Posts Tagged: kristine jepsen

Services for Seniors + Mail Cheer

By Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Summer/Fall 2020 Inspire(d)

Northeast Iowa Area Agency on Aging connects Driftless residents during time of COVID

For many during this pandemic, our Internet connections have turned into our social connections, giving us a view into a world we can’t visit in person.

At times, it’s helped keep sanity. We moved our buying habits online, dialed up friends, family, and co-workers on Zoom or Facetime, or scrolled the Insta posts of our friends who got pandemic puppies.

But for some seniors, shut-in residents, and individuals with disabilities in the Driftless – because they’re not connected to the Internet – COVID-19 meant an end to social interaction altogether.

“As it became clear that older people were most vulnerable, hundreds of people disappeared from daily life, because they were likely safer at home,” says Kristie Wiltgen, regional coordinator of Northeast Iowa Area Agency on Aging (or NEI3A). Funded both by the state and the federal government, Agency of Aging serves Iowans age 60 and older – and younger folks with disabilities – from four centers statewide, with Decorah’s office reaching 18 counties. “The hardest blow, I think, was that we had to close our congregate meal centers – the highlight of many clients’ days,” Kristie explains. “It’s where people get the news of the day and check up on each other – it’s a camaraderie you can’t get over the phone.” 

To compound the issue, in-home support services for seniors in the Driftless run on a steady stream of retiree volunteer support, Kristie says, including members of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), who are naturally more cautious of personal health and safety. “Many of this generation have life lines to the influenza epidemic of 1918. They take the risks very seriously.”

EARL drivers load meals & supplies, deliver door-to-door, & report back on individuals they visit. At top: A note of thanks sent to the Agency on Aging. Photos courtesy NE Iowa Area Agency on Aging

But at times, digital solutions just don’t cut it. There are certain things you have to have in hand to appreciate…or, obviously, on the table to consume. Agency on Aging pivoted their meals program, for example, to delivery of a week’s worth of frozen entrees, instead of hot meals multiple days per week. “You feel a little like a trick-or-treater,” Kristie explains with a chuckle, herself communicating via Zoom conference call. “Ring the bell with a bag. Talk awkwardly through a mask.” This brief contact still plays a vital role, she says, so meal-bringers can ask in person how residents are doing. “You get as much from what people don’t say as from what they do, and it’s sometimes the help that’s offered even when it’s not requested that is really needed.” 

When local senior centers closed to observe COVID safety recommendations in Lansing, Iowa, along the Mississippi in rural Allamakee County, Shep’s Riverside Bar & Grill partnered with local grocers to serve free take-out meals. With Agency on Aging support, their daily output grew to more than 300 meals a day, serving more than 150 clients. “It’s the same with grocery stores, boxing up multi-meal kits and instructions for preparing meals at home – and avoiding unnecessary public exposure,” Kristie says. 

“And I just have to shout out to the EARL Public Transit drivers,” she continues. EARL serves Allamakee, Clayton, Fayette, Howard and Winneshiek counties. “They do it all – they load meals and supplies and deliver door-to-door and report back on individuals they visit.”

Another low-tech solution arrived in the form of old-fashioned letter-writing. Mail Cheer, an anonymous delivery service for handwritten notes, was launched in June through the Decorah & Winneshiek Mutual Aid Network, a collaboration between DecorahNow community listserv and Winneshiek County Development. Residents can register online (see sidebar) or by calling (563) 293-5075 to receive Mail Cheer notes, or get instructions for writing them. 

2019-2020 AmeriCorps volunteer Jessica Hegdahl shows Mail Cheer examples. Photo courtesy Jessica Hegdahl

“There is something important about having something physical you can hold in your hand and know that someone was thinking of you as they wrote it, that you’re not alone,” says Mail Cheer coordinator Jessica Hegdahl, a 2019-20 AmeriCorps volunteer based in Decorah. When she set up the program, incorporating art supplies donated by Decorah’s Cardboard Robot and stored in the Little Free Craft Closet at ArtHaus, she had her own school-age kids in mind, too. “We made cards for seniors doing Mail Cheer,” she explains, “but it’s no shocker that kids who’ve been isolated from school and summer activities might love to get Mail Cheer, too!”   

The favor pays itself forward, says Kristie, adding that Agency on Aging receives notes and phone messages from residents and caregivers about how important a single act of compassion might be.

The real-time social needs created by COVID-19 have also inspired folks to learn something new, online, for the first time.

“I’m excited to see how fast communities that didn’t use a lot of computer-based communication are adapting technology,” Kristie says. Online classes such as ‘How to Make Nutritious Meals from Things Already in Your Pantry,’ and weekly tai chi, have a strong following. In summer and fall 2020, NEI3A will partner with GrandPad, makers of a super simple digital tablet with built-in cellular data, to give tech-challenged residents a new way to contact family and friends. 

Whether it’s a delivered bag of groceries, a kind note, or tech assistance, Kristie concludes, such strong partnerships are flourishing because our communities are seeded with care and compassion. Neighbors are showing up for neighbors. “Even when we can’t ‘see’ each other, we have a chance to be ‘helpers,’ to rise up to take care of our own.”  


Kristine Jepsen learned the art of letter writing from her grandmother, whose address book for weekly correspondence numbered in the hundreds of friends and family. Today, Kristine is also a business mentor for America’s Small Business Development Centers and Winneshiek County, as well as a freelance writer/editor (kristinejepsen.com). Checking the mail is still by far one of her favorite things.


Learn more:

Know a senior who could benefit from Agency on Aging support?
Get connected at (800) 779-8707 or nei3a.org.

Support public transit!

Visit www.neicac.org/transit or call toll-free (866) 382-4259 for a ride or delivery services.

Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP)

Seniors 55+ perform engaging and meaningful service throughout Northeast Iowa. More at www.decorah.lib.ia.us/rsvp.

Decorah & Winneshiek Co. Mutual Aid Network

Check out this unique network that coordinates the giving and receiving of aid in the community: decorahnow.com/mutual-aid-network/

Winneshiek County Development & Tourism

Businesses and residents alike will find resources to navigate COVID-safe commerce at winneshiekdevelopment.org

Sign up for Mail Cheer!

Visit Decorah Mutual Aid Network at decorahnow.com/mutual-aid-network/ for info on sending or receiving handwritten happy-grams.

Let’s get the ball rolling:

Send some Mail Cheer today – either through the Mail Cheer program, or simply send a note in the mail to friends and family! We can almost guarantee it will brighten their day!

Here’s a fill-in-the-blank letter template to get you started! Just click to download the template!

Read the Summer/Fall 2020 Inspire(d)!

The Summer/Fall 2020 Inspire(d) is all about finding ways to Keep Showing Up – for yourself, your community, and your world. Inside, you’ll find (so many positive stories!):

Community Builders – Maren Beard, Amy Glomski, Kim Bonnet, Alycann Taylor – Sum of Your Biz: Red Piglet / Mike Nelson, Iowa State Preserves, Agency on Aging + Mail Cheer, DIY Mini Megaphone, Q&A with Rachel Jepson Wolf – Unplugged Family, Driftless Grown + Houston County EDA, Pollinator Gardens & More!

Awesome cover illustration by Red Piglet

Read the whole thing online here!

A note from Aryn:

Hot Mess.

I threw my back out during press week, so an Icy Hot, No Mess roll-on applicator sat like a fixture on my desk. I kept catching a glimpse of the side of the bottle – all that was visible was “Hot Mess” – and I laughed every time.

I’ve felt like a Hot Mess a fair amount in the last several months. You should see all the emails I’ve started with, “Apologies for my delay…” These are crazy times we’re living in with COVID-19, civil unrest, and in a presidential election year to boot…it’s SO HARD to get things done with the stress of it all, and with our regular support systems in upheaval.

First off, no more apologizing. It’s true: We are all in this together. And most everyone is feeling behind and a little lost right now. You are not alone!

It’s so easy to want to just run away from responsibilities, from reality. But we can’t, not really. We’ve got to Keep Showing Up – for ourselves, our families, our communities, our country, our world. We’ve got ownership of it all; it’s our Hot Mess to clean up.

I am optimistic, as always.

We must never forget the power of kindness, positivity, and hope. There are so many wonderful people in the region (and world), doing the work to make positive change happen, and bring communities together. Inspire(d) is here to share their stories.

The logo on the cover is by Mike Nelson, purveyor of positivity and owner of Red Piglet, a retail & apparel company based out of Calmar, Iowa. Check out his Sum of Your Business interview on page 16 to learn his meaning behind Keep Showing Up. Then check out what the message means to me in my infographic on page 29.

Because of COVID-19, we’ve adjusted our 2020 production schedule – the magazine you hold in your hands is our “Summer/Fall” Inspire(d), on stands July, August, September, and October. That means this magazine is our anniversary issue: 13 years (October 4 is the official date)!

As each year rolls around, we use this time to highlight Community Builders in the Driftless – because community building is one of the most important things you can do in this life. It’s how we bring understanding and growth to the world. This year we’re featuring Decorah’s Maren Beard of Luna Valley Farm and Kim Bonnet of Rubaiyat, Amy Glomski from the Wabasha Public Library, and Alycann Taylor of Bluedog Cycles in Viroqua.

Don’t miss Erin Dorbin’s piece on some great initiatives happening with Houston County farmers in Southeast Minnesota (and beyond), then learn about State Preserves in Northeast Iowa, and how to make a pollinator garden.

While you’re on the “making things” list, try out our Paper (Mini) Megaphones! They were so fun to put together! Then keep on reading for our interview with Rachel Jepson Wolf of Lusa Organics, who recently published her Unplugged Family Activity Book, filled with amazing projects, activities, and recipes to inspire you to get your head up from the screens and out into the world.

Another fun “unplugged” activity is letter-writing, and Kristine Jepsen shares how folks can sign up to give or receive “Mail Cheer” and about the work the Northeast Iowa Area Agency on Aging is getting done during this time of crisis.

Keep your eyes peeled for the next Inspire(d) coming after this one – it will be a “Holiday/Winter” issue, on stands November, December, January, and February.

We thank you, dear readers, and especially you, dear advertisers, for your support now and over the past 13 years. We couldn’t do this without you, and we are forever grateful.

As always, looking forward,

Aryn Henning Nichols

Minding the Gap

By Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Spring 2020 Inspire(d)

“What are your plans after graduation?”

We’ve all asked this of a high schooler at some point. What we (often) mean is: “Where are you going to college?”

But what happens if your heart doesn’t thrill to the thought of lecture halls, dorm rooms, and unlimited soft-serve ice cream? Or if you’re not ready to invest in the cost? Or the move away from home? What happens when you have the feeling you haven’t seen – or done – enough in the world to recognize your truest career calling?

Enter the “gap year,” a year (or more…or less!) of independent living, travel, service work, or nontraditional schooling that can help folks get their bearings on the future and, ultimately, personal fulfillment. A number of people in Decorah have gone this route, and the movement has been growing internationally, with programming options as diverse as learning Native American herbalism in the Pacific Northwest to rock climbing in the Andes (see sidebar).

But “gappers” better be ready to explain it when people ask. Over and over. And over, again.

“The reflex response when you tell someone you’re taking a gap year after high school is, ‘Ohhhhhhhhh,’” says Decorah native and Decorah High graduate Maggie Schwarz. As she says this, she demonstrates a sideways, distancing look of bewilderment that accompanies the phrase “gap year,” followed by some awkward silence.

“Then imagine,” she continues, “when someone tries to recover the conversation by asking, ‘Oh! Where are you going?!’ and I say, ‘I’m not going anywhere. This place – the Driftless – and its natural history are super important to me. I’m staying here.’”

*Crickets

“Gap years” aren’t really that unheard of, according to the Center for Interim Programs of Princeton, New Jersey, which has been advising gappers since 1980. The issue is that popular culture generally assumes “success” requires an academic degree.

When 2017 Decorah High grad Indigo Fish went head-to-head with her mother, Tanya O’Connor, about not enrolling in college, the perceived implications snowballed. “All I could think was, ‘No way. College is going to suck. It’s going to be just like high school, and I’m not going to learn anything,” says Indigo, who has both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and floundered in traditional classrooms if the instruction wasn’t hands-on.

Indigo Fish, pictured above, had a variety of experiences during her Gap Year. She got a job at Dragonfly Books in Decorah and participated in their Pride Parade float; traveled to Denmark with her best friend and rode skateboards everywhere; read a lot of books; and went canoeing and found magical things like a baby turtle. Photos courtesy Indigo Fish.

“I was fear-driven for different reasons,” Tanya explains, “afraid that if she didn’t take advantage of college enrollment and the scholarships available to first-year traditional students, she might miss out and college would become unaffordable. I was afraid that she would not have the opportunity to experience educators who would make her a fine critical thinker.”

The turning point, Tanya says, came in the fall of Indigo’s senior year, when her grades plummeted and her sunny demeanor vanished. “I finally realized she was internalizing all the expectations, all of the teachers, every adult asking, ‘Where are you going to college?’

“She just shut down, and that’s when I really started to listen, and listen to her, instead of my idea of her.”

Indi, as she’s known to friends and family, agreed to a “gap” year as a compromise. “I was ready to become a street performer,” combining her interests in acting, dance, and theater production, she explains with a laugh. “I just needed to deal with college and all that later.”

In her gap year, she got a full-time job at Dragonfly Books. She enrolled in ballet lessons, participated in community theater, and sought assistance from a life coach and vocational rehabilitation. She audited a theater class at Luther College, and traveled to Denmark with her best friend, Anna.

Most important, she says, she started cooking for herself (sometimes) and assumed responsibility for other hallmarks of independence, like laundry. When she enrolled as a theater major at Luther College in 2018, these accountability skills gave her confidence. “Time management is huge in college, and I’m horrendous at it,” she says with a laugh. “Taking a gap year helped me get used to making my own schedule.”

For Thomas Hendrickson, a 2019 Decorah High School graduate, it was his parents, Julie Strom and Karl Hendrickson, who suggested a gap year. “I was ready to go straight into college, but senior year of high school was really rough. I was passing some classes and failing others,” he says.

Top: Thomas Hendrickson took a Gap Year at the suggestion of his parents, and found he would earn how he wanted to learn. Photo by Kristine Jepsen Bottom: Thomas Hendrickson and his family at his Decorah High School graduation. Photo courtesy Thomas Hendrickson

“Kids think they have to keep up with their peers and go the same speed. I thought a gap year meant that I was losing my edge, or it was the beginning of the end, which is ridiculous,” he says, adding that he had always worked grades ahead in math.

“It got to the point where you were feeling you weren’t smart,” offers Julie, sitting next to Thomas. “That wasn’t ever the case. We just didn’t want to saddle you with college debt when your timing and preparation for it could be way better.”

Thomas, who also has ADHD and Asberger’s Syndrome, has been housesitting on his own in Decorah and learning to cook at home, when his family will let him. He was accepted to top colleges for engineering but decided instead to pursue a folk school in Norway in 2020-21.  “Without a gap year, I may not have learned that I had to learn how to study – and pursue work that isn’t about getting the grade, as the end product. Folk schools like this one don’t have assignments or tests. You get out of it what you put into it.”

Thomas illustrates the influence of a “typical” schooling experience for some people, smoothing out the edges ‘til you get to a square. Illustrations by Thomas Hendrickson

Gap years aren’t just for high school graduates, either. “As a girl in the 80s, it was always clear to me that I had to pursue engineering or medicine if I wanted to be ‘successful,’” says Rachel Sandhorst of Decorah. “But when I was waitlisted for med school – and ultimately wasn’t accepted – I had no Plan B. It threw me into a tailspin. Sure, I had many friends who retook their MCATs and reapplied to get in, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. That rejection was really hard, but it was necessary to go through it.”

With time suddenly stretching before her, Rachel applied to AmeriCorps, a US-based service program only in its second year of existence at the time. “Even finding out about it was miracle,” Rachel says with a chuckle, “because ‘back then’ there was no Internet to research. I had to get on mailing lists – MAILING LISTS! – to learn about alternatives.”

Her first National Civilian Conservation Corps (NCCC) placement was in South Carolina, where her service work, time for reflection, and people she met (along with the rigors of reporting for physical training every morning, in uniform, at 6 am) turned her on to education. One gap year became three, while she applied to graduate school in Colorado. “Instead of helping kids with their physical growth, I learned I wanted to help them with their cognitive and emotional growth,” she says. “And I needed a gap year to understand that about myself.”

Andrea Miller, a native of Austria, now resident of Decorah, adds that gap years can be natural transitions between career interests. Trained as a preschool teacher in Austria, she’s now considering a gap year with both her elementary-age daughters. “I feel like I’ve been taking gap years over and over again, learning about myself and what I can offer. Then my 9-year-old came to me with the idea, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute…are you old enough? What’s the age limit on gap years?’” Ultimately, she concluded, there isn’t one.

There’s also no time limit. Taking a gap “six months,” Maggie Schwarz traveled the U.S., worked locally to pay her rent and bills, established a healthy sleep/wake schedule, and cooked for herself. She and her partner, Dalton Brown (also a Decorah grad), bought a VW van they named Cosmo, and began rehabilitating it for long-term travel.

Maggie and her partner are rehabbing a vintage VW for long-term travel. At right are pressed flower artworks by Maggie from 2019. Photos courtesy Maggie Schwarz.

Now enrolled as a studio art major at Luther, Maggie considers her self-care routines her greatest assets for success in college, and the friendships she formed in Decorah – mostly with other professionals a decade or more older – remain important. “It’s sometimes hard to be the one ‘different’ person – in your class, in your family – but it’s empowering, too,” Maggie says. “You encourage people to think differently.”

She and Dalton are mid-project with the van, swapping out its motor for a more reliable Subaru model. “We’re working on the wiring right now,” she reports. “My dad [Luther arts professor Lane Schwarz] has been super helpful,” – and inspiring, she says. “I grew up hearing stories of how he packed a van full of friends and drove to Alaska a few times in college.”

After earning a degree, Maggie wants to create an arts program offering high-caliber studio training and building intentional community, like South Bear School for pottery and other studio arts, founded in the 1970s by her grandparents, Dean and Gerry Schwarz. “But I’m not naive about how far a bachelor’s degree in art will get me,” she says. “That dream will require collaboration, but I think we need that kind of space more than ever.”

Most of all, she says, she’s grateful for the opportunity to take ownership of her own interests and learning. “Dreaming and debt don’t go well together,” she concludes. “‘Finding yourself’ is really, really hindered by debt,” she says, especially the college kind.

Her advice? Save up a little cushion – to pay the deposit for a gap-year travel program, say, or to pay your living expenses while you learn new work skills, explore apprenticeships, or find mentors. But then, be brave.

If you get the chance to gap? Maggie is quick with her reply: “Do it.”


Kristine Jepsen is a grant/writer, editor, and business coach for her local Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Her (unwitting) gap year after an undergrad degree in English and journalism included riding the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail and training sled dogs for a backcountry outfitter in Flathead National Forest in Montana. She’s been bridging unexpected careers and opportunities ever since.


Thinking about doing a gap?

Start here!

Center for Interim Programs | Gap Year Counseling Experts Since 1980

Gap Year Association | Nonprofit for advocacy and accreditation of gap programming

Gap-Inspired Schools and Service Opportunities:

AmeriCorps | Corporation for National & Community Service

Aprovecho Research Center | Intensive permaculture and green building program in Oregon

The Areta Project | Summer and gap year immersive programs in Alaska

Camphill Villages | International residential communities in service of disabled adults 

Classroom Alive! | An Open-Source Learning Model

Deep Springs College | Bishop, CA

EdVenture | A school for community enterprise in Frome, England

Expedition Education Institute | Gap travel to several bioregions on a bus with a small cohort of students

Foundation for Intentional Community | Locate communities for social connection, environmental responsibility, and economic equity 

Folk Schools in Norway, Sweden (and Norway again)

Global Citizen Year | International immersion gap-year program for leadership, service, and network-building

KAOSPILOT: 3-year program in Copenhagen, Denmark for “change-makers, leaders and social entrepreneurs”

Knowmads | Creative business program for self-development and entrepreneurialism in Amsterdam, Netherlands and Sevilla, Spain

LEAPNOW Program at Naropa University

Lost Valley Educational Center | Residency for sustainable living skills

Minerva Schools | Highly selective alternative college with study on four continents

Outer Coast College (Sitka, AK) 

PRAXIS | Competitive, one-year bootcamp combining liberal arts coursework with an internship

Rotary Exchange | International youth ambassador program for students age 15-19

School of All Relations | A Greek retreat program for interconnection: with self, others, and the Earth

School of Integrated Learning (SOIL) | Immersive off-grid sustainability programs

Team Academy | Business school for entrepreneurs in the Netherlands

Uncharted | Social impact accelerator program based in Denver, Colorado

Up With People | Performing arts service

Watson University | Boulder, CO

Weaving Earth | Nature-based education for action in Graton, California

Where There Be Dragons | Experiential learning, service, cultural immersion, and wilderness exploration

Wilderness Awareness School | Programs in ancient and modern ecological wisdom in Duvall, Washington

Woolman at Sierra Friends Center | Quaker program in the California Sierra Nevadas focused on social justice, peace, and sustainability

WWOOF | World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms

Year On | Gap-year programming combining service abroad, skills focusing in San Francisco, and career coaching

YIP | International Youth Initiative Program in social entrepreneurship in Järna, Sweden

Youth Initiative High School & Thoreau College | Viroqua, WI