The Courage to be Different

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Every time a shooting star crossed the sky. Every time a four-leaf clover was picked from its stem. Every time a coin was tossed into a fountain. Every time birthday candles were blown out.

Every time, Ally Taubenheim made the same wish. To live a life without a rare autoimmune disease and skin disorder causing pigment to disappear, leaving white patches in its place. But most of all, she wished to look and feel normal.

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Hope and healing after war

veteran-flag-sept2016-sizedTodd Kuikka’s voice is clear, calm and confident. A perfect reflection of life today, he says. “I never would have imagined my life could be this good, after it had been so bad.” His story is not an anomaly, and like many war Veterans, Todd faced a difficult struggle once returning to civilian life after multiple tours of duty. Overseas, he spent day after day in high-stress situations dismantling explosive devices and making sure fellow soldiers returned from missions alive.

“I loved my job and was proud to serve my country, but it was intense,” he shared.

His wartime experiences left crippling imprints on his soul and in his mind. Following honorable retirement from the military, he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It was challenging to go out in public, where the smallest noise would trigger memories and transport him back to a catastrophic environment where he saw and heard things most people wouldn’t comprehend. He was plagued with recurring flashbacks and nightmares, making it difficult to find peaceful sleep. Struggles with depression grew.

Isolation was his defense against his demons, and soon he added alcohol as a shield from the darkness his life had become. It didn’t take long before his self-medication began to erode the tight-knit dynamic of his family.

Todd and his family found renewed hope in Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS of MN) where therapists supported him and his family as he re-integrated into civilian life.  Together, they reopened lines of communication and rebuilt their foundation.

“I am so thankful places like LSS of MN exist for people like my family and me. We were able to get to a place where we weren’t afraid to talk about the issues bothering us,” he said. “We reconnected emotionally and spiritually.”

Now, his priorities are nurturing his mental health and enjoying each day with family. They’ve also utilized more community resources, including LSS Financial Counseling. Greater control of their finances has afforded them freedom to focus on the future.

Last February, Todd published a book, Veteran Field Manual: Civilian Life 1-1, about learning to accept and cope with PTSD. “It’s been such a therapeutic and cathartic venue for me,” he said. It’s also been rewarding to experience the impact the book has had on the Veteran community worldwide. Todd has received notes from soldiers as far as Germany, Romania and the UK, thanking him. “It’s helped me to help other people.”

He’s also helping himself heal by continuing to explore his love of art and design. Alongside his wife, Erika, he owns and operates Loon House Designs and Concepts, a small mom ‘n pop shop. Business is good, but slow, just how he likes it. A manageable workload grants more time to focus on maintaining his stability and health.“I take one day at a time. Recovery from something as traumatic as war is never finished,” he said. “There’s always work to be done.” He journals and logs everything, including his sleep patterns. It can be a lot of work, but it pays off.  He has his sobriety, his health and his family. “There isn’t much more I could ask for. I’m happy.”

Help for caregivers parenting someone else’s child

VertrauenRobin, a single grandmother, was faced with the unexpected need to request custody of her six-year-old grandson. While she had been his primary caregiver for many years, she said, the responsibility of taking on full-time parenting felt overwhelming. She had so many questions. What legal help was available? Could the county assist with resources for child support? How could her grandson adjust to his new situation? How could she support him through this difficult transition?

With help from an attorney, the school district, county and Kinship Family Support Services at Lutheran Social Service, she tackled each matter one step at a time.

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Safety and Stability Leads to Success

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When Gecora and her family moved from Chicago to Minnesota, she was excited to start somewhere new. After her father’s growing struggles with addiction led Gecora’s family to homelessness, the excitement she felt turned to disappointment and fear. “I had no idea what was going to happen to us,” she said. Gecora, who was trying to finish high school and get to college, did what she could to help. But a part-time job wasn’t enough. “A lot of the money I earned, my father used to buy his drugs,” she said.

Gecora knew that the longer she stayed in an unsafe, unhealthy environment, the more she was jeopardizing any chance to succeed. She made the decision to leave her family and try to make it on her own. “I was scared, but anything else had to be better than where I was,” she said.

After spending a few nights riding the bus and wandering Minneapolis’ streets alone, Gecora learned of LSS Safe House, an emergency shelter for youth ages 16 to 20-years-old. Last year, LSS of MN metro housing programs for youth – Rezek House, LifeHaven, Safe House and the Transitional Living project – served 210 young people and their children.

“Our work is as unique as the kids we see come through our doors,” said Monica Jones, program coordinator for LSS Youth and Family Services. “They’ve each been through something different, but their need for safety and stability connects them. We make sure they know that what they’ve experienced isn’t their fault, that they are capable of turning their lives around, and that we will walk beside them every step of the way.”

When she moved into the family-style home on a quiet St. Paul street, Gecora finally had the unconditional support and guaranteed safety she needed to get back on track in school. “School was a way to get away from the real world,” she said. “It was a place where I could find support from caring teachers and social workers and have fun with my friends – many of them didn’t even know I was homeless.”

Gecora stayed at Safe House for more than a month before she was approved for an apartment at LSS’ Rezek House, a two-year transitional housing program for youth experiencing homelessness. At first living alone was scary, but she adjusted well. She got a job and regained focus to excel in her classes. While LSS staff cheered her on, Gecora worked very hard and graduated high school with a 3.5 GPA. She is now looking forward to enrolling in college courses.

“Gecora and many other kids come to Rezek and Safe House because they don’t have anywhere else to go to find the security and safety necessary to their success,” said Monica Jones, program coordinator for LSS of MN. “Here, kids know they are loved and safe and they don’t need to worry about finding their next meal. They are able to plan their futures.”

Finding Their Place in This World

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Andrew and his wife, Kelly, knew one day they’d be parents. After having two biological children, adoption wasn’t part of the plan. Then one night they were captivated by news coverage of a tsunami in Asia that made them acutely aware of the plight of orphans everywhere.

“The broadcast was riddled with stories of children who became orphans overnight,” Andrew recalled. The couple felt compelled to do more than send donations. They were moved to create a loving home for several children in need. “Without skipping a beat, we decided to take some of these kids into our home and into our family.”

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A Perfect Double Storm

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Andrea Trautman was at work with her newborn baby an hour away from home when the twin tornadoes merged into one massive funnel cloud and slammed into her community. Meanwhile, Andrea’s brother raced against the storm to pick up his sister’s older children, Graycen and Ashlyn, from daycare and get them safely to their grandparents’ house — a home built to withstand the severe weather the prairies can bring. Cuddling her newborn and following the path of the tornado from afar, Andrea listened as the storm headed for her parents’ house. Her husband, Levi, was also working that day and following the path of the storm.

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