Matt Wagner Returns Home While on Tour with Diavolo

By Sue Moore

The scene in the Schoolcraft Middle School library was one of adulation as all the school’s 5th graders crowded around their hero, Matt Wagner. He talked about his experiences as a gymnast with the Diavolo dance troupe which performed at Miller Auditorium on Feb. 27 and 28. The students attended the daytime performance on the 28th as part of Kalamazoo County’s Education for the Arts program.

Wagner grew up on Barton Lake, attended school at Howardsville Christian school and was a neighbor of Kelli Mein, one of the fifth-grade teachers in Schoolcraft. She had invited Wagner to come and talk to the students while in Kalamazoo for the performances. He was gracious enough to oblige, she said.

The students’ hands were up repeatedly, asking questions about his work, his experiences and even his conditioning for the arduous dance routines the unit performs. The group is subtitled “architecture in motion. The routines resemble modern dance to some extent but also involve athletic techniques, gymnastics and endurance. The structures they perform on cost millions to construct, Wagner told the students.
Some of the questions they asked:

How much do you practice? “Sometimes many hours a day.”

Do you know how to play Fortnite (an online video game)? “Yes, but I don’t play it.”

Why is Jacques the leader? “It was his dream to have a dance troupe.” Jacques Heim is the troupe’s founder and artistic director.

How much does it cost for the entire troupe to travel? “A lot. The 16 to 18 people have to fly, stay in a hotel room, travel in buses to get to the performance venue, rent studios for practice, pay for food for each day, employ truck drivers for the rented semi-trailers, costumes and sets. It adds up fast.”

What’s the biggest theatre you have performed in? “One in Germany where we appeared on TV.”

How did you come up with the logo? “Jacques actually did and this is the second one we have that plays on the name Diavolo.”

Did you win on America’s Got Talent? “No, we placed second.”

Did you get to talk to the winners? “We spend a lot of time waiting around backstage and get to know the other contestants.”

Do you get paid for doing this? “Not a lot but getting paid for what you love to do is not a problem.”

Do people recognize you when walking down the street? “No.”

Can you do a back flip on the ground? “Yes.”

Can you do a side aerial? “Yes.”

Do you get injuries? “We don’t use safety nets or mats when flying. We do have bumps and bruises but that just goes with the territory.”

After the performance some students waited around to get Matt’s autograph and ask him a few more questions. It appeared that they felt a little star struck and desired to know more.

When asked if he had any advice for the 5th graders, he replied, “The more you do, the better life can be for you! Always be willing to try new things!”

Chili Cook Off Signals the End of a Long Winter – Maybe!

By Sue Moore

Over 20 vendors will have chili samples for a hungry noon lunch crowd at the Vicksburg Community pavilion on Saturday, March 9 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. It’s the annual Chili Cookoff, sponsored by the Vicksburg Area Chamber of Commerce.

The festivities begin at 10 a.m. with the 5K Chili Dash, sponsored by Vicksburg’s high school track team with coach Lucas Wolhuis in charge of the race. All ages are invited to register and run, no matter the weather conditions on that day.

The Chili Cookoff has been a winter event in Vicksburg for over 12 years, having begun as a fundraiser for the Chamber. Three years ago, it moved to the pavilion on N. Richardson Street as a way to avoid the cost of renting a huge tent to house the competitive cooks that participate. The Chamber purchased tarps to surround the west side of the pavilion from the cold winds coming off Sunset Lake the first year at the pavilion. Then catastrophe set in with the winds changing course and coming from the east and the temperature dipping below 10 degrees.

The Chamber purchased enough tarps the second year, 2018, to go around both sides, only to be blessed with a beautiful sunny day in March. “We are ready for anything this year,” said Mandy Miller, Chamber president and chief organizer. “It’s not so much of a fundraiser now. We just want the community to get to know the Chamber, to come and participate, have fun and get to see their neighbors and friends after a long hard winter.”

Tickets are 50 cents to taste individual chili samples. There will be a People’s Choice contest for the most popular chili and a secret Judge’s Choice with prizes for the winners presented between 2 and 3 p.m. Medals for the runners will be presented in the pavilion soon after the race finishes. The race will start at Vicksburg Auto Body Shop on Spruce Street and go along the east side of the village, then through downtown Vicksburg and back to the starting line.

Distant Whistle beer will be available for purchase to complement the many varieties of chili on sale.

Tournament of Writers Now Accepting Entries

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Winners from the 2018 Tournament of Writers gather for their official picture after receiving their awards. Photo by Bill Christiansen.

By Jake Munson

“Swords down, Pens up, Get clacking, Go!” It’s time for the Tournament of Writers, a local writing contest for writers of all ages, sponsored by the Schoolcraft Friends of the Library. Now in its fifth year, the Tournament of Writers will partner with the Vicksburg Cultural Arts Center for the first time.

“We wanted to expand the tournament to include more area writers and judges,” Tournament Coordinator Deb Christiansen explained. She turned to the Vicksburg Cultural Arts Center. “We have admired the Tournament and are excited to help grow this fun local competition,” said Syd Bastos, board president and acting executive director of the Cultural Arts Center. The Tournament is also supported by the Friends of the Schoolcraft Library, the Schoolcraft Community Library and the Vicksburg District Library.

“This tournament is all about flexing the writing muscle and getting published. I’m encouraging those who may be on the fence about this to be bold and enter,” Christiansen said. The tournament is unique in that entries are judged by individuals who use their own criteria for judging. No meetings! There is a small entry fee, but entrants are encouraged to think of this as an investment in themselves and the community. Published authors are allowed to enter this tournament, but submissions must be unpublished. Entries may be submitted through Friday, March 29.

Last year there was a tie for Grand Prize winner: Sonya Sutherland of Vicksburg in Adult Fiction for her stunning piece titled, Living In The Moment and Amelia Brown of Schoolcraft for her beautiful graphic novel titled, Can You Hear Me?

“All the scoring was tight last year,” Christiansen pointed out. “Marilyn Jones of Schoolcraft and Barbara Vortman of Portage were neck and neck until the final point went to Vortman, and she garnered First Prize in Super Senior Fiction.” Marilyn Jones actually inspired the creation of the Super Senior Division, which is for those 70 and over. “I don’t have anything in common with a 50-year-old!” Jones exclaimed. Last year Christiansen created a “Director’s Award” that went to Jenna Pickern of Schoolcraft for her self-publishing endeavors.

There’s a new category this year—script/play, which will not have an age division, since new categories tend to not have many entries. Last year’s graphic novel took Grand Prize and was created by teen Amelia Brown. “Amelia was the only entry in the Graphic Novel category, but it was so good!”

Categories judged in age divisions are Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Poetry. There are five divisions, Junior (up to 6th grade), Teen (7th through 12th grade), Adult (Out of High School to 49), Senior (50 to 69), and Super Senior (70 and above). “The Junior Non-Fiction category hasn’t had any entries yet,” she said, “so if there are any future journalists or humanitarians out there, we’d like to hear from you.”

Entries will be judged during the month of April. Winners will be notified in early May, and there will be an awards ceremony. Authors will be published in Small Town Anthology V and each will receive a copy of the book. A book signing will be held in September. “Last year’s books were delayed because of the hurricane, and we had to postpone the book signing for a week,” Christiansen said.

Further details about the Tournament and how to enter can be found at booksfordessert.com or at the Schoolcraft Community and Vicksburg District Library.

Arts Exploration Lab coming to Vicksburg

art camp 1Two years ago, Vicksburg High students Laynie Leach and Vic Simmons participated in a strategic planning committee for the Vicksburg Cultural Arts Center (VCAC). They told committee members that teens wanted more opportunities to learn, create and experience art in the Vicksburg area.

Participants of the Arts in the Burg Summer Day Camp that had “aged out” of a program for 8-12-year-old students also wanted an arts camp for teens. “They asked. We listened,” said Syd Bastos, board president and acting executive director of the Arts Center. The result is approaching quickly.

“We are starting with the creation of the Arts Exploration Lab for Teens,” Bastos said. “The one-day Arts Exploration Lab will be an opportunity for teens to get a taste of different types of art. We will use feedback from the Arts Exploration Lab to create year-long programming. It will cater to the needs and wants of teens in our community through afterschool classes, a summer-long arts camp for teens and intensive multi-week workshops.”

A handful of student volunteers who are passionately invested in the arts have begun planning the Arts Exploration Lab through a series of brainstorming sessions held at the Vicksburg Community Center. These students have been actively involved in the design of the Arts Exploration Lab, including prioritizing what art subjects to include, recommending instructors and determining the best way to collect feedback from participants. They are also identifying potential problems for the day-long lab along with solutions to ensure that participants and instructors have a great experience.

“Not only will students’ voices be represented by these student volunteers in creating this lab, they are developing and practicing their leadership and problem-solving skills,” explained Jake Munson, chair of the program committee and a VCAC board member. Jake is also actively involved at Vicksburg High School as a seminar teacher and super volunteer for the Vicksburg Band program.

The Arts Exploration Lab is Thursday, March 28 at the Community Center from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. The event is free and students 13-19 from area schools and home-schooled are welcome to attend. “We ask that students come prepared to have lots of fun, try new things, be open-minded, and let their creativity loose,” said Munson.

For questions, contact Syd Bastos at bastos@vicksburgarts.com, or call 269-501-1347.

Winners Announced for the Battle of the Books

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The Star Readers from Sunset Lake Elementary are presented with their first-place trophy by Schoolcraft Library director Faye VanRavenswaay. They include Matthew Peters, captain; Isaac Sandelin, captain; Oliver Hammond, Caiden Caswell, Quincy Schwartz, Ian Triemstra. Their coaches were Brenda Peters and Connie Sandelin.

By Sue Moore

A team of 4th graders from Sunset Elementary school walked away the winners at the Grand Battle of the Books, sponsored in late February by the Schoolcraft District Library. It’s a voluntary reading competition that requires remembering all sorts of arcane facts about each book they are assigned to read.

The Star Readers, a team of all boys, were leading the other three teams right from the beginning of the contest with an almost perfect score. They came up short on only two of 21 questions for the contest. Their total score of 99 points was 10 points better than the runner up team of Remembering Marvel from Schoolcraft.

A total of 29 teams with 179 children entered from Schoolcraft and Vicksburg elementary buildings. Students from 4th through 6th grade are eligible to form teams of five to seven kids, with six preferred. They appoint captains and have one or two coaches to help with suggestions on reading and remembering the details in the 12 required reading books.

In the competition, moderator Jenny Taylor asked detailed questions about the books from a predetermined reading list. Team members must provide the correct answer to the question and the book’s author to score points. They start reading in early November, then figure out the name of their team and the T-shirt designs they’ll wear for the contest.

The tension is palpable on the stage when the last four teams standing for the Grand Battle take the stage. There is a lot of energy coming from the team members every minute of the hour-long contest. Scores are flashed up on the big Schoolcraft Performing Arts Center screen for the large audience to watch during the Q&A session.

The winning Star Readers team was comprised of Matthew Peters, captain; Isaac Sandelin, captain; Oliver Hammond, Caiden Caswell, Quincy Schwartz and Ian Triemstra. Their two coaches were Brenda Peters and Connie Sandelin. The Book Einsteins from Vicksburg were third and the Roaring Readers from Schoolcraft came in fourth.

Faye VanRavenswaay the Schoolcraft library director is the coordinator for the Battle. She and Taylor a third grade teacher at Sunset School both serve as judges. The also work together to choose the books each year. Also, it was the 22nd year for Thom and Kris DeWolf volunteering at the scoring table.

South African Farm Workers in Local Fields

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This tractor is spraying fertilizer on an area farm property that H2A workers can operate.

By Linda Lane

As the agricultural season in the southwest Michigan area ramps up, farmers hope to welcome back skilled South African workers into the fields for a second season. The workers obtain H2A visas which allow them to work for up to 10 months here. This year the workers will earn $13.54 per hour plus housing and transportation.

The farm positions have been posted in the U.S. for Americans to apply for through government employment websites, as required by law. No one has applied for the positions.

“We just can’t find workers who are willing to do these jobs,” Jennifer Gottschalk said. “We can’t find dependable labor anymore; people who are willing to work hard. That’s our problem. People don’t want to do these jobs because of the long hours we work in the planting and harvesting seasons.” Gottschalk operates a local family farm and helps manage another larger operation with another owner.

Farm workers’ hours can range depending on what is happening on the farm. Workers are guaranteed a minimum of 35 hours per week, but during the “crazy busy season” hours can be as many as 100 hours a week. With no family distractions, the South Africans are simply here to work and don’t mind the long hours, she said.

Bringing in foreign workers to perform the jobs is no easy task. “If a U.S. citizen applies for the job, we are required to hire them over the foreigner. There are a whole lot of hurdles to jump and roadblocks to navigate to get the South Africans hired. There are lots of federal rules and regulations that we’ve got to meet,” Gottschalk said. “For instance, the federal government sets the pay rate with a minimum number of weekly hours, requires us to provide full-furnished housing and transportation to the job-site, and weekly trips to the grocery store, bank, and post office.”

The South Africans who worked for them last year came with some skills in how to operate large farm equipment, irrigation experience and some knowledge of the GPS software that is utilized. Although the workers had thick accents, all spoke English, minimizing the issue of a language barrier. For their part, the South Africans come over to work hard in order to send money home in an urgent effort to help their South African farms.

A factsheet outlining statistics on farm attacks and murders in South Africa, published and updated regularly by africacheck.org, clearly illustrates the alarming numbers of violent attacks and murders of those living and working on farms and smallholdings for more than the past 20 years. Between 2001-2018, annual violent attacks on farm workers and owners range from 446 to 1,069 and annual murders range from 49 to 140 as reported by the South African police.

Last year Gottschalk obtained a total of six H2A visas to employ the South Africans and they’ve applied for six visas again this year. “The painstaking process to get workers here is crazy. The federal system is flawed for both the farm owners and the foreign workers. The amount of paperwork on both sides is mind-boggling. There needs to be a better process for people to come in through the borders and work,” Gottschalk said.

Due to the U.S. government shut down, the visa process has been greatly delayed this year. Although the H2A contract was supposed to begin March 1, workers won’t likely arrive until late March or early April.

Farm workers will drive large farm equipment, spray chemicals, help with irrigation, haul grain, work on equipment, plant and harvest around 10,000 acres this upcoming season.

“We have found that they’re really good people. Once we got them here, the six South African guys who came were so grateful to be here to work, they were willing to do anything and everything we asked of them. They are incredibly hard workers. They have become part of our extended families here, celebrating Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas with us,” Gottschalk said. “People’s impression of immigrants coming here to work can be a little skewed. They really are good people coming to work in our country. If we all want to keep eating cheap food, farmers need the labor to help produce it.”

Gottschalk is very aware of the controversy about migrant workers. “These young men come through a legal process set up by the United States Government to work here and send money home to their family farms in most cases.”

DutchBoys Take Vicksburg by Storm

By Sue Moore

The name DutchBoys doesn’t come close to describing what this new business in Vicksburg sells. Add the words body work, paint, muscle car restorations, pro-touring, street rods, engine bay detailing and it’s possible to get the flavor of what they are producing.

DutchBoys Hotrods, the father-son team of Joe and Paul Van Nus, moved into the old Eimo manufacturing building on W. Prairie in May and June of 2018. Jamie Clark of Clark Logic had purchased it earlier from Eimo after that company built a new plant next door in the Leja Industrial Park. Clark Logic utilized the building for storage at first until the DutchBoys looked for space to move out of a garage in Comstock, although Joe VanNus was from Vicksburg and son Paul was living in Schoolcraft.

“We have quadrupled our space with this move,” said Paul VanNus. “It’s been a huge time saver as I spent too much of my day just moving cars around to get to where we could work on them. Jamie Clark has gone above and beyond for us. He has given us this opportunity to succeed. Not just us, but lots of other people too.”

Besides leasing the space to the DutchBoys, Clark extended the footprint of the building with a huge glassed-in showroom that displays the beautiful finished cars that have already been purchased. Most of the DutchBoys business comes not from retail., but from wealthy people who can afford the cost of a renovation job that could run between $100,000 to $250,000.

Their work is strictly hourly, with time and materials included. “The sky is the limit for some people but If someone has a budget in mind we can build a car around it. We can make an old car ride and handle like a new car with all of the amenities,” VanNus explained. “For instance, Clark’s dad’s car sits in the forefront of our new showroom with hot rod flames painted on the engine encasement. It was one of his favorite cars but not reliable. We will put a fuel injection motor in so it will run like a charm.”

They have done restorations for Dan DeVos, who is a car collector out of Grand Rapids. Another car in the showroom is owned by Brian Thure of Taylor Farms in Tennessee. “We are making some new modifications to fit his personal needs,” VanNus explained.

VanNus gets most of his business through word of mouth. He travels to shows all over the country, trailering his specialty cars to Tennessee, North Carolina, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Texas. At car shows he gets lots of newspaper coverage along with social media. The cars are a work of art, say the people who interview him.

It didn’t start out quite this way. Paul and his wife Tori, are 2009 graduates of Vicksburg High School. His dad Joe worked in the collision industry painting cars and is very good at what he turns out, according to his son. He was with Dunshee for many years. Paul knew in high school that he wanted to work on cars. “I found my niche, first as a hobby and then as a job,” he explained. His dad worked with him in the garage in Comstock as the paint guy, which he loves to do. They had one other employee. With their move here, they now have nine and counting.

Paint and body work is 70 percent of their business. The move represents a tremendous investment for a growing business. “It cost $25,000 just to move the paint booth,” he said. Paul pays attention to the front office payroll and overhead along with his wife, Tori, who is an accountant. They have lots of money invested in parts that get shipped from all over the country. “We’ve created a monster,” Paul exclaimed. “It takes a lot of money to make money. Thankfully, we are riding the waves of success. Not bad for a couple of DutchBoys.”