Kewaunee County People of the Year 2019
KEWAUNEE COUNTY – A pastor fighting for LGBTQ rights within her church.
A high school student providing support to younger students.
A local businesswoman working to make a lighthouse a focal point of her city.
A family proving that 'Kindness Matters.'
And artists helping to revitalize a city's downtown.
Based on stories we've written in the past year and nominations sent to us be readers, these are the community members the Star-News would like to recognize as its 2019 People of the Year. They are:
Rev. Jennifer Emert challenged her church's stance on LGBTQ members
The sign, a rainbow-colored series of doors outside Algoma United Methodist Church, says it best: "Our Doors are Open 2 All Really All." And the website address for that and West Kewaunee United Methodist is ourdoorsareopentoall.org.
That's not necessarily what's in church laws, though.
The United Methodist Church has had rules since 1972 that bar LGBTQ clergy members and bar clergy from presiding over same-sex marriages. Those rules were not only reaffirmed in a special General Conference of UMCs around the world in February but penalties on clergy who violate the rules, part of UMC's Traditional Plan, were made harsher as well.
Emert, who's been in the Methodist ministry for 20 years and became pastor for both Algoma and West Kewaunee United Methodist Church in 2018, is challenging the church to change those rules.
First, she led a vote in each church to join the Reconciling Ministries Network, an organization of more than 900 UMCs across the country that disagree with the denomination's longstanding rules. Both churches voted unanimously in favor on March 31, making them just two of 20 in the state to do so, and the only two north of Sheboygan and Baraboo to be in the network at the time of the vote.
Then, Emert co-authored a resolution that was passed in June at the Wisconsin Annual Conference — a regional gathering of United Methodist churches from the Upper Midwest — to reject the UMC's rules and apologize "for the harm it has caused LGBTQ+ persons, their families, their friends and the body of Christ."
She also embarked on a tour of UMCs around the state to discuss the issue with other congregations and give their clergy and members the chance "… to talk about their experiences, process their thoughts in a safe environment," she said in a story from the July 13 issue of the Star-News.
Emert said she's standing up to the church because she feels its rules are not only discriminatory but also go against what the church is supposed to stand for. As she wrote in the resolution, "… the first general rule that (founding leader) John Wesley gave the people called Methodists concerns 'doing no harm' … Methodists promise 'to resist evil, injustice and oppression …"
RELATED: Algoma, West Kewaunee United Methodist churches take stand on LGBTQ discrimination
Abigail Robinson mentors Algoma students
As a sophomore two years ago at Algoma High School, Robinson created a survey to assess the social and emotional wellness of Algoma Middle School students as part of a class project. The responses led her to decide she wanted to help them.
"I always had a passion for kids, helping others," Robinson told the Star-News in March. "I wanted to do something more, but I wasn't sure what it was."
Working with school counselor Teal VanLanen, Robinson launched a mentoring program that matched Pups — Algoma Middle School students who perhaps lacked support and needed guidance — with Wolves, high school students who met with the Pups one-on-one twice a week just to talk and offer advice as needed.
That led to the Wolf Den program for 2018-19, an advanced version that has Wolves, Pups, school staff and community volunteers meet together after school. The Pups are given a life skill to learn and work on, ranging from hygiene to positive mindsets, before breaking into small groups to work on social and emotional well-being. One of the mentors or volunteers serves dinner for all afterward.
"The whole program started after the mentoring program, when we realized we could do a lot more for these kids," Robinson said. "It's a great way for the kids to meet community members and for the community members to get to meet the kids. Building a sense of community, that's been one of the best parts."
Robinson graduated this spring and is now attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but she worked to make Wolf Den a sustainable program. Anna McClure and Paige Panger are running it this school year, and VanLanen said recently that participating Pups have shown a marked increase in academic and social well-being.
Which is what Robinson was aiming to achieve, not just for the Pups but perhaps for Wolves, too.
"I've seen so much growth in these students," Robinson said in March, "just by them thinking about things before they speak, thinking about feelings, how their actions impact other people. There's been so much growth in one year — it's crazy.
"Personally, I've seen a lot of change in the way I view myself and others. I feel my empathy has increased very much; I've become a much more grateful person."
RELATED: Algoma high schoolers mentor young students in Wolf Den, Wolves and Pups programs
Ryan, Amy and Sky Schoenberger, prove that 'Kindness Matters'
Amy Schoenberger came up with the idea to start a "Kindness Matters" Facebook page for Sky, her and Ryan's daughter.
The idea initially was to highlight the kind acts of others and make an impression on Sky, Ryan Schoenberger said. But now, the Casco family, with 7-year-old Sky coming up with ideas, is performing its own kind acts.
"We wanted to set examples for how important kindness is, how it matters what you do," Ryan said. "That's evolved into little things of spreading kindness."
This summer, Sky set up a lemonade stand at her grandparents' farm, with proceeds used to help students in need at Algoma Elementary School purchase book supplies. At 50 cents a cup, the beverage sale raised about $500, Ryan said.
"That really showed the community involvement," he said. "A lot of people came out just to support the cause."
Then, there's the Kindness Book Bag. The Schoenbergers put together a bag containing five children's books selected by Amy with kindness as the subject, along with an open journal and gifts. The bag is given to a family to read the books together, write what they learned about kindness in the journal, help themselves to one of the gifts, then pass the bag along to another family.
The Schoenbergers also worked with the Algoma Area Chamber of Commerce to organize a group of carolers from the Algoma Youth Club to sing Christmas carols to various people. Amy Schoenberger said the community can nominate an individual — an older or lonely person in need of holiday cheer, for example — or group to get a visit from the carolers. The singers also visit places like assisted living facilities to spread the music.
"It's one of our favorite things of the year," Amy said. "The recipients are just overjoyed. Some of them are even crying."
Most recently, Sky found a way to turn her sadness into kindness. The family dog, Blayke, died in the spring, and Sky was thinking about what would be her first Christmas without the pet.
Her response was to suggest donating a pile of cat and dog toys in Blayke's memory to the Green Bay campus of the Wisconsin Humane Society and 4-Legged Friends Veterinarian Clinic in Luxemburg. Sky and Amy went shopping Dec. 23 to make it happen.
"(Sky) comes up with these ideas," Amy said. "She loves it, she knows it's the right thing to do. It's really heartwarming."
Robin Nelson, guiding light for the lighthouse
The doors to the Kewaunee Pierhead Lighthouse opened for public tours for the first time in years July 20 and 21 and Sept. 7. Those marked a high point for three-plus years of work by people to rehabilitate the 110-year-old structure, and Nelson is at the forefront of the work.
Nelson, whose owns Nelson-Sivret Chiropractic in downtown Kewaunee, is chairperson of the Kewaunee Pierhead Lighthouse Committee under the jurisdiction of the city (which owns the building, while the U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for lighthouse operations) and on the board of Friends of the Kewaunee Pierhead Lighthouse, the nonprofit group that raises funds for the light and brings project ideas and plans to the committee for city approval.
The group's efforts led to renovation of the exterior of the building (built in 1909 as a fog signal before the light was added in 1930) to protect it better from the weather, moving its old Fresnel lens to a new home at the Kewaunee County History Center where it can be viewed by the public, and building the Donald L. and Jean M. Smith Lighthouse Park to welcome visitors to the lighthouse walkway on the Lake Michigan shore.
Thus, a sense of pride was evident when the lighthouse opened for those tours this summer.
"It meant a lot to us. It was very exciting to share that with the community," Nelson said. "There were scores of people who said they grew up in the community but haven't been able to get inside. Most people were just thrilled they were able to get inside."
More work is planned in the coming year, especially making the interior "a little safer, more user-friendly," Nelson said. She said the Friends groups hopes to have the lighthouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places and open it for more tours in 2020, especially for bigger community events that draw residents and visitors downtown.
"I can't believe how many people from the community really love this lighthouse," she said. "And once you're up there, it's a million-dollar view of the whole community."
RELATED: Fresnel lenses gone from Kewaunee County lighthouses, going to museums
Kendra Bulgrin and Jimmy Eddings, renovating Algoma's art scene
The owners of James May Gallery continued their efforts to not just make Algoma an arts destination, but also to make use of old, empty buildings downtown. In June they opened a second location, James May North, in the former Algoma Post Office building at 219 Steele St., a few steps away from their original gallery.
The post office had been vacant for at least seven years until Bulgrin and Eddings bought it and renovated it themselves over the course of more than a year, as they did with the old building that became their first Algoma gallery in 2015. They're now moving everything from the original gallery to the new one, which will open Jan. 2 as James May Gallery.
That first building won't go dark again, as a photography studio will open there in January.
The new location is more than just an art exhibit space, though. Bulgrin and Eddings remodeled it with the idea of using space in the gallery as an events center that could host anything from art retreats, art workshops and makers space weekends to wedding receptions and band performances.
It falls in line with their efforts to promote not just the arts, but also downtown Algoma since they opened James May Gallery almost five years ago. Those efforts include launching First Fridays, which had galleries, book stores and other downtown businesses stay open late and host special events or exhibit openings on the first Friday of each month.
"I was feeling like our current space, we've kinda outgrown," Bulgrin said for a story in the June 8 issue of the Star-News. "And I wanted to bring more events and more art to the area … I just fell in love with the space … The spaciousness of it, the airiness, the light coming in from outside, I knew it would be an excellent event space and gallery space."
RELATED: Old Algoma Post Office reborn as new downtown art gallery, events space
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Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected]
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Kewaunee County People of the Year 2019