married him, I got a great, big Italian family as part of the package. Their acceptance of me helped to love me into wholeness when I was still rough around the edges. I used to be skeptical of people, almost expecting them to hurt me. But I understand now that when people don’t behave well, it’s because all is not well for them. Now, instead of being skeptical and defensive, I try to approach people with kindness, mercy, and love.

I have a wonderful daughter and son-in-love and amazing grandchildren. I can honestly say that I now have what I call Real Success, which is a balance of five separate facets, including good relationships, good health, peace, joy, and financial provision. That’s what I want for everyone.”

(Jennifer Schneider for American Essence)

What are three things that you do for others?

“Through my writing, speaking, podcast, and media, I do my best to share the wisdom that I’ve acquired along the way. I’ve tried to learn from everyone I know. (Sometimes I’ve learned how NOT to behave—still, it’s all valuable.) So I pass along tips so that others can build on what I know and go farther than I ever will. On a personal level, I share my faith and values. In my journey from homeless to millionaire, I’ve learned what works to move us toward fulfillment of our purpose and the real success that accompanies it. I’ve also learned what doesn’t work. Those things that do not work distract us from the good life we were born and fully equipped to live. I share what I know to help others save the precious time of their lives that can never be retrieved.”

Some favorite quotes: 

“You can have anything in life that you want, if you’ll help enough other people get what they want.” —Zig Ziglar

“Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” —Teddy Roosevelt

“The harder you work, the luckier you get.” —Samuel Goldwyn

A book that inspired you:

“The Body Keeps The Score” by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk

“Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor Frankl

“Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis

Best advice:

“Forgive those who have hurt you. Be kind to everyone. Show love to others every opportunity you have. When you do those things, your life will be filled with kindness, love, and mercy. It doesn’t get any better than that!”

Rhonda Sciortino is the author of “Acts of Kindness,” “The Kindness Quotient,” and “Love Is Action,” among many other books. She hopes to nudge people toward Love.