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Stories of Change


Turning the Table on Tragedy

By Amanda Dosen-Windorski  |  Photography by Janna Salmela

“We came to the Grand Rapids area about seven years ago to escape.  To hide really.”  Monica, a mother of three, went on in grave detail about her challenging past.  Her childhood shrouded with abuse and exploitation.  She ran away at age twelve, only to live on the streets of Chicago.  It didn’t take long for Monica to learn that this was not living; this was surviving on the streets.  But, as horrible as it was, she wasn’t locked in closets or in rooms with the windows nailed shut.  She didn’t have to watch drug deals or tricks being turned in her own home, and they could not hurt her.

Simple things like clothes, school, friends and nutritious meals were not in her picture.  Monica wanted more.  She needed more.  She attempted to enroll herself in school, however, a child without an adult or permanent address was a red flag. Authorities were forced to return her to the home she longed to escape.

Drugs, homelessness and prostitution plagued her existence until, at age 18, a woman pulled up to her corner.  “This angel invited me to her home for a hot meal, a hot shower and a warm bed.  After that first night, she made it her mission to take care of me and another girl from the street.  It took 18 months of tough love to get clean.  We did it the old fashioned way, but she was there through it all.  I remember her using a straw to slowly drip water into my mouth when I was in the worst of it.  That was more than 27 years ago.  I am still thankful today.”

After receiving intensive therapy and having her young daughter Karly, Monica was encouraged to try to make peace with her mother.  Her feelings were rejected.  Monica’s mother attempted to alienate young Karly and even sought custody of her.  Feelings from her childhood flooded back.  She couldn’t imagine Karly cowering in a corner of a hazy, dimly lit room where she once sat while drugs and sexual favors were easily and openly shared. Monica knew the cycle stopped here.  Now.  The battle went to court.  Hearings were not pretty.  Ultimately, she was granted custody and her mother never pursued visitation. Monica and Karly moved, and never looked back.

As time passed, Monica fell in love, got married, and had Xavier, her healthy and active son.  As a former street kid, life - her life - seemed to be perfect for the first time.  She had a happy marriage, a lovely family, a house… but tragedy loomed.

Now a new family of four, the couple experienced challenges as many new couples do. The way Monica and her husband coped, however, was very different.  Unbeknownst to Monica, her husband was using drugs on the sly.  During one of his highs, he turned on 18-month-old Xavier causing serious and irreversible damage.  It would take the next four years, many hospital visits, doctors and therapists to determine a Traumatic Brain Injury diagnosis.  She could finally get her son the help he needed.

Again, Monica was on her own with two children under the age of five.  They had to leave.  With her children and as much as she could pack, she closed the door on that part of her life.  She was determined to give her children a better life.

Monica found a job and made some friends.  Every spare moment was spent caring for her kids, but Xavier required more.  More of everything.  More of her time and attention. Sometimes it was more than she felt she could handle.  But, Monica always rose to the challenge.  “I haven’t always made the best choices in my life, but I have always taken responsibility and learned.”

The day her divorce was finalized, it felt like she could breathe for the first time in years.  Although her family would continue to have physical, mental and emotional struggles, Monica stated, “I didn’t know it, but this was just the first of many blessings to come.”

Within the year, Monica gave birth to her son Troy.  She still struggled with her past and PTSD from Xavier’s tragedy.  Now money was tight.  Working became impossible.  Day-to-day survival for her family was Monica’s primary focus.  She didn’t receive child support or alimony.  Her pride and past experiences kept her from seeking help from government agencies.

“In our area, we have lots of places to help people, you just have to know where to look,” Monica explained.  She learned from a neighbor that the food shelf at Second Harvest could help supply some food for her family.   Monica quickly planned a visit with young Troy in tow.  To her surprise it seemed just like a grocery store with fresh produce, canned and dry goods, even meat and dairy.  She was relieved to discover how friendly and helpful the staff was.

It was refreshing to Monica that her children would witness a different “parking lot exchange” from those of her youth.  She went on to explain that if someone received an item that another person could use more, the two would exchange items in the parking lot so both parties would benefit.

“The food shelf really helps stretch our food budget.  We scour ads for price matching, plan our meals and make our shopping lists.  We always try to plan around what is available at the food shelf.  We never waste food,” Monica stated.

Monica continues to utilize resources in our small community, most recently programs through KOOTASA Community Action. The United Way of 1000 Lakes financially supports the food shelf at Second Harvest and other area food shelves as well as many other community organizations.  Agencies like these formed a web of support around Monica and her family.  “But,” shared Monica, “the Food Shelf remains a huge blessing.”

“I didn’t grow up in a home with a mom, let alone one who taught me about cooking and shopping.  I was just trying to survive.”  Monica shook her head remarking about how things have changed.  “Now I’m the Mom and Troy has become the real chef in the family.  He is teaching me.  He loves cooking and serving it to all of us and he is really good at it.  It may seem weird, but food and this kitchen has really helped bring this family together.”

“We always eat dinner together,” stated Troy. “we aren’t afraid to try new things.  We talk about lots of stuff and we never lie.”

“Food helps our family get stronger.  It does more than fuel our bodies.  We are feeding our family’s network – our connections with each other – around this table.  Our mealtime is a kind of therapy of us.  I encourage my kids to ask me or tell me anything.  We don’t keep secrets.  This food, this table, has done so much for us.  We are all growing – physically, mentally and emotionally.  We may not have much, but we have this time together.  Many families can’t say that.

“Listening to my kids has brought me into the world they live in today,” Monica reflected.  She has worked hard and has come a long way to provide for her children.  Her family’s life today is a far cry from her family life as a child.  “It makes me look back at all of my ugly past and makes me thankful for the beauty I have today.  Life may not be perfect, but it’s going to be alright.  You just have to step back, clear your mind, and focus on what is truly important – each other.”

The United Way of 1000 Lakes fights for the basic needs, education, and health of every person in our community. Every day, United Way carefully stewards contributions to make the greatest impact in peoples’ lives. United Way unites against hunger by investing in our areas food shelves, providing more than two months of food for close to 7,000 people visiting Deer River, Bigfork, Nashwauk and Grand Rapids.


You can help the United Way continue their support of these organizations by making a donation.

 


Campus Life sparks faith and hope

By Christina Brown  |  Photograph by John Connelly

When Liz Maki joined the Deer River Campus Life program back in high school, she thought it would be a great way to have fun and meet new friends. 

She didn’t realize it would become a lifeline. 
 

“It really planted a seed,” said Maki. “Everything I learned there came back to me later.”

Campus Life is a program for teens in grades 9-12 in Deer River, Grand Rapids, and Greenway. It’s part of Itasca Youth for Christ, a faith-based organization, supported in part by the United Way of 1000 Lakes.

Groups meet once a week in a teen’s home for a mix of fun activities, discussion and reflection about important issues like substance use, relationships, and suicide. In addition, youth have opportunities to take part in mission trips, recreational outings, community events and service projects. 

Director of Deer River Campus Life and Campus Life Alumni, Heather Schjenken, understands that strong, authentic relationships do not happen overnight – they take time, patience, trust and consistency. It was with that perspective that she developed a relationship with Maki.

“The kids really get a sense of belonging,” said Schjenken. “It’s a lot of fun and it is good for them to be connected to a caring adult.  That’s what young people like about it. We want everyone to feel good about being there.”

Maki said that having a place to go really helped her navigate everything from her parents’ divorce to teenage relationships, and having developed a foundation with Campus Life staff would be pivotal in her later years. 

After graduating from Deer River, Maki moved to Maryland and as she entered her 20s, she struggled to find her place in the world. Maki said it was then that she hit her rock bottom point.

“I was going out partying and not living a fulfilled life. I wasn’t happy, or feeling good, but I continued to do it. I ended up finding out that I was pregnant,” Maki said. “It was not a happy situation in the sense that we weren’t going to be raising this child together in a loving and safe environment. I feared I was going to be a single mom. I knew emotionally, physically, spiritually, and financially I could not do it on my own.”

She turned to her book of devotions, a practice introduced through Campus Life. 

It read, ‘You are not an accident. Your birth was no mistake or mishap, and your life is no fluke of nature. Your parents may not have planned you, but God did.’ 
“Instantly, I knew this was speaking about my little baby growing inside me.” Maki said.  “The message was powerful. God had a plan. We may not be the same color, or share the same beliefs or morals, but we don’t need to feel ashamed. We’re going to be okay.” 

It was that moment when Maki knew she needed to change the direction of her life and reached out to Schjenken, her church community and her family for guidance.
“Their support really strengthened me,” Maki said. “I realized that this was not a mistake. It was not planned, but it was not a mistake. This was a blessing in disguise.”
Maki realized she needed to leave Maryland in order to provide her son with a better life. 

After a difficult court battle for custody of her son, Maki is now back in Deer River, working as a phlebotomist at Essentia Health and raising Jack who is now 2 years old. 
“In these small communities, you matter to each other,” said Maki. “People genuinely care in this town and want to help each other. So many people have helped us get to where we are today from helping create a loving and safe home to caring for Jack.

 “Jack is a ball of fire. He is awesome in every way and I cannot imagine life without him. It’s chaotic and wonderful all at the same time. He loves to make people laugh,” Maki said. “I can see why he needed to be in my life. He’s taught me so much about myself.  He’s opened my eyes up to so much in life.”
Maki said Campus Life changed her life, and now she wants to give back.

“I was so fortunate to have had that seed planted,” said Maki. “I want to give back to something that impacted me so greatly. If I reached just one person, it could be the difference.”
 “Campus Life does not just guide you in your faith journey,” Maki said. “They guide you in life.  They open your eyes to things that are scary, but they also show you how to pull the good out of them.”

Schjenken said the United Way of 1000 Lakes’ support of Campus life allows them to reach more young people in the community. 

“Their support shows that Campus Life is valued by United Way and the communities they serve,” Schjenken said.  “They trust us to do this work. It’s awesome.”

The United Way of 1,000 Lakes provides funding for several organizations that support the Itasca County region’s young people, including Deer River Boys and Girls Club, Bridges Kinship Mentoring, and YMCA Youth Center programs. You can help the United Way continue their support of these organizations by making a donation.



 

Adult Day Stay gives sense of purpose, community
By Christina Brown  |  Photograph by Christina Monson


Joey Jacobson of Bigfork knew her mother Marie needed a little extra help. 

She was living on her own in an apartment, but had moderate dementia. It was then that Marie started going to the Bigfork Valley Day Stay Program. 

“If it hadn’t been for Day Stay, I would have had to work part-time to be able to care for her,” said Jacobson, a nurse educator at Bigfork Valley. “It saved my sanity, and helped with guilt. It gave me hope that we would make it through this.” 

The Adult Day Services program in Bigfork offers a safe, supportive environment for people ages 18 and older who don’t require 24-hour care, but have trouble living on their own due to physical or mental disability. 

The program has garnered years of support from the United Way of 1000 Lakes. 



“The United Way keeps programs like Adult Day Stay open,” said Jacobson. “We live in a rural area and a lot of these folks would be alone in the country for days on end. It is a good service for families wrestling with what to do with their loved one who is still independent, but needs some extra help. I don’t know what we would have done without it.” 

Jacobson’s mom would attend Adult Day Stay several days a week for the next four years. A few years later, her mother-in-law would also use the service.  Both women would eventually end up living in one of the senior living communities within the Bigfork Valley campus— Jacob-son’s mom in long-term care, and her mother-in-law in the senior assisted-living apartments.

“When it came time to go to the nursing home, Mom made the transition really easily,” said Jacobson. “At the end of Day Stay, they walked her down to her new room. It was peaceful be-cause she was already so used to the building and the people. It went better than I ever could have dreamed.”

Jacobson said Day Stay kept her family independent much longer than if the service wasn’t available. 

“It is a fantastic program with fantastic people,” Jacobson said. “They don’t treat people like clients there. It’s like a family. I would visit my mom and she would tell me how much fun she had and wished it were every day. It gave her purpose. For me, it took away a lot of the worry.” 

Participants in the Day Stay program can receive assistance with personal care, managing medications, shopping, and medical appointments. They socialize with others and participate in mu-sic, games, gardening, and other activities. Participants also receive a healthy meal and two snacks each day they attend. 

“While we can help with medical needs and personal care, we’re really a social program more than anything,” said Barb Rahier, program coordinator of Adult Day Services at Bigfork Valley. “We try to do things that are fun. We do outings like going to garage sales, picnics, or fishing. We’ve gone to the casino and to shows at the Edge Center for the Arts. We interact with the children at the day care here. We garden and play games and do crafts. We try to find out what people are interested in that they haven’t been able to do, but would do if they had help.”

Bigfork Valley’s Adult Day Stay program offers transportation to participants in the isolated corners of the Bigfork Valley region. 

“That transportation piece is a huge help to people and their families,” Rahier said. “They would have no other way of getting here.” 

The United Way of 1000 Lakes helps support the transportation piece. Grants from the United Way provide scholarships to the Day Stay program as well as the ability to try a free day of the program.

“How do you show people what it’s like and then ask for $80?” said Rahier.  “That’s a lot of money to people when they’re not sure about it. With the United Way’s help, we can offer the first day free.  It’s a chance for prospective clients and their families to come for the day and see what’s it like.” 

Nearly everyone who tries it sees the benefit, Rahier said. Once enrolled, participants get help paying for the program through Itasca County Social Services, the Veteran’s Administration or through private insurance. For those who don’t meet those criteria, the United Way helps cover the cost.  

“I don’t know what we would do without the support of the United Way,” said Rahier.  “There’s no where else for people to go.  It would be so tough.” 

The United Way of 1,000 Lakes provides funding for several organizations that support the Itasca County region’s aging population, including Bigfork Valley Adult Day Stay, ElderCircle and the Home Visitors program. You can help the United Way continue their support of these organizations by making a donation.





 

From rough beginnings to rays of hope: How mentoring changed Chelsi's story
By Christina Brown  |  Photograph by John Connelly


Chelsi Drobnick could have been just another casualty of poverty and crime. 

“Looking back at everything that’s gone on, I should be dead,” Drobnick said. “There were decisions I decided to make that got me to break that chain.  But it wasn’t just me. It was the love that was poured into me throughout my journey.”

Drobnick’s story is just one example of how the United Way of 1000 Lakes supports local community organizations working collaboratively to change people’s lives.
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A rough beginning

Drobnick’s mother struggled to make ends meet as a single parent. Poverty, substance abuse, and violence were a regular part of Drobnick’s life. 

“Sometimes we were homeless,” Drobnick recalled. “Sometimes we lived with relatives. Sometimes we were outside living in tents. We ate out of cans. I knew something was wrong with this. My friends didn’t live like this.”

There was trouble at school. 

“I was teased and bullied a lot because of my family situation,” said Drobnick. “I missed a lot of school. I failed a lot of classes. I never had my homework done and I always tried to find reasons rather than telling them the truth. I was afraid I would be taken away again. I just wanted to be with my mom even though it wasn’t a good situation.”

Drobnick said, “I started lashing out. I was angry and fighting. I was the kid that parents didn’t want their kids to hang out with.”  




Rays of hope

Drobnick found refuge at one of the United Way’s partnering agencies, the Itasca YMCA Youth Center, where she spent hours every day.

“They would give me a little snack and sometimes that was my dinner,” said Drobnick. “Whenever I was there, the Y was my safe haven.” 

She also connected with mentor Sandy Pollard through Bridges Kinship Mentoring, another organization supported in part by the United Way of 1000 Lakes. 

“I would go to her house and see what a nurturing family and love should look like,” Drobnick said. “I starved so much for that because it was so far from my norm.

“She [Pollard] sowed love, support and kindness into me. She made me feel beautiful and important and that I was not a waste of time. She made me feel I was made for a greater future.” 

Pollard said, “We mostly just hung out. She liked to listen to and play music, and we’re a musical family. We did things that were what I considered everyday life, but for her it wasn’t. I didn’t realize I had made that much of a difference.”

Pollard mentored Drobnick for nearly two years before they drifted apart. Drobnick moved to the Twin Cities to live with family. She struggled to stay out of trouble until she connected with a church youth group. She moved back to Grand Rapids, graduat-ing with a 3.0 GPA and even served as a peer mentor through Bridges Kinship Mentor-ing.

Drobnick would study youth ministry in the Twin Cities. She married, had 2 kids, and divorced before returning to Grand Rapids as a single mom. She landed a job working with kids back at the YMCA Youth Center, eventually becoming its coordinator.

“She has overcome a lot,” said Betsy McBride, executive director of the Itasca YMCA.  “I am so proud of her. She was a troubled child who turned into a nice young woman.  She will say it’s because of her role models and because she had a safe place to be, but some of it is her. Her life could have gone such a different way.” 

Deb DeMuth, executive director of Bridges Kinship Mentoring, said Drobnick’s story is what their organization is all about. 

“Studies show that when you have a caring adult in a child’s life that will mean more success later, “ said DeMuth. “One person has the power and potential to mold and raise up a child to be uniquely who they’re meant to be.”

Drobnick now strives to set a good example for the kids in second through 9th grade who come to the youth center.  

“I have some insight into what they are going through,” Drobnick said. “I don’t have all the answers, but I can listen, and sometimes that’s all they need. My job is to plant the seeds of kindness, patience and love. Those are the seeds that were planted in me all those years ago that have blossomed.” 

Today the Itasca YMCA Youth Center sees more than two dozen kids every day.  Bridges Kinship Mentoring helps hundreds of kids each year. Drobnick says United Way of 1000 Lakes makes a big difference for these organizations.

“The United Way doesn’t just support these organizations financially,” said Drobnick.  “They support them with their hearts. It encourages me so much to see programs like this out there that can make a difference to these kids. It means everything.”

The United Way of 1,000 Lakes provides funding for several organizations that support the Itasca County region’s young people, including Deer River Boys and Girls Club, Campus Life, and YMCA Youth Center programs. You can help the United Way continue their support of these organizations by making a donation.