Inspirational Individuals

Austin, Minnesota: An Autism-Friendly Town

 

The Famous Hormel Historic Home

In my novel True Mercy, Bruce often had to worry about his son Adam’s behavior in social settings. But if the story took place in Austin, Minnesota, he would have had much less to worry about. That’s because Austin is an autism-friendly town. Ten years ago, the community used their resources to educate local business owners about autism and train them to be aware of these customers’ needs. The town even has a community autism resource specialist. Therefore, Austin’s residents are probably more aware than most about the signs of autism that my story’s character Adam displayed: intense fixation on specific topics, unusual body movements like hands flapping, echolalia (word repetition), and meltdowns caused by feeling overwhelmed.

So how did the small town of Austin make itself autism-friendly? Just go in the Hormel Historic Home, a nonprofit museum dedicated to all things Spam, the canned meat that has been produced by Hormel Foods there for 81 years. Mary Barinka works there. She once worked as a Hormel marketing executive and is now the town’s autism resource specialist as well as a museum employee. Barinka has a sixteen-year-old daughter with autism. Along with working at the museum, she handles questions and requests from parents that can range from how to give a presentation to new business owners and their employees on becoming autism-friendly, where to find a good speech therapist, and how to help a local community college launch a special autism program.

You may wonder what business owners must do to make their establishments autism-friendly. Often individuals with autism react negatively to overstimulation, so these changes can include dimming the store’s lights, lowering the music volume, and training employees to speak slowly and in short phrases, and to be prepared to have more patience than usual.

The program began when retired Hormel executive and family friend Gary Ray asked Barinka if her then six-year-old daughter was able to participate in summer camp. Barinka told him she and her husband would like her to attend camp but it was not possible because they would need the camp to understand their daughter’s special needs and they would have to hire a helper. Ray and his wife then offered a donation for Barinka to start a camp. She jumped on it. The Ray’s have since donated over $100,000 to fund more programs such as a monthly respite night with children’s activities to give parents and caregivers a break, a peer program at the high school where student volunteers to spend time with another high schooler with autism one-on-one, day camps, and of course, the museum.

Hearing about the town’s programs, new families have moved in. Barinka also gets calls for advice from other towns who would like to set up their own autism-friendly programs.

Perhaps someday I will be able to visit Austin, Minnesota. I am sure my fictional character Adam and real-life individuals with autism would thrive in this town.

Information for this post came from The Washington Post article “The town that gave the world Spam is proud to be ‘autism-friendly’ by Amy Ellis Nutt.

True Mercy can be purchased on Amazon, IngramSpark, and Smashwords.

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Thai Cave Rescue: Finally, News to Inspire

Photographer: Adam Sherez

I have a voracious appetite for keeping up with the news, but after days of reading or watching TV following Meghan Markle breaking royal protocol by crossing her legs at public events and the continual mud-slinging of the country’s politicians, it was refreshing to read about the dramatic rescue of the 12 boys and their 25-year-old soccer coach who were trapped in a cave for over two weeks in Thailand.

Like most people, I read the articles and watched the news with growing trepidation about their chances of rescue after being trapped while under threat from heavy rains flooding the cave and their dependence on oxygen tanks. The soccer team was exploring a cave after soccer practice, and since it was rainy season in Thailand, a downpour flooded the tunnels and they became trapped. Oxygen tanks and food and water were brought down while rescue crews worked tirelessly to keep them alive while planning their rescue.

A few days ago a former Thai navy diver died while attempting to bring oxygen supplies down to the cave. Unfortunately, his own oxygen supply ran out. At that point their fate looked bleak.

But on Tuesday, while reading about which NBA players were likely going to stay on their teams and which may be traded and Kim Kardashian’s little daughter North West making her fashion debut, I was happy and relieved to find out that all thirteen young men were rescued. And even more heartwarming, it was an international effort—divers and other help came from Britain, the US, Australia, and Israel along with the Thai Navy SEALS.

While I don’t wish for anyone to be in danger and in need of rescue, it was certainly a story of substance and encouragement. Apparently, others thought so as well. A Hollywood movie producer and a major publisher have expressed interest in bringing their story to the public.

Clearly, this was a news item that touched our spirits and gave us the inspiration we all crave.

RIP Saman Kunan, a former Thai Navy seal, who passed away in his valiant attempt to rescue the boys.

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Shaquem Griffin and NFL: Story of Inspiration

I’ve been wanting to write a post about an inspirational person. This past weekend, I saw Shaquem Griffen and his twin brothe Shaquill on TV during the NFL draft and realized I had my post.

Shaquem Griffen was born with a pre-birth condition known as Amniotic Band Syndrome, which occurs when a limb in the fetus becomes entrapped in amniotic bands while still in the womb. In Griffin’s case, a band wrapped around his left hand had cut off circulation. Pain wracked his hand during his first few years of life, and one day his mother found him in the kitchen trying to cut off his hand with a knife. The next day his family took him for surgery to amputate that hand.

Shaquem said he had to work harder than everyone else to prove he was just as capable. He and his twin brother Shaquill played football growing up, and both earned scholarships to the University of Central Florida. However, during their first years of college, Shaquill played on the UCF football team while Shaquem got redshirted for the first year, playing second string, and then getting bumped down to third string. Then in the third season, his luck changed. The coach brought him back to play for the team.

And play he did. For the next two seasons the team was the undefeated, national champions. In 2016, Shaquem was named the American Athletic Conference Defense Player of the Year.

Now Shaquem has been drafted to play with the Seattle Seakhawks, reuniting him with Shaquill, who was drafted by Seattle last year.

Shaquem has a message he wishes to impart based on his life experience:

I’ve had people doubt me my whole life, and I know that there are a lot of kids out there with various deformities or birth defects or whatever labels people want to put on them, and they’re going to be doubted, too. And I’m convinced that God has put me on this earth for a reason, and that reason is to show people that it doesn’t matter what anybody else says, because people are going to doubt you regardless. That’s a fact of life for everybody, but especially for those with birth defects or other so-called disabilities.

The important thing is that you don’t doubt yourself.

In addition, Shaquem’s father taught him never to quit with a motto he always keeps in mind: “Nothing comes easy.”

Shaquem Griffen drafted by the Seahawks
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A Life Well-Lived Despite Serious Flaws

Over the Labor Day weekend, I had the pleasure of learning more about a person who was exceedingly blessed with both intellectual and athletic gifts, born into one of America’s wealthiest families, and yet used his talents and opportunities for the betterment of all Americans.

I traveled to Sagamore Hill in Long Island, New York and spent two days gathering more information about Theodore Roosevelt.

Granted he was in a unique and privileged position to never have to worry about struggling to make a living in order to survive, which is the predicament of the great majority of us. But he did not squander his life drinking and partying—he used his time on Earth to help improve people’s lives.

The following are just a few contributions he made that I learned about at Sagamore Hill:

  • In his 1912 presidential bid, Theodore Roosevelt was a strong supporter of women’s suffrage.
  • He negotiated the deal to end the Russian-Japanese War, winning the Nobel Peace Prize. He actually was the first American to win a Nobel Prize.
  • He championed workers’ rights, reforming child labor laws and instituting the eight-hour workday.
  • When he was governor, Roosevelt was instrumental in reforming the corruption that ran rampart in the New York City Police Department.
  • He advocated food regulations and was instrumental in creating the Food and Drug Administration.
  • He was one of the leaders of the Rough Riders, a group of men who fought in Cuba to protect Americans during the Spanish-American War.
  • He was a scholar and wrote 35 books.
  • Roosevelt was a hunter and taxidermist. He would study the insides of animals he would kill to learn more about them.

On top of that he was devoted to family. Roosevelt set aside 4PM everyday to play with his children. It didn’t matter who he was meeting with, whether a dignitary or a cabinet member. He kept the 4PM appointment faithfully for his family. (It would certainly be wonderful if we were all in a position to do that.)

Roosevelt stood every time a woman entered the room. (Men, take note.) In fact, he was critical of Winston Churchill because when they met at Sagamore Hill, Churchill failed to stand when a woman entered.

To demonstrate his concern for others, there appeared an article in The New York Times in 1908 in which one of his secret service men manhandled a local dry goods merchant. Someone incorrectly informed the secret service man that the merchant came to Sagamore Hill drunk and unruly so he threw him out. When Roosevelt found out about the mistake, he apologized to this man. How do I know this? This merchant was Charles Kursman, my husband’s great uncle.

Of course, Theodore Roosevelt did have his faults. I did not find out about them from visiting Sagamore Hill, but from reading William J. Mann’s The Wars of the Roosevelts: The Ruthless Rise of America’s Greatest Political Family (Harper, 2016). In it Mann wrote: “For all his desire to be a force for good and for change in the world, the iconic dichotomy of Theodore Roosevelt would be his often brutal control of his family and his inability to countenance different worldviews.”

One of his serious transgressions was putting his younger brother Elliot (Eleanor Roosevelt’s father) in an asylum because he was an alcoholic and may have suffered from mental illness. Separating him from his family destroyed him and devastated Eleanor, who adored her father. Of course, in those days people did not understand these afflictions, but Theodore was more concerned Elliot would embarrass the family and derail his political ambitions than he was about his brother’s life.

The other was that Elliot fathered a son with his mistress named Katy Mann, who was a servant to his wife Anna. Of course, this was a potentially embarrassing situation, but Theodore (and Eleanor) never acknowledged the son’s existence or left him an inheritance. Katy Mann was desperately poor and sought out Theodore’s help but nothing was ever done.

Fortunately, the son Elliot Roosevelt Mann led an upstanding life despite his unfortunate beginnings . He grew up to be a bank clerk and auditor and was a family man who would have made the Roosevelt clan proud. (He tried to reach out to his half-sister Eleanor but she never responded.)

Why am I bringing up these two incidents? Even though Roosevelt accomplished much and used his talents and wealth to good use, I don’t want to portray him as a completely unselfish saint. I want to applaud his accomplishments and a life well-lived but by the same token, I want to give a balanced accounting of the man.

In other words, extoll the virtues but include the human being, warts in all.

Idelle Kursman is the author of the novel True Mercy. Please read and review her book on Amazon. Comments are always welcome.

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There’s No Age Limit to Great Accomplishments!

This woman was born in 1860. Starting at 12 years old, she worked as a live-in housekeeper for 15 years.

This woman only attended school in the summer because she didn’t have warm clothing for the winter.

When she got married, she and her husband worked on farms in Virginia.

They spent two decades living and working on four separate farms.

The couple had 10 children but only five lived past infancy.

To supplement the family income, she made potato chips and churned butter from a cow she bought with her savings.

In 1905, they moved to Eagle Bridge, New York.

She and her husband eventually bought a farm.

Her husband died of a heart attack at the age of 67.

She then retired and went to live with her daughter. She never got married again.

This woman was always creative. For years she would craft embroidered pictures of yarn for family and friends. She also made stunning quilted objects.

In her seventies, she developed arthritis. She couldn’t embroider anymore, so she began painting.

When she had too much pain in her right hand, she would switch to her left.

She would paint rural scenes.

She created over 1,500 paintings in three decades.

Louis J. Caldor, an art collector, spotted her paintings in a country drugstore window. He bought up all of her paintings from the store and ten more from her Eagle Bridge house.

The following year three of her paintings were displayed in the New York Museum of Art.

When she first began, she would sell her paintings for $3-$5. At the height of her fame, her paintings sold for $8000-$10,000.

In 1949, President Harry Truman presented her with the Women’s National Press Club trophy.

During the 1950’s, Grandma Moses’ art exhibitions often broke records all around the world.

She has been quoted as saying, “I had always wanted to paint, I just didn’t have time until I was 78.

Don’t believe it is too late to make your dreams come true. Never give up.

Idelle Kursman is the author of the thriller True Mercy.

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