Andrew Cameron is serious about fun. The founder of Mendota Heights-based Lions United Fitness Center, which caters to people with special needs, just started a monthly open house called “dead lifts and cupcakes,” to be followed a month later by the workout “milk and cookies.” Be prepared to bench press before you get anywhere near the sugar on that one.
In January, he’s launching Superhero Saturdays, to prepare his “little champions” for the Special Olympics, with 1 ½-hour workouts for kids ages 7 and younger. “Who doesn’t want to dress up like a superhero and come work out?” Cameron asks with a laugh.
The certified Special Olympics coach and personal trainer opened Lion’s Fitness in May (lionsunitedfitness.com) and now has about 75 members. Some have Down syndrome, autism or fetal alcohol syndrome. A few have cerebral palsy and get their workouts done in their wheelchairs, until he gets them (albeit surprised at first) out and onto the equipment.
“Coach Andrew,” as many call him, encourages his athletes to leave normal challenges at the door and focus on becoming stronger, more confident and, best of all, part of a community.
“Almost every athlete who walks in meets every other athlete,” he said. “It’s a really positive environment for them.”
Rows between equipment are wide enough for wheelchairs to pass through; drinking fountains are positioned at wheelchair level. An autism sensory room is in the works.
In 2020, Cameron will begin offering scholarships through a rigorous application process.
“I’m treating this just like a professional scholarship,” he said. “They must commit to three days a week and they’ll get free membership for the year, plus progress photos. I want to make this affordable for everybody.”
Tom Hastings comes twice a week to work out with his 30-year-old son, David Hastings, who has autism. David found Lions on his own, his dad said. “He’s a kid who doesn’t get a lot of exercise.”
That’s changing thanks to Coach Andrew.
“He’s not a drill sergeant but he’s really patient and encouraging,” Tom said of Cameron. “He’s a one-on-one guy. That special Olympics background … he knows how this works.”
On a recent afternoon, Sean Connaughty gave a handful of college students a tour of his show at the White Page gallery in south Minneapolis. A series of paintings hung on one wall, bright blue and yellow depictions of Connaughty’s favorite subject — his only subject these days: Lake Hiawatha.
Beside the paintings hung other less conventional artworks. Multi-page reports on the lake’s future. The journey of a drop of water, sketched to scale. And trash. Trash piled in the window bay, spread across tables, bagged in the corner.
With the help of neighbors, artists and friends, Connaughty plucked each piece of trash from Lake Hiawatha. Plastic bottles and baubles, syringes and cans of spray paint. Clad in a straw hat, he canvasses the lake twice a week in the summer, by kayak or on foot, picking up trash.
“This is five years of work,” Connaughty told the group.
Five years back, the University of Minnesota professor wanted to launch a floating artwork in Lake Hiawatha just south of his home. Researching the 55-acre lake, Connaughty fell in love. But he also became alarmed. Trash was everywhere. To figure out where it was coming from, he dropped a small green ball, marked with his address, into a storm drain near his house. Two weeks later, he fished the ball out of the lake. That ball earned a spot on the wall inside White Page, too, a key chapter in Connaughty’s story.
He’ll tell that story at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in March, part of the McKnight Artist Fellowship he won this year. The White Page show, which wrapped up in November, played with ideas of beauty and ugliness. Trash, strewn across tables, contrasted with Connaughty’s vivid paintings, portraits of how the lake could be.
Midway through the tour, the students’ instructor, artist Shana Kaplow, asked the key question: “How do you approach all this through the artist lens? Because there are many simultaneous roles you’re playing — activist, community organizer, Good Samaritan, engaged citizen … and artist.”
Connaughty responded in his plain, soft-spoken way. “I don’t worry or wonder about whether it’s art,” he said.
“But I do want to show an example of artist as contributor to the betterment of society. And to show the role that art can play in making change.”
Tuleah Palmer doesn’t believe in quick fixes. The troubles facing her community — housing instability, health disparities, job scarcity, ongoing oppression — require patience and perseverance to mitigate. But Palmer, executive director of the Northwest Indian Community Development Center in Bemidji, does believe in Native people’s capacity to methodically do that healing work. Buoyed by a staff that nearly doubled in 2019, she’s working with U.S. Sen. Tina Smith’s office to repurpose a federal building for transitional housing and an Indigenous marketplace, purchasing land for an intergenerational neighborhood development focused on health and education, and gearing up for the legislative session where she’ll fight for long-promised aid for tribal housing.
“It cannot be understated that the shortage of housing stock is a fundamental root cause of the unparalleled disparities nationally that are layering in our region,” Palmer said. Nearly 1 in 4 American Indian children is in an out-of-home placement, she noted, due largely to disproportionate evictions of low-income Native women. Which workers find a job is also on Palmer’s mind. Hers is a region where 50% of employment is in health and human services — and most of those jobs go to non-Native people, she said. “We are looking at anchor institutions and their accountability to local prosperity,” she said.
Mostly, she’s tapping into what is rich and good inside her circle. A Native Men’s Summit launched in 2018 “has created space for Native men to safely and openly speak of men’s roles in community and families,” and their response to the devastation of those communities. “I continue to be awed by the courage the men that work at our hub have,” Palmer said.
Martin Jennings, program officer for the Northwest Area Foundation, is in awe of Palmer who, he said, is a rare “combination of spiritual strength, intellect and heart.” The recipient of a $500,000 Bush Prize in 2018, Palmer said she’s humbled by the work and hungry to push forward in 2020. “I get to see people’s lives get better every single day and know that if people have a choice for better, they usually want it,” she said. “I have come to understand that parents who do better have children who do better. I have been so fortunate in my life to have so many people carry me through tragedy and tribulation. How could I not spend every living moment putting it back into the universe?”
Henry Oswald’s uncle died from multiple myeloma in 2012, just 47 years old. His untimely death left a lingering impression on Oswald, now a teen. “I could only imagine what families of kids with cancer had to go through,” said Oswald, a junior at Wayzata High School.
Oswald knows a bit more about that emotionally wrenching scenario as an active member of the Pinky Swear Foundation. The nonprofit partner of M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital was established by Steve and Becky Chepokas in memory of their son, Mitch, who died in 2003 from bone cancer.
Eight years ago, Oswald and his twin sister, Emily, began competing in Pinky Swear kids’ triathlons; he joined the nonprofit’s youth leadership council two years ago, organizing fundraisers for Pinky Swear (pinkyswear.org) and promoting its simply good mission — kids helping kids — to fellow high school students.
Oswald, an Eagle Scout, took his advocacy up a notch last year when he noticed that the grab-and-go food pantries, located for many years on the U’s two children’s cancer floors, were disorganized and largely unhealthy.
“The pantry needed help,” he said.
Those snacks, he knew, were more than snacks. They were a lifeline for parents who needed something quick to eat so they wouldn’t have to leave their child’s side for more than a few minutes. They were a momentary return to normalcy for kids dealing with needles, scary smells and unpleasant “chemo taste,” a chance to grab a bag of goldfish and a sports drink and just feel like any other kid.
Oswald began to revamp both pantries, organizing and relabeling 10 bins, eliminating some items and adding kid-friendly staples: Fruit cups, granola bars, oatmeal, raisins, apple sauce, animal crackers, popcorn, microwaveable single serve meals like mac and cheese, sports drinks and bottled water.
“We want kids and their families to know that this is here for them to use,” he said, noting that two volunteers refill the pantries weekly.
“Our goal was making it easier for them to do that.”
Ashley Lawson, Masonic Children’s development officer, expressed her gratitude to the teen for providing sustenance through the pantry, “so parents can focus on what is important — their child.”
Lorna Rockey was 4 years old when her parents, Indian immigrants who spent more than 20 years in east Africa, moved to Minneapolis. “I remember landing at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport,” said Rockey, the youngest of four siblings. “There was a mosaic of the entire world on the floor and I remember hopping on it and saying, ‘Hey, Mama, I’m going to do that. I’m going to go everywhere.’ ”
Rockey has made good on that promise, visiting all seven continents as a professional photographer and humanitarian worker, often documenting the realities of the indigent in slums and orphanages. But she’s equally touched by a humanitarian effort that grew organically in her own backyard. Rockey owned a cafe for 15 years before asking, “Now what?” The answer: peace work, which led her a year ago to participate in a project called Twin Cities Nonviolent that encourages people of all political and religious affiliations to practice peace.
On Sept. 23, nearly 100 people from as far away as Chicago arrived in Minneapolis’ Uptown to join Rockey for a night to celebrate “diversity, community and harmony.” Among invited speakers: a Hindu boy who reminded those gathered that “we have to love everyone because they are ourselves”; a Native American girl who shared a story passed down to her, and a Jewish girl who recited a passage from the Talmud. Then the group, including an infant and marchers in their 80s, walked for six blocks singing “Give Peace A Chance,” picking up bystanders along the way who joined the expanding parade. “There were little kids with kazoos, a mandolinist, flutist and drummer — people just started joining us; they walked, too,” said Rockey, delighted. Afterward, they gathered at a peace mural titled “Let Peace & Love Prevail,” wrapped around a garage at 31st Street and S. Fremont Avenue. Rockey commissioned the mural by the artist Black Daze, which included the words “peace” and “love” in 22 languages. A reception followed with area businesses contributing pizza, water, apples, skewers, doughnuts, baklava, coffee and prizes for peace trivia.
“It was a beautiful night, an amazing event,” she said. “Daughters brought their mothers; parents brought their kids. People who rarely get out of their paradigms — who would not otherwise share a meal with a Buddhist or Native girl — said, ‘Let’s do this together.’ ”
Hudda Ibrahim is a uniter of Minnesotans of all backgrounds. The St. Cloud college instructor and Somali refugee launched a bimonthly free event in 2017 called “Dine and Dialogue” to counter racial tensions in the region over the increasing refugee population. Since then, the event has grown in popularity, with nearly 100 people of all faiths and backgrounds gathering in November at the St. Cloud Public Library for sambusas (fried meat- or vegetable-filled pastries), Somali tea and a conversation about shared values. The next one takes place in January.
“It’s just a movement,” Ibrahim said, adding that people are drawn to attend to socialize and network, but also to seek out a better understanding of the Somali-American community. “I really want to build bridges and understanding,” Ibrahim said. Lea Iverson, 68, a retired teacher from Elk River, has attended four “Dine and Dialogue” events with her husband, interested in fostering unity over division. “I got to know people better. I think it’s just building community,” Iverson said. “We’re all realizing we’re more alike than different.” Iverson likened the deeper conversations over common values to the feeling of devouring a hearty meal. “It resonates with your soul,” she added. Ibrahim also runs a consulting firm, speaking about inclusion to groups across the state, from Willmar to Sartell. She’s teaching diversity and social justice at St. Cloud Technical and Community College, where she gave the commencement speech in May, and is pursuing her MBA on a Bush Foundation fellowship. She also wrote a children’s book, “What Color is My Hijab,” that will be published in March; it’s her second book. The children’s book tells the story of Tima, a Muslim girl who has to choose what color hijab, or headscarf, to wear each day; she’s inspired by Muslim women who are doctors, pilots and other professionals. Ibrahim decided to write the book when her 7-year-old niece, Tima, couldn’t find children’s books with characters who looked like her. Ibrahim, who moved to St. Cloud in 2006, graduated from the College of St. Benedict and has a master’s degree from the University of Notre Dame. She aspires to earn a doctoral degree and someday run for office. “She’s clearly made a difference and she’s continuing to look at new ways of engagement,” St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis said. “She has an endless drive and a big heart.”
In their voices