Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Technologies That Empower Seniors and Caregivers

by Zinta Aistars
Published at Golden Slippers Network
January 2015

Find out what kind of new technologies are available that help seniors stay independent while giving caregivers peace of mind.

Mom gets around well. She’s independent and lives at home alone despite her advanced years. But you worry. Just last week, she twisted her ankle coming down the stairs and took a spill. You live an hour away, and although you check on her regularly, it’s frightening to think about what might have happened if you hadn’t stopped by that day. 

That’s a scenario that many are facing as parents age, in one variation or another, but technology is available to expand the reach of caregivers, keeping seniors safe and living at home independently longer than ever before. With technological advances, caregivers who live at a distance, or are simply not able to check in on senior family members at a moment’s notice, now have life-saving and empowering technologies to help them stay connected. 

“The personal emergency response system, or PERS, is most common,” says Leslie Knopp, co-owner of Comfort Keepers of Northern Lower Michigan, a leading provider of quality in-home senior care located in the Traverse City area. “They range from the simplistic that allow you to push a button to call 9-1-1 to the more complex, sending a pulse signal to an emergency response center that monitors calls 24/7.” 

PERS are small, light-weight transmitters that run on batteries. They can be worn around the neck like a necklace, as a wristband, carried in your pocket or clipped onto a belt. When needed, someone wearing a PERS can push a button for help, sending a signal to a console that has been set up to call one or more emergency numbers. 

“The simplest PERS works only within the range of home,” Knopp adds. “The next step up is a unit that works with a GPS technology like the one in your car, giving your location.” 

A PERS can be purchased, rented or leased. At Comfort Keepers, prices begin at $30 for a monthly monitoring fee, but can be higher for more complicated units. “The entire field is expanding,” says Knopp. “Accessories can be attached to the PERS that connect to a smoke alarm, carbon monoxide alerts—alerts that don’t just make a sound, but submit reports and call in to an emergency response center. Or, you can install ...


Monday, January 26, 2015

Between the Lines: Writing and Empathy

by Zinta Aistars

Vincent van Gogh self-portrait with felt hat

Tuesday, Jan. 27, on Between the Lines , Zinta Aistars speaks with Nellie Hermann, Creative Director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University and author of "The Season of Migration." Her new novel imagines the life of Vincent van Gogh during the 10 months when he lost touch with his brother Theo and began to discover his calling as an artist. 

WMUK Tuesdays at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m. Listen at 102.1 FM in southwest Michigan or online. WMUK is southwest Michigan's NPR affiliate. 

Author Nellie Hermann says "narrative medicine" is the use of creative writing and narrative to enhance our capacity for understanding and empathy in clinical settings or any other social encounter. Telling a story and the hearing or reading of it has the power to untangle our psychological knots and to help others untangle theirs.
Hermann's first novel The Cure for Grief had an autobiographical basis and she says writing it provided an opportunity to work out issues in her own life. The book won acclaim in Time magazine, Elle, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and others, and was chosen as a Target "Breakout" book.

The Season of Migration cover
The Season of Migration cover
In her second novel The Season of Migration, published in January 2015, Hermann imagines the life of Vincent van Gogh during the ten months from August 1879 to June 1880 during which he lost touch with his older brother and benefactor, Theo. Van Gogh struggles with his search for meaning and purpose in his life, dealing with what he feels is his brother’s rejection, and with the death of a stillborn sibling on his birthday also named Vincent. He lives in a mining town called Borinage in Belgium and tries his hand at being a priest, but his artist’s eye draws him in another direction.
Parts of the novel incorporate letters van Gogh wrote but never sent to his brother, exposing the workings of ...

Monday, January 19, 2015

Between the Lines: Exploring Michigan History

by Zinta Aistars

The numbers are impressive: he has 45,000 books in his library and he's written his 21st. Zinta Aistars speaks with Michigan's historian Larry Massie on January 20. Listen to BETWEEN THE LINES on WMUK 102.1 FM every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m. Tune in or click below to listen online

Larry Massie in his personal library

Larry Massie has earned himself the title of Michigan’s historian, earning the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Historical Society of Michigan. His 21 collections of stories about the ship captains, lumberjacks, poets, politicians, cereal makers, outlaws, and anyone who has had an impact on the state’s history culminate with his newest book, published in August 2014. Blue Water, Red Metal and Green Gold: The Color of Michigan’s Past includes 27 stories, illustrated with photos and drawings. It is the 12th in a series called "Voyages into Michigan’s Past."  

Massie in his library
Massie’s interest in old books began in his boyhood and has grown over a lifetime. He has amassed a personal library of more than 45,000 books, including many first editions. As the library outgrew his home, he moved it to an old government building in Allegan, Michigan.
Credit Priscilla Press
“I do much of my research and writing there,” Massie says, but he also travels across the state and digs into the archives of other libraries and private collections and memories. Massie worked as an archivist at Western Michigan University for eight years. When he left that job in 1983, his aim was to become an independent historian.
“I was told that was impossible to do,” Massie smiles. With his books filling an entire library bookshelf and ....

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Deer, ice, and the other side of country life

by Zinta Aistars

The three deer at Z Acres

Oh dear, where are the deer?

I had hoped to have seen the three of them show up by now, to nibble at the treats I leave for them in the back of the farmhouse. Certainly not enough to feed them—they are on their own there—but to offer a little extra something, a juicy apple, a handful of cracked corn, to ease the winter months. The larger doe has a broken leg, seemingly an older injury. She hobbles along through the snow, but can run surprisingly well when startled. The two younger deer hang close, and from time to time, she nuzzles them, perhaps her offspring.

Sunday afternoon waning, they have yet to show themselves. Last night, when I climbed the hillside to my car in the long drive past midnight, heading out to pick up my son from his late night work shift in town, I stopped in my tracks in horror. I hear coyotes howling around the property most nights, but this night they sounded particularly frenzied and near. In fact, their howling, at one moment coming from the north, then from the south, then suddenly just beyond the barn to the west, made the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It’s a wild sound I usually enjoyed, even listen to with relish, but on this night my stomach dropped. I felt ill. The deer with the broken leg …

Realistically, how long could a crippled deer avoid the hard decisions of Nature? Predators cull the weak, and she was definitely a weak link in the deer herd. My hope was that she would feel comfortable enough on Z Acres to stay relatively near the farmhouse or barn, a deterrent to a pack of hungry coyotes. Over just a few days of watching the family of three, I had fallen in love with these beauties.

Listening to the frenzied howling, however, I felt instantly that her story had come to an end. I stood for a moment in my drive debating whether to rush out into the dark, out into the backfield to scream and thrash and scare away the coyotes or hurry to pick up my son in town and bring him back to help. Either option, I was pretty sure, was already too late.

Nearly in tears, I got into the car and pulled out of the long drive and started up the hill as I turned out on the dirt road. It had been unusually warm all day, mid 40s, and the melt of the day had frozen into shining glass. Even though the temperature was still above freezing, the ground was frozen and turned even a relatively warm rain into thick ice as it spilled down the hill. My little car didn’t make it far before I started to slip backwards. I reversed and pulled further back to add momentum and made another try. Not a chance. The tires spun without the least bit of traction.

One thing I have learned by living far out in the country for now my fourth winter is that dirt roads can be a completely different scenario from paved. Asphalt warms quickly. Dirt roads can be icy long after pavement is dry and clean. Add to that that my driveway turns out onto hills in both directions, and I often get stuck when the rest of the more civilized world blinks at my spinning wheels. Really? I have to miss an appointment due to weather conditions? But it’s great out here! Not where I live …

I gave up trying to get up the hill. On my second try, the car started to turn sideways; I was playing with danger here. I turned around to head the other way, which added about 10 miles to my drive, but I had no other option. Only in this direction the hillside was downward and much, much steeper. I was driving at a crawl, pumping my brakes, but the car slid, slid faster, slid more, gathering speed, and I whispered a prayer as I slid down the hill, watching the trees pass along both sides.

Made it. Soon as I hit pavement about two miles further out, driving was a breeze. As expected, the pavement was completely ice-free and dry. I picked up my son, sharing my concerns about the deer with him as we drove back home.

“She’s dead,” I said firmly. In the pit of my stomach, I knew it.

“You don’t know that,” my son said calmly. “We’ll go out and look.”

I knew he was concerned, too. He’d been watching the deer visit Z Acres as much as I had, and I knew his soft heart for all animals.

It was nearly 1 a.m. by the time we got home. Almost home. I came up at the top of the hill just before the driveway and, as slowly as I was going, hardly even moving the needle on the speedometer, pumping the brakes gently, the car started to slide. I may as well have let go. The road in my headlights gleamed bright, like a mirror, and a light rain made it even more slippery.

My car turned sideways about midway down and slid, thunk, into the hillside along the sides of the road. I was almost relieved … it stopped my descent. But now I was stuck sideways, completely blocking the narrow road, hidden from anyone else’s view on the approach on the other side of the hill. Should anyone come over that hill, they wouldn’t see me until it was too late.

“I’ll get the truck,” my son scrambled into action. We were walking distance from home. As soon as his feet hit the road, he went down. I watched him grasp for snow along the edges of the road to give him traction. I remembered the winter before, trying to walk across the icy road to my mailbox, and ending up on all fours as I crossed back, my mail in my teeth. It had been completely impossible to stand up on the ice. This was like that.

He didn’t take long, though, my hero that he is. That young man has gotten me out of all kinds of impossible scrapes. Would he be able to get me out of this one? I sat in the car, thinking about him, grateful, but thinking, too, about the deer.

I saw his headlights coming down the driveway and breathed a sigh of relief. The old truck is not roadworthy, a wreck, but we use it for hauling wood and cleaning the drive and various other farm errands. Like pulling me out of ditches and loose from hillsides.

I watched him turn up the hill and squeeze by me. Oh good, his four-wheel drive is doing the trick.

Then I saw him start to slip. Nearly at the top of the hill, his big wheels started to slide. It was like watching a slow motion film with an oncoming train, unable to move. The truck had passed me, his intention to back up to me and pull me loose with a chain, but instead he was slipping sideways, parallel to me. I watched his truck sliding toward my car, out of control. I watched his face in the light of the cab, eyes wide, lips pressed into a line, measuring the fast-shrinking space between the truck and my car.

Wham. Softly. The truck slid up against me, but not hard. In fact, I felt it nudge me loose a bit from the hillside. Calling out to each other through open windows, he told me what he wanted me to do, when to go into drive, when reverse, and I felt a few hopeful inches of movement … but not enough. He tried to move the truck again, now both of us blocking the road. He gained a few inches higher, leaving a small space between his vehicle and mine.

Working to stay upright, he climbed from the truck and pressed his back against the truck and his arms and legs into my car. Dangerous. He could get squeezed between the two vehicles. He’s a risk-taker by nature, and I wasn’t going to argue (he wouldn't listen), just hurried to get us out of this situation. He pushed me loose, my car continued its slow spin until I was turned opposite of the direction I was going … but it worked. Driving slowly in reverse, I was able to turn into my driveway backwards and start backing down the drive.

With the car out of the way, the truck slid loose and down the hill until he got it into the driveway and followed me in. Parked, taking a deep breath of relief, we took a look at the damage. Not much. My bumper was pried loose, but he shrugged and pushed it back into place. It held, one crack more on the corner. I don’t care about the looks of a car, least of my concerns in life, so I nodded in satisfaction and turned my thoughts back to the deer.

One of the smaller does gets curious about the chickens
One of the deer walking the trail by the toolshed-chicken coop

We found flashlights in the house, put on heftier boots, and headed out into the night to look for …. a deer carcass? Blood in the snow? Some sign of what had caused the coyote celebration. He went one way and I went the other, following a circle around the back acreage. I could see his flashlight bobbing along the snow in the growing distance, looking for tracks.

I found tracks on my side and followed them into the woods. Here older, here fresher, but nowhere a sign of struggle, only areas where the deer had pawed at the snow to uncover some still green growth to eat. The scat I found looked fresh. The deer had been hanging out near the barn and the perimeter of the woods; I could see where they had lain in the snow to rest.

The spot of light from my son’s flashlight bobbed closer, sweeping across the snow and trees. When the two of us met in the woods, he shrugged.

“Nothing. Deer kill out back, but it’s old, almost nothing left but a few bones and bits of hide. Anything here?”

“Nothing. Here’s hoping.”

He nodded, and we made our way back to the house, checking in on both chicken coops on the way. The hens were huddled together, sleeping peacefully. I did a quick headcount.

I went to sleep an hour later, well past 2 a.m., only a little comforted by the lack of deer kill evidence. The night was quiet now, maybe too quiet.

These are the dramas of country life. Wildlife, and the cycles of life and death, as they should be. It hurt only when I fell in love with a particular animal, and I had grown quickly fond of these three. They had been showing up every day, several times a day, and sometimes when I turned into my drive, I saw the three of them lying in the front woods, peacefully watching my car pass. I felt honored by their trust. I felt sick about my inability to protect them. Even as I understood: coyotes, too, must eat, and if I got to know a particular coyote, wouldn’t I fall in love with him, too? Probably.

Sunday nearly done and no sign of the deer. The apples I left in the snow and the smattering of cracked corn is untouched, perhaps only a little disturbed by my own hens and a few wild birds.

Dark approaches, another evening on the horizon, and this may be a story, I realize, for which I may never have an ending. The coyotes may have caught their prey somewhere out of our sight. The coyotes may have chased the deer off to another area. The deer may be cautious today, playing it safe, and show up tomorrow or the day after. I may never see them again. I may walk out into the backfield in the spring, last snow melting, first wildflowers blooming, and find a white bone, clean of flesh, smooth and dry in my hand, and wonder.

Doe with broken leg 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Parent engagement builds trust and academic success

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Rapid Growth Media
January 15, 2015

Mel Atkins, GRPS administrator, and Deanna Wilson, parent (Photo by Adam Bird) 

For Grand Rapids Public Schools (Grand Rapids, Michigan), one key to increased academic success for students has been connecting with their parents. Parent Essentials, a collaboration between GRPS, LINC, and Believe 2 Become, is doing just that. Writer Zinta Aistars finds out how a fresh approach to partnering with parents is benefiting everyone.

When Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) administration gathered to brainstorm about what could be done to improve student success, the role of parents quickly surfaced.

“How do we interact with parents? We realized we had to change our approach,” says Mel Atkins, executive director of community and student affairs at GRPS. “We realized that we had to build trust between the schools and parents and make them equal partners. We changed our approach from saying, ‘If parents would only do this …’ to a partnership that began with listening.”

That change in attitude took two years to cultivate. When a meeting with parents was called in 2010 inviting parents to tell school administration what they wanted out of their schools, “parents showed up in droves,” says Atkins.

After two years, a culture shift at GRPS had taken place and had evolved into active parent involvement. By 2012, parent meetings were popping up at schools (Alger Middle, Campus Elementary, Cesar E. Chavez Elementary, Ford Academic Center, Martin Luther King Leadership Academy, Southwest Community Campus, Buchanan Elementary and Burton Elementary/Middle), and the meetings became known as Parent Essentials, designed to bring parents together in meaningful conversations about parenting.

“One of the challenges parents and administrators took on was attendance,” says Atkins. “We noted that 36.7 percent of our students were chronically absent. You can’t learn if you’re not in school. Our goal was to reduce absenteeism by 10 percent each year.”

That was in 2012. Two years later, absenteeism has been reduced to 23.7 percent, Atkins says. Still room for improvement, but Atkins credits parent and community involvement.

“Everyone got involved,” he says. “Now, we are working on measuring the correlation between attendance and achievement, including test scores.”

Key players in community involvement were LINC Community Revitalization, a nonprofit housing and business development organization with a strong interest in education, and Believe 2 Become, a neighborhood initiative working to improve student success in schools.

“Parent Essentials meetings have resulted in increased parental involvement within the schools, key behavioral changes and a deeper understanding of the culture and expectations of the school and district processes,” says Willie Patterson, LINC Neighborhood Services Coordinator. “We have also found that parents who attend these meetings have increased knowledge and access to resources. We’ve seen tremendous growth in trust and relationships between the school and parents as well as a significant upswing in volunteer application submissions and approvals, equipping more parents to be actively involved within their child’s school.”

Deanna Wilson is one such parent volunteer. She has two sons attending Grand Rapids public schools—one in 10th grade, one in 1st grade.

“I started volunteering when my oldest was in 7th grade,” Wilson says. “He was a borderline student then. I had worked out a transfer for him to a better school out of our home area, but because of his grades and attendance, the transfer was not extended.”

Wilson was made an offer. If she wanted to keep her son at the better school, she could ...


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Putting the focus on Kalamazoo volunteers

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
January 15, 2015

Tinashe Chaponda (Photo by Susan Andress)

Helping others should be fun, says Tinashe Chaponda. He started FOCUS Kalamazoo to prove it could be done. 

Tinashe Chaponda was just a boy when his family moved to the United States from Zimbabwe in 2000. He’s 21 now, a sophomore majoring in human resources and minoring in marketing at Western Michigan University, and he has big plans and big dreams. One dream is already been realized, and Chaponda is carefully giving it shape. It’s called FOCUS Kalamazoo.

When Chaponda’s family came to the United States, they lived in Chicago, but then moved to Battle Creek, and then--Kalamazoo. His mother enrolled in Kalamazoo Valley Community College while his father worked. Chaponda and his brother attended Kalamazoo Public Schools. When his mother died unexpectedly he was in 8th grade.

The world split wide open, but Chaponda wasn’t ready to face it. It wasn’t his way. It wasn’t the way of the culture in which his family was rooted. His eyes dry, he kept that part of his broken heart closed even while he opened the other part. 

“I got involved with the Derek Jeter group, Jeter’s Leaders,” Chaponda says. “Being a part of Jeter’s Leaders kept me from straying from my ideals during high school. Jeter's Leaders is a youth leadership, social change program named by the captain of the New York Yankees, Derek Jeter. The program is designed to promote healthy lifestyles, academic achievement, and social change activism among high school students. Reflecting on the Jeter’s Leaders program, I’ve realized how much it has changed me.”

Two events in the group made a lasting impression on Chaponda. Along with the group, he traveled to New Orleans, where he saw the suffering of the people there and the destruction of property after Hurricane Katrina. He was moved to reach out and help others when he returned his own community. 

The other event that was transformative for Chaponda was ...


Monday, January 12, 2015

Between the Lines: Testing Faith Over 6,000 Miles

New on WMUK 102.1 FM, Southwest Michigan's NPR affiliate station: "Between the Lines," a weekly radio show about books and writers, hosted by Zinta Aistars. 

On Tuesday, January 13, airing at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m., hear my interview with mother and daughter writing team, Jane and Ellen Knuth. We talk about their new book, "Love Will Steer Me True: A Mother and Daughter's Conversations on Life, Love, and God," and surviving the tsunami of 2011 in Japan. Not in Southwest Michigan? Listen online.

Jane and Ellen Knuth

When Jane Knuth let go of her daughter Ellen, she let go about 6,000 miles. Ellen, a recent college graduate and eager to get a grip on the adventure of life, was on her way to the far side of the world to a remote part of Japan to teach eighth grade children English.

It wasn’t so much that Jane was afraid of the long distance. She feared more that her daughter might hit a bump or two in her life path, perhaps even a crisis, and not have a sanctuary of God nearby to shelter her. After all, she knew only about one percent of Japanese are Christian and for Jane Knuth, the Christian faith she had worked hard to instill in her daughter was of the utmost priority - to her. Maybe not quite as much for her daughter. The nearest Christian church was two hours away from Ellen’s new home in Japan but Ellen wasn’t worried. Her concerns focused more on her new job and life in another country.
Love Will Steer Me True: A Mother and Daughter’s Conversations on Life, Love, and God, is a collaborative book by Jane and Ellen. It is Jane Knuth’s third book (Thrift Stone Saints: Meeting Jesus 25 Cents at a Time and Thrift Store Graces: Finding God’s Gifts in the Midst of a Mess are collections of stories from Jane’s volunteer work in a Kalamazoo thrift store) and Ellen’s first. Chapters lean heavily to Ellen’s story, with Jane mostly writing in response to her daughter’s chapters.
Ellen Knuth with some of her Japanese students
Ellen Knuth with some of her Japanese students
Credit Ellen Knuth
The two keep in touch often by calling each other over the Internet using Skype. “I’ll call you in your morning,” becomes their mantra. They trade stories about teaching because Jane is also an eight grade teacher - in Kalamazoo. That job came to her unexpectedly while her daughter was away teaching Japanese children, learning that while there are cultural differences, children worldwide are much the same in other respects.

Their shared story takes an unexpected turn in 2011 when a tsunami crashed against the shores of Japan, leaving a path of destruction. In the tsunami’s wake followed a nuclear disaster, and while Jane at home prays for her daughter’s protection, Ellen ...

Thursday, January 08, 2015

What you liked about what we wrote in 2014

Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
January 8, 2015

Story #4

Every year, Second Wave publishes a review of top stories over the past year. I'm happy to learn that six of my stories in 2014 rated in the top 10 for the magazine - hurrah! 

Eating well and the people who help us do that proved to be the kind of story readers of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave read the most in 2014. Food or farm stories placed heavily in our Top 10 for the year.

What was the top read feature? Second Wave has reported several stories in comics form from the talented Simon Borst. In 2014 our graphic look at the Kalamazoo Promise and those who have returned to the city after benefiting from the scholarship program for Michigan public universities or colleges was the best read of our feature stories.

People also were interested in businesses getting on their feet, like Kori Jock's handmade underwear start-up. And stories that looked at the bigger pictures, like how women are changing the craft brew business also found a following. 

And we would be remiss if we did not give a shout out to Zinta Aistars, who wrote six of the Top 10.  

Overall, 2014 was another great year for Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. Our readership continues to climb as more and more people find us and share our stories. (We encourage sharing!) As we get ready to go into our fifth year of publication here is our list of the Top 10 stories for 2014:


Story #5

Story #10

Monday, January 05, 2015

Between the Lines: Defending Beef

by Zinta Aistars
Airing on WMUK 102.1 FM
January 6, 2015

New on WMUK - Zinta Aistars' "Between the Lines" will be airing every Tuesday: 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m. It's a show about books and writers. This Tuesday, January 6, is the launch with a conversation with Nicolette Hahn Niman about her newest book, Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production. Zinta Aistars is WMUK's resident book expert.

Nicolette Hahn Niman on BN Ranch (Photo courtesy of Hahn Niman)

Why would a vegetarian defend beef? Nicolette Hahn Niman, environmental lawyer, rancher, food activist, and vegetarian, does just that in her controversial new bookDefending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, The Manifesto of an Environmental Lawyer and Vegetarian Turned Cattle Rancher, published by Chelsea Green in October 2014.
Hahn Niman’s first bookRighteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (William Morrow, 2009), paves the path to her current work. Porkchopis an exposé of what ails "Big Ag," or big agriculture, the factory farms that Hahn Niman points out as major polluters across the planet, contributing to climate change, to the detriment of everyone’s health. It is also her love story, as vegetarian meets cattle rancher, Bill Niman, joining forces in marriage and business.
Defending Beef cover
Defending Beef cover
Defending Beef takes a further step. As Hahn Niman began her new life on the Bolinas, California, cattle ranch (the Nimans also raise heritage turkeys), she found herself drawn deeper and deeper into the lifestyle and the business. If at first she merely stood nearby and held out the tools for her husband to do his work, Hahn Niman gradually found herself in love with ranch life and fully involved with it. Her research into all things beef led her to write her manifesto.
“Environmentalists and health advocates have long blamed beef and cattle ranching, but it’s just not that simple,” she says.
With meticulous research, Hahn Niman addresses every concern commonly associated with beef: health issues, climate change, water supply, biodiversity, overgrazing, world hunger, the morality of eating meat.
“Meat, especially red meat, has been perceived as elitist,” she says. “It’s a strange way to view beef when about a billion of the world’s poorest people are dependent on livestock.”
Beef, Hahn Niman argues, can in fact ...

Friday, January 02, 2015

Welcome Home: Dance Beyond the Stage

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Welcome Home magazine
Winter 2014 Issue

Winter 2014 Issue, page 12

It’s hard to say which topic infuses Cathy Huling with more passion: talking about the Ballet Arts Ensemble (BAE), where she has been co-owner since 1991 and artistic director since 2001, or talking about BAE’s community outreach in collaboration with many greater Kalamazoo (Michigan) organizations.

Ballet Arts Ensemble at 2018 Rambling Road in Kalamazoo is an all-volunteer, nonprofit youth ballet organization, founded in 1982 by Jerre Locke James, owner of Ballet Arts School of Dance. Performances include mixed repertoire concerts and full-length story ballets such as Cinderella, Peter and the Wolf, The Magical Toy Shop, Red Shoes, Aladdin’s Magic Lamp, and many others, often featuring guest dancers and musicians. Every other year, BAE collaborates with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra to present a fully-staged production of Nutcracker featuring professional dancers in principal roles.

For Cathy Huling, BAE is her home away from home. “I’ve been dancing since I was 4 or 5 years old,” she says. “My father was a professional musician, a classical pianist and composer. My mother sang in the church choir, and my father was the organist there. I grew up in a musical environment.”

A Grand Rapids native, Huling recalls her father bringing home ballet classics such as Swan Lake and playing the records on the record player. She was mesmerized. She wanted to dance.

“I was one of six, maybe eight girls who studied with Sally Seven, soloist with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and founder of the Grand Rapids Civic Ballet,” she says. “You could say we were pioneers of the Grand Rapids Civic Ballet.”

Although Huling dabbled with other dance forms, classic ballet remained her love. She attended Marietta College in Ohio, where she earned a degree in speech and excelled in debate competitions. In Grand Rapids, she was involved in civic theatre, learning what happens back stage to bring a successful production on stage. And she danced.

“These were the skills I was able to bring to BAE,” Huling says. “At 5’10”, I was too tall to be a professional dancer, but I wanted to pass my love of classical dance on to others.”

BAE works with dancers of both genders, beginning at age 4 for classes, auditioning at age 12 for productions. At present, the company has 20 dancers, representing all area schools, Huling says, including home schools. Dancers commit to two classical ballet classes per week in addition to a weekly 3-hour class and rehearsal block.

“Many of our dancers were brought by their parents to see a production when they were small,” Huling says. “We do a meet-and-greet with audience members, and the children idolize the dancers and look up to them. We talk about this all the time—that our dancers are role models and mentors to the next generation of dancers.”

BAE takes that responsibility seriously. Community outreach is as important a part of the organization’s mission as the presentation of classical ballet. Tickets are priced at affordable rates (usually ranging between $8 to $18), with complimentary tickets provided to a variety of community organizations, agencies and groups that might not otherwise be able to attend performances. 

Recipients of complimentary tickets include Big Brothers and Big Sisters, YWCA, Black Arts and Cultural Center, Hispanic American Organization, Boys and Girls Club, Family and Children Services, Bronson Pediatric Oncology, Alzheimer's Society, Autism Society, Senior Low-Income and Assisted Living Facilities, senior centers in Kalamazoo and Portage, and others.

“We had a young lady, oh, maybe age 8, attend our Nutcracker performance,” Huling recalls. “She had cancer and was undergoing harsh chemo treatments, but she dressed up in her taffeta dress that night and we gave her a tiara to wear. A couple years later...