Season of Thanks

Seven Minnesotans share their stories of hardship—and how those challenges shaped them for the better

When Minnesota clans gather around the table on Thanksgiving Day later this month, many of them will take turns listing the things they’re most grateful for. Such lists will surely include the worthy-but-expected items—family, friends, good health—not to mention the occasional note of gratitude for “big-ticket” items; a raise, a handsome house, or a new Johnson outboard motor. But what about the gifts that don’t come neatly wrapped in beautiful-but-expected packaging? We’ve found seven Minnesotans who feel sincerely thankful for unexpected, challenging, and sometimes burdensome gifts. Read on, and then go recount your blessings.

Photo by Kelly Loverud

Sheltering Arms

Kathleen Hook, Eagan

As the only nurse at a high school with more than 2,000 students, I get to know a lot of the kids, but some really stand out. For many, I’m their only health-care provider.

LaShay was a strong student who faced serious challenges at home but was quietly determined to make it. One day, she came into my office and told me she was pregnant. I was the first person she told. She was relatively sure she’d be in harm’s way if she divulged her condition to her mother; their relationship is tenuous at best. She needed help processing the information and deciding her next steps.

LaShay is an incredibly strong, stoic individual yet a tiny little thing. When she first came to me, she was as little as my 9-year-old, not even 100 pounds. Though she tried to downplay it, it was clear she was in great distress: pregnant, not feeling well, hungry. We talked about her options, how she’d have to tell her mom. She agreed to call me if she was in trouble. I would worry if she wasn’t at school and told her I was there to help.

One day, when LaShay was seven or eight months pregnant, she came into my office carrying a huge backpack. She started to cry, which she never does. I unpacked her bag to make it lighter; it was filled with books for calculus and AP physics and English lit. Here was this tiny, pregnant girl without a steady place to call home who was carrying college-level course work, showing up at school every day, and doing her homework in the nurse’s office. She was hanging on by the skin of her teeth, but she was hanging on.

I felt unwilling to witness her suffering anymore. I needed to do something. Another teacher and I talked it over and both offered to take her in, but LaShay has her pride and refused. She was living with her mother, but it was clear things were going downhill. Then, at the end of the school year, she had her baby. When I went to see her and the baby—a boy named Santana—at her mom’s place, I felt like she was doing okay. Over the summer, I only heard from her once.

When school started, it was LaShay’s senior year. She showed up for the first day or two but then disappeared. I tracked her down, and it was apparent things were really bad. I reminded LaShay of my offer. A few weeks later, she called me in the middle of the night and said, “You need to come get us.”

LaShay and Santana moved in with my family in September 2009. We eventually found child care for Santana. LaShay finished her senior year and received an awesome scholarship to my alma mater, St. Catherine University. They’re on the waiting list for family housing. I’m fist-pumping happy about this turn of events, so thankful for all the assistance she’s received.

Having LaShay and Santana in our lives has been one of those unexpected blessings you wouldn’t have imagined, but once it’s happened, you couldn’t imagine life without it. This was a situation so desperate it forced me to reexamine my beliefs and put them into practice. I’m thankful I’ve had that opportunity.

And there’s one other thing I’m thankful for: I don’t know anybody who’s had a baby brought into their life who isn’t grateful for that experience. Santana has brought so much joy and exponentially more love.


Work That Matters

David Buck, Minneapolis

In 2006, I was working as a project manager for a real-estate developer. One day, my boss asked to see me. I thought he was going to compliment me on something; I’d just been given a hefty raise. But he wanted to talk because he had to let me go. I thought, “I can’t believe this is happening.” But it was. I called my wife, and I went home. My 8- and 10-year-old boys were there. I could tell from their faces that their mom had already told them. It was a sad, sad day.

I gave myself some time to get over the shock. I had to fight the urge to get a job—any job—to replace that income as quickly as possible. Something told me to take a step back. My wife supported me in this. At the time, she had a job she really liked; she’d come home and tell me about all the important things she was doing. I was envious. Long ago I had lost interest in my job. I wanted to find a career I really cared about, one that I wouldn’t want to escape from at the traditional retirement age.

I decided to take the summer to focus on what I really wanted to do. I did some journaling.

I met with career counselors, took assessments, read books, met with my minister, had coffee with friends. One of the people I met with was Jan Hively, Civic Ventures Purpose Prize fellow and founder of the Vital Aging Network. She pointed out I wasn’t alone, that there were many people my age—I’m 50—struggling to find meaning in their careers.

By the end of summer, with Jan’s support, I had come up with the idea to establish a nonprofit networking and support organization to help people at midlife find careers that support their desires for meaningful, vibrant lives.

Today, SHiFT hosts twice-monthly forums to help members find inspiration in their searches for meaningful employment. At first, I hosted gatherings at a local coffee shop, but word spread, and quickly our meetings grew to 50 or 60 attendees. Our approach is really taking off, especially with the baby-boomer generation. We are looking for funding, writing grant proposals, and developing programming to help members navigate the stages of midlife transition.

I’m only making a little bit of money at this, but I’ve never felt happier.

Out of Many, One

James Rosenbaum, Minneapolis

My grandparents were European Jews who moved between Austria and Romania, depending on who had won the last war, to avoid the pogroms. They came to the United States in the early 1900s, eventually making their way to Minnesota. They were naturalized here, so I didn’t have to be.

I was raised in St. Paul. Before retiring a few months ago, I was a U.S. district judge for 25 years. Part of my job was to officiate at naturalization ceremonies, one of my favorite responsibilities.

No matter what your political persuasion, these ceremonies are moving. Each group that’s being welcomed into the country looks like a snapshot of world politics. Right now we are getting many Somalis and East Africans. A couple of years ago, we had a large number of people from the republics that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union. Before that, there were the “boat people” from Vietnam: They didn’t know what was in front of them, but they got in their boats, putting everything on the line to get to the United States. There are also new citizens from Norway, Britain, or Canada, but most of the people I naturalized paid in blood to become Americans.

I was expected to give a short speech at the ceremonies. I always said something like, “Look around you: When this ceremony is over, you will be just as American as anybody else here.” If it was held around an election, I’d tell them that, though I had no idea who was going to win, I did know that the next morning the banks would still be open, government offices would still be operating,

and there wouldn’t be armed soldiers on the street corners. If I spoke around the time of the Olympics, I would say, “Watch an Olympic team from China. See how all the players look the same? That’s because they’re all Chinese. If you look at an American team, you’ll see a polyglot of colors and races, but they are all American. In the past, people might have thought such a mixture was a weakness, but the truth is, that’s what makes this country strong.”

I think it’s a blessing to be able to do this job. It reminds a person of the principles this country was built on, and no matter how cynical you might be about all the “proud to be an American” jingoism, to see the bedrock of our country played out in living color is truly inspirational. I’ve been tremendously lucky to have helped new citizens achieve this very important milestone in their lives, and for that, I’m thankful.


Up In Smoke

Jen Augustson, Edina

On February 23, 2010, I was at work when a neighbor called to say there’d been a gas leak and a huge explosion in our neighborhood. She thought it was our house. I was in shock.

A coworker was driving me home when my husband, who was on a business trip to Amsterdam, called. He said, “The vet just called and said they have the dog. They said she was okay but a little burned. What’s going on?”

What was going on was this: Our house had blown up. Our dog, Grete, the only living thing in the house at the time, had been launched through a window by the explosion. A passerby had taken her to the vet. When I got to my neighborhood, the police had set up a secure perimeter. An officer confirmed that everything was gone.

After the explosion, neighbors immediately—before I had time to process the fact that we no longer had any material possessions—started offering me things, asking “What size are you?” “Can we bring you dinner?”

I knew the most important things were okay: our five-year-old was at school, and our two-year-old was at my mom’s house. Still, all our possessions were gone. Most could be replaced by insurance, but some, like the homemade Christmas stockings and the letter with handwritten notes from Senator Wellstone, could not.

As sad as I was to lose those belongings, I was buoyed by the people who quickly rallied to support us. Even complete strangers came forward, like the high-school student who collected toys, clothes, and household items.

For the first few weeks afterward, we lived with my parents. Today, we live in a town home while our new house is being built on the site of the old one. We should be able to move in by January.

What happened to us was just plain bad luck, and while I would never say I’m glad it happened, losing everything gave me a new appreciation for life, for community, and for the small kindnesses people are capable of.

I’m thankful no one was hurt. I’m thankful our dog escaped. And I’m thankful for the new perspective on life this tragedy gave me. That said, it’s painfully clear that things aren’t fair for everyone. When we lost our house, we had a strong support network; not everybody has that. I hope someday I can pay it forward—spread some of the good luck we experienced to those who need it more than we ever did.

Flesh and Blood

Joel Carlson, Vadnais Heights

I had heard about kidney donors, but I didn’t know you could donate a kidney to someone you didn’t know. One day, I got a mailing from the Kidney Foundation, explaining the tragedy of kidney disease and showing statistics about how many people were on the waiting list for donor kidneys. Then, out of the blue, I got an e-mail from the organization. I still don’t know how they got my address.

A month or two later, my wife and I were watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy about kidney donation. She turned to me and said, “You’ve got to look into this. It seems like you are being asked to do something.”

I got in touch with the University of Minnesota Medical Center’s transplant program and met with the director. I did the paperwork, got the blood test. Not long after, they called to say they’d located a person I’d be a match for if I wanted to go ahead. I talked it over with my wife and four kids. Knowing our children are healthy and don’t have kidney problems, we made the decision for me to be an anonymous donor. I went through a battery of mental and physical tests, and on February 25, 2009, I had the surgery.

I was in the hospital for two days afterward, but it took a solid month to recover. A week after surgery, I was moaning and groaning, and my wife said, “Just remember, you made this choice. It was not about you, and now you are making it about you.” It refocused my attention as to why I did what I did. I didn’t complain again.

I have received two letters from the man who received my kidney. He’s in his fifties, a grandfather. He was in failing health and on dialysis for three years before the surgery; now, he said he was doing phenomenally. He calls me his “second-life partner.”

I would do it again if I could. It’s been extremely gratifying to see someone’s life transformed. It’s a drop in the bucket, but it’s one person whose life is better because of me.

I’m thankful this man is doing so well. I’m also thankful for the opportunity to make this donation. It gave him a second chance at life, and it gave me a chance to live the kind of life I was supposed to lead.



Jon Huston, Buffalo

In 1971, I left Korea. I was adopted by a family in Buffalo, Minnesota. They already had three biological children, and, at 6, I became their youngest.

My biological father was an American soldier who left Korea to fight in Vietnam. He died there. My mother tried to raise me by herself, but she was poor. In Korea back then, Amerasian children were relentlessly picked on, their mothers shunned. My mom decided to give me up for adoption so I could have a better life.

I remember when my mom took me to the orphanage; I stayed for a week for screening and physicals. Then she took me back home, and I lived with her until I left the country. She actually took me to the airport the day I came to America.

I grew up a happy Minnesota boy, raised by a wonderful family. I never even thought about finding my birth mom until my first child was born 13 years ago. My early life was a puzzle; I wanted to put the pieces together so that I could tell my daughter about her heritage.

For 12 years, I searched on my own. Then a friend told me about a Korean reality TV show that helps reunite families. He sent in my documents and photos, and I was invited on the show. I used a webcam to tell my story.

A week later I got a call: They’d found my mother. I went back on the show via webcam. My birth mom was there. She had one of my baby pictures. It was the first time I’d seen a photo of myself before age 6. It was a really emotional moment.

A few months later, on the 37th anniversary of the day I left for America, I went back to Korea, where I was reunited with my birth mom. Don’t get me wrong: I love my family in Minnesota. My adoptive mom and dad are my parents, my adoptive siblings my siblings. But I immediately felt a strong connection with my biological mother.

I’m thankful for the friend who got me on the show. I’m thankful for my family here. But most of all, I’m thankful for my birth mom. Even though it broke her heart to do it, she gave me up so I could have a better life. The first time I went back to Korea, I stayed with her. She showed me albums she’d made of my photos. She sat and watched me sleep. I have never felt so loved, and for that, I’m thankful.

A Place Called Home

Rena Moran, St. Paul

Ten years ago, I decided to move to Minnesota. I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago. I love the city, but I wanted a safe, stable environment for my seven kids.

After giving it some thought, I decided to move my children—except my oldest daughter, who stayed behind with an aunt to finish her senior year in high school—to Minnesota. I left a place of security for the unknown.

I had a nephew here. He picked us up at the bus station. I told him I didn’t want my family to be a burden on him, so he dropped us off at the Sharing and Caring Hands homeless shelter.

We lived there for four months. It wasn’t an easy place to live, but it was a good place. Volunteers came in to help us. It was my goal to be in our own home by Thanksgiving, and by that time, we had moved into a duplex in St. Paul. Things were looking up.

My first job was cleaning at Camp Snoopy at the Mall of America. I have a degree in early childhood education, and I eventually found a job in the child-care room at the Midway YMCA. Later, I worked as an administrative assistant at a commodities-trading firm.

I eventually bought a house. I was welcomed by my neighbors, a community of strong families that share my passion for justice. My activism was born when the city, after constructing a library nearby, paved only half the street, even though the entire street was assessed the cost. I collected signatures for a petition I then presented to city officials. The city paved the rest of my street.

After that, I got interested in politics. Last year, I went to the 65A Precinct caucus, and when I heard Cy Thao wasn’t running for reelection, I decided to step forward. I’d been thinking we needed someone who could represent the community at the capitol—maybe I was the one I’d been waiting for.

In August, I won the primary against Jeremiah Ellis, the party-endorsed candidate. If I win the general, I will be the first African American state representative elected in St. Paul. I’m ready to make history.

I’m so grateful to live in a state where good people were willing to help my family achieve our dreams. I’m also thankful I was able to purchase a home and keep my family intact. And I’m thankful for the voters of District 65A who have gotten me this far.

Andy Steiner, a Minneapolis freelancer writer, profiled Congresswoman Michele Bachmann in the September issue of Minnesota Monthly.