Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Perspective & hope June 26, 2021

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

PERSPECTIVE DOESN’T DIMINISH challenges in life. Rather, perspective helps one to assess, to consider, to reshape thoughts.

On Thursday, the word “perspective” edged to the top of my mind upon learning about the collapse of a 12-story residential building in Surfside, Florida. Suddenly what Randy and I experienced this week doesn’t seem all that bad. Minor, really, in comparison to the loss of life and home in Florida.

As I write this, four people are confirmed dead with 159 missing. And then there are the injured and those who are now without a home. It’s a lot of loss. A lot of grief and pain and heartache and stress beyond comprehension.

When I view the rubble of the high-rise, I think of the fallen World Trade Center towers and of the I-35 bridge collapse. The visuals from Florida imprint the immensity of the catastrophe. Media reports, especially interviews with loved ones of the missing, cause an emotional reaction which leaves me in tears, feeling deeply saddened. My heart breaks at the humanity of it all—the deaths of loved ones in such a sudden and awful way.

As six industrial-sized fans and a dehumidifier roar in our basement, I focus on perspective. I see those media reports featuring search and rescue teams, eye witnesses, family members, government officials and others at the site of the Florida tragedy. I also hear the repeated word, “hope.” Hope rises, even when it seems futile.

But, like perspective and resilience, we need hope. Especially now in Florida.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Reflecting on 9/11, then & now September 12, 2019

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In remembrance of 9/11, photographed last September 11 in Hastings, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.


YESTERDAY BROUGHT TIME for reflection. Reflection upon the events of September 11, 2001, a day which forever changed us as Americans.


I reconstructed a tower using the same blocks my then young son and his friend used on September 11, 2001, to duplicate what they saw on television. These are also the same toy airplanes they flew into the tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.


The terrorist attacks on our country made us feel vulnerable, unsafe and realizing, perhaps for the first time that, just because we live in America, we don’t live in a bubble of protection from those who would harm us.


Photographed along Interstate 90 east of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2011.


Yet, in the midst of that tragedy, that sorrow, that new reality, there emerged a solidarity. We felt united as a country, a people.


On the campus of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, a plaque honors an alumnus who died in the World Trade Center attack. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2019.


Eighteen years later I no longer see that unity. I see rather a fractured country. That saddens me. The discord. The political upheaval. Even the overt hatred toward certain peoples.


Faribault, Minnesota, firefighters pay special tribute to the fallen New York firefighters on this memorial sign. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.


Yet, when I look closely, I see the care and compassion extended by many Americans toward those who need our care and compassion. We have always been a giving nation. I hear the voices of those who speak for those whose voices have been mostly silenced by rhetoric and oppression and policies. We are still individuals with voices that matter.


My then 8-year-old son drew this picture of a plane aimed for the twin towers a year after 9/11 for a school religion assignment. He was a third grader in a Christian school at the time and needed to think of a time when it was hard to trust God. To this day, this drawing by my boy illustrates to me how deeply 9/11 impacted even the youngest among us. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


That ability to express ourselves—whether through the written or spoken word, in music, in art, in acts of kindness—remains. Strong. We have the power individually to make a difference in our communities, to start small, to rise above that which threatens to erode.


© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


How you can help a Faribault family dealing with loss & cancer December 18, 2018

Nate and Jackie Howells and family of Faribault.


IT’S BAD ENOUGH when parents lose a young child. But to endure such a tragedy shortly before Christmas deepens the pain.

This is the reality for a Faribault couple whose almost 4-year-old son, Casimir, died on December 13. On his first birthday on December 27, 2015, Casi aspirated a small object and stopped breathing. According to a Facebook page entry, he lost consciousness and went into cardiac arrest. The object was removed surgically. He then suffered seizure-like convulsions and was placed on life support. About two months later, Casi left the hospital and has since needed 24/7 health care. Now he’s gone.



But there’s more. Nate and Jackie Howells’ 10-year-old son, Xavier (known as Iggy), is battling metastasized cancer (rhabdomyosarcoma) diagnosed a year ago. He’s undergone surgery and continues with chemo. He’ll likely need another eight months of treatment.

Nate quit his job teaching children with autism at Jefferson Elementary School in Faribault to better care for Iggy. The Howells have four other children.

As I consider all of that, I am overwhelmed by the immensity of the situation. How can one family possibly endure so much? Loss. Grief. Pain. Uncertainty. Worry. It’s a lot to handle.


Iggy’s soccer team wore these shirts honoring their goalie.


While none of us can remove the emotional pain the Howells feel, we can pray for, support, encourage, uplift, help and care for them. Nate’s friend and former co-worker Lisa (also my friend) has established a gofundme page, Iggy Strong. She’s set a $43,000 goal, meant to replace Nate’s lost paycheck and cover daily living (think gas, groceries, etc.) and other expenses. Thus far donors have contributed nearly $8,500.

The $43K is a lot of money to raise. But I know people, when they see a need, rise to meet it. I am grateful to Lisa for initiating this effort, for reaching out to others (including me) who in turn can share this need. If you can give, please do so by clicking here. You’ll also find more details on Iggy’s battle with cancer.




There’s such sweetness in that freckled face. Such a signature boyish look that just makes me, as a mom, want to wrap my arms around Iggy. And his family.


Photos are courtesy of Lisa M. Bolt Simons, via the Howells family
© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A look back at the day the 35W bridge fell down in Minneapolis August 1, 2017

Crossing the new Interstate 35W bridge near downtown Minneapolis. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.


TEN YEARS AGO TODAY at 6:05 p.m. our perception of safety on bridges changed. The Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis collapsed during rush hour on August 1, 2007. Thirteen people died. One hundred and forty-five were injured.


Garrett with his mom, Joyce Resoft, about a month after the bridge collapse. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2007 courtesy of Garrett’s family.


As news broke of the bridge collapse, I expect many a Minnesotan (myself included) worried whether a loved one may have been on that bridge when it fell. None of my family were. But Garrett Ebling, who had recently worked as editor of the daily paper in my community, was driving on the bridge. Among the most seriously hurt, he suffered a traumatic brain injury and more.


This photo shows the opening spread of the feature article published in the November/December 2007 issue of Minnesota Moments. Casey McGovern of Minneapolis shot the bridge collapse scene. To the far left is Garrett before the collapse, to the right, his rescuer. The next photo shows his Ford Focus which plummeted into the Mississippi River. And to the right are Garrett and Sonja (his then fiancee), before the collapse.


At the time, I was writing for a Minnesota lifestyles magazine and, because of my Faribault connection to Garrett, interviewed him (via emailed questions) while he recovered. Garrett’s determination, tenacity, patience and faith impressed me. He showed incredible strength.


A section of the then now wow exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul features the 35W bridge collapse. This image shows the collapsed bridge and the emergency exit door from a school bus that was on the bridge when it collapsed. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.


Since then Garrett has written a book, become a father and eventually also gone through a divorce. I can only imagine the toll a traumatic event like this takes on a relationship.


All the children and adults on the bus signed the door on display. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Today, on the ten-year anniversary of the 35W bridge collapse, I am thinking of Garrett and all the others who survived. I am thinking also of the 13 who died on a metropolitan roadway on a bridge that failed. I am thinking of the families. I am thinking of the bystanders and of the first responders who helped save lives.


Crossing the new 35W bridge. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


And I am thinking how this tragedy forever changed us as Minnesotans. With the failure of that bridge, we lost a certain sense of security. But we also gained an appreciation for each other and for the strength of the human spirit. We were a united Minnesota, standing strong in the face of an unfathomable tragedy. There is something to be said for unifying moments like that in which we forget our differences and focus instead on caring for each other. On August 1, 2007, we experienced such a moment. We were one Minnesota.


FYI: Click here to read several poems published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on the five-year anniversary of the bridge collapse in 2012. My poem, Quotes from a survivor, is among them.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


An unspeakable tragedy in Faribault December 14, 2016

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used here for illustration purposes only.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used here for illustration purposes only and not photographed in the area of the current tragedy.

SOMETIMES INCOMPREHENSIBLE TRAGEDIES happen in life that defy understanding. Something so horrible that we can’t wrap our minds around reality. We wonder and weep and wish we would wake up and our world would be unchanged. The darkness gone, replaced by light.

In my community of Faribault, we are wondering this week. Wondering why an eight-year-old girl is dead, apparently shot by the man who was her legal guardian. Local police are calling the deaths of Lynnaya Stoddard-Espinoza and Ryan Perrizo, 33, an apparent murder-suicide. Their bodies were found Sunday afternoon inside their Faribault home. Both suffered gunshot wounds; a handgun was recovered next to Perrizo.

The deaths leave many unanswered questions. Mostly, why? Why did this happen?

Nearly three years ago, on January 31, 2014, Perrizo’s 39-year-old wife, Jodi, died following a sudden illness while vacationing in Florida, according to her obituary. And now these deaths. I can speculate. The police can speculate. The general public can speculate. But until the investigation is complete, we don’t have answers.

We have this fact: Two individuals are dead.

And we have a community affected by this unspeakable tragedy. I think mostly of the surviving families and then of little Lynnaya’s classmates at Faribault Lutheran School, the same school my three children attended. How do you explain Lynnaya’s violent death? How do you reassure and comfort and help these children cope? Can these kids even grasp what has happened? With an enrollment of around 100, Faribault Lutheran is a like a family. Lynnaya’s absence is real and children and adults—teachers, parents, grandparents—are hurting.

How do we as adults explain something we can’t even explain?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Part III from Wanamingo: The connection to a beloved hymn March 23, 2016

The Lars Larson log cabin sits next to the water tower in Wanamingo. The information center can be seen to the right

The Lars Larson log cabin sits next to the water tower in Wanamingo. The blue grey structure to the right is the information center.

IN THE UNLIKELIEST OF PLACES, beneath an aged water tower and next to an historic log cabin, an unexpected bit of Wanamingo’s history is revealed. It is typed on sheets of paper sandwiched under Plexiglas in a handcrafted case labeled Information Center.

The song: It Is Well With My Soul.

The song: It Is Well With My Soul. The writer and composer’s names are highlighted in blue.

It is the story of the beloved hymn, It Is Well With My Soul, and its link to this Southeastern Minnesota farming community of nearly 1,100.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.

My lips move in silence as I read the familiar words, the familiar melody chorusing comfort. It is well, it is well with my soul.

The story of the Spaffords and the hymn, along with images, is posted.

The story of the Spaffords and the hymn, along with images, is posted.

I’d never considered the story behind the words. But now that I’m reading about Horatio and Anna Spafford’s personal tragedy, I am deeply moved. The couple lost their four oldest daughters at sea when the Ville du Haure collided with an English sailing ship en route to Europe in 1873. Only Anna survived, cabling her husband, who remained back home on business, with two words: Saved Alone.

During his voyage to see his grieving wife, Horatio penned It Is Well With My Soul. Three years later, Philip Bliss composed the accompanying music.

This sign marks the log cabin.

This sign marks the log cabin.

But what does any of this have to do with Wanamingo? The connection begins about two decades earlier when 14-year-old Anna Larson journeys to Wanamingo Township from Chicago to be with her ill father. Lars E. Larson moved to Minnesota the year prior in hopes farming would improve his health. He died in the spring of 1857, within a year of Anna’s arrival. That same year, Anna, 15, met her Sunday School teacher, 29-year-old Horatio Spafford. In 1861, she married Horatio, a then successful Chicago attorney.

Within 10 years, the Spaffords have four daughters. And then those girls are dead, drowned at sea. Their mother, Anna, survives, kept afloat by a plank until she is rescued.

How many people drive by this log cabin on Main Street in Wanamingo and never stop? We were tipped off by a local to the story I've shared here, thus my husband and I stopped.

How many people drive by this log cabin on Main Street in Wanamingo and never stop? I was tipped off by a local to the story I’ve shared here, thus I stopped.

Having read this story behind the familiar hymn while standing in the shadow of the Wanamingo water tower next to the Larson log cabin, I am moved. I am moved by the faith of Horatio Spafford who, in sorrow rolling like sea billows, penned such profound and comforting words. It is well, it is well with my soul.

FYI: Check back tomorrow for another post in my “from Wanamingo” series. I will take you inside Trinity Lutheran Church.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Thoughts after tragedy strikes Minnesota’s Amish community January 13, 2016

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Driving Fillmore County Road 21 north of Canton toward Henrytown then west to Dennis and Mary Hershberger's farm. This is deep in Minnesota Amish country.

Driving Fillmore County Road 21 north of Canton toward Henrytown then west to Dennis and Mary Hershberger’s farm. This is deep in Minnesota Amish country. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

THREE SUMMERS AGO, my husband and I explored the extreme southeastern portion of Minnesota that is home to pockets of Amish. During that tour, just north of Canton, we followed back roads to the home of Dennis Hershberger, a gifted carpenter who crafts raw wood into stunning pieces of furniture at his Countryside Furniture business.

An overview of Canton's historic area. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

An overview of Canton’s historic area. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

Today I am thinking of Dennis and other Canton area Amish suffering the loss of two community members who died in an early Monday morning house fire. The victims have been tentatively identified as a local bishop, Yost Hershberger, 58, and his son, Ben, 18. Three other family members went to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries.

My final shot on the Hershberger farm: the barn, the buggies, the stack of wood.

A snapshot of Dennis Hershberger’s farm yard. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

I don’t know whether Dennis the carpenter is related to the two men who died. Hershberger is a common name among the Amish. But Dennis and his family live near the scene of Monday’s fatal house fire along Fillmore County Road 21. Whether connected by blood or by community, the commonality of grief now unites this Amish settlement.

Just last May, 23-year-old Yost J. Hershberger of Decorah, Iowa, died after being trapped between a logging truck and a trailer in nearby rural Mabel. Another tragedy within this tight-knit community of Amish.

On this day, I feel a deep sense of sadness for the Hershberger family, for these Amish of southeastern Minnesota.

© Copyright 2016 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


One family’s journey: Five years after the Cottonwood school bus crash February 13, 2013

SHE ASKS IF I REMEMBER “the cupcake thing.”

But I have only a vague recollection of lots and lots of cupcakes.

Traci Olson, though, remembers, like yesterday, the details of “the cupcake thing,” which she compares to the biblical account of the feeding of the 5,000.

First, the cupcakes started coming in, then more and more and more for her 9-year-old daughter Emilee’s funeral. There were enough left over to serve mourners at the funeral of the Javens brothers, Hunter, 9, and Jesse, 13. The cupcakes just kept coming, so the sweet treats were also offered at the funeral of Reed Stevens, 12.

Still, all the cupcakes had not been eaten. So whoever wanted the mini cakes could take them home.

Lakeview kitchen staff bakes cupcakes each February to celebrate the four students.

Lakeview kitchen staff bakes cupcakes each February to celebrate the four students.

“The cupcake thing” didn’t end in February 2008, when Emilee, Hunter, Jesse and Reed, all students at Lakeview Public School in Cottonwood, died in the crash of their school bus and a mini van. Five years later, the tradition continues every February 19 (or the nearest date school is in session) at Lakeview. The cooks bake cupcakes and frost them in the students’ favorite colors—pink or purple for Emilee, red for Reed, green for Hunter and black for Jesse.

It is a way to celebrate the lives of the four, whom Traci describes as “fun, happy-go-lucky kids.”

“We don’t want the kids to be defined by how their lives ended,” she emphasizes.

Traci, who teaches early childhood special education at Lakeview, has, by default, she says, become the key organizer of Lakeview’s annual Journey of Hope, a community gathering to celebrate the lives of those lost and the healing that has taken place since that February 19 afternoon in 2008 when life forever changed in Cottonwood, a farming town of 1,200 in southwestern Minnesota.

Timberwolves mascot Crunch during an earlier appearance at Lakeview.

Timberwolves mascot Crunch during an earlier appearance at Lakeview.

This year’s celebration is slated for Valentine’s Day and starts with an afternoon presentation on bullying by Minnesota Timberwolves mascot Crunch followed by a community gathering in the evening. That includes serving of pulled pork sandwiches beginning at 5 p.m., photos with Crunch, a slam/dunk half-time show and three basketball games.

Traci says Journey of Hope has always focused on the positive, not on mourning the community’s loss.

Days before the five-year anniversary, Traci shared her thoughts with me, in an hour-long phone interview, about her daughter, life since the crash and the healing that has taken place. We did not discuss Olga Franco del Cid, who was driving the mini van that blew through a stop sign and slammed into the school bus. Franco del Cid was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and other charges and sentenced to 12 ½ years in prison.

Chun Wen (Emilee) in China

Chun Wen (Emilee) in China

TRACI REMEMBERS WITH CLARITY the first time she laid eyes on baby Emilee in China. Chun Wen, among about 20 babies, just sat and stared at her adoptive mom. “I picked her up and she was mine,” Traci says of her strong-willed, independent girl with the deep, raspy voice who came home to Minnesota at 10 months of age.

Emilee LaVanche, as Traci and Charlie Olson renamed their daughter after Traci’s grandparents Emil and LaVanche, fit right in with her older siblings, Bailee and Sidnee. She emulated Bailee’s piano playing, becoming an accomplished pianist, and eventually followed the family’s passion for showing horses. On her seventh birthday, Emilee got her own horse, Barbie.

“Everybody knew her,” Traci says of her outgoing and vivacious daughter who made friends wherever she went. She would light up a room or a show ring. And she was, most assuredly, Traci says, a blessing to her and Charlie’s family, which at the time of Emilee’s death included Bailee, 14; Sidnee, 11; and Rilee, 6.

Traci would later return to China for the third time (Rilee is also from China) to adopt seven-year-old Lucee. She makes it clear that Lucee is not meant to replace Emilee, noting rather her deep love of children: “I was meant to be with kids and to do stuff with kids.”

Emilee with her horse, Barbie

Emilee with her horse, Barbie

ON THE AFTERNOON OF THE CRASH, Traci, then a health and physical education teacher at Lakeview, told Emilee, “You need to ride the bus (home about two miles)… I love you.”

That marked the last time she spoke to her daughter.

A short while later her husband, a part-time school bus driver, phoned to tell Traci about a “bad bus accident” half a mile from their farm. Traci rushed to the crash site to help.  Then, upon realizing it was her children’s bus, she desperately began searching for her three kids riding the bus that day. She found Rilee, but could not locate Sidnee or Emilee.

As Traci recounts the aftermath of the crash which killed four and injured 17, she describes a chaotic scene, “a lot of hoping and praying,” racing to the hospital in nearby Marshall, helicopters coming and going, her desperate inquiries for information about “the only Chinese girl on the bus,” the family’s journey to Sioux Falls where Sidnee underwent emergency surgery for a lacerated eye, and the eventual visit to the funeral home to identify Emilee.

Traci recalls a phone conversation with her sister. “I can’t find Sidnee and Emilee. This is really, really bad.” In that moment, when she could not find her daughter, Traci says, “I knew right away.”

Emilee and Sidnee were sitting across from each other half way back on the bus, Emilee with Hunter. Jesse and Reed were behind them. Rilee was at the front of the bus.

Thinking back to that awful day, Traci says, “You never move on, but you’re forced to move forward. We can’t change it, we can’t make it go away.” But, she is determined that her surviving kids, now ages 9 – 19, not reference their lives “before and after Emilee.” And she is determined, too, to celebrate Emilee’s life.

For example, each year Traci celebrates Emilee’s November 2 birthday with her classmates. This past November, the now Lakeview 8th graders made and donated 30 fleece blankets to the Ronald McDonald house in Rochester. In the past, Emilee’s classmates have made Native American horse sticks and welcomed former WCCO TV news anchor Don Shelby in honor of their classmate’s birthday. Lakeview students got copies of Shelby’s inspirational book, The Season Never Ends.

The birthday party always focuses on honoring her daughter in an educational and memory-building way, Traci says. And it always ends with serving of Emilee’s favorite root beer floats.

Traci also coaches Emilee’s classmates’ basketball team.

“My saddest day will be when no one will remember who Emilie is,” Traci shares.

THAT IS NOT LIKELY to happen any time soon as Traci speaks of a caring community that continues to “wrap their arms around us and the other families.” Good friends before the crash, the Olson, Javens and Stevens families now lean on one another.

Not that there aren’t difficult days. Her family is open and honest enough, Traci says, to admit when they’re having a bad day. Sometimes that means stepping out of school for 20 minutes to cry in her car, or doing something with the horses or her family to deal with the grief. She’s especially grateful, Traci notes, for supportive school administrators and colleagues.

Losing a child “makes you totally rethink what’s important,” Traci says. And for her and Charlie, that’s being together as a family, participating in those competitive Ponies of America Club horse shows, celebrating Emilee’s birthday and more. “We’re not thinking coulda, shoulda, woulda.”

The Olsons also have adopted a new perspective on life as they’ve already endured the most difficult of losses. “If we lose a crop (the Olsons farm), we can live through that,” Traci says.

TODAY THE FAMILY CONTINUES to sense Emilee’s presence in their lives, whether in the pink and purple of a prairie sunset or someone mistakenly calling Lucee—now nine years old, the same age as Emilee five years ago—by her older sister’s name.

Traci tells me, too, “It is really hard to believe it has been that long.”

Five years.

But for this mother, the details of the day she lost Emilee remain as clear as the day she first locked eyes with her little girl in China.

Lakeview School graces the front of a thank you card I received a month after the bus crash.

Lakeview School graces the front of a thank you card I received a month after the 2008 bus crash.

FIVE YEARS AGO on February 19, I “knew” that an extended family member was on that same bus Emilee, Hunter, Jesse and Reed rode.

My cousin Joyce Arends’ grandson, 8-year-old Bryce, suffered minor injuries in the crash. Wanting to show my concern, I mailed a book, teddy bear and candy to Bryce as well as a note and memorial gift to Lakeview School.

I received thank yous from Bryce and the school and I’ve saved both.

Bryce told me he’d named his bear Fluffy and was sleeping with him.

The school responded, in part, with this message:

The outpouring of response from across the state, the nation, and even the world has overwhelmed all of us at Lakeview School, but the power of that support has given us strength and has allowed us to begin the long process of healing. Please know that we are all grateful.

I expect on this, the five-year anniversary of the bus crash, that Lakeview School, the Olsons, Javens and Stevens families, and the community remain grateful for the ongoing support of those who remember their children, for Emilee, Hunter, Jesse and Reed truly were all of their children.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photos courtesy of Traci Olson


Broken hearts February 22, 2012

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A dorm at NDSU, photographed during my campus visit last Friday.

FOUR YOUNG WOMEN die in a traffic accident along a snowy stretch of Interstate 94 in central Minnesota on Monday afternoon.

The news breaks your heart. How can it not?

Early Tuesday morning I published a post about a recent visit to the campus of North Dakota State University in Fargo, the destination for these women returning after a long holiday weekend.

I knew of the accident when I published the post. But I did not know then the names of the victims or their status as NDSU freshmen.

Jordan Playle, Danielle Renninger, Lauren Peterson and Megan Sample—three of them roommates—all from the Twin Cities metro area, are gone.

Students and staff on the campus I walked just days ago grieve.

Parents and siblings and other family members mourn.

Friends and high school classmates face the very real and tough reality of death.

And those of us parents who have sent our children off to college think about how many times we’ve hugged our kids goodbye, waved to them as they drove away and expected them to arrive, without incident, back at their dorms or apartments.

It is the kind of day when you want to circle your family close around you, wrap them in your arms and tell them how very much you love them.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling