Monday, May 13, 2013

The Sisters Kalamazoo Take On New York, Part III

by Zinta Aistars 

Read Part I
Read Part II

Meeting Stephen at the alumni event

It's been a while since that trip to the Big Apple with my sister, but I find myself reliving the experience again as I prepare to write the article that was, after all, the reason for the business trip. After our moving into a pleasant Brooklyn brownstone apartment for our stay (Part I), after our day of playing tourist and visiting the 9/11 Memorial (Part II), Daina and I took a taxi to Zio's Ristorante on West 19th Street in Manhattan for a Kalamazoo College alumni event. My work part of the trip was about to begin.

K College President Wilson-Oyelaran with Stephen
As might be expected, quite a few alumni live in New York, and the gathering was well attended. The college president, Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, soon arrived to talk to the group. It's been some years since I worked full time for the college, in the communication department, but I continue to have immense respect for the institution, and I am very pleased to be freelancing for the college again now that I am in business for myself as Z Word, LLC. It was great to be working for K again, and to connect with some of the great people who had once been colleagues. I enjoyed seeing Eileen very much; she's a terrific asset to the institution.

But first, I had to connect with the man I was here to interview. Stephen found me right away--I'm easy to recognize with my white hair. I could tell right away this was going to be a fun interview to do. He was, like most K alumni I'd met and written about over the years, brimming with enthusiasm for his cause and eager to tell his story.

Stephen's story went back to his days of study abroad in Ghana. K College is known for its incredible study abroad programs, sending students to experience different cultures in different countries not just for a few weeks, and not just living in dorms, but traveling for months at a time, as much as a year, and often living with local families, studying and working. Talk about immersion.

That kind of experience leaves lifelong impressions on people. That kind of experience changes people in a way no classroom can. It's education at its best, transforming people at the core level. That was Stephen's experience, too. Ghana has become not just a college memory, but a part of his life, all of his life.

Stephen is a teacher at a school near Brooklyn, Bedford Village School, but he spends his summers in Ghana. He returns there every year, now his second home, and is in the process of building a library and a community computer center. He calls his non-profit Tech4Ghana, and he is already making a huge difference in the lives of the people he has connected to in that community. He has helped to connect them with the tools of education and given them the resources to change their own lives however they might wish.

The day after our initial meeting at the alumni event, my sister and I walked to the school where Stephen works. We had this day set aside to devote to learning his story, understanding some small corner of his life and his dream. Stephen gave us a tour of the school, introducing us to his colleagues as "The Sisters Kalamazoo," and the name stuck. When New Yorkers asked about Kalamazoo and its location, we responded the way all Michiganders do ... by holding up our hands to resemble the mitten-shaped state and pointing out our location.

Stephen at center, me at right, and another teacher at left, point out our location in Michigan. A second hand at top is the perfect shape of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. 
The day went by surprisingly quickly. It always does when one gets caught up in a great story. Stephen's enthusiasm was contagious. I was filling up my notebook of story notes fast. This would be a grand story to tell for the college alumni magazine.

Stephen connected with a college chum over Skype, a friend he hadn't seen in about 40 years, yet who had become his top donor for Tech4Ghana. Over the computer screen, the two old friends saw each other for the first time in four decades, because Case lived in Seattle. I was able to interview both. The wonders of technology!

We toured classrooms, labs, meeting rooms. I was impressed with how rich with intellectual stimuli was this school, even as Stephen told us there was a danger of it being closed down for budgetary reasons. Yet it was clear, from the principal of the school, to every teacher we met, that everyone here had heart, mind and spirit engaged in teaching these children. If anyone understood how much education can change lives, Stephen did.

Stephen treats us to bean pies
The school day over, the three of us headed a few blocks down to enjoy dinner together. Stephen had his favorite places, and we enjoyed quite the feast at an Egyptian restaurant where the owner came over to greet us. For dessert, Stephen took us to a bakery next door to treat us to several small pies, insisting that we must taste a local favorite dessert--bean pie. A pie made from beans? Sure, I'd give it a try!

A bag full of pies and cookies, we strolled through the streets of Brooklyn, and Stephen walked us back to our brownstone. We said our goodbyes with the warm hugs of friendship, and he left to go to his home and we to ours ... for the week. Daina and I made a stop at a little wine shop a block from our apartment, and found a wine called Seven Sisters to wash down our pies. So, sure, there's only two of us, not seven, but that would, um, be five more glasses for us to share, right?

Bean pies and wine: both delicious
It was our last night in New York. With my sister's back still aching, she was ready to make the trip back to Chicago, and me, with my heart aching for my own Z Acres, the wide-open green spaces of the country, ready for the trip back to Michigan. As much as I had enjoyed a sister trip and a trip to meet and interview another fascinating alumnus, I was pretty sure this really was my last visit to NYC.

Daina snapped photos of the Empire State Building as we left the city the next morning. We never did make it up there. I had seen it on several previous trips, and perhaps my sister would return some day on her own. We made good time driving west, even with a short side trip into Pennsylvania woods (I just needed that ... ), and made a final dinner stop at what turned out to be our best meal of the entire trip, at Luigi's in DuBois, Pennsylvania. Daina had ravioli and I enjoyed my lasagna, and both of us enjoyed a surprise back rub from the restaurant owner as he went from table to table greeting his guests. Just the thing for my sister's aching back.

Daina and I toasted our trip, shared a cannoli for dessert, and got back on the road. We gassed up at ... Sheetz? Huh. Odd name for a gas station. My sister giggled, snapped a photo as I filled up the gas tank, and off we went.

I pondered my lack of wanderlust as we drove west. All my life, from earliest childhood, I had craved the sense of being on the road. Always that curiosity, to see what I can see, to experience the new, to expand my horizons. I had visited 49 of 50 states. I had crossed the ocean many times. There were still so many places that I had not yet seen. Yes, I did like the thought of experiencing parts of Africa, touring Europe more extensively, visiting Asia and Australia and New Zealand and Iceland and ... yet, yet, yet the lust for it was gone.

The only reason I could name was that I had finally found Home. After a  lifelong search, I had found Z Acres, where all my wishes had come together to live in one place. I had found my place of peace and contentment. The road had lost, at least in part, its allure.

"I hope you're not saying that we won't have any more annual Sisters Kalamazoo trips," my sister remarked when I shared my wondering.

"No, no, I won't give up our sister trips," I assured her. I enjoyed our time together. Our shared trips had strengthened our sibling bond and given us new memories to share. "I am thinking, though," I said, "that maybe more of those future trips will be to nature instead of away from it. I've seen most of the major cities in this country, and frankly, now that I have grown accustomed to being in the woods and by the water every day ..." I shrugged. "I don't think I want to leave it again. Cement and asphalt just don't do it for me."

Daina nodded, and we chattered about other places to go as we covered the miles. Perhaps back to the U.P., where she and her husband owned a five-acre plot of land on a lake. It would be a great place for me to pitch a tent in her woods. Or some other places where we could explore natural beauty together.

"Or maybe you can just keep visiting me at Z Acres, at least once per season," I smiled.

"Count on it!"

Home sweet home, yes.

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