Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The art of the portrait by southern Minnesota students March 29, 2023

“Bisa Butler-Inspired Collage Portrait” by Ilwad, Lincoln Elementary School fourth grader. Bisa Butler is an award-winning African American textile artist. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2023)

WHAT DO YOU NOTICE first in a human face? Perhaps it’s eyes or a smile, or the lack thereof. Or maybe you see the whole without attention to the details that comprise a face. However you view someone on the exterior, it is the interior which holds the essence of a person.

An assortment of student art lines hallways and a room. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2023)

With that thought, I present selected photos of portraits from the All Area Student Art Show at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault. The second floor exhibit of art from eight schools continues until April 8.

Another Bisa Butler-inspired portrait collage, this one by Lincoln fourth grader Rain. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2023)

If I could, I would sit down with these young artists and ask: “What do you notice first in a human face? Is the essence of this person in the portrait you created? What process did you use to make this portrait?” I am assuredly an inquisitive writer of many questions. I am a listener, an observer, a gatherer of information. I expect answers to my inquiries would vary.

Students from Bethlehem Academy drew these portraits. They are by Martin, left to right, Dania and Mera. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2023)

But one thing is certain. The artists behind the portraits saw a face—whether in a mirror, a photo, his/her imagination, etc. Then their individual perspectives, interpretations, skills factored into creating these portraitures.

Dexk, a senior at Faribault Area Learning Center, painted this watercolor portrait. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2023)

If I study each work of art, I see personality traits emerging in the subjects. Reserved. Joyful. Tentative. Compassionate. Inquisitive. Even especially creative. I could be right. Or I could be wrong in my observations. Faces can reveal a lot, but can also hide a lot.

A portrait by Yarely, Roosevelt fifth grader. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2023)

I recognize that for these young artists, such deep thoughts may not have presented themselves. And that’s OK. Perhaps just the challenge of creating a portrait was enough without the added distraction of introspection.

Roosevelt Elementary School kindergartner Ruweyda created this joyful portrait. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2023)

I admire the talent of these student artists ranging from kindergartners to seniors in high school. While I don’t hold any art training, portraits seem particularly difficult to create. They would be for me, unless I captured a portrait with my camera. And even then I don’t claim to be a portrait photographer, except in the journalistic style.

One in a series of developing portraits by Alaina, Faribault Middle School eighth grader. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2023)
Portraits anchor a corner, top row, in the student art exhibit. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2023)
“Winter Self-Portrait Mixed Media” by Evelynn, Lincoln Elementary School first grader. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2023)

When the youth artists in the Faribault art show look at their work and look in the mirror, I hope they see beautiful, creative faces. I hope they see the talent they hold. I hope they understand that they are unique and valued and supported. I hope, too, that creativity continues to be an important part of their lives, a lens through which they can see the world and then share it with others.

A soulful portrait by Grace, Waterville-Elysian-Morristown School eighth grader. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2023)

Art matters. And so do each and every one of these developing young artists. They are our future, wherever their talents take them in this world.

FYI: Paradise gallery hours are noon – 5 pm Wednesday – Friday and 10 am – 2 pm Saturday. This exhibit runs until April 8. Photos were taken with permission of the Paradise. Original copyrights to the art are owned by the individual artists.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Encouraging young people in the arts via Paradise exhibit, Part I March 16, 2022

Eye-catching student art lines a second floor hallway at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault. The eye art is by Wyatt Suckow, Lincoln Elementary School first grader. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

ENCOURAGEMENT. OPPORTUNITY. CONFIDENCE. Like dominoes, those three words tip into one another. And the result for young people can make all the difference.

A poster outside the main gallery at the Paradise Center for the Arts promotes the student art show on the second floor. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Those thoughts emerge upon viewing the All Student Art Show at the Paradise Center for the Arts in historic downtown Faribault. This year’s show, featuring the art of students from Faribault Area Learning Center and Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt Elementary Schools, runs until April 9.

Eydelin Leon Ruiz, Roosevelt Elementary School second grader, created this sweet kitty face. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I view this show through not only an appreciative lens, but also through the lens of encouraging students in the arts. Showcasing their art in a public exhibit most assuredly builds confidence.

One of the more unusual pieces of art was crafted by two Lincoln Elementary School fourth graders, Cole Hammer and Barrett Boudreau. The folded art looks different when viewed from opposite sides. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

If we all thought for a moment, I expect we could list individuals in our lives who encouraged us in our interests, passions and/or careers. For me, that would be Mrs. Kotval, an elementary school teacher who each afternoon read aloud chapters from books—the entire Little House series, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (and Tom Sawyer), Black Beauty… From those post lunch readings, my love for language and stories sparked. In middle school, Mrs. Sales fostered my increasing love for language and writing. Across the hall, a math teacher (whom I shall not name) scared me so much that my dislike of numbers multiplied. In high school, Mr. Skogen required journal keeping, further fostering my love of writing. And in college, Mr. Shipman and Mrs. Olson offered such encouragement that I never questioned my decision to pursue a journalism degree.

A portrait by Huda Muse, Faribault Area Learning Center junior. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

How reaffirming then to have educators encouraging young people in the arts, and an arts center that values their work.

Each piece of art names the artist and his/her school and grade. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

At this student art exhibit, you won’t find ribbons or other awards. And that, too, I appreciate. You’ll find art. Simply art. I think too often there’s a tendency to pass out ribbons to everyone. Kids can see right through universal praise, which then feels mostly meaningless.

Art aplenty… (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
The art of Roosevelt Elementary School kindergartner Joey Trevino. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
Art, inside a classroom exhibit space and outside along a hallway. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

But nothing is meaningless about the art showcased along the hallway and a classroom on the second floor of the Paradise. Every student, from kindergarten through high school, created a work of art worthy of public showing. Worthy, not necessarily by the art critic definition of art, but rather via the definition of this is something a child/pre-teen/teen created. That’s the value therein.

A cardinal by Nova Vega, a kindergartner at Jefferson Elementary School. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Perhaps some of these students will pursue art professionally. But I expect most won’t. For some, art will always be a side interest/hobby/pursuit. Yet, this early encouragement, no matter future interest, fosters an appreciation for the arts that can last a lifetime. What a gift that is to our young people.

Birch trees painted by Suprise Sonpon, 4th grade, Jefferson Elementary School. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

To the students who created art for the 2022 exhibit, thank you for sharing your creativity. To the educators who worked with these youth, thank you. And to the Paradise Center for the Arts, thank you for each year hosting this student art exhibit. What a gift to our community.

Faribault Area Learning Center students Hunter Quast and Justin Horejsi worked together to create this service station model. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

TELL ME: Did someone encourage you at a young age to follow an interest/passion/other pursuit? I’d like to hear.

FYI: Other area arts centers are also featuring youth art in current exhibits. At the Owatonna Arts Center, view the Owatonna Public Schools K-12 Art Exhibit from now until March 27. At the Arts and Heritage Center of Montgomery, student art from Tri-City United is now displayed, beginning with elementary age. That transitions to art by middle schoolers and then to high school students, through May 14.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


“Together”: Doesn’t seem that way August 4, 2021

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Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

ON PAGES 444 and 445 of my 2003 Webster’s New World Thesaurus, I read synonyms for the word together. (Jointly) collectively, unitedly, commonly…

Clearly, together means everyone working toward a common goal/purpose for the good of all.

Many times people have come together, especially during disasters, to help others. I recall when my second daughter traveled twice to New Orleans to help with clean-up after Hurricane Katrina. Recently, rescuers worked tirelessly to find victims and survivors following the collapse of a condo in Surfside, Florida. Locally, folks are providing financial support for a professional juggler who broke both wrists after falling from a ladder during a performance.

These examples of togetherness, rooted in genuine care for others, encourage me. They give me hope. They uplift me.

Together and togetherness as defined in the Fourth Edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.


As I reflect further, though, I grow disheartened. Disheartened because, as much as the “We’re all in this together” motto defines many official/marketing statements about COVID-19, I don’t feel it. I don’t see it. I don’t experience it. Perhaps it’s time for public health officials and others to ditch the word together as it relates to this global pandemic.

I suggest tapping into personal experiences, sharing the stories of those who’ve experienced COVID at its worst, to perhaps reach those who remain skeptics about every facet of this virus and vaccines. Stories hold power in a way that generalizations don’t.

Like many, I feel such frustration that COVID is now back full force in the much more contagious and deadly delta variant. This didn’t need to happen…if only people would get vaccinated. I’m thankful to read that vaccination rates are rising. I hope that continues.

In the meantime, my county of Rice is among 45 (as of Monday) Minnesota counties in the high or substantial risk categories for community transmission of COVID. The Minnesota Department of Health, following CDC guidelines, recommends everyone (regardless of vaccination status), wears a face mask indoors in public settings. Yes, even those of us who are vaccinated can spread the virus, which is why we, too, must mask.


Now some retailers, colleges, entertainment venues and more in Minnesota are embracing those CDC guidelines and reinstating masking. For that I feel great gratitude.

My healthcare provider has also joined a growing number of providers requiring vaccination of all employees. Finally. I have never understood how anyone in the medical profession (and that includes those working in long-term care and assisted living) can, ethically or morally, continue to care for patients/residents while unvaccinated. And, looking at it from a patient perspective, I don’t want an unvaccinated nurse/doctor/lab tech/whoever near me, even if I am vaccinated.

One source for the definition of “together.” Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.


That brings me to education. I really struggle with preschool-high schools that are not requiring students and staff to wear face masks going into the new school year. I fail to understand that thinking. Our public health officials tell us that masking is one very basic, and easy, way to help stop the spread of COVID. My concern focuses primarily on those under age 12, who can’t yet be vaccinated. Schools owe it to children, like my 5-year-old granddaughter, to implement the strongest health and safety protocols possible. Teachers fought last year for the best protection for themselves, and rightly so. Protecting our kids is equally as important.

When I hear people say, “Well, just keep your child home or send them to school in a mask,” I cringe. Most parents want their kids in the classroom. And putting the burden of protecting himself/herself on a young child seems pretty selfish and childish behavior on the part of adults. Most kids prefer to “fit it” with their peers. A parent may send their child to school with the directive to “wear your mask.” But we all know that doesn’t mean they will, especially if masking is optional and their classmates are mask-less.

Where’s the compassion, the care, the willingness to provide access to education for all in a safe school environment? It’s best, from a health and safety perspective, to require (rather than recommend) face masks in schools for everyone.

So, yeah, I’m not seeing much togetherness during this global pandemic. I’m disheartened. I’m disappointed. And, yes, I’m even angry. I feel like, just as we were making progress in ending the pandemic, we are now back to START, farther than ever from the FINISH LINE. I’m beyond frustrated. (Just like Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer.)

That all said, we can decide, right now, to work together. to mask up, to get vaccinated, to make choices that protect ourselves and each other. To end this pandemic sooner rather than later.

NOTE: I welcome readers’ comments. However, if you are anti-vaccine or anti-mask, I will not give voice to those viewpoints on this, my personal blog. As always, with any posts, I screen/moderate comments and determine which I will, or won’t, publish.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


In Kenyon: More than just a bus service October 23, 2020

Held Bus Service in downtown Kenyon, Minnesota.

MANY TIMES I’VE PASSED through Kenyon, usually en route to visit family in Madison, Wisconsin, four hours distant. But many times also, this town of some 1,800 about a half hour east of Faribault has been my specific destination. Last Sunday afternoon on a drive to view the harvest and fall colors (before an unexpected snowstorm changed the landscape to winter), Randy aimed our van north out of Monkey Valley toward Kenyon just a few miles away.

This window features a classroom of yesteryear.
A close-up of a focal globe in the classroom display.
More details from the past…

We had no intention of stopping in Kenyon. But the passenger side window needed cleaning so Randy pulled into a corner service station and washed the glass. (He’s thoughtful like that.) Then we continued down Minnesota State Highway 60, which runs through the heart of the business district. As luck would have it, I happened to look, just at the right time, at the Held Bus Service building. And there, in the front windows, I spotted a school-themed display. Photo-worthy, I thought, as I asked Randy to swing around the block and return to the bus building. He even pulled ahead so the van wouldn’t reflect in the glass. (He’s thoughtful like that.)

Look at this bus-themed window display with the apparently handcrafted bus.

Photographing the window art proved challenging given the reflections. But I was determined to do my best. Someone worked hard to craft and create these educational-themed displays that show the importance of the Kenyon-Wanamingo School in this community—right down to the Knights mascot, the happy bus driver in the red cap and the smiling students. Yes, by that time I’d noticed two separate window displays, one an historic classroom and the other themed to school buses.

Love these portraits of students on the bus.
The school mascot even gets a place of honor.
More KW students riding the bus.

As someone who grew up riding the bus for 12 years to schools in southwestern Minnesota, I understand the importance of bus drivers. Mine were Jeff and Harley. Great guys. Friendly. Kind. Competent. It’s not easy driving on rural roads during a Minnesota winter. Nor is it necessarily easy dealing with a bus full of kids.

Presumably Jon Held behind the wheel of the bus.

But Jon Held, owner of Held Bus Service, loves kids. According to a 2016 KARE 11 TV feature on him, he is well-loved, too. He knows kids by name, greeting them daily before and after school (pre-COVID), often with hugs. He keeps a candy stash and one year even handed out his company’s signature red caps to some happy students.

The business is housed in an historic building which was damaged in an August 2016 fire. You can’t tell by looking at it now.

That’s a snapshot of the backstory framing these window displays. These are the stories that define small towns like Kenyon as caring communities, more than simply some place to pass through en route to somewhere else.

Please check back for more photos from Kenyon.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Embracing Shattuck-St. Mary’s outreach into the Faribault community May 4, 2018

An arch frames Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


THURSDAY EVENING I ATTENDED a free concert by the Minnesota Sinfonia. At Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault.

This evening, if I choose, I can attend “The Wizard of Oz on Ice.” Again, at no charge and on the campus of Shattuck, a prestigious private prep school in Faribault. The Shattuck-St. Mary’s Figure Skating Club show begins at 7 p.m. in the SSM Sports Complex.


The Shattuck-St. Mary’s Crack Squad performs in the 2015 Faribault Memorial Day parade. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Then, at 1 p.m. Sunday, I can attend a Town Drill. Again, at no charge, at Shattuck and at 1 p.m. in Johnson Gym. The Wooden Soldiers Drill Team, celebrating its 100th anniversary, performs along with The Crack Squad. That precision drill squad first performed in 1882.


In the Shumway Hall entry hall, carolers sing for Christmas Walk guests. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


I appreciate how Shattuck continues to open its doors to the community through free events like these and the annual Campus Christmas Walk and community Easter Egg Hunt. And I appreciate, too, the Fesler-Lampert and Acoustic Roots Performing Arts Series which brings musicians, theatre and more to this historic campus. I attended the St. Paul-based History Theatre’s “Sweet Land the musical” here in October. Had Shattuck not brought the production to Faribault, I never would have seen this show based on one of my favorite movies.


The Shattuck-St. Mary’s campus features beautiful stone buildings constructed in the 1800s, including Shumway Hall with its landmark bell tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


While the arts series events are typically pay-for shows, the Sinfonia concert on Thursday was free, as are all concerts by this Twin Cities-based orchestra. For someone like me who has only been to an orchestra concert several times in her life, this is an absolute gift. To listen to music ranging from soothing to barn dance raucous by professional musicians in such an historic theatre simply made me happy. Several times I tipped my head back to take in the wood-wrapped walls and ceiling, then turned to view sunlight streaming colors through clustered narrow stained glass windows. The cool of the evening wafted through open windows as did the chimes of the Shumway Hall clock tower bell. Musicians, in a quirky interruption, paused to let the chimes ring before continuing their concert.


The Chapel of the Good Shepherd on the Shattuck campus. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


As the Sinfonia director noted, Shattuck could be a setting for a Harry Potter movie. I agree. This place of massive, aged stone buildings has that look. It feels more like a college campus than a prep school excelling in academics, the arts and sports. I am grateful for its presence in Faribault. And I am grateful for a school that welcomes the community onto its campus.

If you’ve never been to Shattuck, I’d encourage you to attend an event there, to take in the historic beauty of this place on Faribault’s east side.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


One grand old WPA gym in West Concord April 6, 2015

The original, non-digital, scoreboard that uses light bulbs still graces the 1936 former West Concord School gym.

The original, non-digital scoreboard that uses light bulbs still graces the 1936 former West Concord School gym.

YOU CAN ALMOST HEAR the rhythmic bounce of basketball upon wood floor, hear the roar of the crowd as the ball swishes through the net and two points are added to the scoreboard.

Instructions on the stage wall for operating the curtain.

Instructions on the stage wall for operating the curtain.

You can almost hear the resounding applause of proud parents as performers bow and the heavy curtain sways, pulled shut by hand-over-hand action of a stage hand running thick ropes.

This beautiful gym was once home to the West Concord Cardinals.

This beautiful gym was once home to the West Concord Cardinals.

You can almost hear the clear diction of graduates’ names pronounced before they proceed onto the stage to receive their West Concord High School diplomas.

The former gym now houses the West Concord Community Center.

The former gym now houses the West Concord Community Center. Today the West Concord Historical Society’s research center is located on the second floor, former site of the school library and a study hall.

Echoes of the past linger inside the old West Concord School gym, built in 1936 as a Works Progress Administration project. The school closed in 1991.

The gym is now a multi-purpose facility open to the community.

The gym is now a multi-purpose facility open to the community.

Today this grand gymnasium houses this southeastern Minnesota town’s community center. The space is now used for a middle school athletics program and rented out for class reunions, festive gatherings by the area’s Hispanic community and more, according to Janis Ray, director/gambling manager for the adjoining West Concord Historical Society museum.

The original ticket booth remains just inside the front entry.

The original ticket booth remains just inside the front entry.

I applaud West Concord for saving this impressive auditorium and the connected school. All too often such grand structures are demolished because of the cost to maintain them. They are worth saving for their history, memories and architectural significance.

This massive WPA project painting hangs as a stage backdrop.

This massive WPA project painting hangs as a stage backdrop.

Gymnasiums aren’t built like this any more. Imagine the hands of formerly unemployed men laboring to build this gym. How happy they must have been to earn a paycheck. Preserving this gym is a tribute to them, too, to hard work and building a sense of community.

Students involved in theatrical productions signed the stage wall behind the stage curtain.

Students involved in theatrical productions signed the stage wall behind the stage curtain.

I hope future generations will always remember that.


The building on the left, built in 1902 with a wing added in 1914, houses the West Concord Historical Society. On the right is the 1936 WPA project gym, 60 percent of its cost funded by the government.

The former school building on the left, built in 1902 with a wing added in 1914, today houses the West Concord Historical Society. On the right is the 1936 WPA project gym, 60 percent of its cost funded by the government. It is now the West Concord Community Center.

Imagine the students and their families who have walked through these doors.

Imagine the students and their families and others who have walked through these doors. They were locked when I visited.

What I assume is an original light fixture. Beautiful.

What I assume is an original light fixture. Beautiful.

Looking across the gym floor toward the original fold-up chairs and the entry into the auditorium.

Looking across the gym floor toward the original fold-up chairs and the entry into the auditorium.

Handcrafted detail on the vintage seating.

Handcrafted detail on the vintage seating make these works of art.

A sticker, "Educating Everyone Takes Everyone," on a sturdy wood door reminds visitors of this structure's original purpose.

A sticker, “Educating Everyone Takes Everyone,” on a sturdy wood door just off the stage reminds visitors of this structure’s original purpose.

In a narrow hallway off the gym, leading to the women's bathroom, I discovered these rows of lockers painted in the school color.

In a narrow hallway off the gym, leading to the women’s bathroom, I discovered these rows of lockers painted Cardinal red, the school color.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


How the planned attack on a Waseca school impacts me personally May 2, 2014

HOW DOES ONE BEGIN to write about a school tragedy averted?

That is my challenge as I reflect on the events of the past days in which a 17-year-old Waseca High School student allegedly planned to carry out a Columbine type massacre in his southern Minnesota school.

The school where my youngest sister and a friend teach and which my niece attends. The school I just drove past last Sunday while visiting my other sister in Waseca, a rural community of nearly 10,000 only a half hour drive away.

A 17-page court document outlines the charges against John David LaDue, described in media reports as a normal kid, a good kid. Now he faces multiple charges, including first degree premeditated attempted murder, in a plot to kill his family, a school resources officer and others in his school. (Click here to read the charges against LaDue and a Statement of Probable Cause filed in court documents.)

An arsenal of weapons, bombs and bomb-making equipment were found in his bedroom and a storage locker and a journal documented his plans, according to court records.

This could have been another Columbine, another Virginia Tech, another Sandy Hook, another American school tragedy. And this time it impacts those I love.

I’ve found so often in my life that, until an event touches me personally, I cannot fully understand or comprehend. It is something that happens somewhere else, to someone else. Not this time.

And not in the past: a dear friend’s father murdered; a SWAT team sweeping through my neighborhood in search of a murder weapon in a drug deal gone bad; my son struck by a hit-and-run driver; the frantic middle-of-the-night screams of a woman being assaulted across the street from my home; a frantic young man ringing my doorbell seeking protection from a gang of men in pursuit of him; a brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s niece murdered in a case of domestic violence, the son of a high school classmate and hometown neighbor hunkered down at Virginia Tech during the massacre of 32 there in April of 2007…

Now this.

It would be easy to despair, to wonder what this world is coming to. But I’m going to take my cue from Waseca School Superintendent Thomas Lee, who in a May 1 press conference (click here to read his entire statement) said in part: “We can either believe that this (arrest of John LaDue) occurred as a result of a lucky break or, as I do, choose to believe that God was looking out for all of us.”

Furthermore, Lee continues with these words worthy of reflection:

On another note I respectfully submit that these kind of events that have been happening in schools across this country should be a warning sign to us all. These events are like “canaries in the mines” – an indicator that something is deeply wrong in our culture. These kinds of events are unique to our American culture. They are certainly not found anywhere else in the world, except in very few isolated cases. Why are they unique to our American culture? What is it in our culture that fosters these kind of events? There will be many opinions about this – our obsession with violence, our tv shows and movies, lack of parenting, the prevalence of guns, corporate greed and of course, gridlock in our government. I suggest that these are all symptoms of a significantly degraded culture. We all know that nothing is guaranteed in this life but it is time that we collectively look into the mirror with honesty and integrity – that we ask ourselves how our choices are contributing to this degradation, and determine what we can do individually to stem the downward slide. We need to do everything possible to look out for one another – especially our kids.

The superintendent is spot on correct. Nothing is guaranteed in this life. And we need to look out for one another, especially our kids.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Voting for Minnesota’s most unique high school mascot & insights into other team names in our state February 26, 2013

A gym at Wabasso High School, home of the Rabbits. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

A gym at Wabasso High School, home of the Rabbits. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

MY ALMA MATER, Wabasso High School, has a white rabbit as a mascot. As you would rightly expect, a rabbit does not conjure up an image of athletic prowess. But I do not care. Rabbits reflects the name of the community, Wabasso, a Dakota word, I’m told, meaning “White Rabbit.”

The rabbit mascot also stands out among all the Eagles and Tigers, the most common high school team names in Minnesota, and the country in general, according to Terry Borning, author of MascotDB.com, a free searchable database of team names and mascots. (More on that later.)

Rabbits, though, was not unusual enough to grab the attention of USA TODAY’s High School Sports staff which is sponsoring a competition to find the nation’s most unique high school mascots. Staff chose five mascots from each state and Washington D.C. in the first round of the contest.

Tom Ressler created Blooming Prairie's logo, a black-and-white Awesome Blossom , in 1979.

The Awesome Blossoms logo from the school website.

Now the public will choose their favorites, via online voting, to advance to the second round. One winner from each state and D.C. will move on to regionals and the opportunity to win prizes ranging from $100 to $2,000 for their high school athletic departments.

In the running from Minnesota are the Blooming Prairie Awesome Blossoms, Roosevelt Teddies, Jordan Hubmen, Sauk Centre Mainstreeters and Winona Winhawks.

I’ll admit to a fondness for Blooming Prairie’s Awesome Blossoms, for several reasons. Any school strong enough to sport the name Blossoms deserves to win. Second, Blooming Prairie, a farming community of around 2,000 located 15 miles south of Owatonna, is the smallest of the Minnesota communities vying for this honor. I will always pick the smallest, most rural town and root for the underdog. (Plus, I really like the “Prairie” part of the town’s name.) Third, my second daughter first introduced me to the Blooming Prairie mascot when she was in high school and attended an Awesome Blossoms basketball game with a good friend. It was also the first night she failed to get home at a reasonable hour. Enough said on that.

Apparently, the Blossoms got their name from an area newspaper more than a century ago, according to one source. “Awesome” was later added by locals.

A seen from Main Street in Sauk Centre, home to the Mainstreeters.

A scene from Main Street in Sauk Centre, home to the Mainstreeters. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Now, if I had to choose my second favorite from the Minnesota five, I’d select the Mainstreeters for the sole reason that I love Sauk Centre native Sinclair Lewis’ satirical book, Main Street.

So there, if this interests you, click here and go online to vote. Voting for the state winners continues through March 5. Those 51 winners then advance to second round regional voting from March 6 -14. Six regional winners then enter the finals March 15-25.

Terry Borning with TC Bear, the Twins mascot.

Terry Borning with TC Bear, the Twins mascot. Borning attended Concordia College in Moorhead, home of the Cobbers.

NOW, LET’S DELVE DEEPER into Minnesota high school mascot names via Terry Borning of the earlier mentioned MascotDB.com. Just a note, Borning, of Billings, Montana, and a computer science adjunct faculty member for an Arizona college, is my cousin. He has 43,799 sports team names and mascots in his database covering U.S. and Canadian high school, college and professional teams, past and present.

Borning’s interest in team names stretches back to high school, when he played nine-man football for the Hendricks Huskies. Hendricks is about as close as you can get to South Dakota in southwestern Minnesota without actually living in our neighboring state.

Hendricks and nearby rival Ivanhoe have since consolidated, becoming the Lincoln H I Rebels. Lincoln references Lincoln County where the schools are located while the “H” and “I,” obviously, stand for the separate communities. Adds Borning: “The UNLV Runnin’ Rebels were a dominant NCAA basketball team at the time the schools consolidated in the early 1990s. The teens of that time considered themselves rebellious, so the moniker fit.”

That led me to ask my cousin how schools choose mascots and to specifically cite examples in Minnesota. He notes the popularity of Vikings here (11 high schools with this mascot) and the once common Warriors and Indians (no longer used), plus names like the Flying Dutchmen, all traced to ethnic heritage.

Agriculture and local industries also factor into names like the Moorhead Spuds, Austin Packers, Bemidji Lumberjacks and Crosby-Ironton Rangers.

Team names can extend, too, from the school’s name such as Lindbergh (Hopkins) Flyers, Robbinsdale Robins, Red Wing Wingers and Burnsville Blaze.

A white rabbit statue sits along Minnesota Highway 68 in Wabasso.

A white rabbit statue sits along Minnesota Highway 68 in Wabasso. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

In the past, animals, such as my beloved Rabbits, were common as mascots.

Recent trends during school consolidations are to forge a new identity such as the Northern Freeze Nordics comprised of students from the small northwestern Minnesota communities of Newfolden, Viking and Holt. (Yes, I had to check a map.)

The Otto the otter statue in Adams Park in Fergus Falls. The Otter Tail River runs through this city where the Fergus Falls High School mascot is the otter.

The Otto the otter statue in Adams Park in Fergus Falls. The Otter Tail River runs through this city where the Fergus Falls High School mascot is the Otters. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Naturally, I wanted to know what mascots Borning might have selected for that USA TODAY contest had he been given the opportunity. He suggests these stand-out Minnesota names: Moorhead Spuds, Esko Eskomos, Thief River Falls Prowlers, Edgerton Flying Dutchmen, Two Harbors Agates, Grand Meadow Superlarks, McGregor Mercuries, Mahtomedi Zephyrs, Blackduck Drakes, Fergus Falls Otters and Barnum Bombers.

Just reviewing that list, I can see the connections between many of the mascots and their respective communities.

Borning also points out some unique Minnesota team names that have been lost to history such as the Jasper Quartziters, Tyler Danes, Walnut Grove Loggers, Granite Falls Kilowatts, Hendricks Midgets, Tracy Scrappers and Freeborn Yeomen.

I photographed this logo a year ago at Randolph Public Schools, home of the Rockets.

I photographed this logo a year ago at Randolph Public Schools, home of the Rockets.

Finding information on past high school sports team names has proven challenging for Borning, so he continues to research information for MascotDB, the only searchable online database of U.S. and Canadian high school, college and professional team names/mascots. “Reading up and discussing great and interesting team nicknames and mascots has always been a fun pastime for me,” he says. That led him to develop MascotDB.

Given the sheer amount of research he’s done, my cousin was able to tell me that only three U.S. high schools have Rabbits (not to be confused with Jackrabbits) as their mascots. Those are in Atlanta, Texas; Delta, Utah; and Wabasso, Minnesota.

Go, Rabbits.

A water tower in Wabasso sports the school's mascot, a white rabbit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

A water tower in Wabasso sports the school’s mascot, a white rabbit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

FYI: Click here to visit MascotDB.

Borning also welcomes information and questions about sports’ names/mascots. Contact him at info at mascotdb.com

Also, click here to learn more about the origin of the Rabbits mascot at my alma mater.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The trend toward healthier foods in schools and the chocolate milk debate May 7, 2011

SHOULD PUBLIC SCHOOLS offer chocolate milk with school lunches?

That’s an issue being discussed right now in the Fergus Falls Public School system, according to an article published in the Fergus Falls Journal.

The head of the Parent Teacher Organization appeared before the school board recently requesting that chocolate milk no longer be offered to students, except on Fridays as a “special treat.” She’s concerned about the sugar in chocolate milk and about serving healthier food. You can read the entire story by clicking here.

Based on the volume of responses to the Journal article, I quickly concluded that chocolate milk in school is certainly a hot button topic.

Opinions range from “let the kids have their chocolate milk because then at least they are drinking milk” to school lunches need an overhaul to this is a political issue.

Personally, I’ll pick white milk over chocolate any day. I grew up on a dairy farm, meaning I can’t really give an unbiased opinion here. Cows don’t produce chocolate milk. To my taste buds, chocolate milk compares to chugging chocolate syrup and I prefer my chocolate syrup on ice cream.

Here’s my take on banning chocolate milk from school lunchrooms:  Kids will eventually learn to drink white milk if they don’t have the chocolate option.

I think the PTO president erred with her compromise offer to allow chocolate milk as a “special treat” on Fridays. That would send a mixed message to students. Labeling a food as a “treat” only makes it more appealing.

This chocolate milk discussion reminds me of a controversy over soda pop vending machines in schools several years ago. I don’t recall the details, but it was a point of much debate in my community of Faribault. I don’t know how the issue was eventually resolved. And, honestly, because my kids are big milk, and not big soda, drinkers, I really did not pay that much attention to the issue. I should have.

Whether milk or soda is at the center of discussion, it’s good that parents, food service employees, school administrators and others are finally taking a good look at school lunches and working toward serving healthier foods and beverages to our kids.

In Fergus Falls, a Wellness Committee is tackling the topic of improving school lunches. Click here and here for the May school lunch menus in Fergus Falls. You’ll find main menu items like chicken nuggets, hot dogs, corn dogs and super nachos along with baked (not fried) fries, sunflower nuts, fresh fruit and fresh veggies. I can see progress in that list, but still some of those food choices don’t seem all that healthy to me.

And just to be clear here, I’m neither a food purist nor a perfect parent. I’ve served chicken nuggets to my family and I would label my 17-year-old son, my youngest, as a “picky eater.” It’s not that I haven’t tried to get him to eat his fruits and vegetables…

Fergus Falls certainly isn’t alone in moving toward healthier school lunches that feature fewer processed foods and more fresh veggies and fruit.

Throughout Minnesota, students, staff and volunteers are planting gardens, a win-win way to engage and teach students about healthier eating. The gardens will also provide fresh vegetables for school lunchrooms. The Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) is helping lead the way. You can click here to see what’s happening in your county through SHIP.

In my county, Rice, for example, a “Growing Healthy Foods” workshop is slated for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 11, in the 4-H building at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Master gardeners will present information about gardening in this program funded through a SHIP grant.

While individuals and students are planting gardens, Minnesota schools are also working with local growers to incorporate fresh produce into school lunches.

Check out the Minnesota Farm to School Program to see how some schools are embracing the trend toward eating local. It’s inspiring to read about apple orchards and tomatoes and school gardens and efforts to educate and reconnect students to the land.

I expect, though, that despite efforts to improve the quality of food in school lunchrooms, cost will determine whether healthy, permanent changes can be made. School districts don’t exactly have extra money in their budgets. And parents, in a time of already stretched family finances, won’t appreciate/can’t afford hikes in school lunch prices.

Getting kids to change their eating habits presents a major challenge also.

What’s your opinion on the current trend toward serving healthier foods in schools? Are changes needed? Will kids embrace such changes? Can school districts afford to offer healthier foods (which will likely cost more to buy and to prepare)? Will parents pay higher prices for school lunches?

And, finally, how do you feel about pulling chocolate milk from school lunchrooms?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


How some Minnesota schools are serving healthier meals September 14, 2010

DECADES AGO when my relatives from the Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul, for you non-Minnesotans), visited my southwestern Minnesota childhood farm, they would scoop up fresh garden produce by the bags full to take home. We didn’t mind, if we had extras, and were happy to share the bounty of the land.

I’ll admit, though, that even back then I felt a bit smug about our ability as farmers to provide food for the city dwellers. They had small gardens, but certainly could not grow what we could on our acres and acres of soil.

Today, as a city dweller, I’m the one carting home fresh garden produce from the country. No longer smug, I humbly accept the eggplant, tomatoes, spinach, cucumbers, okra, green beans, zucchini and other fruits and veggies that my country-dwelling family and friends share. I could live on fresh vegetables; I love them that much. But in my scrunched yard, I have room only for growing tomatoes and lettuce.

Some of the garden-fresh vegetables I got from my brother a few days ago.

Eating local, eating fresh, seems the healthy, trendy thing to do these days.

So when I read in the September 9 issue of The Gaylord Hub (a weekly newspaper where I worked in the 1970s) that students at the Sibley East, Arlington campus, will eat garden-fresh vegetables in their lunches this year, I took note.

According to the article, last spring students and staff planted a one-acre vegetable garden, which has produced beans, potatoes, cucumbers, onions, cabbage and squash. Later the garden will yield pumpkins, carrots and kale. Food service staff has been busy freezing the beans and making salsa and refrigerator pickles. The other vegetables will be incorporated fresh into meals.

Four grants are helping to fund the Farm to School Program project, which is more labor intensive and costly than a regular school food service offering.

Some Minnesota schools are growing onions in gardens.

Sibley East students grew cabbage, which will be made into coleslaw.

I don’t know if I’ve had my head in the refrigerator or what, but I don’t recall hearing about the Farm to School Program, which has been around nationally since the late 1990s and began in Minnesota in 2005.

Today a check of the Farm to School Program Web site reveals that an “estimated 69” Farm to School programs exist in Minnesota. (Sixty-nine doesn’t sound like an estimate to me but rather like a precise number.) Seventeen existing programs are profiled on the site.

Several districts, including Alexandria and Dover-Eyota, have planted apple trees.

Some Minnesota school districts have planted mini apple orchards.

In Bemidji, students at Solway Elementary School planted a garden and are now eating fresh, and frozen, vegetables. Others, including Dover-Eyota, plus Little Falls and Minneapolis Public Schools, are buying locally-grown produce.

Over in Montevideo, the public schools hosted an educational tomato-tasting event.

Down in the southeastern corner of the state, Winona Area Public Schools students are eating bison burgers and hot dogs thanks to a partnership with a local bison farm.

I liked what I read about these districts partnering up with local growers and producers. Even more, I like that some districts are taking the initiative and getting students involved by planting gardens and mini-orchards. Hands-on involvement, in my opinion, creates ownership, which spawns success.

Despite my excitement about the 69 Farm to School programs in Minnesota, I wonder why more districts are not involved. According to 2008-2009 statistics from the Minnesota Department of Education Web site, the state had 336 public-operating elementary and secondary independent school districts and 153 charter schools with a total of 2,006 public schools as of July 1 (2009).

Although I don’t know this for a fact, I suspect that funding is a problem in this tough economy and tight budgets. Perhaps also apathy and apprehension exist among parents, students, administrators and food service personnel. Finicky taste buds are likely a consideration given this generation is growing up on lots of processed foods and fast food.

Last winter I watched Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on television as Oliver sought to get fresh, healthy foods into a West Virginia school. The task proved difficult as food service workers, students and others didn’t exactly embrace the health-conscious meals.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying. I would like to see more Minnesota schools join the Food to School Program and provide healthier meals for a student population that truly needs a healthier diet, both at home and in our schools.

Ditto for us adults. We certainly could learn to eat better too by buying (or accepting from family and friends) more locally-grown, fresh produce or growing our own.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling