Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Faribault: Homelessness up close January 14, 2021

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The homeless, photographed in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, in June 2018 near the state capitol. The wings on the side of the Wisconsin Historical Museum were part of a temporary art installment, “Pink Flamingo Wings.” But I viewed them differently, as symbolic, as angel wings of hope for these two men. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used for illustration only and as documentation of homelessness.

DAYS LATER, THE SCENE still haunts me. The scene unfolding in my neighbor’s yard at 8 Sunday morning, just across our driveway and up a small incline.

Only minutes earlier, I turned on the radio, tuned to KDHL for the worship service at Trinity Lutheran Church. As I listened, I spooned coffee grounds into a filter, filled the reservoir with water, then switched on the coffee maker to start my day.

Typically, I would be in church, worshiping in person. But, since the start of the pandemic, Randy and I have opted to stay home and listen to services either online or on the radio. It’s not my preference. But it’s my comfort level.

As I listened, I lifted the dining room shade. It was then I noticed him. The man outside a massive dumpster set in my neighbor’s driveway. At first I thought it was my neighbor, but soon realized this was a stranger, who had now climbed inside the dumpster. He rummaged methodically through the contents. Picking up, then dropping stuff. Tossing. Sorting. Moving items.

I watched mesmerized. I don’t mean that to sound dismissive or uncaring. But I felt momentarily stunned. This was a first—a presumably homeless man in my neighborhood. I felt helpless, wondering what, if anything, I could or should do. I worried that he may not be warm enough in his maroon hoodie layered under a heavy plaid flannel shirt jacket. I noticed he at least wore gloves. I worried that he may not have food. I worried, too, that he may not have shelter, a warm place to sleep in the cold of a Minnesota winter.

A Good Shepherd stained glass window inside Trinity Lutheran Church, North Morristown, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

So many thoughts filtered through my brain as I watched while simultaneously listening to hymns and Bible readings and a sermon about Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Words that invited me to hear the voice of Jesus, to support, encourage and uplift others, including those in my community.

By my lack of action, I wasn’t exactly following that directive to live out my faith. I failed miserably. Because I did nothing.

I thought of phoning the non-emergency police number. But what would I say? That I felt concern for a man rummaging through a dumpster? That seemed a faulty plan since the individual had committed no crime. And what if the police came and the scenario quickly changed to something ugly. I’ve read/heard of that happening all too often. Not here. But as nearby as the Twin Cities metro an hour distant. I wouldn’t risk that.

And so I found myself at a loss. Approaching the man seemed unwise given COVID, concerns about my safety and so much uncertainty. I drank my coffee, ate my cereal in the warmth of my home. Sheltered from the cold.

After nearly 45 minutes, the man climbed out of the dumpster and onto his fat tire bicycle. He coasted down the street, turned the corner, then pedaled away. Empty-handed.

TELL ME: What would you have done? If this ever happens again, I want to feel prepared, perhaps have a plan of action to help. I’m open to suggestions, even to specific resources available to assist individuals like this. Thank you.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


When reporters cover tough topics… January 31, 2019


THE NEXT TIME YOU CRITICIZE a journalist or rant that reporters are nothing but a bunch of biased writers, consider this. My local newspaper, the Faribault Daily News, recently placed first in the Social Issues category of the 2017-2018 Minnesota Newspaper Association Better Newspaper Contest. For a series on domestic violence.

The award-winning series, titled “Abuse,” published over a period of a year and covered the gamut from information to interviews with survivors and their families, advocates, police and more. These were powerful pieces, written primarily by reporter Gunnar Olson but also by Regional Editor Suzanne Rook.

It is the personal stories which made this series. Emotional stories. Gut-wrenching, difficult stories. Stories that needed to be told, heard, written, read and, then, remembered.



When a reporter can take a topic like domestic abuse and violence, interview people in a caring and compassionate way, and then share those stories through dynamic writing, that work deserves recognition. By fellow journalists. And by readers. I applaud the Daily News for raising awareness, educating and connecting people to this social issue via deeply personal stories.

As a former weekly and daily newspaper reporter, I will confirm that writing stories like this is difficult. I once wrote a series on eating disorders that included interviewing a survivor and the mother of a young woman who died from anorexia. Although I kept my professional persona in place while working on the series, inside my heart hurt for every single individual I interviewed. Reporters have a job to do. But they are still human.

I often hear newspapers criticized for printing nothing but bad news. That raises my ire. Do not kill the messenger. Newspapers are not PR mouthpieces. They are newspapers. It is their job to report the news—good and bad. Features and hard news. They do not cause the bad news. People do.

Today, more than ever, journalists are under attack. For writing fake news. For not writing something they should have or for writing something they shouldn’t have. They are losing their jobs. The free press is threatened. That should scare every single person. Democracy needs a strong and free press.

Yes, I’ve sidetracked a bit. But I’ll circle back now and reaffirm how much I appreciate my community newspaper. Reporters keep me informed of local issues and happenings, of good news and bad. I am grateful for their hard work and their willingness to stretch beyond the everyday news to cover important topics. Like domestic violence.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The clothesline beyond laundry July 23, 2015

STORY UPDATED at 4:15 p.m. Thursday.

A display from The Clothesline Project. Image from The Clothesline Project website.

A display from The Clothesline Project. Image from The Clothesline Project website.

ON SUNDAY, JULY 26, a clothesline takes on an entirely different purpose than drying laundry as the Crisis Resource Center of Steele County and Redeemer Lutheran Church of Owatonna bring The Clothesline Project to Central Park in Owatonna. Begun in Cape Cod in 1990, the national art project raises awareness about violence against women. Those impacted by such violence express their emotions by writing on t-shirts. The shirts are then strung on a clothesline.

This shirt was added to The Clothesline Project four years ago by Kim Sisto-Robinson of Duluth. It honors her sister Kay, who was murdered by her husband in 2010.

This shirt was added to The Clothesline Project four years ago by Kim Sisto-Robinson of Duluth. It honors her sister Kay, who was murdered by her husband in 2010.

The Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women manages The Clothesline Project traveling exhibit in Minnesota. Eighty decorated shirts representing the 80 individuals killed through domestic violence in Minnesota during the past three years are part of the display coming to Owatonna.

From 3 p.m. – 7 p.m. Sunday, attendees can create and view t-shirts honoring victims and survivors of domestic violence. A ceremony begins at 4 p.m. with remarks by the Rev. Kirk Griebel, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran; reading of a mayoral proclamation declaring July 26 as Domestic Violence and Abuse Awareness Day in Owatonna; and remarks from Crisis Resource Center and law enforcement representatives.

The back of the shirt includes the names of Kay's three children. Kim found the lips blotted on a piece of paper in one of Kay's books. A Duluth printed printed them on the shirt. Kay kissed everything with her big pink lips, says her sister.

The back of the shirt includes the names of Kay’s three children. Kim found the lips blotted on a piece of paper in one of Kay’s books. A Duluth printer printed them on the shirt. Kay kissed everything with her big pink lips, says her sister.

The Clothesline Project promises to be a powerful visual focused on raising awareness about domestic abuse and violence. I encourage you to attend. I expect every single one of you knows a woman and/or family that has been impacted by this. I do. Many.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in every three women will suffer some form of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime. For men, that number is one in four. Remember also that domestic abuse is not always physical. It can also be emotional, mental, spiritual and social.

Do all you can as an individual to stand strong against domestic abuse and violence. Refuse to remain silent.

As Pastor Griebel said in remarks at the Owatonna City Council meeting Tuesday evening, “Silence provides a cover for those who perpetrate domestic violence and abuse, while breaking the silence of domestic violence and abuse allows healing to begin.”

Powerful words.

Come on Sunday. Create a t-shirt. Join those who are choosing to break the silence.


FYI: If you are currently in an abusive relationship, seek help. Call a local safe haven/resource center or the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233. If you are in immediate danger, call 911.

Leaving an abuser is an especially dangerous time. Seek help and have a safe plan to leave. You will need a protection plan for a year or longer after leaving your abuser. There are people willing to help. You are worth it. You deserve to live free of abuse of any form.


Kim has made it her mission to speak out against domestic violence. She is the voice of her sister Kay, pictured here.

Kim Sisto-Robinson has made it her mission to speak out against domestic violence. She is the voice of her sister Kay, pictured here. The shirt Kay is wearing is now part of The Clothesline Project.

I would also encourage you, dear readers, to click here and read My Inner Chick, a blog written by Kim Sisto-Robinson of Duluth, Minnesota. Kim’s sister, Kay, was murdered by her husband in 2010. This blog is one of the most powerful I’ve read on the subject of domestic abuse and violence. Kim’s words will empower you and give you hope. She writes: “Kay was silenced, but her voice lives through me.”

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thank you to Kim Sisto-Robinson for sharing the photos of her sister and of The Clothesline Project shirt honoring Kay.


On ARTour: A peek inside Kip O’Krongly’s studio & art October 25, 2013

Cerarmic artist's Kip O'Krongly's second floor studio.

Ceramic artist Kip O’Krongly’s second floor studio.

HER ART STUDIO POSSESSES an almost industrial, spartan look. Clean lines. Tidy. Labels. Schedules. Everything just so.

Supplies and tools, all in their place.

Supplies and tools, all in their place.

Kip O’Krongly freely admits to her need for orderliness in the second floor ceramics studio of her Northfield home.

Gertie rises from her spot beneath the windows.

Gertie rises from her spot beneath the windows.

Here, in this slanted ceiling room with the tile floor she laid and with sunlight streaming in, Kip’s dog, Gertie, rests briefly on a blue and green plaid blanket below double windows. A short respite from visitors, like me, who have filtered into Kip’s studio and home during the South Central Minnesota Studio ARTour.

During this (last) weekend open house, I am visiting the studios of select artists I have not seen on past tours.

Cows also grace one of Kip's plates.

Art Kip creates on her ceramic plates sometimes makes statements about social issues, like the piece on the right.

I am drawn to Kip’s place by the tractors, wind turbines and corn I’ve seen showcased online on her ceramics.

Definitely a transportation themed piece going here.

Definitely a transportation themed piece going here.

She tells me that themes of food, transportation and energy run through her work. Once she points that out, I ask whether she was raised on a farm. No. Alaska.

We don’t get into details about the themes, but I mention that I grew up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie and am visually troubled by the wind turbines that populate the landscape, ruining, in my opinion, the aesthetics of the prairie.

More than tractors and corn...

More than tractors and corn… Corn grows from oil rigs.

Kip says she welcomes how her art opens up dialogue and the opportunity to hear differing opinions on social issues. And I sense her sincerity in stating that.

The door opens into Kip's studio.

The door opens into Kip’s studio.

I am intrigued, too, by her name. Kip O’Krongly. It possess a certain snap, a certain strength, a certain ruggedness. I never ask. But I don’t need to. Her work, talent and confidence as an artist define Kip O’Krongly.

FYI: The works of two other ceramics artists, Joel Froehle and Juliane Shibata, were also showcased in Kip’s home. However, they were not in-house when I visited.

Please click here and then here to read previous posts from the South Central Minnesota Studio ARTour. And check back for more posts in this five-part series.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling