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Inspire(d) Winter Challenge!

Winter is officially here! Are you ready to rock it? Try this winter challenge to make it the best winter yet!

By Aryn Henning Nichols • Originally published in the Winter 2018-2019 Inspire(d)

We get it. It’s icy out and super cold, and we’re all feeling like maybe we should just ride winter out on the couch with a constant stream of Netflix and popcorn with M&Ms.

Right?

NO! Do not give in to the doldrums! There’s fun to be had.

We’re here to propose a winter challenge. Add some things from below to your winter to-do list. (Aka your “Is This Winter Ever Going to End?!” list. Your “Bucket, It’s Cold” list. Your “Let’s Move to Arizona” list. Or whatever you want to call it.) Let’s make this your best Driftless winter yet! C’mon! It’ll be fun!

Mentoring: Thanks for Being A Friend

Northeast Iowa Youth Mentoring program celebrates 20 years of services

By Aryn Henning Nichols

Kathy Schwartzhoff sits in an office in Helping Services for Youth and Family, a stack of papers neatly piled in front of her – details and history at the ready as she shares stories from her two decades working as mentoring coordinator in Northeast Iowa. The office is situated in a cozy house on a corner lot in Decorah, but Kathy’s not “home” there often. She’s more likely traveling around the region playing – but really, working – matchmaker.

It’s not matchmaking like you might think. Kathy is a friendship matchmaker. She makes mentor matches for kids looking for time with an adult, or a fun reason to get out and explore, or kids simply wanting to make another friend.

“Lasting relationships,” Kathy says. “That’s the life force of mentoring.”

“One man – every time I see him, he gives me an update like, ‘My guy called to talk about college with me,’” she continues. “They’re still in each others’ lives. And that’s just one person sharing his story. I hear the same kinds of stories from people who have only done mentoring for a year.”

The concept behind mentoring is really pretty simple: Connect a youth with a responsible adult, and build a healthy friendship. Mentors are not parents, psychologists, or social workers. Rather, they’re role models, sharing their time and experiences with a young person.

Winneshiek County celebrated 20 years of providing kids mentors in January of 2018, and the two-decade anniversary for Howard and Allamakee was November 2018. Delaware County began in 2009.

Kathy has led the Winneshiek program from the start, and she’s been in charge of all three of the Northeast Iowa county programs for the last 15 years.

But it all started at a meeting amongst various local non-profits and agencies.

“Someone said, ‘We’ve been hearing about mentoring programs. Is anyone interested?’” Kathy says. “Eight or 10 people raised their hands, and we were off.”

“It took two years to get it going. We built it from scratch,” she continues. “We looked at a lot of programs across the country – pamphlets, information… I mean this was before the Internet. We gathered everything and picked what we thought would best suit the program we wanted to build.”

Everyone took little portions, and slowly, they put together criteria and training, and launched the program with just 10 mentors and mentees.

“We had no money. No other volunteers. No staff. Now try doing that,” Kathy says with a laugh.

The process for mentors goes like this: After potential mentors fill out an application, they complete an interview with Kathy and a two-hour training. Once approved, their basic requirements are that they spend four hours per month with their mentee and they sign on for at least a one-year commitment. Mentors can be individuals, couples (or two friends) or a family.

“As soon as I get an application, I call them on the phone,” Kathy says. “I’m in the business of building relationships, and I want to build a relationship with you as well.”

Decorah resident and business owner Paul Bauhs has been a mentor since April of 2017. His mentee, Jacob – or Jake – is eight years old.

“I signed up to be a mentor for a couple of reasons,” Paul says. “First, since I’m single with two grown kids who live out of the area, my life seemed to have gotten pretty self-centered. Mentoring seemed like a good way to ‘give back.’ Secondly, I like the idea of being a supportive friend to someone just starting out in life, sharing ideas and skills and interests, doing projects, and just plain having fun.”

They have a regular Wednesday evening ping pong match, and hang out on weekends when the schedule allows. It’s rewarding for both mentor and mentee.

“The best part of being a mentor for me, I think, is being that supportive friend that Jake can count on for serious discussions if need be,” Paul says, “as well as someone to enjoy all kinds of fun activities with.”

Jake agrees. “I like getting to do all the fun stuff like rollerskating and ping pong,” he says. And what kid wouldn’t? As for Becca, Jake’s mom, she says she wanted her son to have a positive role model outside of the family. Paul and Jake have hit it off well, and that’s in large part to Kathy’s specialty: Making a good match between mentor and mentee.

“A big part is personality,” she says. “The criteria can fit, but that doesn’t mean the personalities will.”

To become a mentee, youth must be between ages five and 16, live or attend school in Winneshiek, Allamakee, Delaware, or Howard County, and both kid and parent(s) must agree on the child having a mentor. The mentee / parents fill out an application, and then they have an interview with Kathy, where she asks the child questions about interests and wishes for an ideal role model. Kathy spends a lot of time listening and observing – she’s honed her skill over decades of experience in making a good mentor/mentee match.

“People sometimes say, ‘Kathy, how do you do that?’” she says. “Part of it is watching people’s mannerisms…How they talk. How they are. It’s not always what they say, but how they are. That helps me know if it’s right.”

Since day one, more than 1000 kids have been connected to a role model through youth mentoring. There are currently 76 kids taking part in Helping Services Youth Mentoring here in Northeast Iowa. And the impact of these friendships made between mentor and mentee goes deeper than just the two of them. Add in any other kids in the family, parents, and friends, and you’ve got a pretty wide-reaching, positive influence.

This January marks the 17th anniversary of National Mentoring Month. There are currently about 25 to 30 kids waiting to find a mentor here. For four hours a month, a mentor could help these kids add more positive experiences to their lives.

“It doesn’t have to be a fancy-schmancy outing,” Kathy says. “We had one mentee who was so excited to simply wash a car with his mentor one sunny day.”

There are also opportunities to “try it out” or sign on with less commitment though events. These are fun group outings like picnics, trips to local museums, and more. A Mentor For A Day is a person who has agreed to attend a mentoring event as a friend to a youth whose regular mentor could not attend, or one who is on the waiting list for a mentor.

These events are popular for mentors, mentees, Mentors For A Day, staff…pretty much all who attend.

“I asked Jacob what he thought about a recent event they attended, and his reply was, ‘I just liked being here. Being with the people I was with.’” Kathy says. “It just as simple as that.”

“We have this opportunity to make a difference in these kids’ lives,” she continues. “What they are facing at home? What are their challenges? Where do they find joy? All I know for sure is that Jacob found joy that day.”

Aryn Henning Nichols thinks the Helping Services Youth Mentoring Program is great, and encourages you to check it out if you’re even just a little bit interested. Let’s spread more positivity in this world!

Go to www.helpingservices.org/youth-mentoring-services/ to apply or get more information.

Darkness to Light: Burning Bright

By Kristine Jepsen

Decorah’s winter solstice concert, Burning Bright, celebrates 20 years of bringing light in the darkness and giving back to the community. Choir member Kristine Jepsen chats with founding members and directors as they reflect on years past and prepare for this season’s performance.

“Oooh, that one’s my favorite,” fellow alto Emily Neal whispers as we open our binders to “The Parting Glass,” a traditional Scottish tune about toasting one’s friends. We’re sitting in choir rehearsal for Burning Bright, an annual winter concert that brings together singers and instrumentalists in the Decorah area.

Kathy Reed, who co-directs Burning Bright with Otter Dreaming, settles at the keyboard, ready to prompt us, as late-afternoon sun slants in through First United Methodist’s stained-glass windows. We’ve sung this rollicking, bittersweet song before, and that’s all the more reason we want to get it right.

In the deep of this winter, the Burning Bright chorus, along with instrumentalists and youth and children’s choirs, celebrates two decades of offering “light in the darkness.” The concert – two performances, actually – is a handmade gift of obscure carols, folk songs, and sacred world music. Each year, the pieces reflect a theme, and in this anniversary year, it’s “Exultation.” Some pieces honor Christmas, but more centrally, Burning Bright – BB, as members say – is about the winter solstice, the night on which our hours of darkness turn toward light.    

“You said ‘I Am Christmas’ was your favorite song on the concert,” I whisper back, kidding, as the opening accompaniment unfolds. “I know,” Emily says with a happy sigh. “I love them all. For me, this is it. This IS Christmas.” I get what she means.

Burning Bright itself started with just one song – “‘Twas on a Night Like This,” arranged for soprano, harpsichord, and oboe, to the hymn tune of “When Christ Was Born on Earth.” The first-ever performance was called “Songs of Christmas: A Concert for Harpsichord and Voice,” says Decorah business owner Ellen Rockne, the “voice” in question.

A child of the Lutheran singing tradition, Ellen was already a chronic music organizer and accomplished soloist when she moved to Decorah in 1996. She crossed paths with Kathy Reed through their young children’s homeschool activities and soon shared her dream of a winter concert to warm the cold Midwestern nights. Kathy, who is formally trained in musicology and harpsichord performance, felt their synergy immediately.

“I didn’t move here because of the potential to combine these different aspects of my musical life,” says Kathy, who is now an instructor of music at Luther College, “but one day our kids’ group met up and someone mentioned trains, and then someone jumped in and said, ‘Hey! We know some songs about trains!’ and we all spontaneously started singing, and I thought, ‘OK, this is a place where people sing. That’s fun.”

Ellen, by her own admission, sings all the time. “I don’t even know I’m singing, but my now-grown sons say I never stop,” she says. “The disconcerting thing is that as the years pass, I find myself making up little songs about every little thing,” she says, laughing and rolling her eyes. “The other day, I caught myself singing a tune to the phrase, “Now, here is my tea….”

Otter first got involved with the concert in 2002 as a singer, and joined its administrative ranks soon after, Kathy says. “At dress rehearsal that year, we sang everything end-to-end and realized the concert would be three hours long – a major problem, since we really wanted a two-hour program. At some point, Otter mentioned as tactfully as possible, ‘You know, you could identify a number of pieces – say, 20 – that will fill out the time, more or less, and aim for that each year,’ and I thought, ‘Oh! Now there’s someone we need organizing this thing.’ And he was right: That target number is 19 pieces,” Kathy concludes. “We’ve stuck to it ever since.”

The goal with Burning Bright, Otter and Kathy say, is making the concert accessible both to participants – ranging from professional musicians to debut choristers – and a diverse audience. Often, this means making the sound intentionally less “perfect” and more faithful to a song’s historical roots. “OK!” Kathy says, presiding with a smile over a section of skilled sopranos. “Now that you know your line, let’s make sure it isn’t that ‘pretty’ ever again. I need more ‘hale and hearty’ from the beginning.”

“You mean, lusty?” a choir member pipes up, gambling for a laugh.

“No, no,” says Kathy quickly, in her quietly irreverent way. “I mean….”

“Musty?” another member suggests. “Fusty?”

“Well, I’m not going to say lusty,” Kathy presses with a wry smile, “but, with more vigor.”

If none of these songs or techniques sound familiar, that’s by design. “This is never going to be a concert of familiar carols,” Kathy explains, though often there is one audience sing-along. She prepares pieces for the Burning Bright choir that resonate with her, sometimes arranging songs to fit the group. She did this for the Mary Chapin Carpenter lullaby, “Dreamland” – another piece to be revisited on the 2018 concert – by writing it for men’s voices, instead of a solo woman’s.

“Now Otter,” she continues warmly, “is a composer. He will come across a text he likes and write all four parts for it, or vice versa. He’s also more familiar with world music, bringing in pieces from Africa, from Syria, from musical traditions I’m not as fluent in.”

This is how Burning Bright keeps musicians and audiences coming back: By stitching together a colorful mix of lesser-known music, and welcoming darker themes – fear, grief, loss – along with those of light, hope, and joy.   

“One of the most rewarding and touching things for me,” Otter says, “was performing a short, very personal piece I composed reflecting on the deaths of several friends and family members. I received a thoughtful card from someone who had been in the audience that year, thanking me and telling me how it had helped her to accept her own mother’s death.

“I’ve also been blindsided by emotional reactions to pieces related to my daughter’s arrival in my family and in the community,” he continues. “One Stephen Foster lullaby, ‘Slumber My Darling,’ that Kathy arranged for tenor and bass voices, took me by tearful surprise at the first performance of our concert. I knew it was coming in the second concert and wasn’t expecting the same emotional response, but – surprise, again!”

On a lighter note, Burning Bright members gladly anticipate being caught off-guard by the wit of founding member-singer and sometime-banjo accompanist Dale Kittleson. Known for telling dad jokes when rehearsals get tense, Dale has reportedly encouraged chuckle-inducing costumes and lyrics, such as to the 2017 performance of, “Farewell, my friends, I’m leaving FaceBook…,” a satirical anthem about digital-device dependence. On another concert – without the knowledge of, let alone permission of, the conductors – Dale orchestrated a coup in the bass section. As the song’s verses lilted along, Dale and his cohort stood up and sang their part, “…five for the oxen standing by…” – in their highest falsetto.

“The entire church just erupted in laughter,” Dale says of the packed-to-capacity audience (almost always the case for Burning Bright performances). “I can’t remember who was conducting, but their jaw was on the floor. Then we basses sat down like nothing at all was out of the ordinary, and the sopranos, who followed us in the song, were cracking up, but somehow the beat went on. Now,” he says, with mock seriousness, “in what other group can you pull that off and know, even before you risk it, that your fellow performers will not excommunicate you?

“But that’s all concert stuff – the things the audience sees,” he continues. “Really, I keep coming back for this,” he says, gesturing to the rehearsal that’s just ended, “the privilege of getting together with this group – of catching up with really quality people and working hard on a rich program every year.”

Close to show-time each season, the Burning Bright choir is joined by local instrumentalists – bass, violin, guitar, clarinet, hand drums, recorder, harp, and more. Retired Luther College librarian and professional mandolin player John Goodin was among the first to perform on the concert. He now arranges music for mandolin and writes manuals for Mel Bay Publications – along with scouting out a reel or jig to play on the concert with Decorah violin teacher/performer (and professional vegetable grower) Erik Sessions. Their duet has become a Burning Bright tradition, almost always ending in a blazing, fast-as-they-can-play finale that rouses thunderous applause.

“Here in Decorah, musicians are treated with great respect,” John says, “but the Burning Bright audience is the best. Most years we don’t even know what we will play until the last week or two, so it’s a little bit like stage-diving – where you know that the audience will catch you.”

Proceeds from ticket sales for each Burning Bright concert go to non-profit organizations – usually shedding light on underserved populations at home or abroad. In addition to Decorah Community Food Pantry, the flagship beneficiary each season, choir members nominate and vote on charitable organizations with which they have personal involvement. 2018 beneficiaries are: Neighbors Helping Neighbors of Decorah; Northeast Iowa Peace & Justice Center; Re-Member of Pine Ridge, South Dakota; and The New Hope Jeremiah Project of Cape Town, South Africa.

So it happens that, each midwinter, a concert in the spirit of true community comes together. Performers wear no robes or formal dress – just “jewel-toned” concert attire that might “glow” in the soft light of the chancel. Adult singers steward younger ones, making sure they can see the conductor and be seen by the audience, amidst their shuffle into place, their sly little hands waving to family in the pews. There will be moments, without doubt, when the music makes space for sadness, doubt, or hurt – making the rising aura of peace and joy feel whole and true.

“When I look back and think of the beautiful voices and musical talents that each person has added to the Burning Bright concert, it makes me realize how unique each year is depending on who we are lucky enough to have performing,” says founding singer Betsy Peirce. “Vocal jazz scats, rich trained voices, tuba, and oboe – it’s so fun coming to the first practice each year, discovering new people who add to our tapestry of sound. The love that flows from the choir, to our directors, to the audience and back again is as palpable as it is audible – the joy on their faces as they listen – that makes it worthwhile.”

Like Burning Bright founder Ellen Rockne, Kristine Jepsen grew up in the Lutheran singing tradition and so loves performing on this winter concert. Outside of the alto section, she writes for literary journals and small businesses – more at kristinejepsen.com.

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Beneficiaries of Burning Bright Concerts Through the Year

Decorah Community Food Pantry
Decorah Public Library Youth Programs
Decorah Volunteer Fire Department
Domestic and Sexual Abuse Resource Center
Decorah Power
NAMI NE Iowa (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
Partners in Health, Haiti
Heart River of Hope, Mandan, North Dakota
Thistle Farm & Magdalene Residence, Tennessee
Project Care
Path to Citizenship
Thunder Rode Therapeutic Riding
Mother Health International’s Uganda Ambulance Fund
Decorah Community Free Medical Clinic
The Northeast Iowa Peace & Justice Center
Rushford Flood Relief Fund
Winneshiek Farmers’ Market Association
Postville Community Support
St. Bridget’s Catholic Church Hispanic Ministry Program, Postville, Iowa
Greater Area Pantry, Calmar, Iowa
Sunrise Foundation, Nicaragua
Postville Children’s Health Fund
Decorah Diversity Appreciation Team
People for Animal Welfare (PAW) of Northeast Iowa
Decorah Community Education and Arts Center

Exultation: Celebrating 20 Years of Burning Bright – a concert to benefit:

Saturday, December 15, 2018 at 4pm and 7 pm

First Methodist Church
302 W Broadway St
Decorah, IA 52101

Advance tickets recommended – available at Oneota Community Food Co-op .