Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

My thoughts on the prejudice that threads through my Minnesota community April 19, 2018

A photo and comment by a visitor posted at the “Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at St. Olaf College in 2015, used here for illustration only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

TWELVE YEARS AFTER my then 12-year-old son was struck by a car while crossing the street to his school bus stop, my husband and I are still occasionally asked whether the driver in the hit-and-run has ever been found. The answer: No.

I’m OK with that. Caleb was not seriously injured and enough time has passed since the May 12, 2006, incident that my anger has subsided.

But now my anger has risen anew—not at the driver but rather at a recent comment made by an acquaintance. “Was it a Mexican?” the man asked of the unknown driver.

 

A chair placed before a Stephen Somerstein photo offers visitors a place to sit and contemplate in the “Selma” exhibit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

How do you respond to something like that—something so totally ignorant and racist and uncalled for that it makes my blood boil to think that someone in this day—2018—would even think that, let alone speak it. Why that assumption? What led him to believe the driver was a “Mexican” versus a Caucasian or even a green alien from Mars?

I can’t tolerate this type of blatant racism. About Hispanics. About Somalians. About anyone. Just days ago I heard negative comments about Somalians as it relates to parking issues in Faribault’s downtown business district.

 

A St. Olaf College student/staffer studies an image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the “Selma” exhibit in April 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

I didn’t grow up here. Once I was an outsider trying to fit into Faribault, where generations of families live, where many people are inter-related, where young people stay upon graduating from high school or return to after college. I’m not saying those are bad things. Faribault’s a wonderful place to live. But I suspect the hometown factor, the deep roots, may have something to do with the “was it a Mexican” type attitude some locals hold toward newcomers, especially those of color. There’s fear in the unknown, fear in change, fear in the prospect of a community becoming something different than it has always been.

 

Kids used markers to create flags from their native countries during the International Festival Faribault in August 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used for illustration only.

 

Change oftentimes does not come easily. Yet, that’s no excuse for sweeping negative assumptions and racism. I am thankful for the efforts of many within Faribault who welcome newcomers. Like the Faribault Diversity Coalition and individuals who tutor, assist, teach, embrace immigrants and, yes, even welcome outsiders like me from Redwood County, Minnesota. I arrived here 36 years ago knowing only my new husband (also a non-native). It took awhile for me to fit in, to find my place here.

Today I consider Faribault home. I love this community and the many dear friends I’ve made here. But I don’t appreciate the underlying and sometimes overt prejudice I occasionally see and hear.

“Was it a Mexican?”

No, my son was struck by a blue 4-door Chevrolet Cavalier or Corsica. Driver unknown. Race unimportant.

#

ON THE SAME TOPIC:

I find especially notable a comment made by Faribault Public School Superintendent Todd Sesker during an “AM Minnesota” interview with Gordy Kosfeld on KDHL radio. During that Monday morning interview, Sesker discussed the issue of 400-plus students open-enrolling outside of the Faribault School District. The district plans to survey families and learn why these students are choosing to attend schools elsewhere.

 

The ever-changing/growing diversity of Faribault High School shows in this post commencement photo taken in May 2012. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

Sesker says, in part, “We know some of the rumors that are out there and some of the people that are complaining about our schools. We know about the cultural differences…”

“…the cultural differences…”

That tells me a lot.

According to 2018 enrollment by race/ethnicity data published on the Minnesota Department of Education website, more than half of the students in Faribault Public Schools are of a race/ethnicity other than White. Here’s the break-down on the three largest ethnic groups among the district’s 3,777 students, according to the MDE: 24.2 percent are Hispanic/Latino, 23.8 percent are Black/African American, and 47.4 percent are White.

I suggest you listen to the radio interview with Sesker by clicking here. Discussion on the open enrollment issue begins at about minute 13.

 

NOTE: All comments are moderated. Please be respectful in your comments and discussion. I reserve the right as author of this personal blog to decide whether or not to publish a comment.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When yet another vehicle strikes another child heading to school October 18, 2017

A teen was struck on busy Second Avenue (pictured here intersecting with Minnesota State Highway 60), several blocks north of this Faribault intersection. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2015.

 

IF YOU’VE EVER EXPERIENCED trauma, you understand how a news story can trigger difficult memories.

Tuesday morning a vehicle struck a 13-year-old girl as she crossed a busy Faribault street on the way to her bus stop. Conscious, but incoherent, she was airlifted to a Twin Cities trauma center with unknown injuries.

Now the 54-year-old male driver of the 1998 Lincoln Navigator that hit the girl faces possible charges. According to news reports, he drove his vehicle around the right side of vehicles stopped for the teen at the Second Avenue crosswalk.

When I heard the news, my mind flashed back to May 12, 2006, the date a car hit my then 12-year-old son as he crossed a busy Faribault street on the way to his bus stop.

The similarities end in the commonality of Faribault Middle School students struck on busy streets around 7:30 a.m. while going to bus stops.

My son suffered only minor injuries of a broken bone in his hand, a possible rib fracture and a bump on his head after bouncing off the windshield of a blue 4-door car, possibly a Chevy Cavalier or Corsica. That driver left the scene and has never been found despite police follow-ups on many leads and a $1,000 reward offer (now expired).

In the years since that May morning when fear gripped my heart, I’ve sometimes wondered about that motorist. How could he/she drive away from my boy, just leave him lying on the side of the road? Police suspect, and I agree, that the driver had something to hide, a reason to continue on.

 

 

I still keep a file of email exchanges with police, newspaper clippings, medical bills, insurance documents, the accident report, the reward flier and even handwritten get well cards crafted by children to my son. This incident is part of my family’s history now, part of our story.

I changed on that May morning 11 years ago. I lost some faith in the goodness of people. For awhile I was angry, driven to find the man or woman who failed to stop. I couldn’t understand the lack of compassion and still can’t. But my resolve to find the individual lessened as the years passed, replaced by an acknowledgment that I likely will never have answers.

Still, on days like Tuesday when I hear of another child struck on her way to school, the memories rise, strong and painful.

 

FYI: Click here to read an award-winning poem I wrote about the hit-and-run involving my son.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A mother’s perspective on the Amy Senser hit-and-run case May 8, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:09 AM
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YOU NEVER FORGET. That day. That defining moment when your world stops and panic sears your soul.

My moment occurred six years ago, the morning my then 12-year-old son was struck by a car while crossing the street to his school bus stop within a block of our Faribault home.

May 12, 2006. The day I became all too familiar with the term “hit-and-run driver.”

At approximately 7:40 a.m. a blue 4-door car, possibly a Chevrolet Cavalier or Corsica, struck my boy whose body slammed into the side and/or front of the vehicle, somersaulted through the air and landed alongside the street.

The driver never stopped. Nor has the driver ever been found.

Fortunately my son suffered only minor injuries, although we do not know what the long-term impact will be on his physical health as he ages.

And what about that driver? Why did he/she fail to stop? It is the question which occasionally still haunts me, which early on angered me. It is the question which led me to ask a local philanthropist and the head of the local bus company to contribute money toward a $1,000 reward (which BTW has expired as has the statue of limitations on the hit-and-run).

Why did the driver of the car fail to stop after hitting my child?

I don’t ask myself that question all that often anymore, except around the anniversary date or when I hear of a hit-and-run. Like the case of Amy Senser, wife of former Minnesota Viking Joe Senser, convicted last week in the August 2011 hit-and-run death of Anousone Phanthavong. She was found guilty of leaving the scene of the accident and failure to promptly report an accident, both felonies, and of misdemeanor careless driving.

Ten days after the accident, Amy Senser finally admitted that she was the driver of the vehicle. Senser maintained during her trial, however, that she thought she hit a construction barrel or a pothole around 11 p.m. on that fateful night. Instead, she struck Phanthavong who had pulled to the side of an interstate exit ramp when his car ran out of gas. He was filling the car’s gas tank when he was hit and killed. By a hit-and-run driver. Amy Senser. Who thought she hit a construction barrel or pothole?

Early on in the investigation into my son’s 2006 hit-and-run, local police investigators maintained that the driver of the car fled because he/she had something to hide: driving drunk, driving without a license, driving without insurance, prior conviction…

Six years ago I couldn’t fathom those as “good enough” reasons to drive away from a child you’d just slammed into with your car. I still can’t justify those excuses. As the years have passed and I’ve heard of more and more hit-and-runs, I’ve come to believe the police theory that the driver in my son’s case had something significant to hide.

Yet, I will never, never understand how anyone, in good conscience, can strike someone with their vehicle and then simply drive away. Drive. Away.

#

SEVERAL YEARS AFTER my son’s hit-and-run, I wrote a poem about the incident and eventually entered it into The Jackpine Writers’ Bloc annual writing competition. “Hit-and-Run” subsequently earned an honorable mention in poetry and published in 2010 in The Talking Stick, Volume 19, Forgotten Roads. That book title seems so appropriate.

My poem focuses on my emotional reaction, making this poem especially powerful.

#

Hit-and-Run

In that moment, I know,
as the rivulets of water course down my body,
as I step from the tub
dripping puddles onto the linoleum,
that the sirens wail
for you,
my boy, my only son.

You, who tossed your backpack
over your bony shoulders,
then hurried
toward the street,
toward the bus stop.

While I showered,
you crossed carelessly,
your fragile body bouncing
off the car
you had not seen,
flailing in a somersault,
landing hard on the pavement.
Sirens scream, and I know.

Panic grips,
holds tight my heart,
my very soul,
as I race from the bathroom,
wrapped in a bath towel,
stand immobile,
watching the pulsating red lights
of the police car
angled on the street,
blocking the path to you.

#

ANYONE WITH INFORMATION on the May 12, 2006, hit-and-run case involving my son should contact the Faribault Police Department or Crime Stoppers of Minnesota at 1-800-222-8477. A local investigator told me a year ago that the case remains open and that police will follow up on any tips and leads.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Five years after a hit-and-run driver struck my son May 12, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:16 AM
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I live on one of Faribault's busiest residential streets, also a main route for the ambulance.

FIVE YEARS AGO TODAY on May 12, 2006, my then 12-year-old son was struck by a car as he crossed the street to his school bus stop.

Less than a block from home, his slender body slammed against a car and then somersaulted through the air. He landed dazed, shaken and injured along the side of the street.

Fear, unlike any I had ever experienced, gripped my heart and consumed my very being on that cool and drizzly May morning two days before Mother’s Day. In the minutes between my awareness of the accident and the confirmation that my son was OK, I feared the worst—that I had lost my boy.

I had not. He suffered only a broken bone in his hand, a bump on his head, scrapes and a possible rib fracture. Minor injuries, really, compared to what could have been.

For too many parents, the tragic death of a child is reality and I wonder how they cope. Via faith, family and friends? Somehow they manage to go on living.

In my son’s case, I also wonder how the driver copes. He/she fled the scene and has never been found. How can that driver of a blue, 4-door Chevrolet Cavalier or Corsica live with his/her actions?

It is incomprehensible to me that anyone could strike a child with a vehicle and then simply drive away.

Faribault police, early on, suspected the driver had a reason—ie. driving without a license, driving drunk, no insurance, prior record—to leave.

Despite numerous leads, including one which came via an anonymous letter penned by someone with a personal vendetta against a named suspect and another which led investigators to a prison cell, a credible suspect has never been found.

On several occasions police thought they were close to finding the driver. I have not given up hope that the driver can still be found—if conscience finally prevails and/or an individual with knowledge of this too-long-hidden secret chooses to do the right thing and step forward with information.

While the statute of limitations expired three years after the hit-and-run, Neal Pederson of the Faribault Police Department tells me that the case remains open and that his office will follow up on any tips or leads. He noted, however, that if the driver lived out of state for a period of time, the clock stops and the crime could still be investigated and charged.

Anyone with information about the hit-and-run can anonymously call the Faribault Police Department tip line at 507-334-0999 or Crime Stoppers of Minnesota at 1-800-222-8477.

I don’t dwell on finding the driver. A $1,000 reward offered several years ago for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the hit-and-run driver is no longer valid. I always hoped that honesty and decency, not a monetary reward, would be the motivating factors in solving this case.

As five years have passed, many, many times I have thanked God for protecting my son from worse injury.

Sometimes still—when I hear the screaming wail of an ambulance as it passes my house along our busy street or when I read a news story about a hit-and-run or drunk driving death—I think of that May morning when my son was struck.

I try to forget. But a memory like this remains forever.

LAST YEAR I WROTE the following poem, which won honorable mention in the poetry division of a state-wide anthology competition. “Hit-and-Run” printed in The Talking Stick, Volume 19, Forgotten Roads, published by The Jackpine Writers’ Bloc.

Hit-and-Run

 In that moment, I know,

as the rivulets of water course down my body,

as I step from the tub

dripping puddles onto the linoleum,

that the sirens wail

for you,

my boy, my only son.

#

You, who tossed your backpack

over your bony shoulders,

then hurried

toward the street,

toward the bus stop.

#

While I showered,

you crossed carelessly,

your fragile body bouncing

off the car

you had not seen,

flailing in a somersault,

landing hard on the pavement.

Sirens scream, and I know.

#

Panic grips,

holds tight my heart,

my very soul,

as I race from the bathroom,

wrapped in a bath towel,

stand immobile,

watching the pulsating red lights

of the police car

angled on the street,

blocking the path to you.

#

Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My unforgettable “road” poem publishes in The Talking Stick, Forgotten Roads September 15, 2010

TYPICALLY WHEN I write poetry, I turn to my past, to childhood memories.

That’s evident by my poems published in three volumes of Poetic Strokes, A Regional Anthology of Poetry from Southeastern Minnesota:  “Abandoned Farmhouse,” “Prairie Sisters,” “Walking Beans,” “Saturday night baths,” and “A school without a library.”

Occasionally I deviate from that trip down memory lane. “Lord, My Rock” published in the fall 2004 issue of The Lutheran Digest and “Tribute to a Korean War Veteran” published in the May/June 2009 issue of Minnesota Moments magazine.

My latest in-print-poem also detours from my typical subject of childhood days, although it stays on the road of memories, albeit this one a heart-wrenching, emotional recent memory.

“Hit-and-Run” has just published in The Talking Stick, Forgotten Roads, Volume Nineteen, debuting this Saturday at a Book Release Party in the Northwoods Bank Community Room in Park Rapids.

The poem looks back to May 12, 2006, the day my then 12-year-old son was struck by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the street just a short distance from our home. Thankfully, my boy was not seriously injured. But the driver was never found and the memories of that horrible incident still linger. Now I’m sharing, in poetic verse, how that morning unfolded emotionally for me. Certainly, I have not forgotten this road.

Apparently my words resonated with the editors who reviewed the 200-plus poems submitted in this literary competition. “Hit-and-Run” was among the top seven poems selected by the editorial board for prize consideration by noted Minnesota poet Heid Erdrich. My poem earned an honorable mention.

“A terrifying imagery/memory,” Erdrich partially wrote in her evaluation.

Indeed.

If you would like to read my poem, the other winning poems and the fiction and creative non-fiction published in this latest collection by writers with a connection to Minnesota, check out the online purchasing options at The Jackpine Writers’ Bloc. The Park Rapids/Menahga-based group annually publishes The Talking Stick, which is sold by the Writers’ Bloc and several northern Minnesota bookstores.

I’ve read two of the past anthologies and I promise that you will enjoy some top-notch writing by emerging and established Minnesota writers. The Talking Stick has an excellent, long-standing reputation and I’m proud to be published in it.

If you’re a writer, consider entering the 2011 The Talking Stick competition. Submissions call for the 20th volume goes out in December with a March 1, 2011, submission deadline.

Finally, if you’re in the Park Rapids area this weekend, consider attending the book release party, which begins at 1 p.m. Writers published in The Talking Stick, Forgotten Roads, will read their works beginning at 2 p.m. No, I won’t be there as I have another commitment. But you’ll meet plenty of other Minnesota writers anxious to sell their books or compare notes on this journey we call writing.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Who struck my son on May 12, 2006, in Faribault and then drove away? May 12, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:47 AM
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I have a file thick with information related to my son's hit-and-run. The file includes newspaper clippings, e-mail correspondence with the police, medical and insurance papers, get well cards and more.

EVEN AFTER FOUR YEARS I still hear the questions: “Did they ever catch the driver? How is your son doing?”

I’ll be at the grocery store, a garage sale, the library, when an acquaintance, out of the blue, asks. That interest all these years later catches me by surprise; people, clearly, have not forgotten.

Four years ago today on May 12, a cold and drizzly Friday morning much like today, my then 12-year-old son was struck by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the street to his school bus stop in Faribault.

Caleb was not seriously injured considering that he bounced off a car, flew through the air and landed in the street. He suffered a broken bone in his hand, a possible fractured rib and bumps and bruises. However, the long-term affects on his health remain unknown.

Four years later, Faribault police are no closer to solving the crime than they were in 2006.

Initially, several tips came in to the police department. Once, my hopes were raised when a suspect was named in an anonymous letter. That turned out to be an issue of alleged harassment by one person against another and had nothing to do with my son’s case.

Police have checked out vehicles matching the description of the blue 4-door car, possibly a Chevrolet Cavalier or Corsica. Once they even met with a prisoner regarding a car that fit the crime.  All leads have dead-ended.

No one has stepped forward with concrete evidence that ties a driver to the scene near my home, even though a $1,000 reward was initially offered in the case.

I am surprised, really, that the driver who struck my son and then drove away has not talked or confessed. I cannot imagine the guilt of carrying that secret.

While, early on, I was angry and wanted nothing more than to find the driver and hold him/her accountable, now I am more interested in hearing “why.” I want to ask, “Why did you drive away, leaving my boy, my only son, lying there? How could you?” As a mother, I find that action unfathomable.

The police have always contended that the driver had something to hide, a strong reason to continue driving.

I would like answers, and, yes, in all honesty, accountability.

#

A POEM THAT I’ve written related to my son’s hit-and-run recently earned honorable mention in a state-wide competition. Hit-and-Run will publish in The Talking Stick, Volume Nineteen, Forgotten Roads, due out in August from the northern Minnesota based Jackpine Writers’ Bloc. My poem finished in the top seven among more than 200 poems submitted in this literary journal competition.

Although the subtitle was not chosen because of my poem, I find Forgotten Roads quite fitting for an anthology that includes Hit-and-Run.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling