Thursday, November 21, 2013

Room for trails grows as Southwest Michigan goes on a road diet

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
November 21, 2013


Communities that want to learn how they can become more friendly for bicycle riders are participating in a statewide program known as Training Wheels. Southwest Michigan cities that have participated say the program is comprehensive and has gotten the results hoped for. Zinta Aistars reports.

Cynthia Krupp started thinking about how to make Michigan communities safer and more inviting for cyclists when she took a bicycle safety class to improve her own biking skills. As transportation planner for the Intermodal Policy Division at Michigan’s Department of Transportation (MDOT) in Lansing, the good planning behind good trails rank at a level of high importance to her. 

"The bicycling class made me more aware of safety issues involved with good bike trails," Krupp says. "MDOT had started walkability audits in 2004, but we’d done nothing yet for bikes."

Krupp’s idea was to do similar audits for bike trails throughout the state, a few communities at a time, and to do so by putting engineers, city leaders and public officials on bikes, letting them experience the cyclist’s perspective. 

"First, we had to educate our own (at MDOT), then we started to reach out to communities," Krupp says. 

MDOT now sponsors a program called Training Wheels, started in 2005, a course offered around the state designed to educate communities interested in providing on-road bicycle facilities for their residents and visitors. The course includes two hours of classroom instruction followed by an on-road, on-bike portion. By 2013, several Southwest Michigan communities had signed up for their turn, with nearly 100 such audits already done statewide.

Training Wheels is based on the national guidelines included in the American Association of State Highway Transportation Official (AASHTO) Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities, says Krupp. These guidelines are used by civil engineers to determine specifications for sidewalks, the width of bike trails, signage, and other similar guideposts to safe riding.  

"During the on-bike portion of Training Wheels we ride through the community, analyzing what types of on-road facilities are available," says Krupp. "We make many stops along the way to point out potential facility types, looking at intersections, at the types of trails and how safe they are for bicyclists. We follow the bike ride by ...


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Slow down, be present, connect to nature: That's Woosah

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Rapid Growth Media
November 14, 2013

Brooke, left, and Erica, right, at Harmony Brewing Co. 

What's Woosah? It's the sound of a meditative breath, time spent in nature, and a local artist duo's creative art and clothing line that's selling all over the country. Zinta Aistars gets the women behind Woosah Outfitters to take a load off their hiking boots and sit down for a chat at Harmony Brewing, where their artwork is on display.

Inhale. Exhale. Be present. And there, you have just reached a place of Woosah.

Wander into the world of Woosah Outfitters, the world of Erica Lang, 22, and Brooke Ruble, 25. Lang and Ruble are seniors at Kendall College of Art and Design, but the couple has not put off their career dreams until graduation. Their nature-based clothing line and artwork is available online and at Harmony Brewing Company at 1551 Lake Drive SE in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the two have painted a large mural on the outside of the building, but have many of their paintings and woodcuts on exhibit inside, with a woodcut as part of the restaurant’s menu.

Woosah art and clothing also appears in pop-up shops (popping up for a day or two before they move again) wherever you can find them throughout greater Grand Rapids, and the demand for their clothing especially has taken off like gangbusters since the two hung out the “open for business” sign in January 2013.

“We became an LLC the December before,” Lang notes with pride the moment of filing limited liability papers, the stamp of being serious about doing business.

Lang is majoring in printmaking and drawing, and Ruble’s major is in industrial design. The two met in class at Kendall. With both being full-time students, both working other jobs, whether their art or elsewhere, time management has always been a challenge.

“So we began to collaborate on art as a way of relaxing,” says Lang. “I’d do something, then pass it along to Brooke, and then she’d pass it back.”

“Our styles differ a bit,” says Ruble. “But we both have the same end in mind.”

Woosah Outfitters offers short- and long-sleeved T-shirts, tank tops, hats with their designs screen-printed on the fabric. A winter line is planned with more long-sleeved tops and sweats. A line of shirts and hats are Michigan-based, too, created around the theme of the Michigan “mitten.” Patches and stickers are available with the Woosah logo: a sloped and craggy mountain with five tall pines on its left slope. Along with clothing, Lang and Ruble co-create artwork, paintings and etchings and woodcuts.

In large part, the connection the two young artists found was their love of nature.

“Woosah is the pronunciation of meditative breaths to reduce anxiety, anger or frustration,” says Lang. “Both of us go to nature when we need to relax. We use the word Woosah as a verb. You know, let’s Woosah!”

Ruble laughs and nods. They are both wearing hiking boots, as if in constant readiness to take off for the woods. Both have family members who own cabins in northern Michigan, so the women travel north, when opportunity allows, to “Woosah.”

“That’s how people got interested in what we are doing,” says Ruble. “We’d post something on our Facebook page like ‘making art tonight!’ and people would ask questions. We would ..."


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

WeSearch connects donors to medical researchers to fund solutions

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Upper Peninsula's Second Wave Media
November 13, 2013

WeSearch supported UMBTC team (Photo by Shawn Malone)

The funding model for medical research is a difficult one--either apply for scarce government funding, or work for a big pharmaceutical company. Even charities that back medical research for specific diseases can be inefficient. So, a Marquette (Michigan) entrepreneur had a better idea: crowd-fund it. That's how WeSearch was created.

When Marquette resident Amy Rovin expressed frustration about feeling helpless over the cancer diagnosis of a close friend, her son Chris was listening. Talk about medical issues was common in the Rovin household, but this really struck home.

Chris Rovin is the son of a nurse and a physician, so solving medical problems is usual conversation over the family dinner table. The suffering of his mother's friend caught his attention, but even more that his mother wanted to help in some way, perhaps give a meaningful donation to relevant research, and couldn't find a way to do it.

"That was my first reason for coming up with the idea of WeSearch," says Rovin. "There were two more. Reason two was the inefficiency of most charities. People donate money and don't realize that their donation is going almost entirely toward administrative costs. Only about 20 percent might actually go to research. The third reason was that most research funding requests go unfunded. When I looked into it, out of about 68,000 research fund requests in one year, 55,000 of those went unfunded."

So was born the passion for, and the idea of, WeSearch, a nonprofit organization to connect donors directly with medical researchers. WeSearch opened for donations in October 2011. Chris Rovin is executive director and co-founder, with Guillaume Curaudeau, a college friend he met while at University of Michigan majoring in history.

Rovin is still in college, now attending Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, and working on his master's in business administration while keeping close watch on WeSearch.

"WeSearch lists medical research being conducted through universities," he explains.

"Donors can search for a research project that they feel will be beneficial and help fund it. In return, researchers update donors on research progress. Our 501(c)3 status was approved in 2012, so all donations are tax deductible."

Not only tax deductible, Rovin stresses, but every dollar goes directly to ...

Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Divine Daina

by Zinta Aistars

My sister Daina walking to Z Acres

She is, you know. Divine. Even though you could count on one hand the things we have in common, my sister has been shoulder against the wind from day one for me.

I may not have fully appreciated it growing up. With four years between us, in those early years that seemed to be a lot. Nor did our interests and dreams align.

Our grandmother holding me up to my big sister
She was the girl in the family ... the one who liked feminine things, the ribbons, the curls, the pretty dresses. She adored babies. Babies freaked me out. She helped Mamma wash the dishes and make the beds; I crept down in the basement to help our father in his workshop, hammering together frames for his paintings, asking how to use this tool, how to use that one. She was obedient and practiced piano like she was told, playing for 12 years and becoming quite good. I whined too much after three years, whined and sputtered until I was released from taking lessons.

She was always the good one.

My sister, cheerful and sweet, honey smile, open arms. She's always given me a warm place of healing when my adult life grew too hard. My sister eloped young, the first time I knew her to break a rule or parental expectation, but then beat all the odds of doing so and raised a wonderful, tightly-knit family with three great kids in a marriage that is now in its fifth decade. She is co-owner today of a wildly successful business outside of Chicago.

Me? Marriage turned to ashes. Poverty banged at my door on a frequent basis. Single parenthood tested every limit. When I wanted to give up, she wouldn't let me. So what if we had nothing in common? So many times I wondered how we could find a common thread, a common ground on which to stand for a meeting of hearts and minds. My sister lived in prosperity while I sometimes wondered how to get food on the table for my babies. How could she possibly understand?

She didn't, doesn't, because some things are not truly absorbed until you feel them on your own hide. To truly understand poverty, or single parenthood, or any number of hardships, one must live it. Otherwise, it's all academic. It's all statistics, numbers, meaningless theory. You have to feel that rumble in your belly before you get it.

Daina on a winter visit to Z Acres, playing in the snow
And yet. Somehow. My sister and I have always found a way to connect. For all our differences, we did find the common ground. Sometimes it was nothing more than a mutual taste for mushrooms; we both absolutely love them. We both find peace in Nature. We both love going north to cooler climates rather than south to heat. We both enjoy travel, although to different places. We both are avid readers, although we tend to enjoy very different types of books. We both love to garden, even while her garden is more landscaped and mine something of the wild. Maybe what it boiled down to, was this: she has always tried her best to understand.

So what if she builds big and I love the tiny house movement. All we need is that one spot, that one place of common ground, where we can meet and share each in the other's world. We open windows for each other. Through her eyes, I see a world different than mine; through my eyes, she has learned to look past broken glass.

Mamma tells me I am the mean one. Quick to draw the bottom line. Then laughs. She tends to ask me first when she needs a champion, then asks her other daughter for a sympathetic ear. She needs us both.

Mamma's right. Daina smiles even when she doesn't feel it. She wears hearts up and down her sleeves. She's gentle, she's kind, she's sweet. Her children adore her more than any kids I've seen, and that says so much about who she is and how she gives.

Daina in a wheat field near Z Acres
I sometimes ponder this ability that my sister and I have both worked on all our lives: to see across our differences, her stable and neat life and my messy one. I am sure she hasn't always understood my choices, nor do I always get hers. I couldn't walk her path any more than she could walk mine. Yet we have found ways to understand each other, love each other, be there for each other, communicate and connect, even when we start and end at different places. What we don't understand, we have learned to accept.

That's the value of a lifelong relationship. It tests us, bends us, stretches and challenges us. It teaches and expands us. It shows us worlds we would not know on our own. We have done that for each other, and we are both better people for being sisters.

Z and Daina, on a hayride this fall 
November 10 is her birthday. I celebrate it, too, as a day to mark all that my sister has been, is, will be, and what she brings to my life.

We may not have worked so relentlessly at our relationship if it weren't built on blood, true. Growing up with our different personalities, different dreams and goals, we often went each our own way, but bonded as young women, building families, finding our commonalities, finding that blood really is thicker than water, and that in a harsh world, family really is everything.

It began as a familial bond. It has been enriched over our lifetimes for reasons of mutual respect, shared memories, and dreams that were, after all, not so very different. If living at Z Acres has been a blessing, it has been an added blessing because my sister comes out for seasonal visits. We share the change of the seasons in Nature even as we bond over the seasonal changes in ourselves. The two little girls now have laugh lines, and cry lines. The two young women now have paling hair and the wisdom of years behind us. The familial bond has turned into a bond of friendship between two older and wiser women, building bridges over time and place and sometimes, it seems, different planets.

All things come and go. Marriages, friendships, work colleagues, all can be variable. But my sister is forever. This weekend, I celebrate her and the gift she is to me.

Daina in the pine forest of Yankee Springs, where we often hike together

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Horse Trainer With a Healing Touch

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave
November 7, 2013

Brembi with owner Erin

Pulsed Electro-Magnetic Field Therapy sends a healing pulse through an area of the body experiencing pain. The results are something that keeps bringing people back to Erin McElmurry. Zinta Aistars has the story on the owner of Every Stride Dressage. 

When 5-year-old Erin's parents saw a riding pony toy in a store, they knew to quickly pull their daughter away, distract her, and make a quick detour in another direction. It was either that, or stand in the store for hours while the child rode to her heart's infinite glee. 

Erin McElmurry laughs. "My father likes to say I came out of the womb crying the word HORSE."

The girl has grown up, but the word "horse" is still on her lips. Erin McElmurry is the owner of Every Stride Dressage at 13482 South Street in Vicksburg, a horse ranch where animals come to be healed and trained, and often, their owners with them.

Every Stride Dressage is a 33-acre, 12-stall facility that currently boards nine horses, four of which are McElmurry's. The facility includes an indoor and outdoor dressage arena, individual grass pastures, a hot and cold water wash bay, and individual tack lockers. 

McElmurry is an accredited dressage trainer and instructor. Dressage is a French term that means training a horse to bring out its natural athletic ability. Although dressage began as training for military horses, teaching them precise battle maneuvers, McElmurry defines dressage as "ballet for horses."

"I'm not just teaching tricks," McElmurry says, her hand running soothingly up and down a horse's long neck. "It's like building blocks. I break it down and teach the steps piece by piece, build one step onto the next, so that you understand how it's done."

Riding, McElmurry explains, builds confidence and body awareness. She offers riding lessons for clients as young as 8 years old, depending on the rider's maturity and readiness level.

One of McElmurry's riding students, Allison Herard, walks between the horse stalls and stops to comment on her experience. "I've been riding for 10 years, but I've picked up more skills in just a few months of lessons with Erin. I'm a production supervisor in Sturgis, and I come here to relieve work stress." 

All that is what one might expect at a horse ranch. Every Stride Dressage, however, not only teaches horses and riders to move together in balletic synchronicity--Every Stride Dressage also heals horses in pain. And dogs. And cats. And humans. 

McElmurry gets a twinkle in her eye as she pulls out her PEMF (Pulsed Electro-Magnetic Field) Therapy equipment. It's not much. Her equipment looks something like a small green suitcase on wheels, not much more than hand luggage. Inside, some knobs and dials to turn, and a couple of tube-like attachments. Plug it in, move the tube-like attachments to the ailing area, and a rhythmic tapping begins. 

"That pulsing sound you hear is from the coiled magnets, sending magnetic pulses through the area that ..."


Daphney Dotson, owner of Studio Grill, receiving a PEMF Therapy treatment

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Goodbye, City Life!

By Zinta Aistars
Published in Encore magazine
November 2013 Issue
"The Last Word," pages 45-46

My jaw dropped. My head fell back. My eyes went wide, wider. That sky!

Guinnez, my old chow pup, leaned against my legs, and his head seemed to tip up for a moment, too, but then his nose pointed in another direction, scenting the wild. There was a rustling out there in the woods, and it held his attention. It was our first night of living in the country, on the ten-acre plot I would come to call Z Acres.

The little red farmhouse was steeped in history. Once I had made the decision to buy the property in the winter of 2012, I poured over the old titles and deeds in fascination. Ownership dated back to 1832. The farmhouse was built later, but it had at least a century creaking in its wooden floors. The vintage stove, still functional, dated to the mid-1800s, and it had four burners on one side, fired up by propane, and the other side cooked on wood. I did not have to fear power outages here. I could heat the house on wood, and cook on it, too.

Some might call it a fluke, my finding this tucked-away fantasy in the countryside, an almost perfect midpoint between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. I called it a blessing. I called it Home, and knew it as such the moment I first walked on this land, still in deep snow, and stood out in the back field gazing at that sky, only it was daylight blue then, and two hawks circled overhead.

I’d found the property in a moment of frustration at the stresses and tensions of a more “civilized” life. I plugged the keywords into an Internet search engine: “wilderness, cottage, southwest Michigan.” And found this. The housing market had near bottomed out, and suddenly I found the distant dream affordable. It was a dream I’d held dear since childhood. While other little girls dreamed of wedding days and broods of children and grand houses on cul-de-sacs—well, maybe they didn’t, but surely I did not—I dreamt of a cabin deep in the woods, a woman in the lap of Nature, pursuing her art.

Over a lifetime with more than 30 addresses attached to it, my focus had always remained true. It had taken decades, a thousand just-so circumstances to fall into place, but when the last puzzle piece clicked, and this vista opened before my eyes, I recognized it for the long-awaited blessing it was.

I moved to Z Acres in early 2012, and a year and a half later, I still stand outside on so many nights, my jaw dropped open, my head thrown back, to watch the sky. It was the first great difference I experienced upon the move from city to country. I’d lived just a few blocks off that great commercial artery in Portage—Westnedge Avenue—in my previous life, and there the sky had always had a sickly orange patina. Light pollution erased all but a few determined stars.

There, that rustling again in the woods. Guinnez pulled at his leash. I’m not sure what came over me, because my dog had never been off his leash, had never run free outside the fenced-in yard where we had lived before, but I unleashed him now. Click, and he was free. He raced off toward the woods, and I heard a flourish of barking, a loud snort, and a buck came crashing out from the trees, and in a few great bounds, was gone into the beyond. That, here, would become as common as the wailing sirens back in the city.

The ten acres are a mix of woods in the front five, hiding the house from the winding dirt road, surrounding the pond filled with fish and blurping bullfrogs. To the south was a wooded hillside, and on that, along another path, a tiny cottage, perfect for those artistic pursuits I anticipated. Behind the house were random flowerbeds, surrounded by large rocks, space for more than one vegetable garden, a scattering of fruit trees, and then, the last five acres, a meadow delineated to the west by a tree line along its boundary. Pines, black walnuts, ancient willows, maples kept me hidden from all but the watching wildlife.

We become the place where we live. A year and a half later, I feel myself so deeply rooted here that I have warned my children: there will be no removing me. I will live to 106, because this is a life worth living, and you will scatter my ashes here, and bury my bones, too, in those piney woods.

My hands have become the hands of a farm woman. Fingers stained in summer with the purple juice of wild blackberries, fingernails lined with the rich dirt of the vegetable gardens, palms calloused from mowing acres of grass, hair gone white, white as those stars, because there is a different rule book of beauty here.

I remember now how to bake bread. I spread the blackberry jam I’ve made on the old stove thick on each slice. My shelves are lined with Mason jars of homemade applesauce, chunky with slices, all picked carefully from the old apple tree on the far side of the barn. I make rare visits to grocery stores, because this earth feeds me, and in a way that goes far beyond the carrots and tomatoes, the cabbages and squashes, the radishes and kale I grow here.

Guinnez has not felt a leash on him since, and whenever he trots out the door, he drops into the grass, or the fallen leaves, or the snow, and rolls, pawing the air, his mouth open with dog laughter.

I hear no sirens, only the howl of coyotes at night, and the chorus of frogs, the ones that have escaped the blue heron who sometimes flies down to cut short their blurping lives. Sometimes, because I can, I throw my head back not only to look at the stars, but to howl along with the coyotes in the wild joy of being alive.

Read the full issue of Encore, November 2013, including my second article in this issue about Tom Schlueter, Keystone Community Bank CEO. 

Friday, November 01, 2013

Keystone Bank's CEO is good with numbers, even better with people

by Zinta Aistars
Published in ENCORE magazine
November 2013 Issue

One of the reasons Thomas Schlueter requires his employees at Keystone Community Bank to answer every phone call to the bank personally is because he remembers his mother’s calls to her bank.
“The third of every month, my mother called her bank to verify that her Social Security check had arrived,” Schlueter says. “She had Parkinson’s so it wasn’t easy for her to make the call. I’m really proud that we
Click above to go to the complete story in our digital edition.
answer our phones personally here rather than using a recording, and when people come into the bank, we try to call everyone by name and take the time to chat with them.”
Schlueter’s parents, both emigrants from Hamburg, Germany, spoke English with a German accent, which meant they faced yet another communication challenge in their new homeland. Their son, who became president and CEO of Keystone Community Bank and vice president of Firstbank Corp., in 2005, says he thinks of them when doing business. Banking, he says, is not just about numbers. It’s about people. And that quality attracted Schlueter to the field.
Although he earned an accounting degree at Western Michigan University in 1978 (after attending Portage Northern High School), he has worked in banking for his entire career.
“During my days as a bank teller, I worked a drive-through window at Maple Hill Mall,” Schlueter recalls. “I learned about people during that time. A teller sees all sorts of ...