Tag Archives: American

Southwest Escape

April 7, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

We’re creatures of habit. We live and breathe routine, and for the most part, we are comfortable in our ways. We’re busy. We think ahead. We worry. We wonder. We drive to work and run errands. Once in a while, however, we stop for a moment and realize that we need a break.

What happens when we decide to escape from routine? If only for two weeks? The possibilities are infinite. Omaha Magazine’s creative director, Bill Sitzmann, and his family of four know this firsthand. Sitzmann, his wife, and their two kids (ages 5 and 9) packed up their Subaru Outback in early June 2016 and hit the road with no specific destination in mind, rather a region: the Great American Southwest.

“We knew when we needed to leave and we knew when we needed to be back,” Sitzmann says. “My dad lives in Tucson, so we knew we wanted to go there and see him. But other than that, we just picked the general areas we wanted to hit.”

The Sitzmann family rolled out of Omaha, looking forward to the two-week camping adventure ahead. Sitzmann says that the trip was exciting from a parental standpoint because, while he was accustomed to teaching his kids things that he already knew, they were headed into uncharted territory for the whole family.

“For all four of us to experience it for the first time, all at the same time, was pretty cool,” Sitzmann says, recalling their two weeks of close quarters on the road.

Driving from Omaha, their stops ranged from Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado to the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico.

They discovered beautiful, lightly populated trails and campsites by venturing off the beaten path. The family decided to stop by the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado, chosen by Sitzmann on a whim, based solely on pictures that he’d seen of the place.

Surrounded by trees with no spectacular view in sight, the drive into the park had them questioning their sanity. But the side trip turned out to be one of the more rewarding outdoor destinations for the family when they walked along a trail at sunset and stumbled upon a massive canyon nearly 100 yards away from their campsite. As they looked around, they realized that they had the hidden gem all to themselves. Sitzmann made a point to wake up at sunrise the next morning for coffee with a view.

They hit a total of 10 national parks over the course of their 3,200-mile journey across the rugged Southwest of the United States. The region is home to countless national parks, along with myriad monuments and historic sites, offering unlimited variations to the ultimate family road trip.

In the Southwest, several National Parks are located in close enough proximity that more than one could be visited in a single day. The natural formations of the land might be close in location, but tend to differ greatly when it comes to their visual appeal.

In Utah, the impressive forest of tall, narrow eroded rock at Bryce Canyon National Park is less than 90 minutes from Zion National Park—where massive cliffs, gaping canyons, sparkling streams, and waterfalls can be seen. Those two parks alone could make a day of adventure (or a week of discovery) for visitors.

 “I think it’s important to have that long-term period with your family,” Sitzmann says. “Most of us, we talk about providing for our family—and that’s what we think our main job is. You teach [your kids] that you can provide and work hard, but there are other things in life that we miss and that we kind of lose touch with over the years.”

The family was able to disconnect from social media, spend the evenings under the stars, and chase the sunrise each morning.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Not every moment was saturated with unexpected beauty. One night, they couldn’t find an open campground, so they camped directly under a fluorescent light in an RV park. But that was a learning experience, in its own way.

Sitzmann’s son turned 9 on the road and received a pocketknife from his father as a right of passage into the world of responsibility.

Road trips to the Southwest have occupied a pivotal point in the lives of many. For my own family, the Southwest was the basis for two unforgettable road trips. The first journey, my parents took in their 20s before having kids. The second, they undertook with seven children in tow (four years ago).

Unlike the Sitzmanns, the Smith crew rolled out of Omaha in 15-passenger rental van. Our approach to the itinerary was more regimented and less laissez faire. We hit the road with all lodging booked. While the Sitzmanns cooked on campfires all along the way, we munched on endless amounts of processed snacks packed into the van.

My dad drove, my mom blogged, and the seven of us kids—ages 5 to 19—bonded in the backseats singing songs, playing games, and marveling at the changing colors and landscapes that we had never seen before.

Over the course of the 3,259 miles that we drove, we spent 10 days in five different states. We grew closer as we conquered new territories. We mastered packing and unpacking the car in a matter of minutes; white-water rafted in Colorado; played cards by the campfire at night in Utah; and came up with silly inside jokes that we remember today.

While there are countless ways to make a road trip through the Southwest, the adventure is unlike any other. Experiencing the purity and the simplicity of the landscape, joined by the people you love, is an indescribable experience. It is an opportunity that doesn’t come around often.

My parents had wanted to go on family road trip to the Southwest ever since their own trip some 20 years prior. It was a right of passage for our family as a unit, because my eldest sister had just graduated high school and the youngest was about to start kindergarten.

As we begin graduating from college, these sorts of road trips will become increasingly difficult to coordinate. So, to seize the moment, we are now in the midst of planning another massive family road trip.

The Smith Family’s Southwest Itinerary (10 days):

From Omaha, we drove through Colorado and landed in Utah where we visited: Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Zion National Park. We then continued to head south where we hit Arizona and visited the Grand Canyon National Park and Lake Powell. We headed back up north where we made an impulsive stop at the Four Corners, then carried onto Mesa Verde National Park and the city of Durango in Colorado. Then, we returned to Omaha.

The Sitzmann Family’s Southwest Itinerary (14 days): 

From Omaha, they headed to the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. From there, they went to New Mexico where they visited Carson National Forest and White Sands National Monument. They continued onward to the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park and Antelope Canyon in Arizona, and then went back up to Utah to hit Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. The family made their way back through Colorado, where they visited the Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park before they returned to Omaha.

Blue Mesa Reservoir, Colorado

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Aloha Bluejays

February 22, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Creighton has long maintained a cross-cultural connection with Hawaii. The university considers the Central Pacific archipelago one of its top-10 recruiting states, and students from Hawaii have been flocking to this “Maui of the Midwest” for nearly a century.

The first Hawaiian student enrolled at Creighton University in 1924, long before the territory became a state (which eventually happened in 1959). Creighton started seeing increased Hawaiian enrollment after World War II in the 1940s, amid heightening racism toward people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, says Associate Director of Admissions Joe Bezousek.

While resentment lingered from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and other U.S. military engagements in East Asia, Creighton intentionally rejected riding the wave of then-popular discrimination.

“Creighton has always followed the Jesuit value of being accepting and treating everyone with dignity and respect. So, Creighton kept our doors open and that was a big trigger moment,” Bezousek says.

Current students of Hawaiian heritage say the school does much to foster a culture of inclusion and supply resources necessary for Native and non-indigenous Hawaiians alike to continue being engaged with their culture while thousands of miles from home.

Ku‘uipo Lono is a student at Creighton and a participating member of Hui ‘O Hawai‘i, an on-campus Hawaiian organization. Lono’s favorite part of the Hawaiian club, and the centerpiece of the organization’s calendar, is the annual lu‘au.

According to Lono, lu‘au was first conceptualized in Hawaii as a celebration of life.

“Lu‘au was originally done for a baby’s first birthday,” Lono says. “When Western people came to Hawaii, they brought a lot of diseases with them, and so it was a big deal for a baby to live past one year.”

Today, the number of Native Hawaiians who continue on to post-secondary education remains low, Lono says, so leaving the island for college is a big deal. For Lono, leaving Hawaii was a matter of broadening her horizons, sharing Hawaiian culture, and in some ways, defending her traditional culture.

“There is a big controversial thing happening on the Big Island where the United States wants to build a big telescope on a mountain, and Native Hawaiians are protesting,” she says. “For some people, being Hawaiian is going up on the mountain and protesting—for others, being Hawaiian is getting an education and being part of the committee who decides whether or not to have the telescope built.”

Much like there is a distinction between Native Americans and non-indigenous American people born and raised in America, Lono says there is a cultural difference between Native Hawaiians and people who are simply from Hawaii. Creighton’s Hui ‘O Hawai‘i is inclusive of both groups.

“There are people who are not Hawaiian at all who participate,” Lono says. “A common thing you will hear people say is ‘I am Hawaiian at heart.’”

Sela Vili is a sophomore at Creighton. Although not of indigenous Hawaiian heritage, she is from Hawaii and played a lead role in a play performed at last year’s lu‘au. More than 1,000 people attended the 2016 event, which is inclusive to other Polynesian cultures, too, not just Hawaiian.

Vili says the celebration is different each year, and the food is always authentic.

“We have a food committee, and we bring down a chef from Hawaii,” Vili says. “I love the entertainment in the lu‘au. I love dancing in it, especially given that I have been dancing since the age of 5.”

Vili refers to the Hawaiian community on campus as her family away from home. She says Hawaii is very important to her, which drives a lot of her participation in the club.

“I want to be involved in the lu‘au so I can share my culture with everyone else,” Vili says. “It’s a way for me to keep in touch with home, and also a great way to meet other students that are from Hawaii.”

Hawaiian culture is based on the idea that you live off the land and work in the fields, Lono says, but going to college offers an opportunity for a different type of life. She admits there can be some resentment toward Westerners by Native Hawaiians, especially considering the legacy of colonization and forced acculturation.

“[I used to think] this is not fair. Why do we have to work to pay rent for land we already own,” Lono says. “My perspective changed when I came here. The same thing happened to the Mexicans and the Native Americans, and I think the best thing to do is not really accept it, but to learn about it, make a difference, and move forward from it.”

Lono is thankful for the opportunity to share her culture with the rest of Creighton’s diverse student population, and she praises the club’s approximately 250 members for caring enough about their culture to share with their peers and the general public of Omaha.

“Creighton recruits heavily from Hawaii, and it is nice having so many people from Hawaii so far away from home,” Lono says.

She laments the dearth of Hawaiian food in Omaha; however, the Hui ‘O Hawai‘i organization provides an essential group of friends who get together to cook authentic foods from home, in order to feel a little closer to the Aloha State—right here in Nebraska.

The 2017 Hui ‘O Hawai‘i Lu‘au takes place March 18 at Creighton University’s Kiewit Fitness Center. Doors open at 4 p.m., dinner begins at 5 p.m., and entertainment starts at 6 p.m. Tickets cost $20 general admission, $15 students, $12 children ages 4-12, free to ages 3 and under. Contact Lu‘au Chair Tiffany Lau at tiffanylau1@creighton.edu for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Gabrielle Union

December 21, 2016 by
Photography by Contributed

Actress Gabrielle Union projects her natural intelligence and feistiness in whatever role she undertakes. The Omaha native is never at a loss for words or opinions. She decries Hollywood’s male-dominated, white-centric ways and lack of opportunities afforded to women of color. She recounts her experience as a rape survivor and preaches the need for women to speak up against violence.

It took Union a while to be regarded a serious artist. Early roles included that of a wealthy suburban teenager in 10 Things I Hate About You, followed a year later by a role as a cheerleader in Bring It On. Twenty years later she’s matured into a real force both in front of and behind the camera. She expertly balances being a fashion- and fitness-conscious celebrity, the wife of NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, and a mother, actress, producer, and activist.

It is not surprising that as her life has broadened, so has her work.

Ambitious projects such as Think Like a Man and Top Five find her giving deeper, more complex performances or satirizing her own mystique. Today, as the star of the popular and critically acclaimed BET series Being Mary Jane, she represents the modern American black woman navigating her way through personal and professional relationships. In mid-October, the actress sued for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation, claiming the network is combining seasons four and five to lower her pay and extend her contract.

Further proof of her take-no-prisoners attitude was her role in one of the most talked about films of 2016, The Birth of a Nation.

The film dramatizes the historic Nat Turner-led slave revolt, a subject of interest for Union that goes back to her Omaha childhood.

“It was a story my mom made sure I knew about. I remember going to the library and her telling me to do research on him. It wasn’t until later I realized my mom had noted I was very passive in the face of adversity and injustice, and I wasn’t willing to speak up, not only for myself, but for anyone else. She thought I might need some additional heroes to look up to and she introduced me to the story of Nat Turner,” Union says.

The interest in Turner continued for years.

“In college I learned even more about Nat Turner and I was drawn to the sense of pushback against oppression–the idea that there are stories situated in slavery where we are not waiting for someone else to save us but that we were actively trying to save ourselves. Really the story of black resistance and black liberation, I’ve always been drawn to.”

gabrielleunion2When the script first came to her attention, she says she determined that, “I had to be a part of telling this incredibly powerful chapter of American history.”

That chapter took years to produce. The film’s producer-writer-director, Nate Parker, who also portrays Turner, had a hard time getting financing for the project.

“There’s a reason the Nat Turner story has never made it to the big screen [before now],” Union says. “There’s a lot of fear of black resistance and black liberation. We see that with what’s happening with Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the professional, college, and high school athletes who are taking a knee to combat and shed light on racism, discrimination, police brutality, inequality, oppression everywhere. We see the pushback, we see people protesting [being] labeled as unpatriotic. I feel quite the opposite. I don’t think there’s anything more American or patriotic than resistance to oppression.”

With such a struggle ongoing, Union says, “I think there’s never been a better time for The Birth of a Nation to come out.”

Union plays an unnamed character who does not speak. The part was written with dialogue but she and Parker decided the woman should be mute.

“I just felt it would be much more symbolic and realistic if we stripped her of her voice, of the ability to speak, of the ability to have power over her own body and over the bodies of her family and her community,” Union says. “That was true for black women during slavery, and it’s still true for so many women, specifically black women, who are voiceless and powerless at the hands of oppressors. Sexual violence and racial inequality have always existed for black women at that very crucial intersection.

She says it was liberating to play a background character.

“Part of that was just being much more committed to the character than when I was younger. When you’re starting out, you want to stand out in every single role. I’m not as concerned about that anymore. I have enough projects where my face is recognizable and my name is out front…I’m much more interested in being fulfilled creatively.”

The film was shot on an actual Georgia plantation that stood in for the site where the historical events took place in Virginia. The dark spirit of the plantation’s past weighed heavy on Union and company.

“Every actor of color on that set felt the pain and the horror that our ancestors felt. It’s in the soil, it’s in the air. You can’t escape it, you really can’t escape it.”

She is offended that the former plantation used in the film is rented out for weddings and parties.

“It’s unfathomable,” she says.

She considers the conversations she and Wade must have with their boys about the threats facing young black males “infuriating.”

“How do you explain that to children?”

She’s banking on Birth to trigger change.

“What we keep saying is, it’s not a movie, it’s a movement. No one I know who’s seen the film is unmoved and unchallenged to re-examine everything. So I hope people walk out of the theater energized and inspired to do better, to really identify oppression and to fight back against it.”

Visit bet.com/shows/being-mary-jane for more information.

Scott Blake

October 10, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Scott Blake looks giddy as he weaves between traffic on 72nd and Pacific streets. He holds a tattered and discolored “now hiring” sign covered by a piece of cardboard—which he calls his “security blanket”—and his dark, disheveled beard frames a mischievous grin. In place of the ragged employment sign stands a provocative work of street art reminiscent of old-fashioned directional street signs. But instead of pointing viewers to local streets or nearby towns, his sign details distances to Benghazi (5,951 miles), Gaza (6,512 miles), and Guantanamo (1,920 miles) in crisp black letters. A three-dimensional star-spangled bomb tops his message like a star on a Christmas tree.

Blake is no stranger to unique and controversial art. Born in Florida in 1976, he first received widespread recognition for his Y2K-inspired barcode art, a project that has become increasingly interactive thanks to the emergence of smartphones and barcode-reading apps. His barcode portraits range from Jesus to Marilyn Monroe, Bruce Lee, and others.

His 9/11 Flipbook project also garnered national attention, which allowed him to donate proceeds to the Twin Towers Orphan Fund, the Red Cross, and other charities. His work has been featured in publications like Adbusters, FHM, and The New York Times, and has been exhibited as far away as London, Paris, and Vienna. His accolades include several Adobe Design Achievement Awards, and a 2009 Omaha Entertainment and Arts Award for Best New Media Artist. But his controversial and covert signpost project is less likely to earn him any official recognition.

The current iteration of the street sign project has been ongoing for about a year. Blake cites two primary sources of inspiration. First, a San Franciscan friend who painted directions to Guantanamo Bay on driftwood. “I get a lot of my ideas from talking with people,” he explains, “but I also go the extra mile—I take it and do this, that, and the other, and make it specifically about Omaha.” Blake initially utilized wood for his own signposts but soon realized that the ubiquitous “we buy houses for cash” signs lining streets and cluttering medians were “like Omaha driftwood” begging to be repurposed.

His second—and more personal—source of inspiration is the iconic signpost from M*A*S*H, the show from the 1970s that features a fictional team of doctors stationed in South Korea during the Korean War. The sign in M*A*S*H points to locations like Boston, San Francisco, and Coney Island, places that represent home for the characters, but Blake’s signposts flip this idea on its head. “I’m already home,” Blake says, “so I want to know where the wars are at—I want to remind people where the boogeyman is.” He also notes that many of the locations have American bases and personnel: “In a way, I actually am pointing to a little piece of America.”

Blake’s process has become part of his daily routine. He takes his signposts with him when he runs errands, and he makes mental notes when he sees “Omaha driftwood” ripe for pilfering. He prefers outdated or illegally placed signs and avoids those that are political, charitable, or artistic in nature. The collected signs are taken to his home studio where they are painted white, cut into arrows, and labeled before being placed into the back of his car to await installment on one of Omaha’s major thoroughfares.

Blake argues that this kind of thought-provoking public art is particularly important when both major presidential candidates treat military intervention as a matter of course. “I consider (our ongoing) wars to be illegal and unjustified and I’m obviously anti-war,” he explains. “There’s no way I’m going to stop the wars; but at the same time, I’m not going to roll over. You can’t be against something—you can’t subvert something—without talking about it.”

Responses to the signposts have been mixed. “Is it weird to think that the bombs are cute?” asks Sarah Johnson, owner of Omaha Bicycle Co. Many locals have expressed confusion over the signposts’ ambiguous nature. An employee of SignIT (a local company that provides the materials for the star-spangled bombs) asked, “Is this a Fourth of July sign?” The conversation about Blake’s public art has even extended to the digital world. Reddit user ZOUG posted that the works are “Not much of a statement if no one understands what they are saying.”

But Blake isn’t too worried about these reactions: “A lot of people have asked me, ‘Are you for the war or are you against it?’ My number one thing is to get people thinking. I’m just reminding people that, whether they’re for or against the wars, these things are happening.” Blake has considered crafting signposts with directions to Boston, Orlando, San Bernardino, and other American cities affected by domestic terrorism and civil unrest, but for now he’s content with his current project.

“I’ll stop when the wars stop.”

Visit barcodeart.com for more information.

Encounter

scottblake1

Damon Bell

June 15, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This story was published in the June 2015 edition of Her Family.

Damon Bell took one step onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge and heard silence. Real silence, the kind that made him pause and remember.

This was where 600 people marched 50 years earlier, hoping to complete the 54-mile journey from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. Instead, they were brutally assaulted by Alabama law enforcement officers, beaten with billy clubs, crushed by horses, and attacked by dogs in what would be known as “Bloody Sunday.” It would be the same path the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., would take in his dress shoes in second and third marches to the capitol.

Now, here was Damon trudging along in his gray and white Air Jordan sneakers. He could feel this in the silence—the weight of history heavy on his 12-year-old shoulders. His father, Jermaine, had tears in his eyes.

“They always say you don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been, so I’m going
to get a chance to find out where I came from.” 
-Damon Bell

A white man sauntered up to Damon and his group near the middle of the bridge. He was holding a huge white sign that read simply, “I’m sorry.” He explained how he had lived in Selma when the marches happened and thought there was just nothing he could do to help.

“It was a sight I’ll never forget,” Jermaine recalls.

Damon wanted to explore the rich history of his people’s struggle. So, when the Omaha Housing Authority sponsored an essay contest in which students were asked to detail why they would like to make the trip to Selma, Damon just had to enter.

He wrote, “They always say you don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been, so I’m going to get a chance to find out where I came from.”

OHA football coach Gannie Clark hosted the contest, wanting to share the experience of Selma with a younger generation. He agreed with the sentiments in Damon’s essay.

“We need to teach tolerance before we are doomed,” he says.

OHA wanted to offer a chance for young people to participate in events surrounding the 50th anniversary of the marches that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned racial discrimination for voters. Despite the thousands of people in attendance, Damon says, the entire day “was peace, a lot of peace.”

He saw influential black leaders such as President Barack Obama, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Martin Luther King III. And he talked with actor Chris Tucker, who gave Damon his autograph

At a museum in Selma, Jermaine noticed Damon on his phone as they observed the footage of what happened that fateful day on March 7, 1965. Damon just couldn’t stand to see people get hurt.

Jermaine told his son he needed to watch it even if it was tough.

“He needs to know what actually happened,” he says. “Our right to vote came with blood, sweat, and tears.”

Damon feels everyone should vote and even if someone believes it doesn’t really matter, it is important to take the chance.

Clark, who lived about 90 miles from the bridge, says the outing was good for Damon and the other kids to see a different perceptive. “Racism in Omaha is like racism in Selma,” Clark says. “I told the boys during the trip to use their anger to speak out, use their anger to fight against any kind of injustice. It isn’t a black/white thing. It is an American thing.”

Racism is getting worse, Jermaine believes. He doesn’t feel people are making progress. Damon knows it is still an issue, but feels like the world is changing.

He hopes the future will be full of peace. His goal is to someday be a professional football player or an engineer.

When Damon is not attending Scared Heart School as a sixth grader, his classroom is at Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop where his father has worked for the past 20 years. Damon is a fixture there almost every day, listening and learning from such men as owner Dan Goodwin and others. Goodwin marched on Washington and shook hands with Malcolm X. A shop window broken over 46 years ago—intentionally left unrepaired to this day—is a powerful reminder of racial tensions in Omaha. A bullet (Goodwin believes fired by police) smashed the pane during the 1969 riots that erupted after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed girl, 14-year-old Vivian Strong.

Jermaine says that is what makes his son a smart kid, learning both sides of the table.

Despite living in “the hood,” Jermaine will never leave. “I love North Omaha,” he says proudly.

Damon Bell 1

Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student

September 24, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Never say never,” says Brenda Christensen when asked if she’ll ever host foreign exchange students again in her family’s home in Elkhorn.

Christensen and husband Mike Morris have hosted three students since 2009, all from Tonsberg, Norway. “We talked about it extensively as a family,” she says. “Everyone had to be in, or we weren’t going to do it.” That “everyone” included Christensen and Morris’ three kids: Wells, 20, Greta, 18, and Tatum, 13.

Marthe Gjelstad was their first student, staying with them from August 2009 through June 2010. “The kids found her in an online [foreign exchange] student profile,” explains Christensen. “We were so in love with this girl. It couldn’t have been more perfect. [And] we were so heartbroken when she left.”

During Marthe’s stay, Christensen says she claimed the school’s Prom Queen title because everyone—both students and teachers—loved her. “She was so funny, loving, and oh my gosh, we just adored this girl. Just beautiful inside and out.”

That was the first time Christensen believed her family would never host a foreign exchange student again “because everyone would be measured up against Marthe, and that really wasn’t fair to anyone else.”

But remember—never say never. Eventually, the Christensen-Morris family took in Marthe’s neighbor and friend back in Norway, Kristin Lien. She stayed with them for only four months. “That was a good experience, too,” Christensen says. “Kristin wanted to embrace, see, and learn everything American. She just wanted to do it all, and she was very social and outgoing.” Like Marthe, Kristin grew very close with the family, especially the Morris kids.

When Kristin left, Christensen once again said that they would never host a foreign exchange student again. But then from August 2012 through June 2013, they took in Marthe’s brother, Markus.

“Markus was more introverted,” she says. “He was more interested in academics, and he wanted to live a year as an American teenager. But he wasn’t nearly as brave or outgoing as the girls.”

The Christensen-Morris family remains close with the Gjelstad and Lien kids and their families. Photo taken in Norway, August 2011.

The Christensen-Morris family remains close with the Gjelstad and Lien kids and their families (Photo taken in Norway, August 2011). Back: Markus Gjelstad, Wells Morris, Vegard Lien, Asbjorn Lien, Vidar Gjelstad, Kristin Gjelstad. Middle: Mike Morris, Kristin Lien, Marthe Gjelstad, Greta Morris, Rebecca Gjelstad. Front: Brenda Christensen, Berit Lien, Tatum Morris, Hakon Lien.

For the most part, Christensen says that they were home-free of difficulties with the students. “We had to occasionally force Markus out of his comfort zone to get him to experience things. [Otherwise], all three had great English skills,” she says.

After seeing some of the other foreign exchange students secondhand, Christensen is very glad that she and her family hosted three very good kids. “Sometimes, [foreign exchange students] aren’t well-behaved. They’ll get into drinking or drugs or break curfew. Other times, the families didn’t think about the commitment, and it’s a huge commitment.”

Clearly, the experience has been wonderful for the Christensen-Morris family, as they’ve even seen their students since. “We have seen Marthe every year. Last year, we traveled to Italy, and she met us there. Kristin came back over last year, and we met her parents in Chicago. We established a beautiful relationship with both families.”

Like the Christensen-Morris family, Trisha Powell of Bennington loves hosting foreign exchange students. She and husband Michael and their two kids, Olivia, 10, and Jace, 3 mos., have hosted six foreign exchange students from Germany, Sweden, Finland, The Netherlands, and Slovenia.

But Trisha and Michael aren’t just host parents; they’re also very active in Ayusa International, a nonprofit organization that promotes cultural exchange programs for high school students around the world.

“We work with several families who choose to host year after year,” explains Powell. “We also ask our families to help refer other families who may be interested, [as] we are always looking for host families willing to open their homes and hearts to an Ayusa student.”

When a family is ready to host a student, a local Ayusa representative takes them through the application process to find and choose a good student match. The steps are:

  • View information online (at ayusa.org) about Ayusa’s program and types of students who are interested in living with a host family and spending a year in the United States.
  • Complete the Ayusa online hosting application. Ayusa provides a list of questions, requests five references, and asks that families sign a program agreement.
  • Once the application is submitted, an Ayusa representative assists with completion of the additional hosting requirements: a criminal background check and in-home interview. When a host family is approved, they may login to select a student.

Throughout the Ayusa exchange program, a local representative works with the family, student, and school to make certain the stay is mutually beneficial. “Students come from all over the world, [and] all of them come to experience the American way of life and a year in an American high school,” Powell says.

“American culture is often very different from what they are used to,” she adds. “Different food, different schools, a different way of life with a different family—[that] can sometimes be stressful for the first bit of time here.” But Powell says most foreign exchange students get used to everything after a while.

Powell highly recommends hosting a foreign exchange student. “Many times, a lifelong connection is made with students and their families,” she says. “We have several American host families who will visit the student in their home country, attend graduations, and even weddings! Many students come back to visit their host families, too. It’s a wonderful way to bring other cultures to your home and to share your cultures and traditions.”

Christensen also has great advice for families looking to host:

  • “Research the experience and the student thoroughly. Ask lots of questions of families who have hosted and select a student who will be compatible with your family.”
  • “Make sure all family members are completely engaged and committed.”
  • “Be flexible and compassionate. Remember, these kids are away from their countries, homes, schools, and families for 10 months.”
  • “Be realistic. This is not always going to be fun and easy. Don’t host a student during a year that you know will be busy or hard.”
  • “Be open to learning more and loving more than you can imagine!”

Although Christensen says her family doesn’t have any plans to host another exchange student, never say never.

For more information about foreign exchange programs and Ayusa International, visit ayusa.org or call 888-552-9872.

Follow a Craft Beer Calendar

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

To many, reaching for a beer is a pretty simple affair—grabbing whatever is on sale or sits on top in the cooler. But I’m not here to advocate for simplicity when it comes to your choice of beverage. Putting some timely thought behind your selection can pay some great dividends!

As I write this, the sun is shining, the temperatures are finally rising, and the desire to get outdoors is overpowering. Just as certain craft beers pair beautifully with particular foods, so too do the myriad styles of craft beer find select pairings with the seasons, hence, the phrase “seasonal beers.”

Seasonal beers offer their peak appeal within a particular time of year. Certain styles have become the norm for the type of activities people find themselves involved in or the type of weather they’re experiencing. It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Darker, maltier styles are well-suited to the colder months due to their more filling and higher alcoholic nature, for example; thus, they are popular in the fall and winter.

But we’re now several weeks into spring, so which craft beers marry well with springtime? Spring seasonals tend to have a straw or golden color, a lively effervescence, and a bitterness rate geared toward quenching a growing thirst.

Pale ales, “smaller” IPAs (just a bit bigger in stature than pale ales), and wheat beer styles are perfectly suited to the warming temperatures and activities of springtime. And like good wine, beers also have many intriguing variations and tilts on a style that will keep you entertained throughout the season. You need not chose just one seasonal option—you can find several you enjoy!

One of my personal favorites is wheat beer—American, German, Belgian—and with brews from so many little regions within these countries, the list is quite long. Wheat beers are generally made with 50 percent wheat/50 percent malted barley. Most are cloudy in nature due to the yeast and proteins left in suspension because of a deliberate lack of filtration. Differences emerge in the artistry of the brewer. American wheats are fairly straightforward, less challenging, or possibly a bit less entertaining, while the German wheats can be hugely effervescent and possess a nose bursting with banana, clove, and vanilla. There are many variations within the German ranks, but as I’m here to guide you, I’ll send you right to an immensely pleasing German Hefeweizen (pronounced “hefay veitzen”).

Most area grocery or bottle stores carry a nice selection of seasonal craft beers, and the local brewers either have one on tap year-round or are just gearing up for the seasonal change. This is one of the easiest times of the year to make your own personal-best seasonal choice.

Now, get out there and try a few!