Posts Tagged: Maggie Sonnek

GrandPad

With one swipe, GrandPad allows seniors to stay connected with family and friends / Photo courtesy GrandPad

The GrandPad tablet delivers telehealth for homebound, and creates an innovative spark for rural entrepreneurs.

By Maggie Sonnek

When Scott Lien and his family traded in one adventure for another, leaving behind their beloved sky blue Victorian house in Wabasha, Minnesota, they silently promised they’d be back.

And 25 years later, they were. In March 2020, the Liens shuttled back to the Midwest from Silicon Valley, where Scott had taken the leadership helm at a handful of corporations. Returning with a newfound perspective gained from travel and experience, he was surprised to find storefronts along the town’s main corridor empty and boarded up. That’s when he decided to combine his love of rural America with his knowledge and innovation for entrepreneurship.

Scott and Isaac Lien (far left and far right) with two of GrandPad’s oldest employees,
another father-son team, Elmer and Richard Thill / Photos courtesy GrandPad

In 2013, Scott and his then-college-aged son Isaac wanted to stay connected to Marlys Lien, the duo’s mother and grandmother. While Scott and Isaac were in Silicon Valley, Marlys lived 2,000 miles away in Decorah, Scott’s hometown. GrandPad, a tablet sans complicated features, was born. Designed specifically for seniors, the tablet has fun games, customized music, and apps, plus large buttons paired with an intuitive interface to make chatting with friends and family a breeze. But, Scott, who now splits his time between Silicon Valley and Wabasha, learned that in the Midwest, attracting funding from investors is anything but a breeze.

“The Midwest is quite risk adverse,” he says. “And, because nearly 90 percent of startups fail in the first three years, local investors don’t jump on board right away. The majority of capital comes from the coasts.”

The data backs this up. According to the Center of Rural Development, less than one percent of all venture capital goes to rural startups. And, in 2017, five metro areas (San Francisco, New York City, Boston, San Jose and Los Angeles) accounted for nearly 80 percent of all venture capital investment nationwide. While innovation has concentrated in major urban hubs, rural economies have lacked the entrepreneurship to spark economic growth.

But, with remote work on the rise – this trend has grown by 173 percent since 2005, according to the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI), a national non-profit that aims to foster sustainable economic success in rural America – more families are swapping crowds and congestion for chickens and country roads.

Families like the Olsons. Two hundred miles straight north of Wabasha, Jon and Hallie and their three kids spend time playing in their rugged, homemade treehouse and feeding their cluster of chickens. In 2019, Jon, an engineer, began working remotely. That allowed the Olsons to trade in their Minneapolis bungalow for a custom-built home in northern Minnesota that sits on five acres of wooded beauty.

“We feel so lucky to be where we are. The kids can spend hours outside,” 38-year-old Hallie says. “And, with COVID-19, we don’t feel as restricted in what we can and can’t do.”

Mark Rembert, Head of the Rural Innovation Network at the CORI, says while it could be months before we know the pandemic’s impact on urban and rural areas, COVID-19 is fundamentally changing the appeal, necessity, and feasibility of living in a big city.

“We don’t know yet if an increase in remote work will result in people leaving big cities,” Mark says. “But, surveys have shown that many people who live in metro areas would actually prefer to live in rural spaces. Remote working could create opportunities for more people to make that move.”

Obviously, it’s much easier to bring a job with you – like Jon did – than to hang out a shingle. But entrepreneur and business leader Scott says now is the time for innovators to open up shop small towns.

“This is an opportunity for rural America to shine. We need to ask what we’re doing to make our small towns attractive,” says Lien, who, during his career has held leadership roles at Best Buy, Bank of America, and Intuit. “In Minnesota, we can’t change the weather, so instead, we celebrate it. Let’s soar with our strengths and try to turn the downfalls into positive attributes.”

Taking risks and forging ahead with entrepreneurship and innovation, especially in rural areas, is key to creating dynamic, progressive small towns.

“There is a fantastic labor force in rural areas,” Scott says, noting that even though GrandPad was founded in California, he specifically engages employees from Midwest towns. “Lots of the employees we’ve hired have been out of the workforce for a while and aren’t necessarily looking for a job; think empty nesters and stay-at-home-parents. They’ve made the assumption that fulfilling, well-paying jobs are only available in large cities. And, because they don’t want to commit to a long commute or relocate, they assume their choices are limited.”

That’s where GrandPad really shines. Employees are hired – by referrals from current team members only – to work a flexible schedule from home.

Member experience agent Lori Lechtenberg, who lives outside of Decorah says, “I can be in my home chatting with people across the globe. It’s the best of both worlds.”

“We’re creating long-term, durable, high-paying jobs,” Scott explains. “And, most importantly, these positions are family-oriented.”

Indeed, family is the main reason why Anna Arens applied to GrandPad after receiving a referral. Anna worked in healthcare at Mayo Clinic for 12 years when her husband, a Sergeant First Class in the U.S. Army, learned he’d be deployed overseas to Syria for one year. With three young kids at home, Anna knew her current schedule wouldn’t adhere well to her husband’s absence.

GrandPad Member Experience Agent Anna Arens works from her home office / Photo courtesy Anna Arens

“I needed to find a job that offered flexible hours without a commute,” Anna says, noting that the options are limited in a small town. Since accepting her role as member experience agent at GrandPad three years ago, she’s been encouraged to put her family first.

“Scott expresses to us that when we’re able to take care of our homes and families first, we do our jobs better. Because of that mentality, I’m able to be more present in my life.”

Anne Meurer, also an agent at GrandPad, accepted her job just before the global pandemic surged across the country in the spring of 2020.

“I was able to be home with our kids and help them with online learning,” she recalls. “I would sit at my desk and they’d sit on the floor next to me.”

After working in government administration for several years, Anne craved a job that better aligned with her life. More than just a steady paycheck and paid holidays, she wanted meaning and mission from her employer.

“I wanted something more rewarding. When I learned about GrandPad, I was all-in,” says Anne. “I was born into a family of five living generations and was fortunate enough to grow close to my Great Grandma Jean. I truly learned the importance of our elders and grandparents.”

GrandPad Member Experience Agent Anne Meuer works from her home office / Photo courtesy of Anne Meuer

Member experience agents like Lori, Anna, and Anne develop deep and substantial relationships with GrandPad users. Like, calling seniors on their birthdays type of exchange.

“Our clients rely on us when they need help with a specific app on the tablet or when they’re lonely,” Anne says. “And, there’s always someone there…always a friendly voice on the other line.”

Throughout the global pandemic, several home health agencies and healthcare companies have turned to GrandPad to facilitate video visits. The company began offering expanded capabilities, like GrandPad Daily Connect. This remote care solution delivers data – like blood pressure and heart rate – to remote caregivers who can detect abnormalities and coordinate further care.

GrandPad Daily Connect, a remote care solution, delivers data to remote caregivers / Photo courtesy GrandPad

Meanwhile, GrandPad users – and their families – continue to express their gratitude to agents for this tool that not only keeps them connected during COVID, but staves off loneliness too.

One family member notes, “Mom could no longer use her computer with passwords. The GrandPad allows her to stay in touch with her contacts. It has been a lifesaver for our family!”

We asked Scott how other entrepreneurs and innovators can take hold of this pivotal moment for small towns.

“Keep investing in your communities,” he encourages. “Read the local paper. Talk to your neighbors. Be kind.”

Investing in his own community, Scott leased a space, bought some paint and fresh carpet, and hung a bright, shiny GrandPad sign in the window. Used for demos, videos, training sessions, and as an optional shared workspace for employees, this is Scott’s way of shining a light on rural America. In the small town of Wabasha, in the Midwest, in the U.S., GrandPad is open for business.


Maggie, her husband Eric and their three kids love living in their small town of Wabasha. When she’s not writing, Maggie is packing lunches, helping kids with homework, or (after bedtime) binge-watching shows on Netflix.

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

Glamping: Eclectic Escapes in the Driftless

Bending River Cove photo by Kassidy Renee Paige / kassidyreneepaige.com

 

Ever wanted to spend the night in a silo? Get closer to nature, but not so close that you’re actually sleeping on the ground? Or maybe you’d like to see what tiny homes are all about?

These days, there are more options than ever for overnight stays in the Driftless – from amazing hotels to B&Bs to glamping-esque experiences (like the aforementioned silo). We caught up with three Driftless locals who have worked hard to reclaim materials, buildings, and properties, bringing new life to forgotten pieces of history, and, ultimately, creating fun and innovative spaces for guests to lay their heads for the night (or longer!).

The Driftless Region is a unique mix of landscapes and ecosystems, artists and farmers, cheese shops and pizza farms all living and existing in harmony – so get out there and explore all there is to offer! The adventure lies in the journey, AND the destination.


Not your average roadhouse

At The Chocolate Escape overlooking the Mississippi River in Wabasha, a group of third graders sit outside, licking their dripping chocolate and vanilla ice cream cones. They hoot and holler when an eagle flies overhead. At another table, a couple enjoys a cup of coffee. And, across the street at the local pub, a group of bikers clad in leather jackets, black boots, and sunglasses drink a cold brew. Time seems to stand still as three unlikely troops congregate contently on Main Street. Such is the vibe in towns along the Mississippi River.

As you head north out of town onto Highway 61, the sweeping green valleys and rolling bluffs overlook the wild yet graceful river. And there, perched on the side of the highway, sits a handful of tiny homes, campers, and cabins. Welcome to Bending River Cove, a resort with a cottage and five tiny homes, founded in 2017 by co-owners Mike Burke and Denay Kelly.

Bending River Cove

Bending River Cove photo by Kassidy Renee Paige / kassidyreneepaige.com

Mike is a treasure hunter in overalls. He – along with four friends – manage Barndoogle Productions. They travel through small towns across Southern Minnesota “barndoogling” – their word for finding treasures and history in old barns and buildings.

“All barns have a story,” he says. “And each one is unique. We believe it’s important to save and preserve not only the boards, but the stories too.”

Bending River Cove, barndoogling

Barndoogling / Photo courtesy Bending River Cove

When Mike was approached about crafting structures for a tiny home resort between Lake City and Wabasha using his reclaimed treasures, he jumped at the chance. It took Mike and business partner Denay Kelly two years to gather materials and build the tiny homes. But now, Bending River Cove is open for business, sitting just above Lake Pepin on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi.

The handcrafted tiny homes – between 200-400 square feet each – contain a kitchenette, a bathroom, a bedroom outfitted with luxury linens, and a fire pit outside.

“I use as many reclaimed boards and wood as I can,” Mike says. “With those materials, I find I can create intimate and cozy spaces.” Mike uses the term inglenook – a 17th century Scottish word that means chimney corner – to describe the feeling they’re going for at Bending River Cove. Before central heating, the fireplace was used for cooking, and the inglenook – or enclosing alcove – became a natural place for people to gather and stay warm. Looking at the river below while nestled on a comfy couch, with a mug of coffee in one hand and a book in the other, you catch a glimmer of that contentment.

“This area is near and dear to my heart,” Denay adds. “As a child, one of my favorite things to do was camp. Through these tiny homes, we’re trying to recreate that same experience.”

Sign at Bending River Cove

The sign at Bending River Cove / Photo courtesy Bending River Cove

Bending River Cover “tiny house nation”

Each tiny home is nestled between the bluffs of Southeast Minnesota and the breathtaking Lake Pepin. Nightly stays range between $75-175.

The Birch Studio. Sleeps 2. Includes twin daybed and trundle

Fat Bottom Girls. Sleeps 2. 1950s camper-turned-glamper

Homegrown Honey. Sleeps 6

Includes loft and lake-facing outdoor patio

Bohemian Rhapsody. Sleeps 4

Includes private bedroom and fire pit

No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem. Sleeps 4

Includes outdoor hot tub with lake views

River Queen. Sleeps 6

Includes two separate bedrooms and outdoor deck space

For more information, visit brctinyhomes.com or search Bending River Cove on airbnbn.com.


From pizza farm to glamping

Maren and Tom Beard have been busy. In 2013, they bought their 133-acre farm just outside of Decorah, now known as the beloved Luna Valley Farm. They hosted their wedding ceremony there in the valley, two years later. In 2017, they harnessed Tom’s skills as a farmer and chef and Maren’s passion for sustainable food systems and procurement (she’s an excellent chef, as well) and kicked off their pizza farm. Then, last year, the couple decided to introduce glamping. What’s that, you say? Glamping, AKA glamorous camping, is a way to experience nature with the added bonus of real beds and other plush offerings.

Glamping tent at Luna Valley Farm

A glamping tent at Luna Valley Farm / Photo courtesy Luna Valley Farm

At Luna Valley, the glamping happens in two 12 x 14’ canvas wall tents, which were once used at a Camp Tahigwa, a former Girl Scout camp located north of Decorah. For years Camp Tahigwa hosted groups of girls for week-long camps in the summer, some of which were in wall tents in the woods, overlooking the local trout stream. When the camp got sold a few years ago, Maren and Tom purchased a few of the tents with the dream of someday pitching them on their farm to welcome guests for a farm stay. “We have a passion for breathing new life into remnants of the past and doing what we can to repurpose things of deep history and profound beauty,” Maren writes on their Airbnb listing. “A local Amish tarp repair shop helped us fix up the tents and they have found a new life on our farm, where we hope they will be enjoyed for many years to come.”

The tents are situated in a beautiful oak savanna and feature king-sized beds, whimsical lanterns, rough-sawn hardwood floors, and spaces to read, write, and relax. Set up on a platform that extends into a deck, each tent offers a stunning view of the farm.

“This is a chance for people to unplug, connect with the land, and spend time on a working farm,” Maren says. In addition to pizza and glamping, Luna Valley grows organic crops, and graze sheep and cattle on pasture. “There’s something magical about waking up in the woods in a comfortable bed. It’s so quiet and peaceful.”

In the morning, down at the barn – a three to four-minute walk from the tents – glampers will find local coffee waiting for them, plus lovely bathrooms and a luxurious shower (with room for two). You can even add on glamping extras – mason jar mimosas, anyone? The barn also houses Maren and Tom’s commercial kitchen and pizza oven. Bonus for glampers: On Friday nights, you can take your Luna Valley wood-fired pizza up to your own private patio.

Glamping tents and renovated showers at Luna Valley Farm

Glamping tents in the Oak Savannah at Luna Valley Farm & the renovated showers in the Luna Valley barn / Photos courtesy Luna Valley Farm

Tents are available on Friday and Saturday nights throughout the summer. $150/night, 2 night minimum

Pizza nights: Fridays, 4-8 pm • April – October

For more information, visit lunavalleyfarm.com


Reconstructing history

Five miles north of Decorah, you’ll find a barn silo and a 1973 train caboose, both lovingly restored by Jim Dotzenrod, a Decorah native who proudly welcomes visitors to his land – and the region.

“We are super laid back and friendly up here on The Ridge!” Jim writes in his Airbnb profile. “I grew up in this area and know lots of folks, so no matter your interests, I’d be happy to help you find what you’re looking for during your stay with us.”

CR Train Caboose

The CR Train Caboose / Photos courtesy Silo on the Ridge & CR Train Caboose

Jim says lots of his renters come from the Twin Cities looking for something different.

“They don’t want to stay in town. They’d rather enjoy an experience,” he says. “And out here, they can pet the horses in the pasture, pick raspberries and apples, and watch the sunset.”

The silo came first. Jim – with the help of his brother – restored the structure, adding a roof and building bunk beds and a bathroom on the second level. They even incorporated a grapevine that was originally wrapped around the outside of the silo – the horses had chewed it off, so it was fair game. It now acts as the handrail leading upstairs to the sleeping area. A sofa and kitchen space fill the main level, and a large deck wraps around the entire structure.

Silo on the Ridge, petting horses, picking raspberries, and grapevine handrail

Two above – the Silo on the Ridge & that grapevine handrail / Photos courtesy Silo on the Ridge & CR Train Caboose

After seeing the silo book up frequently, Jim decided it was time for another reno project. That’s when he found the CR Station train caboose — one of the last of its kind, according to Jim — sitting on a set of railroad tracks at a local recycling center. Although a carpenter by trade, Jim wasn’t set up for the ironwork inside. But, with the right tools and help from his daughter, the two of them went for it, gutting the train car – repurposing the original conductor chairs and handrails in the front room, and fitting a queen bed and bunkbeds in the loft. The main level holds the kitchen and bathroom. With help from a crane and semi, the 52,000-pound train car now sits 200 feet away from the silo.

Prices range from $75-$121/night. For more information, visit airbnb.com and search Silo on the Ridge and CR Station Train Caboose.


When Maggie Sonnek isn’t spending the night at unique and cozy destination properties like these, she can be found sipping an iced coffee with her husband, watching their three kids play with Max the puppy.


Looking for more out-of-the-norm spots to spend the night? Add these to your list:

Little House on the Farm & The Guest Barn – Postville, Iowa

The Little House on the Farm – a 750 square-foot cabin located outside of Decorah – was built in 2009 on the foundation of an old barn that was once located on owners Donna and Dave Dull’s farm. The cabin has the look and feel of an authentic pioneer cabin, but with modern touches. The Guest Barn was built in 2012 with materials salvaged from a nearby barn and corncrib. The pieces were used to build a smaller 700 square-foot “new” barn. The space is cozy, but open, with exposed original barn beams and high ceilings for an authentic, yet modern farm stay. www.littlehouseonthefarm.com


Elkader Jail House Inn – Elkader, Iowa

Hosts Julie Carlisle-Kane and Dr. Tim Kane have transformed the old Clayton County Jail – located in Elkader Iowa, and originally built in 1870 – into three spacious suites. Nothing like a jail cell, these suites are beautifully renovated and outfitted with luxurious beds and baths, while still retaining the historic character of the stately old limestone building.

Guest can hang out in the “cell block” – a public space that was once actually the cell block of the jail. These days you can play a game of shuffle board, watch TV, or just relax there! www.elkaderjailhouseinn.com


Trout River Log Cabin – Decorah, Iowa

The Trout River Log Cabin was built in the mid 19th century as a Norwegian-Lutheran parochial school, then taken apart in 1898, moved across a field, and rebuilt as Norwegian immigrant Peter Losen’s home. Then, Decorah residents Paul Cutting and partner, Nathan Thompson, come into possession of the cabin. They stripped it to the logs, numbered everything, and once again moved it – to its new location on the Cutting family farm seven miles from downtown Decorah, perched on a bluff overlooking Trout River valley. It took three years to piece the house back together, and the results are stunning. The cabin is small, simple, and beautiful, with everything you need to make your stay comfortable and relaxing. www.troutriverlogcabin.com


Historic Tobacco Warehouse – Viroqua, Wisconsin

The Northern Wisconsin Co-op Tobacco Pool warehouse – listed on the local, state, and national registries of historic places– is one of the most unique and recognizable buildings in Viroqua. The owners, Valorie Schaefer and Richard Bock, bought it in 2008, and have been slowly renovating it to include their family home, several offices, a photo studio, and now a private guest suite that folks can rent through Airbnb. And that only fills about half of the 24,000 square-foot building! To book, search “Guest Suite in Historic Warehouse” on Airbnb.


Trempealeau Hotel – Trempealeau, Wisconsin

Directly above the Trempealeau Hotel bar and restaurant are eight historic sleeping rooms. Take a step back in time – there’s no TV or air conditioning, but each quaint room has a comfy bed, dresser, chair, and window. Two restrooms with showers are shared with the other lodgers. There is live music most Thursdays and Saturdays and many days in between, so if you need a quieter experience, you may want to book one of the other Trempealeau Hotel lodging options (suites available!) or choose a night without music. Book ahead of time for Reggae Fest, Cajun Fest, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Catfish Days, Labor Day and all weekends in October. www.trempealeauhotel.com