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TCGIS neighbors want community ‘anchor’ to remain

Posted on 07 May 2018 by Calvin

School discusses razing former St. Andrew’s church building and constructing more efficient and larger building

By TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
Twin Cities German Immersion School (TCGIS) neighbors are concerned that the school has already made up its mind about razing the old St. Andrew’s Church building at 1031 Como Ave., and is moving with a sense of urgency on the project that may not be necessary

“I’m very opposed to the possibility that the church could be razed,” stated Muriel Gubasta during a community meeting on Apr. 9. She attended grade school at St. Andrew’s, along with all six of her children.

Gubasta thanked school staff for holding the informational meeting, and stated, “I’m very happy to see this as a school.”

Photo right: About 100 people attended an informational session in the former church building that the school uses as a cafeteria and gym space. A majority of those present raised their hands to let school representatives know they were neighbors. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)

But she encouraged the TCGIS to take its time making a decision and not rush into anything. “Let’s not rush to failure,” Gubasta said. “You have a lot of people here who really love this beautiful space.”

Fellow neighborhood resident Kate Konkel agreed and pointed out that TCGIS isn’t the first school to operate in the space. In fact, it was preceded by the French Immersion School, which was only there a few years.

“The history of schools in this area has been transient,” Konkel said. “This building is very much a part of this neighborhood and the history of St. Paul.”

According to TCGIS Facilities Committee Chair Nic Ludwig, “We’re not set in stone. The board has not approved any of this. This is the first of hopefully many listening sessions.” Ludwig pointed out that he spends time every day considering the issues around tearing down or keeping the existing Byzantine-Romanesque structure built in 1927.

However, Ludwig observed that the school board could vote on this issue within the next few months to keep with a schedule that opens the new space for the 2019-2020 school year.

Photo left: TCGIS Facilities Committee Chair Nic Ludwig (front) and finance chair Sam Wallig explain the choices driving the school during a community meeting on Apr. 9. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)

Residents were concerned that this doesn’t give them much time to investigate options, such as raising money to save the former church building.

A space crunch
When the tuition-free, K-8 German Immersion School moved to its current location in the fall of 2005, organizers planned for three sections in grades K-4 and two sections in grades 5-8. Based on the lack of attrition at the school, planners are working to figure out how to expand to three sections for grades 5-8 for a total projected student population of 613 in the 2021-22 school year.

The school began experiencing a space crunch this year.

“Teachers and students are already using hallways and other nooks,” pointed out Ludwig. Some teachers don’t get prep time because they are sharing their classrooms with other teachers. The kindergartners and first graders have gym in the cafeteria. The school has eliminated spaces such as the computer lab and plans to eliminate the boardroom/gathering room next year. Next, they’ll need to rotate students through lunch, but that will cut into the time that the space is also used for students to be active.

Planners project that the school needs four additional classrooms, two specialty spaces, four special education/student auxiliary spaces, five administration/staff spaces, gym space and a larger cafeteria for the 2019-2020 school year.

When some in attendance questioned how much of this was necessary, TCGIS Principal Ted Anderson stated, “We don’t spend a lot of time talking about our wants. We talk about our needs.”

Finance Committee Chair Sam Wallig pointed out that whereas St. Paul Public Schools typically received about $15,000 in funding per student, TCGIS receives $10,000. TCGIS is a public charter school, but it is not part of the St. Paul Public School district.

Number of students
Of the 560 students at TCGIS, 250 come from St. Paul, 50 from Roseville/Falcon Heights, and 130 from Minneapolis, so planners want to remain in the area they’re in. Plus, TCGIS is working with Central High School, which has added a German tract that is in its second year for TCGIS students to move into seamlessly.

Each year, the school receives more student applications than there is space for. Priority is given to siblings and students of staff, observed Anderson.

The school currently employs 80 full-time staff and nine part-time. This is projected to increase to 90 full-time and ten part-time.
Some attendees expressed their concern about the number of students at the school and stated that they don’t think this site can handle more.

Steve Green, a neighborhood resident since 1983 and a former member of St. Andrew’s, said, “I’m opposed to your expansion.” He cited existing traffic problems that will get worse with more students. He encouraged TCGIS to put a cap on enrollment where it is now.

“This is a beautiful building. It’s unique. It shouldn’t be torn down,” Green said.

Buy or lease?
The school’s facilities committee has spent the last year looking for space and has considered buying and leasing, which is expensive in the long-term. The spaces nearby are either too big or too small, according to Ludwig. TCGIS isn’t interested in having two campuses because of the duplicated administration costs.

The Mission Orthodox Presbyterian church across the street wasn’t interested in selling and plans to lease that space didn’t work out. The school is working with the city on the possibility of using parking at the nearby Como Pool.

As charter schools cannot own property, the current site is owned by the TCGIS Building Company. To purchase the site and renovate it, the building company issued $9 million in bonds that are paid by the lease payments the school makes. Bond payments are currently between $500,000 and $560,000 a year. The state of Minnesota pays up to 90% of the lease payments, up to $1,314 per pupil unit. A portion of the lease payments can be used to improve the building, and this fund currently has about $400,000.

Old buildings need work
The projected maintenance costs at the former church building, or the Aula, are estimated to be $1,195,000 over the next seven to 10 years, while the classroom building needs about $535,000.

Photo left: To solve its space needs, the Twin Cities German Immersion School has considered a variety of options, including tearing down the existing Byzantine-Romanesque structure built in 1927. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)

The long-term maintenance needed on the former church building includes: a boiler ($120,000), water heaters ($20,000), windows/doors ($75,000), roof ($500-750,000), masonry ($120,000), sound dampening ($10,000), and an optional sprinkler system ($100,000).

Items at the classroom building include: a boiler ($120,000), asbestos in the boiler room ($40,000), unit heaters and thermostats ($65,000), water heater ($10,000), roof ($150,000), south windows ($65,000), north windows ($65,000), and entry doors ($20,000).

Spread over seven years, the annual cost of maintenance is $250,000. That will consume most of the surplus—which is $260,000 this year, pointed out finance chair Sam Wallig.

The school’s growth may support a new bond issuance, but the school can’t support the projected maintenance costs plus additional bonds, said Wallig. The school could restrict enrollment to two sections per grade, but that wouldn’t be enough to pay the maintenance costs and make the bond payments.

If the school doesn’t build and offers three sections, programming will suffer from lack of classroom space and the maintenance costs of the Aula, according to Ludwig.

A new building
The proposed three-story, 20,600-square-foot-addition built on the site of the Aula would have two gyms on the first floor. The second floor would house classrooms.

A phase two addition on the east side would add a total of 23,150 square feet on three levels.

The project cost is an estimated $5.7 million. Ludwig pointed out that project costs will go up if the school waits.

The next steps are to meet with staff and user groups to develop a schematic design, and to create a construction plan, while also completing a bond underwriter review.

District 10 Community Council’s Land Use Committee anticipated hearing about the project at its May meeting, and from there it will need to go to the city council.

An anchor
“This is an anchor place in this community,” pointed out Mary Burnison. “It’s more than a building.” She added, “It’s holistically, organically a part of this community.”

Ludwig responded that he has lived in the neighborhood for the past seven years. “I also like the church building,” he said.

However, school representatives have met with companies that have worked on this building in the past to figure out the scope of the work needed and to obtain quotes, and believe that it is more cost effective to raze the former church building.

Andy Ashton’s family moved to the neighborhood because of TCGIS, and his father-in-law attended school at St. Andrew’s. He pointed out that the building is important to his family, as well, but it is more important that the school stay in the neighborhood.

Some residents proposed keeping part of the church building, such as the facade, retaining the shell, or reusing pieces within a new structure. However, Ludwig noted that the existing footprint of the church building is not large enough to add the space needed.

Ninety-seven-year-old John Forliti’s dad began attending St. Andrew’s at age 14. Forliti is happy to see a school community active at the former church. “Whether people went to this church or not, it’s still an anchor,” he pointed out.

Upcoming meetings
Neighbors expressed a desire to be more involved in what happens at the school. They were encouraged to attend public board meetings and facilities committee meetings (second Thursdays at 6pm), which are posted on the school’s website.

 

Committee formed to save St. Andrew’s Church building

Editor’s Note: the following was received after deadline. Watch for more comprehensive coverage in the following months.

Neighbors in the Warrendale neighborhood of Como Park formed a neighbor-led ad hoc committee to prevent the demolition of the former St. Andrew’s Church. Demolition is being considered by the Twin Cities German Immersion School (TCGIS). The committee is circulating a petition calling for “the proposed plan for the St. Andrew’s Church Structure be delayed until June 2020.”

According to Bonnie Youngquist, the project delay would provide:
— Time to select 1-2 architects to review the needs of the school and offer alternative solutions and estimates
— Obtain expert advice from Thomas Zahn, former Preservation Planner for the City of St. Paul.
— Meet with Thomas Fischer, UMN professor, Director of the Minnesota Design Center, and Dayton Hudson Chair in Urban Design
— Time to get a second opinion on the condition of the Aula roof and provide an additional cost estimate for maintenance
— Generate alternative solutions not previously considered
— Time to determine whether or not a historical designation is feasible.

The committee says that they aim to connect community stakeholders to create a viable solution for both the Warrendale neighborhood and TCGIS as they develop their expansion proposal. Neighbors say that they have been working with the school to resolve issues, but there is still much to be done even at the current size. Neighborhood concerns include parking, noise, traffic flow, bike and pedestrian safety, etc.

Built in 1927, St. Andrew’s Church is a Romanesque building is listed as a “Site of Major Significance” in the 1983 Historic Resources Survey (the most recent completed for the neighborhood). The structure has a designation in Larry Millet’s “American Institute of Architecture’s Guide to the Twin Cities” as, “one of St. Paul’s best Period revival churches.”

“The former St. Andrew’s Church is a historic structure that has served as a meaningful community anchor and a visible symbol of the stability of the surrounding neighborhood for nearly a century,” according to neighbor Mary Burnison.

According to the committee, the proposed demolition of this building also does not support the District 10 Community Plan.

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Central Lutheran School sign

Central Lutheran School seeks $450,000 in GoFundMe campaign

Posted on 07 May 2018 by Calvin

‘In order to pay our faculty, staff, and many bills, we must raise lots of money quickly.’

By TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
Staff members hope that a GoFundMe campaign will keep Central Lutheran School (CLS) open. The 130-year-old school (775 Lexington Pkwy. N.) seeks to raise $450,000 through the campaign, enough to cover payroll and pay down old debt.

Photo right: Citing deep financial trouble, Central Lutheran School launches GoFundMe campaign to raise $450,000 and keep the school doors open. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)

This may give the school time to reboot and move to a new funding model, according to Principal Elizabeth Wegner.

She pointed out that staff has spent the last eight months getting the school’s books and accounts in workable shape to try to understand its cash flow issues. An angel donor paid for accounting services, which provided staff its first accurate numbers in January.

“Now, we have a good grip on our issues,” said Wegner. “We needed to get the word out quickly and involve more than our usual mailing list.”

“The story is simple. We are in deep financial trouble,” explains the GoFundMe page. “In order to pay our faculty, staff, and many bills, we must raise lots of money quickly. If we don’t, the great things we do for Jesus at CLS will end, and the school will close. Act now and be very generous, more generous than you thought you could. It is time to SOS (Save Our School).”

In its first 18 days, the GoFundMe campaign had raised $10,321.

As the school struggles to find new revenue streams, the five full-time and two part-time teachers who manage the 80 students in the K-8 school have been working at lower pay for the last couple of months. The school’s separate year-round toddler care and preschool section, with 34 students, gets some state and county funding.

The funding model of the one-story 27,000-square-foot yellow brick school building has changed over the years. While tuition covered most expenses at one time, today roughly 80% of CLS students receive some form of financial aid, and more than half receive free or reduced-price lunches. Only about five families can pay the full tuition.

The mission-based school does not turn away students based on financial need.

A chunk of the school’s $950,000 operating budget is paid by four Lutheran churches: Bethel Lutheran, Emmaus Lutheran, Jehovah Lutheran, and St. Stephanus Lutheran.

Immigrants have always been part of CLS
Students and families come from many different ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds.

In the last 5-6 years, the ethnic profile at CLS has changed drastically.

“We went from about 70% white and 30% other to 50% white, 30% African American with a large portion of that number being immigrants from East Africa (Eritrea and Ethiopia), 15% Karen and 5% other,” remarked Wegner. “This brings challenges in the areas of ability to pay tuition, as families achieve their footing in a new country, and also language barriers. However, we are still close-knit and revel in our differences.”

The school itself was started by immigrants from Germany, who started their school before they’d even started their churches.
When the school association came together and built the current facility, there were about 600 students attending.

These association churches experienced a shift in membership as people moved from the city to the suburbs in the 1970s and 80s, taking members to other churches. That, in turn, affected enrollment and funding at CLS, as did the 2008 recession.

When Wegner and her husband started at CLS, K-8 enrollment was 225 with a small preschool.

A family affair
CLS has been a family affair for the Wegners.

“From when we first walked in when we were looking for first grade for our son, there was a feeling of family and community,” remarked Wegner. “This atmosphere, plus a Christ-centered focus and our commitment to mission and ministry at CLS, keeps us at this school.”

Her son Ben graduated from eighth grade at CLS in 2006, and her daughter Abby in 2009. Both are now educators. Husband Bruce is the head custodian.

Wegner began working at CLS as the music director in 1998. In 2014, the school board asked her to take on administrative duties, as well.

She’s found much to love about CLS.

Diversity sets school apart
“Other than the big draw of family and community, the rising level of diversity sets us apart,” Wegner observe. “Also, because of combined grades, each child has a two-year relationship with each teacher (except kindergarten which is a single grade). We all know each student and family very well.”

In knowing each child personally, the staff knows their strengths and challenges. “We work together to address these,” Wegner pointed out. For example, if an upper-grade student has trouble in reading, a lower grade teacher is right there to suggest other resources.

There is a time in the day for Reader Friends during which older students and younger students read together.

Because CLS only uses St. Paul Public School busing in the afternoon, its school day is 7 hours long. This allows for a 25-minute outdoor recess period for each class every day.

CLS implemented a new curriculum in 2016 grounded in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (STEAM). The school also offers social studies, art, music (vocal and instrumental) and PE throughout the school year instead of by quarter or trimester. Plus, students compete on sports teams, play in musical ensembles, and participate in choir trips. Students focus on giving back to their community and recently donated Play-Doh to the cancer ward at Children’s Hospital.

Wegner hopes people consider donating through the GoFundMe campaign, and she also asks for prayer.

“Come over and visit us. Meet our faculty and kids,” she encouraged. “Spread the word!”

To donate to the GoFundMe campaign go online to www.gofundme.com/saving-central-lutheran-school.

For more information or to schedule a tour of the school, contact Elizabeth Wegner at ewegner@clssp.org.

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Mac and Dunkin diagram 1

Planning Commission rejects drive-through for Mac’s and Dunkin’ D’s

Posted on 07 May 2018 by Calvin

Photo above: Ground level illustration of the proposed Mac’s Fish and Chips and Dunkin’ Donuts at Larpenteur and Hamline. The pickup window, which is shown on the left side of the building, has been rejected by the Planning Commission. (Illustration from the St. Paul website)

By JANE MCCLURE
Mac’s Fish and Chips and Dunkin’ Donuts could provide an interesting taste combination at Larpenteur and Hamline avenues. But a restaurant-coffee and donut shop development proposed there cannot have a drive-through lane. On Apr. 20 the St. Paul Planning Commission rejected a conditional use permit needed to allow for the drive-through lane at 1330 Larpenteur Ave. W. and 1672 Hamline Ave.

The developers had ten days in which to appeal the Planning Commission decision to the City Council. As of Monitor deadline no appeal had been filed.

Photo right: Site plan for Mac’s Fish and Chips and Dunkin’ Donuts at Larpenteur and Hamline. The Planning Commission rejected a conditional use permit for the drive-through in the plans. (Illustration from the City of St. Paul website)

A development with the two businesses could still be built at the corner where Mac’s and Midtown Cleaners & Tailors have stood for many years. Mac’s is in a converted gas station and would stay in a new development. Midtown would relocate.

Sarin Development wished to tear down the buildings and replace them with one new 3,000 square foot one-story structure. That required a conditional use permit for the drive-through lane, as well as modifications to city-required conditions.

But developers seeking drive-through lanes in St. Paul have collided with complaints. The specter of the traffic tie-ups, wrong-way turns and vehicle mishaps at Marshall and Snelling avenues where Starbucks opened more than a year ago have raised red flags citywide. That was also on the minds of the Zoning Committee during its Apr.12 public hearing.

The Union Park District Council has called for the Starbucks drive-through’s conditional use permit to be revoked, citing traffic tie-ups and vehicles blocking the Marshall Ave. bike lane. City staff and Starbucks have responded by trying different turn restrictions and site modifications.

Earlier this year when a Dunkin’ Donuts and a pizza restaurant were proposed just a few blocks to the south at Snelling and Hague avenues, one of the first questions asked was whether there would be a drive-through. That building has no drive-through planned.

“The big question is, what will be the impact on the neighborhood?” said Zoning Committee Chair Daniel Edgerton.

The Planning Commission and its Zoning Committee heard from several neighbors who oppose the Larpenteur-Hamline project. Concerns were raised about street and alley traffic and potential changes to neighborhood character. A SuperAmerica store to the west already causes traffic tie-ups when it is busy. Neighbors also objected to a building design that was right up to the corner, especially if the design had few windows. A Walgreens recently built at Larpenteur Ave. and Lexington Pkwy. has drawn complaints because it lacks windows and eyes on the street.

“To paraphrase our (State) Fair lingo: this is congestion on a stick,” said neighbor Craig Norman. “With just SA across the street from this project, things can get interesting during rush hour. Adding another busy driveway on the other side will really mess things up.” Other neighbors said that while they want to see new development, it needs to happen with more consideration for traffic issues.

Como Community Council (District 10) Land Use Committee gave the project conditional support, asking that improvements to plans be made. The district council committee raised concerns about potential traffic backups and traffic flow, as well as queuing capacity for vehicles using the drive-through window. Plans called for vehicles to enter off Hamline and exit onto the north-south alley that is east of the site.

Developers and their architect said changes had been made to the project to address neighborhood concerns, and that the conditional use permit should be modified to meet site conditions.

A minimum 60-foot separation is needed for a drive-through lane and residential property. The closest residential property is 54.9 feet away. The vehicle egress is to be at least 60 feet from residential property; the actual distance would be 20.9 feet. A six-foot buffer with screen planting is also required between the development and residential property. An opaque fence is proposed on top of a wall that would be 2.5 feet high. Zoning Committee members said they are concerned about the impact on adjacent residential properties.

Another objection is noncompliance with the city’s comprehensive plan. The area is defined as a residential corridor with established neighborhoods to the south. A drive-through is an inappropriate use because commercial development at corners needs to have buffers that protect adjacent residences. The potential for increased noise and traffic, and the need for more evaluation of the drive-through’s impact on area streets and traffic, also had to be considered.

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Como Harbor A Full House

Como Harbor coming in late 2019

Posted on 07 May 2018 by Calvin

New space at Como Zoo will more closely resemble natural habitat for sea lions and seals and be home to Sparky

Photo above: Como’s seals and sea lions have been living in a space built in the 1930s during the WPA as Monkey Island. The freshwater area was retrofitted for seals and sea lions in the 1970s, and an amphitheater added. (Photo courtesy of Como Zoo)

By TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
Minnesota’s beloved Sparky at Como Zoo is getting new living quarters this year, thanks to a public-private partnership.
In addition to providing a healthier home for the sea lions and seals in the heart of Como Zoo, the $20 million makeover in the existing Seal Island and amphitheater area will also improve the public experience.

Como’s seals and sea lions have been living in a space built in the 1930s during the WPA as Monkey Island. The freshwater area was retrofitted for seals and sea lions in the 1970s, and an amphitheater added.

One of the biggest changes that the new 64,500-square-foot Como Harbor will bring is a transition to salt water.

Photo right: Sparky loves the play and interaction with his humans, and doesn’t mind “hamming it up” for the camera. (Photo courtesy of Como Zoo)

The new heated saltwater environment will minimize the eye and coat irritation that can be caused by freshwater environments pointed out Como Marketing and Public Relations Manager Matt Reinartz. It will increase the animal’s enjoyment of their environment as it will more closely resemble their natural habitat.

Also, because the water will not freeze, they can stay in the same place year-round. Currently, Como Zoo must move pinnipeds off Seal Island every fall with the approach of freezing temperatures, leaving it empty almost half the year. The new design allows for easy underwater transfers from one area to the next.

With the new design, the public will be much closer to the animals and their care and training. At the underwater viewing areas, they will be a pane of glass away. At the care and training stations, the public will see how they live behind the scenes.

Acknowledging that animal training is key to their well-being by keeping them active and engaged, the new facility features a state-of-the-art training facility.

Other upgrades include larger and better bathrooms, a new and better restaurant, and a new picnic area. All of the areas will be fully wheelchair accessible. Plus the design features a shade structure over the new amphitheater.

Pacific coastline design
Designed to reflect a northern Pacific coastline, the exhibit will include rocky outcroppings where seals and sea lions can bask, deeper pools for diving, a natural substrate, and trees and shrubs to provide natural shade throughout the day. The new design will feature an indoor, underwater viewing area similar to the one at Polar Bear Odyssey.

Photo left: The new Como Harbor will open in late 2019. It will feature two saltwater pools and an indoor, underwater viewing area similar to the one at Polar Bear Odyssey. Designed to reflect a northern Pacific coastline, the exhibit will include rocky outcroppings where seals and sea lions can bask, deeper pools for diving, and natural substrate, trees and shrubs to provide natural shade throughout the day. (Image courtesy of Como Zoo)

The updated space will have two new pools, a 5,000-square foot central exhibit pool, and a 900-square foot “Cove Habitat” pool that will dramatically expand the swimming areas for up to eight seals and sea lions from 146,000 gallons to 244,000 gallons.
When Seal Island is renovated, all the seals and sea lions will be housed together, rather than in groups of two or three which makes it more efficient for training.

Working to rehab animals
“Como is one of the last free zoos in the country. It is also the sixth-most visited, outdrawing the main zoos in New York and Los Angeles,” pointed out Reinartz.

The current Seal Island could not be upgraded for salt water, and the aging infrastructure needed more maintenance. The habitats were not built with training and updated standards of animal management. The space was not expected to meet the new standards and regulations for marine mammal care and conservation about to be released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, and other governing bodies.

Photo right: “Sparky is an ambassador for conservation education through the 2 million-plus visitors to Como Park Zoo and Conservatory each year, including 500,000 school age kids taking part in some educational programming. Today we see multi-generations visiting and making connections with the animals like Sparky, and our hope is that this will continue for generations,” said Como Marketing and Public Relations Manager Matt Reinartz. (Photo courtesy of Como Zoo)

“If Como does not make the necessary changes, our ability to receive new animals in the future will be limited. Como has been an approved facility working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to bring in animals from the wild that are deemed unreleasable,” said Reinartz.

All of Como’s seals and sea lions are rehabilitated animals—wild animals that had been injured and were rescued but had a physical limitation that prevented a return to the wild.

Subee, for example, was found eight years ago injured on the coast of California and was recommended to Como because the staff has experience with older animals and so could deal with her possible arthritis issues as she ages. Sparky V was the second oldest captive sea lion in North America when he passed away after performing for more than 20 years.

Chino, another seal lion, was found near death with a fishing line caught around his head. The scarring made it impossible for him to fish on his own and so he was deemed nonreleasable. When he arrived at Como, he was underweight and had pneumonia. With the care of the Como team, he recovered and thrived, gaining over 500 pounds. Now he is in a breeding group at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha.

Vision for the future
The update to Seal Island follows the $15 million Polar Bear Odyssey that opened in June 2010 and the $11 million Gorilla Forest that opened in June 2013. These new exhibits are elements of a larger strategic vision for Como, according to Reinartz.

“The new Como Harbor will be the most dramatic example of Como’s vision for the future. The public experience will be more intimate, and the conditions for the animals will be greatly improved,” he said.

Reinartz added, “Sparky is an ambassador for conservation education, through the 2 million-plus visitors to Como Park Zoo and Conservatory each year, including 500,000 school age kids taking part in some educational programming. Today we see multi-generations visiting and making connections with the animals like Sparky, and our hope is that this will continue for generations.”

After seeking funding for several years, the 2017 Minnesota Legislature approved $15 million for the project. Como Friends, the non-profit partner of Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, is raising the remaining needed $4.9 million with gifts from Minnesota foundation, corporations, and individuals.

“This continues the success of the city’s public-private partnership with Como Friends, which has invested more than $38 million in projects and programs since 1999,” said Reinartz. Lancer is also investing in the project to pay for a food service building.

The Marine Mammal Building will remain open during construction, so visitors can continue to see Sparky and the other seals and sea lions, along with the penguins and puffins.

The new Como Harbor will open in late 2019.

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Music & Memory 02

Music & Memory program at Lyngblomsten helping dementia patients

Posted on 07 May 2018 by Calvin

Therapeutic recreation coordinator Emma Flotterud (pictured right) brought a Lyngblomsten resident her personalized iPod for music enjoyment. The Music & Memory program has been implemented at Lyngblomsten for two years. (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)

By MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN
Music & Memory is the name of a national non-profit organization started in 2010. Grounded in research about how the human brain responds to music, the Music & Memory program puts the healing power of music to therapeutic use by bringing iPods loaded with personalized playlists to people with dementia and other forms of cognitive loss.

The Lyngblomsten Care Center in the Como neighborhood brought the program to their residents two years ago. According to Music & Memory co-director Shelli Beck, “Our goal is to have an iPod available for each of the 237 residents in our Care Center. We believe that by having them choose music from their past, they feel more connected to their memories, to their lives, and to each other.”

Therapeutic recreation coordinator Emma Flotterud explained, “The reason these connections work is because of how music memories are stored. I’ve seen Parkinson’s patients who can’t speak without stuttering, but they can sing a song from beginning to end with no problem. We’ve had patients who don’t speak or tend to speak only in whispers, and they can sing a long-remembered song at normal volume.”

While the program may sound simple, its benefits are substantial. In addition to being an enjoyable pastime, listening to music has been shown to awaken memories from the past, lessen reliance on certain medications, and enhance social skills. Initially designed for persons with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, Music & Memory has been used successfully with older adults suffering from chronic pain, anxiety, and depression.

Flotterud explained, “As a health care professional, my goal is to try non-pharmaceutical interventions before medication. There may be a need for medication for some dementia patients, but there are many alternatives worth trying—and Music & Memory is one of them.”

Another reason for the program’s success is the volunteers at Lyngblomsten who help make it happen. Como resident (and Central High School junior) Andrew Tisell is one of them. “As soon as I could, I signed up to be a volunteer here,” Tisell said. “When I was 12, I started playing the piano for sing-alongs. Three years ago, Shelli Beck approached me about wanting to bring in the Music & Memory program. I was intrigued. Being a classically trained cellist and pianist, I love listening to music, and I thought it would be a chance for me to broaden my musical understanding. Initially, we started out with a handful of CD’s and began a music library of our own.”

“My first involvement,” Tisell continued, “was programming the iPods, and writing a manual so that other people could understand how to do that too. Then I started doing interviews with residents about what kind of music they liked, and how music has been part of their lives. I think Music & Memory is an amazing program—the science behind it is proven. When someone starts to experience memory loss, the part of their brain responsible for music memory is the last to go. Music brings back memories in ways that nothing else can.”

The model of iPod that Lyngblomsten prefers for their residents is called the iPod Shuffle. It is no longer manufactured, so gently used donations are the best way for them to grow their inventory. There is a donation box in the front lobby located at 1415 Almond Ave. iTunes gift cards are also appreciated. Contact Shelli Beck, Music & Memory co-director, with inquiries about volunteering at sbeck@lyngblomsten.org.

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tcgis_1662

TCGIS likely to tear down former St. Andrew’s Church

Posted on 10 April 2018 by Calvin

The church closed in 2011, and the building has been used by the school since 2013 as an auditorium and gymnasium

By TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
The Twin Cities German Immersion School (TCGIS) is likely to tear down the former St. Andrew church building and replace it with a new addition.

Photo left: AThe former church building needs at least $1.2 million in repairs and upgrades, including a new roof, boiler, windows, doors, insulation, and tuck-pointing. (Photo submitted)

The school has been evaluating solutions to its space needs for about a year as it realized it was outgrowing the buildings on site.

When the school moved to 1031 Como Ave. in 2013, it added a building to connect the existing classrooms and church, and converted the former church sanctuary into a multi-purpose gym and auditorium. The updated space is referred to as Aula or the auditorium.

However, a study of various alternatives concluded that replacing the 1927 Aula with a new, three-level structure is more cost effective than retrofitting the existing Byzantine-Romanesque structure. That building needs at least $1.2 million in repairs and upgrades, including a new roof, boiler, windows, doors, insulation, and tuck-pointing.

The school’s facilities task force also explored the possibilities of renting space across the street in the long-term and acquiring the Mission Orthodox Presbyterian church property, neither of which proved possible. Members also studied moving into other school buildings.

Loss of Aula ‘not taken lightly’
Although she says she will miss the Aula, TCGIS school parent Linda Alhaus says that the removal of the Aula to construct a new building designed explicitly for TCGIS students seems to be the most logical option.

Illustration right: A very preliminary sketch of the possible expanded Twin Cities German Immersion School campus. (Graphic submitted)

“The loss of the Aula is not taken lightly,” remarked Alhaus, who lives in Minneapolis. “I love that building and have many pictures of my children in front of it. I’m slowly coming around to the idea that spending over a million dollars in the next couple of years to save a building that is not energy efficient doesn’t make sense.”

She added, “Adding a third layer in that footprint is a better option than giving up treasured outdoor space.”

School leaders began meeting with potential contractors in March and intend to lock in plans within a month, begin construction in summer 2019, and finish by the end of that year.

At an estimated $4 million, the new addition will have about 23,000 square feet on three levels, and would offer space designed specifically as a gymnasium and cafeteria. It also is likely to add eight classrooms and additional office space.

The plan does not significantly increase the existing building footprint.

According to the District 10 website, plans initially included purchasing the single-family house at 1042 Van Slyke, tearing it down, and using the lot for “outdoor space” or additional off-street parking. Facility Chair Nic Ludwig, the parent of two TCGIS students and a seven-year resident of the neighborhood, told District 10 on March 28 that the school has since cancelled that contingent purchase agreement.

Photo left: The preliminary plan also called for replacing a parking lot with possible green space. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)

The plan also included examining the possibility of using the Como Pool parking lot for staff parking. The pool option would need city approval, but could reduce the need for parking lots adjacent to the school and nearby homes.

After District 10 posted the plans to their Facebook page, a discussion began with opinions ranging from a desire to keep the old church building to a recognition that the school needs more space.

“I understand the local community appreciates the beauty of the building, as do I,” said Alhaus. “We are a public school, with a public school budget, so we have to be mindful of making smart financial decisions. Our utmost priority is educating students and making decisions that are in the best interest of these students.”

School over capacity
Now in its fifth year on the Como Ave. site, TCGIS is experiencing its first year of being over its designed capacity, according to TCGIS Executive Director Ted Anderson.

The Como Ave. site was built for 23 individual class sections and 560 pupils. This year, the school has 24 class sections and more than 525 pupils. TCGIS projects enrollment to top out between 615 and 630 in the next three to four years.

The tuition-free, K-8 German Immersion School opened its doors in the fall of 2005, and moved its 370 students to the former St. Andrew’s church and parochial site in 2013. The St. Paul parish had closed in 2011, and its convent and rectory were demolished.

“Our need is to create space for both current programs and a very defined increase in enrollment—from our current level of roughly 550 to our projected capacity of 615-630,” said Anderson. “We are not adding any grade levels.”

TCGIS intends to add three additional sections in grades 6-8, but the school is not expanding beyond three classes per grade. Nearly all of the new students at TCGIS are kindergarteners.

Anderson says the growth is primarily the result of unusually high retention rates; in other words, once families enroll in the school, they don’t leave.

TCGIS is a public school, but it is not part of St. Paul Public Schools.

“While TCGIS serves students from throughout the Twin Cities, around 250 are St. Paul residents. Add Falcon Heights and Roseville and over 300 of our kids come from pretty close by,” pointed out Ludwig. “Around 130 kids are from Minneapolis.”

Upcoming meetings planned
“As they consider how to accommodate the growing number of interested students,” said Ward 5 Council Member Amy Brendmoen (photo left provided), who lives nearby, “we must work together and wade through the complex issues involved. I’ll be listening and working closely with my neighbors and members of the school community to help find a mutually beneficial solution.”

Her office has received calls from citizens regarding the proposal to tear down the church.

“In addition to concern about the loss of the church building, there are concerns about growth in the school including noise and increased car traffic during drop-off and pick-up times,” she pointed out.

District 10 Community Council’s Land Use Committee anticipated hearing about the project at its Wed., May 2, 7pm meeting. Check the District 10 website for further details.

“I believe we can find a mutually beneficial solution to the school’s space needs if both neighbors and the school are willing to work together,” stated Brendmoen.

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Kathy3DBookLargeTransparen slidert

Hamline-Midway mom writes a book on homeschooling

Posted on 10 April 2018 by Calvin

‘Homeschoolers Are Not Hermits’ supports families as they make the transition from conventional schooling

By TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
Hamline-Midway resident Kathy Oaks (photo right provided) has just released a book to help new homeschoolers get started.

Oaks wrote “Homeschoolers Are Not Hermits” to support families as they make the transition from conventional schooling to something completely different, bringing fun, mindfulness, and flexibility to the adventure of homeschooling.

“Homeschoolers Are Not Hermits” includes the history of both homeschooling and compulsory schooling, how to talk to naysaying relatives, how to keep your patience, how to make learning fun, and why homeschoolers generally are not hermits and are not worried about the “socialization” question. It also includes things like covering sex ed, finding free or inexpensive resources, and why many colleges like homeschooled students.

Oaks uses an informal and easy-to-read style as she shares about the educational format she knows so well.

One of her best friends at university was homeschooled, so Oaks started out with a good impression of homeschooling. When her oldest son was a baby, Oaks read lots of books on child development.

“Then I read John Taylor Gatto’s ‘Dumbing Us Down’ essay, based on the speech he gave for his New York City Teacher of the Year award. That made me think very differently about the education I had received, especially since my husband and I were both overachievers in school,” commented Oaks.

“The more I read, the more I felt that homeschooling was the way I wanted to go.”

What they enjoy about homeschooling
Oaks moved into the neighborhood in 2006 to be near Hamline University, since her husband teaches chemistry there. In 2011, she earned the Neighborhood Honor Roll Helping Hands award for hosting the Hamline-Midway Barter Market for several years.

The family has grown to three children, and all are homeschooled: Michael age 14, Benjamin age 11, and Simon age 6.

“I most enjoy watching the kids learning with gusto, choosing their interests, and being motivated to learn all about them,” remarked Oaks.

“I can learn at my own pace, as fast or as slow as I want, and don’t have to get up early to go to school,” said Michael. “There is more time to do other fun stuff like playing piano and doing things with my homeschool groups like book arts, board games, and woodworking.”

“It gives me time to do what I want with who I want,” stated Benjamin. “I can learn about Greek mythology or the Crusades whenever I want to.”

Simon said his favorite thing is all the good books. He enjoys being able to do electronics in kindergarten, and he loves being able to take road trips when other kids are in school.

Each of the kids sees homeschool fitting them as students in different ways. For Michael, it’s having a really small math class where he feels comfortable asking and answering complicated questions. Benjamin appreciates being able to learn at his own pace and deciding what alleys of learning to go down, such as the Punic Wars, and finding YouTube channels that actually make the Punic Wars interesting.

Tips for those starting out
Oaks offers these tips to families just starting out as homeschoolers:
• Relax. Do your best and don’t stress about it.
• Trust yourself and your kids. If you feel homeschooling will be best for your family, don’t let naysayers stop you.
• Don’t try to recreate school at home. Instead, create together what will be the best way to learn for your family.
• Keep your long-term goals in mind. What kind of people do you want your kids to be and what kind of relationship do you want to have with them?
• Be flexible. Things often don’t go the way we expect them to, and kids grow and change. Being ready to change with them will help.
• Look for help. Join groups online and find local groups that suit you. Veteran homeschoolers are happy to offer advice. The Homeschool Adventures site is a great place to start—HSAdventures.org.

Oaks has volunteered for several years with Homeschool Adventures, a homeschool support group that offers information on group activities and events, plus field trips and homeschool groups. She also helps organize classes for homeschoolers, including chemistry labs taught by her husband Tom Anderson and math classes taught by Judy O’Neill.

Misconceptions
The biggest misconception out there about homeschoolers, according to Oaks, is that homeschoolers are hermits, doing school-at-home, and sitting around for eight hours at desks with nobody else to talk to or play with. That’s not what it actually looks like, she said.

“We take classes, both with other homeschoolers and those that are open to anyone,” remarked Oaks. “We go on field trips and take museum tours and have playgroups. Our two oldest boys have been involved in theater productions for the past two years with our secular homeschool co-op, Planet Homeschool.”

Another big misconception is that people homeschool only for religious reasons. “Plenty of people homeschool for educational reasons, health reasons, even social and emotional reasons,” explained Oaks. “The homeschool community is seeing more and more people who are pulling one child out of school because school just isn’t working for that child, even when it’s working fine for the siblings.”

School on the road
Kathy Oaks and family are among those who enjoy schooling on the go, commonly called “roadschooling,” and Oaks recently presented a workshop on roadschooling during the Minnesota Homeschoolers Alliance annual convention.

Oaks learned to love travel with her parents, who owned a VW camper van and took the family camping all over the United States. They also lived abroad when her parents took sabbatical leaves from university.

“I had a great time taking road trips as a young adult, but was very intimidated to take small kids on the road,” admitted Oaks. “It was my mother who proposed a road trip with just me and the boys (we had two at the time), and showed me that it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.”

The family has been taking road trips every year since then, at least one and sometimes two.

Photo right: Kathy Oaks and her family at the Grand Canyon National Park. (l to r) Kathy Oaks, Tom Anderson, Simon, Benjamin, and Michael Anderson Oaks. They enjoy roadschooling throughout the country. (Photo submitted)

“My best tip is not to overdo it,” recommended Oaks. “Lots of people think about road trips and imagine 12-hour days and screaming kids.

We often stop, checking out free rest areas, visitor information spots, and parks. We also stop early, only driving 250-350 miles a day, and get a hotel with a pool or a camping spot with hiking available.”

The family takes advantage of their science museum membership, which gets them into other museums all over the country. “Last year we also made sure to get our fourth grader his free National Parks pass from everykidinapark.gov and took two trips to the four corners states to see 17 national parks and monuments,” said Oaks. “We were determined to get every ounce of value out of that card!”

Simon likes listening to music on trips, sleeping in different beds in hotel rooms, and trying new foods.

Benjamin observed, “It gives me the opportunity to see what life is like in other environments.”

Michael agreed. “I like discovering all kinds of interesting places that I didn’t know existed until we went there,” he said.

Book available on Kindle
Oaks’ book is currently available on Kindle and will be available in paperback by mid-May. A free homeschooling resource kit for new homeschoolers, including road trip resources, is available online with every purchase. It includes her roadschooling talk transcript and video, plus car trip activities, a packing list, and a camping packing list.

More at HomeschoolersNotHermits.com/book.

Next up for Oaks will be the “Homeschoolers Are Not Hermits Online Resource Guide,” a compilation of the family’s favorite websites, YouTube channels, games, learning activities, and resources such as the science museum membership benefits, educator discounts, and the Every Kid In A Park pass.

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Marathon Man 05

Marathon man still running strong in his 70’s

Posted on 10 April 2018 by Calvin

By MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN
Long distance runner John Concannon (photo right by Margie O’Loughlin) is on a mission. The resident of Lyngblomsten Apartments, a retirement community in Como, plans to run a marathon in every state before he dies. A marathon, for those who don’t know, is a 26.2-mile foot race. This year, between his 70th and 71st birthdays, he plans to complete four.

Last October, Concannon ran the Baystate Marathon in Lowell, Massachusetts (his 45th). In January, he traveled to Baton Rouge and ran the Louisiana Marathon (his 46th). In a couple of weeks, he’ll lace up for the Hogeye Marathon in Fayetteville, Arkansas (his 47th). In September, he’ll travel to Nebraska for the running of the Omaha Marathon (his 48th). Next year’s destinations haven’t been finalized, but Concannon knows this. He’ll return to Ireland, the country of his birth, to run his 50th marathon in 2019.

Concannon was born in the village of Timree, Ireland, in 1947. “We grew up poor, on a farm that had no running water or electricity,” he said. “I was the oldest of six kids. I had to quit school at 13 to help support my family by going to work for a blacksmith. I was never a natural athlete, but I’ve been physically active all my life. As a kid, I loved playing two of Ireland’s national sports: hurling and Gaelic football.”

“When I was 16,” Concannon explained, “one of my aunts sponsored our family’s immigration to Boston. Although I hadn’t been formally schooled for three years, I tested into the 11th grade and was the strongest student in American history, geography, and political science. The teachers didn’t quite understand me, but they could tell that I knew my stuff.”

Concannon has learned some stuff about the sport of running along the way too. He said, ”Running has been a vital part of my recovery from alcoholism and my overall health. I decided to quit drinking in April 1994 and ran my first marathon, the Twin Cities Marathon, in October of that same year. When I crossed the finish line, I felt so great that I knew I’d never drink again. I limped away, and every muscle in my body hurt for a week—but I decided then and there to keep running marathons until the day I drop.”

“I didn’t know much about running or how to train when I ran my first marathon,” he said. “If somebody asked me now, I’d tell them to start with 5K races. Work your way up to half marathons, and take your time. See if you can cover 20 miles in a walk/run combination once a month for a while before you even think of running a marathon.”

“At the age of 70,” Concannon said, “I don’t worry about my time at all; I focus on distance, not speed. If I feel something pull or tweak in my legs or back, I just start walking. I train year round because I love running. I don’t own a car, so I walk two miles each way to the gym to run on the treadmill several times a week. If somebody asked me what my philosophy of exercise was, I guess I’d say just to keep moving. If you don’t use something regularly, whether its brains or muscles, you’re going to lose it.”

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Nick Perez

Como family happy with the decision to go with solar power

Posted on 10 April 2018 by Calvin

By JAN WILLMS
Como resident Nick Perez (photo right by Jan Willms) and his wife were looking for ways to improve the environment and also for different energy profits. “We always try to be conscientious about environmental concerns,” Perez said, “but we also wanted to see where we could get the most bang for our buck.”

He said they started looking at all the solar energy companies in the city and ended up selecting All Energy Solar.

“With the political climate we are in, we knew there might be a limited time we could get the maximum amount of rebates,” Perez noted. “If we were going to do it, we needed to do it now,”

He got on the phone, called the company and said he would like to get an estimate done.

“They looked at our house online, the slant of our roof, the amount of tree coverage, and gave us an estimate,” Perez continued. He said he had already cut down some trees, so he knew he had more sunlight coverage.

“We set up an appointment for a representative to come out, and I was rushing around, picking up laundry,” Perez said with a chuckle. “We have three kids, and there was laundry all over.”

As he answered the knock at the door, Perez was pleasantly surprised. The woman who came out from All Energy Solar was someone Perez had attended high school with 20 years earlier. ”St. Small is what we call that,” Perez said. ”She did a quick estimate and said we could probably compromise our electricity by 43 percent, and that was just putting solar panels on our south-facing garage roof.” They decided to go ahead with a full inspection, go through all the steps and get the project started.

Perez said he did put on a new roof because to install solar panels the roof must be in good condition.

The project started at the end of last summer, and by Dec. 17 Xcel was at the Perez residence doing a test. “The guy scraped a little snow off the roof, went up there and found we were making energy,” Perez said.

Perez has 14 solar panels on his garage, which is about 80 feet from his house.

“They dug up my backyard and put underground piping from my house to the garage. They added a couple of breakers to my breaker box,” Perez said. “That process took two weeks. Everything was almost 100 percent seamless.”

Perez said only one minor glitch happened, which was not the mistake of the power company. “One day my refrigerator was not working because one of the wires got disconnected. It was replaced, and we were done.”

Perez said one of the main benefits of going solar was supplementing some of the electricity the family uses. “My house is mainly electric,” he said. “Adding more electricity makes sense.” He said that the process removes a certain amount of carbon from the ozone and at the same time saves money.

“You are under construction for a time, and you have to have your permits pulled. Everything had to be 100 percent up to 2018 code. I had my basement renovated, so I knew my house was up to code.”

He said it was possible the panels could be an eyesore, depending on where they are located. “Since ours are on the back end of our alley, you don’t even see them.”

Perez said he is in a 10-year contract with the energy company, which could be affected if he wants to make changes or move. “That could be stressful, but you get rebates every year,” he added.

Perez said tree coverage is a big factor in installing the solar panels, but once they are up on the roof, the sky’s the limit.

Perez said his total project cost $17,000, but with the rebates he will get, it only cost him $7,000.

“Over ten years, that’s not that much,” he noted. “Winter is my high energy time,” he explained. He said the summer is when money is made on energy savings. But he has already started saving on his energy bills. “This winter I have used $500 worth of energy, but bought only $414 worth, so I have saved $85,” he said.

Perez said he also uses apps to track his energy usage and savings. “One of the greatest apps I have ever seen is a website All Energy Solar connected us with,” he said. “I can see exactly how much energy is being used in my home. I can see when the kids put something in the microwave.”

Perez said he found another app on his own that lets him measure the amount of energy he makes through using the solar panels. For example, in January he made over 200-kilowatt hours.

“It all comes down to how the sun hits your roof,” he said. “You need a south-facing angle where the sun comes in. And your roof needs to be up to date.” However, even if your roof is not at the right angle, solar energy companies can work around that, placing them in yards or on carports.

“There are also programs where they do a bunch of solar panels out in a field. They call them farmings, and the panels absorb the sun all day,” Perez said.

He said that employing solar panels for energy use can change one’s lifestyle. “You make yourself conscious of it,” he claimed. “It makes you think about how much energy you are actually using. I can check my app and see how much I used, how much I made and how much I netted. It has changed how we live in our house.” He said the family tries to unplug computers or toasters or television sets when they are not in use.

Perez said he was very pleased with the responsiveness of the solar energy company he used. He liked the ability to take power into his own hands. “I’m an off the grid kind of person, and being bound to Xcel is just another thing that grabs you,” he said. “You can try to save some money.”

Getting other people to try and use solar energy is a goal Perez strives for. “I can give the elevator speech in 30 seconds as to why they should do it,” he said.

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AuSM Ellie Wilson

Midway-based AuSM works to improve lives in Minnesota

Posted on 09 April 2018 by Calvin

Autism Society of Minnesota offers education, support groups, events, convention, and more

By TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
Under the helm of a new director, the Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM) is working to improve the lives of those on the spectrum and educate those around them.

Based at 2380 Wycliff St., AuSM was started by parents as a grassroots organization in 1971. The initial goals were to make sure their kids were understood and recognized in school and all facets of the community.

Today, that’s expanded to represent a broad spectrum and a wide age range. In addition to providing education to parents, AuSM is also committed to connecting people to strategize about autism. Classes are offered for parents, teachers, emergency responders, doctors, business owners, community members and more. Last year, 2,200 people were trained by AuSM.

“We have a very broad and rich diversion of services,” stated AuSM Executive Director Ellie Wilson (photo right provided). “We want to be there for families, but we also want to be out there changing the landscape.”

“It’s a great organization and why I’m trying to give back as a board member,” stated Paul D’Arco, who has a son with autism.

Why work in this field?
Thirteen years ago, Wilson worked as a camp counselor at Camp Knutson in Cross Lake, MN. When the camp for kids with autism began, “it was a like a light bulb went off,” recalled Wilson. “Everything has been about autism since that day.”

She has considered going to medical school like her parents but changed her career plans to focus on autism, disabilities, and public health, learning everything she could about this disorder. As the pieces began to fit together, she realized her place belonged in advocacy work so that she could focus on the big picture.

Wilson was hired as the Executive Director of the Autism Society of Minnesota in October 2017.

“It’s been an incredible privilege for me,” she said.

What is autism anyway?
“Autism is what we call a developmental disability,” observed Wilson. “You have it from the time you are born, and it affects how your brain develops.”
She added, “All of us develop a little differently anyway. What seems to happen with autism is that development has even more variation.”

Differences show up in how people process information and what their perceptions are.

“Because of these differences, we see differences in behavior, specifically how people contribute and how they interact socially,” said Wilson.

Photo left: Over 1,000 people attended the Steps of Hope for Autism in Minnesota 2018 fundraising walk held at Southdale Center in March 2018. The free event is also a resource fair. (Photo submitted)

April is National Autism Month. Autism is estimated to occur in as many as 1 in 68 individuals, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Autism is five times more prevalent in boys than in girls and knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries. Family income, lifestyle, and educational levels do not affect the chance of a child having autism.

Autism is a “spectrum disorder,” which means that characteristics and level of support needed are unique to each autistic individual.

While more boys than girls are diagnosed with autism, that doesn’t necessarily mean that fewer girls are affected, observed Wilson. In fact, it could be that girls are exhibiting the same signs, but because of what society expects girls to be (more shy, for example), it doesn’t send up the same flags as with little boys who are supposed to be boisterous.

“Cultural biases are affecting the pattern,” said Wilson.

Misconceptions
One of the oldest myths out there about autism is that people on the spectrum aren’t interested in social interactions and prefer isolation, pointed out Wilson.
“I have never known anything to be less true,” stated Wilson. “It’s more like wanting to play a game, but not necessarily being able to understand the rules.”

She pointed out that the behavior of those who aren’t on the spectrum is dictated by social conventions that develop early. Children have a natural instinct to mimic others. Kids and adults on the autism spectrum can’t do that.

“Everyone I know with autism wants relationships, wants to be successful,” said Wilson. “But it’s like they’re not reading the same playbook sometimes.”

Another misconception about the disorder is that everybody needs to present the same way.

AuSM is working to promote more acceptance of the “neurodiversity” in people, or the idea that not everybody is the same.

“We all think and process in a different way. That’s ok,” said Wilson. “And often, that’s good.”

In some ways, autism can be an invisible disorder, pointed out D’Arco. His son has no real visible disability, so they’ve experienced some misunderstandings and negative comments by others.

D’Arco thinks that sometimes others don’t give his son the opportunity or stretch him to the extent he could go because of his autism.

“It’s really our job as parents, and his as he self-advocates, to give him opportunities,” stated D’Arco.

He hopes that other people focus more on what his son can do rather than his disability.

What sets AuSM apart?
AuSM works to support people with autism throughout their lifespan. Many get diagnosed these days when they are between 3-5 years old, and many programs focus on early intervention and support up through age 20. There are fewer programs available as a person with autism ages.

“Adults on the spectrum have existed forever, but we just haven’t paid attention until now,” observed Wilson.

However, sometimes they go undiagnosed, and their issues aren’t recognized by co-workers or families. “Employment issues are quite complex,” pointed out Wilson. Workers with autism have a lot of intellect, perspective, and skills valuable to employers, but because of social differences can find it hard to get and keep a job.
Among the AuSM programs offered are support groups for those with autism, as well as caregivers and parents.

AuSM provides a community for those on the spectrum. They organize a Dakota County Book Club, Monthly Birthday Celebration and Game Night, Skillshops Tailored for Adults on the Spectrum, and Art On the Town. Other sponsored activities include Minnesota Zoo Classes for Adults with Autism, Advanced Filmmaking with Film North, ComedySportz Improv excursions, On the Town Adventures, and more.

“We’re committed to being a good resource for people across the state,” observed Wilson.

Photo right: St. Paul Police Department members attend an autism training event led by AuSM in February 2018. (Photo submitted)

AuSM is not a traditional service provider and doesn’t focus on offering behavior or speech therapy. The organization does offer a small mental health department to facilitate things like support groups and to help people understand a diagnosis. But mostly AuSM helps connect folks to the many service providers in the state and isn’t attached to one provider. Because of that, when they receive a call, “we’re attuned to listening to individual needs,” said Wilson, and providing a recommendation based on those.

What does AuSM offer?
There’s so much on the website (ausm.org) that some find it hard to navigate. Wilson encourages people to look under the Who Are You tab to tailor information to their needs. Or, give the office a call 651-647-1083.

“We’re really a catch-all,” said Wilson.

AuSM hosts an annual walk, The Steps of Hope, on the first Sunday of each March. Over 1,000 people attended the indoor walk this past year. This free event is also a resource fair.

Their largest annual event is the Minnesota Autism Conference, now in its 23rd year. Set for Apr. 25-28, this year’s conference features four keynote speakers, 35 breakout sessions, exhibitors, and the AuSM Bookstore.

New this year is Julia’s AuSM Autism Celebration on Apr. 25, 3:30-5:30pm at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Minneapolis Park Place. All families are invited to meet Julia, Sesame Street’s new character with autism, and to participate in lots of sensory-friendly activities offered by many organizations in the Twin Cities, including TPT, Walker Art Center, Children’s Theatre Company, Children’s Minnesota, and more.

This year, AuSM is offering nine sessions of summer camp at three different locations for students as young as seven and as old as 40. About 300 people experience camp sessions each summer. Some are overnight experiences while others are day camps.

In 1995, D’Arco’s son Tony was diagnosed with autism. One of the first things he and his wife did was attend the AuSM annual convention. “It was a tremendous first step in dealing with autism,” observed D’Arco.

Photo left: AuSM Board Vice President Paul D’Arco (second from left) with others at an AuSM event. He praises AuSM for the life-changing experiences the organization offered his family. D’Arco’s son, Tony, was diagnosed with autism at age three, and the first thing his and wife Sharon did was attend the AuSM annual convention. (Photo submitted)

When Tony was about eight, he began attending summer camp in Cross Lake and continued that until about age 19.

“For him, it was the opportunity to have the traditional camp experience that any typical kid would have,” said D’Arco. He enjoyed campfires, boating, swimming, fishing and more—learning social and practical skills. “He built some lifelong relationships,” D’Arco added.

“For Sharon and I, it was a vacation. When you have a kid with autism, it’s a full-time job. It’s difficult to have time for yourself.” The couple sometimes went away themselves and used the time to recharge.

D’Arco joined the AuSM board four years ago and is currently board vice president. He’s trying to give back to the organization that supported him and his family on their journey.

“They were life-changing experiences,” said D’Arco.

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