Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Sisters share their gratitude & thoughts two weeks after a fatal fire December 18, 2013

Bernadette and Hazel with their Minnie Mouses barely showing in this image. Photo courtesy of Mary DeCann Benson.

Bernadette and Hazel with their Minnie Mouses barely showing in this image. Photo courtesy of Mary DeCann Benson.

I FEEL EMOTIONALLY OVERWHELMED by the sisters’ words. For, in the midst of losing Hazel, 7, and Isaiah, 4, in a December 4 fire that destroyed the younger sister’s house near Lucan in rural southwestern Minnesota, they are thanking those who rallied to help.

Admitting that she is still in a “fog,” Bernadette Thooft says her family—including husband, Matt, and five surviving children—is “extremely grateful for the outpouring of love and support we have been shown and continue to be shown. I do not know if this makes sense or not, but we are overwhelmed by grief and pain and then are getting overwhelmed by love and support. In this horrifying time, God’s glory is shining through and we feel blessed by this.”

Heartfelt, faith-filled words written by a mother enduring a tragedy no parent ever wants to face.

Bernadette’s sister and godmother to Hazel Anne, Mary DeCann Benson of Texas, praises the efforts of volunteer emergency response teams from surrounding communities and then shares an especially touching moment: “That you (responders) found Hazel’s favorite pink Minnie Mouse in the ruins of the fire, cleaned it up, and returned it to Bernadette and Matt speak volumes as to how much of yourselves you give to the members of your communities. We will forever be grateful.”

She is appreciative, too, of family friend, Jennifer Christensen Zollner, who “worked around the clock” as a primary organizer and family liaison, and to the residents of neighboring communities for their generous love, support and prayers. Two days after the fire, the family moved into a fully furnished house in Wabasso. Accounts have been established online and at a Lucan bank to help the Thoofts. As of late Tuesday afternoon, 253 donations of just over $17,000 have been made to the Thooft family’s Giveforward fundraiser.

Mary offers a glimpse into the loving home in which Hazel and Isaiah and their five siblings have been raised. That consoles me, to hear that Bernadette and Matt “live their lives and raise their children by four guiding principles: God, family, community, self, in that order.”

“In a world that so often values the tangible,” Mary continues, “they have taught their children that the real beauty and value of life comes not from what you own, but from what you experience and most importantly, those you experience it with.”

Her sister and family dine together every evening, pray before meals and thank God at the close of each day for their daily blessings.

Then I laugh when Mary shares details of the Thoofts’ Sundays, designated as their “Family Day.” After church, Matt prepares pancakes for the kids, “dirtying way too many dishes” and leaving Bernadette to follow behind grumbling that “Dad needs to learn to clean as you go.”

I can visualize that big happy family gathering for pancakes and then later, as Mary notes, doing something special together. Extended family knows not to call on Sundays because their calls will go unanswered and unreturned until Monday.

Isaiah Thooft. Photo source: Stephens Family Funeral Home.

Isaiah Thooft. Photo source: Stephens Funeral Service.

Bernadette also planned special mother-daughter days with Hazel each month. And after the Thoofts adopted Isaiah, they changed his middle name to Matthew, after his new daddy. It is not lost on me that the name Matthew means “gift from God.”

In the thoughtful insights Mary reveals to me, I am consoled knowing that second grader Hazel and preschooler Isaiah knew Jesus and were embraced by a family that loved them deeply.

“Bernadette and Matt are not perfect parents and they would not appreciate me trying to make them out to be anything more than two people struggling to do their best on a daily basis,” Mary says. “They are good people, suffering a loss that most of us can never come close to understanding and they would be the first to say that they hope the rest of us will never have to.”

FYI: To learn how you can assist the Thooft family and Vesta firefighter Neal Hansen, who was seriously injured after being run over by a fire truck on the scene, please click here.

And to read more of Mary DeCann Benson’s thoughts, please click here and scroll down to the comments section, number 9.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Little General Store on the Prairie March 27, 2013

I LOVE BERNADETTE THOOFT’S infectious laugh and outgoing personality. And I love what this mother of seven is doing for my hometown.

The Store: Thrift and More sits just off Minnesota Highway 19 in Vesta in Redwood County.

The Store: Thrift and More sits just off Minnesota Highway 19 in Vesta in Redwood County.

In February she opened The Store: Thrift and More in Vesta, population 330 and the only town along the 40-mile stretch of Minnesota Highway 19 between Redwood Falls and Marshall.

The “more” part of Bernadette’s store includes eight shelving units stocked with foodstuff, personal care items, paper products and more in addition to perishables stashed in nearby coolers.

The grocery section of the store includes basic perishables like dairy products, some fruit, lettuce and more. Canned, boxed and bagged foods, personal care items, and miscellaneous items like greeting cards, tape and such fill eight shelving units.

The grocery section of the store includes basic perishables like dairy products, organic eggs, some fruit, lettuce and more. Canned, boxed and bagged foods; personal care items; and miscellaneous items like greeting cards, tape and such fill eight shelving units.

I don’t know exactly how long my hometown has been without a grocery store. But it’s been awhile. Locals, like my 80-year-old mom, have had to drive 20 miles either east or west to find the nearest grocery store. Now this community’s residents, many of them elderly, need only walk or drive to the west edge of town to buy a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, organic eggs from Bernadette and Matt Thooft’s farm, fruit and an assortment of processed foods that include SPAM, much to my mom’s delight.

This is huge, to have groceries and basic necessities available in Vesta. Bernadette even offered to have her 11-year-old son deliver right to my mom’s doorstep a block away. Such small-town neighborliness simply warms my heart. Many times the good people of Vesta have assisted my mother. And for that, I am grateful.

Looking toward the back thrift section of the floor.

Looking from the front grocery section toward the back thrift area of The Store.

Bernadette tells me she originally hadn’t planned on stocking groceries, rather dedicating her floor space to thrift items that range from kitchenware to toys, books to clothing, gift items to home décor and an assortment of other merchandise.

Vintage glasses in the thrift section.

Vintage glasses in the thrift section.

Bernadette offers a great selection of used books for all ages.

Bernadette offers a great selection of used books for all ages.

You'll also find a selection of clothes.

You’ll also find a shoes and clothing.

One of my favorite finds in The Store, an $8 vintage Pyrex casserole, which I nearly purchased.

One of my favorite finds in The Store, an $8 vintage Pyrex casserole, which I nearly purchased.

But then she started getting requests to carry groceries. So Bernadette decided to buy food and products her family can use. That way, if items don’t sell, she doesn’t lose anything. Once a week this entrepreneur mother drives the 20 miles west to Hy-Vee Foods in Marshall, reselling her purchases in Vesta at a slightly marked up price that will help cover gas expenses.

Jason Kramer stops in to buy a few grocery items from Bernadette.

Jason Kramer stops in to buy a few grocery items from Bernadette.

Already several local families come to The Store once a week to purchase their groceries, she says. On the Saturday afternoon I visited, Jason Kramer popped in from his home across the street to pick up Oreos, chips, bread and milk. He calls opening of The Store “flippin’ awesome.”

It is that type of enthusiasm Bernadette hopes for from other Vesta area residents. She needs their support, and business off the highway, to make her venture work in this isolated prairie town.

Just another view of the store with Bernadette bagging Jason's purchases.

Just another view of the store and Bernadette’s office with Bernadette bagging Jason’s purchases.

In the short time I perused the store and spoke with Bernadette, several others stopped in—two middle schoolers to eye the toy collection and eventually purchase candy, a middle-aged couple scanning thrift items and then Jason for his groceries. I walked out with a kettle for my college-aged son and my husband grabbed packaging tape and a dispenser.

This 1800s general store counter anchors The Store.

This 1800s general store counter anchors The Store. Those are our purchases on the counter, that kettle and tape.

Bernadette says she’s aiming to recreate a Mom and Pop general store with a little bit of everything. I was delighted to find candy lining the 1800s checkout counter, reminding me of the penny candy I bought at Rasmussen’s Grocery while growing up in Vesta. The vintage counter, purchased from a Lake Benton antique store, originated from a general store between Lake Benton and Brookings, South Dakota. It’s the perfect fit for The Store, lending that historic authenticity reminiscent of yesteryear.

Like the old-fashioned general store, Bernadette has set up candy display, including my favorite Tootsie Pops.

Like the old-fashioned general store, Bernadette has set up a candy display, including my favorite Tootsie Pops.

I can remember when Vesta boasted two hardware stores, several restaurants/bars and a grocery store along with other businesses, in its one-block Main Street.

Rarely does a new business open here. But Bernadette, who lives on a farm near Lucan seven miles to the south, was looking to locate along the highway, conveniently next door to her husband’s business, Matt’s Frame Repair.

A young customer exits The Store, left, while three of the Thooft kids, including Maxwell, 4, and Beatrice, 21 months, hang out with Mom.

A young customer exits The Store, left, while three of the Thooft kids, including Maxwell, 4, and Beatrice, 21 months, hang out with Mom. The Thooft’s children include an 11-year-old, two 7-year-olds, two 4-year-olds, a 3-year-old and a 21-month-old.

She likes that Matt can walk over for lunch and spend time with her and the kids, ranging in age from 21 months to 11 years. She affectionately calls her seven, five of them birth children, two adopted, “the hoodlums.” The kids hang out in a room built into a corner of the poleshed style building.

Look around and you'll see Bernadette's sense of humor in signage and props like this doll perched upon the cash register.

Look around and you’ll see Bernadette’s sense of humor in signage and props like this doll perched upon the cash register.

While the kids play and Matt naps in that corner playroom, Bernadette tends to customers on this Saturday afternoon in March. Her laptop sits open on her desk, her reference source for the thrift merchandise purchased primarily from online auctions and also from garage sales.

This sign by the thrift store points travelers along Minnesota Highway 19, left, to The Store and the Vesta Cafe.

This sign by the thrift store points travelers along Minnesota Highway 19, left, to The Store and the Vesta Cafe.

Bernadette is donating 10 percent of thrift sale proceeds to local charities like the United Way, a crisis nursery, area schools and the broader Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. She’s also created a “Believe in the Backpack” charity whereby she fills backpacks for kids in foster care.

In the short time I’ve spent with Bernadette, it’s clear to me that this Osakis native and former daycare provider loves kids and cares about folks in my hometown enough to open her own little general store on the prairie. And for that I am grateful.

This sign graces the front of The Store: Thrift and More.

This sign graces the front of The Store: Thrift and More.

FYI: The Store: Thrift and More is open from 9 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday; from 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. Thursday; and with varied hours on Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Tuesday.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling