The Mill at Vicksburg: Details Emerge

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The landscape architect’s plan for The Mill looks from the east in the foreground along Portage Creek to the north on the right where the Bridge Organics company building is located.

By Rob Peterson

The Mill at Vicksburg overcame a significant hurdle this month with state approval of Michigan’s new Transformational Brownfield Plan incentives (see accompanying story on page 3). With that approval came new details of the project.

All of the 120-acre Mill property will be open to the public. The west end will offer 80 acres of open space and wetlands with interpretive trails and room for potential larger cultural events, all of which will make Vicksburg a regional destination when the project is complete.

Other outdoor eventspaces will include a beer garden, located at the north end of the complex where a portion of the building caught fire several years ago; and the courtyard, a secondary space for cultural events and large gatherings, created by the three wings of the Mill.

The east side of the property is bounded by a creek that runs from Sunset Lake to Barton Lake. In the 1960s, it ran milky white from by-products of the paper making process. Contamination and debris in the creek will be removed as part of the project. New walkways with overlooks will meander along the creek’s edge.

“We want the project to talk a lot about water,” said Paper City Development Chief Operating Officer Jackie Koney. “Paper making required a lot of water, and the process was hard on the environment. We’re going to restore the waterways around the Mill and keep them clean.”

The outdoor space will include water features along the walkways and terraces and architects are exploring using some of the accessory structures in the final design: The foundation of the former screw-press building may become a fountain, and the site of the former wastewater treatment clarifier could become a creek overlook.

The plans for the interior of the mill are also ambitious, with a number of uses planned. The 100-plus-year-old mill building is actually several buildings constructed over many generations totaling 419,000 square feet under roof, making this the largest commercial project in Kalamazoo County in decades.

“An historic manufacturing building is unique because of the wide-open spaces,” says Gene Hopkins of HopkinsBurns Design Studio, the architect for the Mill. “You can put many different uses into space like this, but you must set up the building so that it can naturally evolve over the next 100 years.”

The west wing of the mill, the tallest structure at five stories, will house a 40-room boutique hotel and 40 one- and two-bedroom apartments. In the northern portion of the mill is the former machine room, where concerts will be performed under a massive crane that will be preserved as an architectural feature.

The east wing will house a massive indoor event space which will total over 150,000 square feet – for comparison, Wings Stadium is roughly one third the size. “We will be competing with Chicago, Detroit, and Indianapolis for events,” says owner Chris Moore. Vicksburg is within a day’s drive of one-third of the country’s population, and “We have the space and we can bring these events here with the right team in place.”

Part of that team is Brian Bastien, the general manager of Brewery Operations, who has extensive experience in restaurant and brewery management. The first element of the Mill to emerge will be the brewery, so having him in place early is essential to the project’s success.

“Our first job is to hire an awesome brewer and distiller, who we hope to have in place within six months,” says Bastien. “We’ve already found our executive chef, Vuong Loc. He’s the executive chef at Starbucks and he’s won “Beat Bobby Flay”, a popular TV cooking contest. He is a Vicksburg native working in Seattle.”

How Chef Vuong Loc became involved with the Mill is an interesting story. Moore noticed a restaurant opening up in his Seattle neighborhood called “Portage.” Intrigued, he asked a server about the name, and she answered that the chef grew up near Portage, Michigan. When Moore met Loc, he discovered that “near Portage” meant Vicksburg.

The entire Mill at Vicksburg project is an interesting story, and it is one that continues to evolve. The first elements, including the brewery, will likely open by late 2021, with the remainder of the project coming to fruition by 2024. “It all has to be completed within five years to make it right with the National Historic Preservation designation,” says Moore.

The Mill Receives Major State Support

By Rob Peterson

Many have known that Vicksburg is exceptional. A state agency provided a new reason.

The Michigan Strategic Fund approved up to $30 million to support development at the Mill at Vicksburg through its new Transformational Brownfield Plan (TBP). The funds will help offset the extraordinary costs associated with developing an obsolete, environmentally contaminated property.

The Mill at Vicksburg is only the second project in the state to receive this level of support. The other was in Detroit.

“The redevelopment of the Vicksburg paper mill into a dynamic, exciting multi-use development will bring the village of Vicksburg and the surrounding area to life and represents exactly the type of development the Transformational Brownfield Plan program was intended for,” said Jeff Mason, CEO of Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC).

The agency’s website defines a Transformational Brownfield Plan as one that, “will have a transformational impact on local economic development and community revitalization while also having an overall positive fiscal impact on the state.”

The MEDC reviewed the impact of the reimbursements and found that the investment of tax dollars will be returned 2.3 to 1 in new tax revenue over 30 years. This estimate was corroborated by a team from the University of Michigan and the Upjohn Institute, an internationally known economic think-tank.

How the Incentives Work

When a blighted and contaminated property is being developed, municipalities are able to reimburse the owner for costs associated with cleanup and public spaces (see main story) through tax increment financing, meaning only new tax revenue generated by the project is used to repay the owner.

The assumption is that the project would not have occurred without these incentives, so the municipality isn’t giving up tax revenue; it is gaining a functional property, jobs, and public space for the community’s benefit. The incentives will be paid to his development company over 30 years. Once the incentives are paid back to the developer, the tax revenue, presumably much higher than what it was pre-development, resumes to the municipalities.

The exception that the State of Michigan’s Transformational Brownfield program makes is significant: not only will the developer be reimbursed through local property taxes, it will be reimbursed through state income and sales tax generated by the project. This additional benefit accounts for one-third of the $30 million in incentives provided to the developer.

The vast majority of the $80 million needed to redevelop the Mill will be fronted by Chris Moore, the Vicksburg native who is backing the Mill.

“The money doesn’t come out of our (taxpayer) pockets,” said Rachael Grover of the Kalamazoo County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority. “It is revenue that wouldn’t exist without the project, and the project wouldn’t exist without the incentives.”

Farm to Table Celebration in Its Second Year

farm 19By Sue Moore

The Farm to Table dinner planned by the Vicksburg Farmers’ Market looks to be a magical evening for those who love great food, stirring entertainment and a meal with friends and neighbors prepared by Chef Michael Moore of the Main Street Pub in Vicksburg.

He will be preparing in-season ingredients gleaned from vendors at the Farmers’ Market on Friday and turning them into dinner on Saturday, August 17 at the community pavilion from 6 to 10 p.m. Service will be family style with volunteers from the Vicksburg Rotary Club doing the serving honors. This is the second year for the Farm to Table dinner. It sold out quickly last year.

The evening is planned as a fundraiser for the Vicksburg Farmers’ Market, which is celebrating its tenth year. It is a nonprofit organization that exists to serve the greater Vicksburg community, according to Stella Shearer, president of the board of directors. “Our mission for the market each week and for the fundraiser is to bring friends and family together to enjoy fresh, locally grown food, listen to great music and feel the warmth and charm of our farmers’ market community.”

The feast will begin with a bounty of locally harvested foods, creatively prepared and served family style. It will feature red checkered tablecloths, freshly cut flowers, an eclectic collection of dishware, craft beers from Distant Whistle and award-winning wines from Lawton Ridge winery.

Entertainment for the evening will be provided by Kim Richey, who performed in 2017 for the Vicksburg Cultural Arts Center, creating an avid following. She is a nationally known singer-songwriter both Grammy nominated and awarded, first for Trisha Yearwood’s groove-country “Baby, I Lied,” then as part of the album Amazing Grace 2, a Country Salute to Gospel.

“Part of what draws fans to the dusky honey of her crystalline alto voice is the way she writes: to and from the soul, never flinching from the conflicts and crushing moments, yet always finding dignity and resilience,” say reviews on her website.

The fundraiser will help ensure that the independent farmers’ market continues well into the future, Shearer explains. “The market has had a strong economic impact on the community each year with an average of over 500 customers each week and some 25 local vendors offering their produce. Our mission is to promote and provide the community with fresh, locally produced food during our 20 weeks of operations.”

Tickets are $50 each with a cash bar offered. They can be obtained at the market each Friday from 2-6 p.m., at the Distant Whistle Brewpub or online at:;

Eimo Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary

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The Eimo Energy bus participants are from left to right: Deb Peterson, Sandy Skinner, Leslie Harness, Jean Hentkowski. They were attending the company picnic.

By Sue Moore

“It takes a lot of determination for a company to survive for 50 years,” said Eimo’s General Manager Gary Hallam as he summed up the history of this venerable Vicksburg manufacturing plant, “especially given the radical changes the company went through from 2000- 2008. But we want the world to know we are still determined to grow and evolve as a company.”

The employees’ Spirit Team planned a company picnic to celebrate the half century on Saturday, July 13 at Prairie View Park. At least half of the 310 employees attended with lots of fun things to do during the day, Hallam said.

Today Eimo is a leader in decorative molding for the automotive, medical, consumer and government fields. It has won many awards and is looking to the future of in-mold electronics where automotive appliances all have touch panels. This will position the company differently in the market, Hallam said.

The company’s new 50th anniversary logo includes the phrase “Still Determined.” It includes a red “S” signifying the Triple S logo and a blue “n” from the current Nissha logo. They salute its heritage from the beginning to the current time, Hallam pointed out. Three Vicksburg area men started the company as Triple S in 1969, including Phil and Dave Stewart and Vic Siemers. Dan Canavan and Siemers purchased it from them in the late 1980s. They then merged with Eimo, a Finnish company. In 2003 it was bought by Foxconn, which then sold to Nissha, a Japanese company, in late 2007. This last sale meant the company would now have global connecting capabilities and set it on course to grow even though 2008 was a tough year for Eimo and the economy.

Hallam has seen it all, having been with the company for 35 years. He is a Vicksburg High School graduate and attended Michigan State University. He now travels several times a year to the Nissha headquarters in Japan for company meetings. The parent company just celebrated its 90th anniversary under the same family ownership. Nissha offered Eimo the unique vertical integration that has helped to grow the company, making film which Nissha produces as part of the mold process.

At year-end, Eimo had $57 million in sales and is anticipating 10 percent growth with business already booked, Hallam said. It has three sales people on staff; Nissha has sales offices in Detroit and Chicago to complement their efforts. Eimo is running three shifts five days a week and opened its new Vicksburg east plant in January 2016. The main manufacturing plant is at 14320 Portage, Road, Vicksburg.

Kids Court Learning Center Opens on Sprinkle Road

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Jaime Hess stands in one of the newly built classrooms at Kids Court Learning Center on Sprinkle Road.

By Sue Moore

A beautiful new facility built exclusively for child care has opened at 12786 S. Sprinkle Road in Vicksburg. It was designed and built with children ages 3 to 12 in mind by Jaime Hess and her husband Jeff, making it a learning center for children like none other in the area, said Hess.

“I just love kids,” Hess exclaimed. “This is where I’m supposed to be after 15 years of running Baby Bird Day Care in my home near Tobey Elementary School on 29th Street.” She was licensed for 12 children in the past with 1,700 square feet in her home for day care. The new facility, which opened in May, has 6,800 square feet with lots of natural light. It is licensed for 120 kids from ages 18 months up to 12 years old and open from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., five days a week.

The building has a gym and cafeteria in the center with smaller rooms orbiting around the central area. Three to four-year-old kids have their own room on the south side, with four rooms on the south and north side of the gym that are like activity rooms. A large fenced-in outdoor play area is on the west side with a parking lot in front on the east side entrance area. A greeting area and offices are facing east.

“Having this building designed especially for children has always been a dream of mine,” Hess exclaimed. “I did baby sitting from 10 years of age. My parents, Doug and Karol Stewart, advised me what to do for others. I would sweep, get kids’ dinner, do the dishes, vacuum and have it all done before their parents got home in the evening.”

Now Hess is doing all of this and more on a grander scale. Parents seem to love her for it as the Learning Center has a full enrollment for the summer and is taking applications for fall and winter in the new facility. Her staff consists of Alicia Crandall for the classroom of three and four-year-olds. Crandall is a 16-year veteran of the Vicksburg school system and a close friend of Hess down through the years. Crandall is assisted by Aubrie Burns and with Melissa Kellogg with four and five-year-olds. Hollie Beeman and Jaimie Alleshouse round out the current staff. This will increase as the enrollment changes, with Hess herself planning to teach in one of the classrooms.

“I do most everything,” Hess remarked. “I wear many hats but love to be with the kids the most.” She has an early education degree with two years of applied science and a two-year associate of art degree. The Kids Court will be rated by the state’s Great Start to Quality program. Once that is approved, Hess will be able to take children in the Great Start Readiness Program, Young 5s and KC-Ready 4s program in Kalamazoo County if there are designated spots available for the south county area available.

“I’m not one to give up easily, so getting this building ready was quite a challenge. If I put my mind to it I can figure it out,” said Hess, a 1996 Vicksburg grad. “We did most of the interior work ourselves, including the painting. On the outside we applied the siding, the roofing and the landscaping.” The couple has four children who also help. They are Jonathan, 13; Nathan, 12; Brett, 11, and Baylee, 4.

It’s a Fine Life: Full-Service Lament

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Jon Saunders of Vicksburg was the attendant at the Marathon station on Portage Road in the late 1960s. This personal service was gone by the late 1960s according to J.R. Fulton, a Vicksburg resident who worked at several local gas stations.

By Kathleen Oswalt-Forsythe

I miss full-service gas stations – where I could swing our old Chevy in, roll down the window, and greet a reliable mechanic. He would cheerfully fill my tank, wash the windshield, and even check and add motor oil if needed. When I tell my students about the way it “used to be,” they look at me like I have two heads.

Anywhere we traveled 50 years ago, there were dependable, staffed stations. If our engine started clunking, or if we suspected a tire were going flat, we could coast off the highway where a mechanic was usually on duty. Back in the day, owners lived behind or above mom-and-pop stations at rural intersections with a pump and small store for bread and other essentials; if folks ran out of gas after hours, they could knock loudly on the shop door, and eventually drowsy owners would appear.

While there were many full-service stations around the village, our family relied on Fred Hiemstra, who owned and operated a service station on the corner of South Michigan and Prairie Streets. Fred also ran a towing service, often hoisting himself into his tow-truck which began rolling before he even closed the door. He was like an uncle to many of us: he took care of our cars, hauled vehicles out of snowbanks or ditches, and usually did not share that information with our parents. We sure appreciated him.

When I was about ten, my little brothers and I perched in our station wagon at the top of the lift in Fred’s shop while he changed the oil. Gripping the door tightly, we leaned out the windows and surveyed his garage: tool chests, racks of tires, and the garage floor sat nearly 10 feet below. By some miracle, we managed to stay in the car and not fall to the oily concrete. Perhaps my mother was in the car? Perhaps she was in the waiting room taking a break from the five of us? Or perhaps my dad casually chatted below as Fred released the plug and the dirty oil ran from the pan? I don’t remember.

Like many business owners and tradesmen in town, Fred was also a firefighter. When the alarm sounded, tools were set aside, sales calls ended abruptly, and hardware customers had to wait, as these dedicated folks dropped everything and attended house fires, car accidents, or other emergencies. These volunteers were a comforting reminder of the many people in our community who cared.

There is still a place for a full-service station. I would be so thankful for the convenience and another connection with the wonderful people and businesses in our hometown. We wouldn’t risk spilling gas on clothes, our windshields would be clean, and our oil levels would always be within range.

Of course we would pay more, but I would be a loyal, rewards-card-carrying customer. I suspect many of you would be, too.

It’s a Fine Life

You can follow Kathy on her blog at

Bronze Plaque Honors Historical Bar Building in Vicksburg

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Scott and Jackie Plankenhorn, the owners of the Hide-A-Way on E. Prairie Street in Vicksburg, accepted a bronze plaque from the Vicksburg Historical Society.

By Sue Moore

“This plaque weighs a ton,” quipped Jared Tinklenberg, the Hide-A-Way’s bar’s general manager, as he held it up for inspection. The inscription honors the bar with its famous beer sign while owners Scott and Jackie Plankenhorn display it in front of the building at 111 East Prairie Street, Vicksburg.

The building has historical significance in the village, having housed several bars from 1945 through today with a few breaks in the 1970s when it was Bee’s Bargain Center and Ted Fess Jewelry. The Plankenhorns have owned it since 1980, with Jack bringing his son Scott into the business in 1985.

The Vicksburg Historical Society has been sprouting solid bronze plaques on village properties of historical significance for the last five years. The funding for these monuments has come from private donations and not from the coffers of the Society, according to Kristina Powers Aubry, chair of the plaque committee. Her group has spent many hours researching the history of each building it has honored with a plaque. This work has been inspired by Margaret Kerchief, Mike Hardy, Bonnie Holmes and Ted Vliek, who serve on Aubry’s committee.

The plaque first cites the L.S. Kimble Building that housed the Morse & Horsfal Hardware when it was built in 1872 at 111 E. Prairie. Lewis Kimble moved his frame building one block west and constructed the existing building in 1898. The original tenant is unknown. Beginning in 1905 and for the next three decades, its series of tenants included Persel & Styles, R.J. Haas and J.M. Smeltzer, who operated a hardware store on the site.

The first record of a bar in this location was Wilson’s Tavern (1945-50). That owner was likely the one that installed the historic “BEER” sign on the premises. Morrie’s Tavern followed (1950-52), followed in turn by Floyd West’s Vicksburg Tavern (1953-56), Glen Dee Tavern (1957-63) and Joe Demski Tavern (1963). In 1970 it was a tavern owned by John Stroud. Subsequent owners of the building were Gerald and Katheryn Holdridge who operated Holdridge’s Hideaway and Lora Lee O’Brien, who sold it to Jack Plankenhorn in 1980.

The committee’s research has been bolstered by Dr. Arle Schneider’s book A Tale of One Village, Water Over the Dam, published in 1972 and Mabel Hawkins history of the village, published in the 1950s. The criteria for plaques to be awarded includes the significance and the good condition of the building, Aubry said. Thus far, they have placed eight plaques with another 10 in the works. Those in place include the McElvain House, Smalley Building, “Old El”, Prudential Nursery, United Methodist Church, John Long’s Drug Store, Hill’s Grocery at 100 S. Main, and the Stofflet Block which is known today as Oswalt Park at the corner of Main and Prairie Streets.

“We do not charge the building owners for the plaque’s cost, between $600 to $1,500. They are solid bronze and vandal-resistant so they will last throughout the century,” Aubry said. “We do accept donations from the building owners but it is not a pre-requisite. The historic significance is much more important.”

Bicycle Week Coming to Vicksburg in September

By Sue Moore

Paul Selden has hit Vicksburg in a whirlwind of activity, planning a Fall Bicycle Celebration the weekend of September 20-22, Friday through Sunday. The Portage resident wants more people to discover the charms of the small town of Vicksburg. He is doing so by promoting the area to cyclists like nobody else has ever done.

He is deeply committed to bicycle safety. With a committee of leaders of civic and bicycling groups, Selden is organizing the event to promote that cause. He is confident of the many attributes Vicksburg has to offer. He has combined them with plans for the three-day event which he hopes will attract anywhere from 15, 50 or 150. “If we offer whoever signs up a great experience, next year it will be more and even more after that.  Our goal is to grow the Fall Bike Celebration into a ride event that attracts thousands of riders,” Selden said.

The Historic Village, the Farmers’ Market, Mill tours and the Quilt Trail are a big part of the activities on Friday, Sept. 20, ending with registration packet pickup at Apple Knockers that encourages people to stay for dinner and enjoy live music. A Bike Art Prize is being planned on Sunday for art works with bike-related themes. An awards and recognition dinner is being planned for Saturday, Sept. 21 at The Fountains Center in Parchment.

There are five bike trails of various lengths for the Saturday ride. All routes start and finish at Vicksburg Middle School. Registration opens at 7 a.m. and closes at noon. Routes with approximate distances are: Shipshewana, 75 miles; Climax, 38 miles; Scotts Mill, 24 miles; Vicksburg Quilt Trail with north and south loops, 16 miles each; family trail, five miles; and bike parade at noon at the Middle School. The Fall Bike Celebration ride registration includes a Friday evening Ice Cream Social and Saturday’s ride with water, food, snacks and treats at key locations. Route maps and roving support will be provided.

The goals of Selden’s community-oriented project are to increase support for bicycling, reduce divisive encounters with motorists and teach proper road etiquette. All of this planning is accomplished through Bike Friendly Kalamazoo (BKI) which was founded in 2011 and is now a 501c3 organization.

A life-long business owner, Selden started Performance Management, Inc. in 1978. PMI provides user support for large-scale corporate computer systems. He sold it in 2016 to his key employees.

Proceeds from the ride will be shared with local agencies such as Generous Hands, Inc., South County Community Services, charitable groups and bike-related causes such as maintaining the Chain Gang Memorial, the League of Michigan Bicyclists and to support bike safety and education. The website is

The Word for This Is Jamila

By Leeanne Seaver

In spite of the fact that I would forget – even 30 seconds after being told – how to say “Welcome to my home” in Arabic, I asked, and kept asking. “What do you like to eat?” “Do you have swans like these in Iraq?” “What do you mean ‘American food is so bland’?” The myriad of responses sounded musical when Jamila Al-Helfi, a lovely and patient 16-year-old from Baghdad, would say them. I’d ask questions just to hear her melodic answers. After a couple weeks as her host-mom this summer, I was sure of only two words in her native language: Avocado is just “avocado,” and “Jamila” means “beautiful.”

The story of how this Iraqi teen came to Vicksburg started about five months ago at D.H.S. Al-Mansour, a secondary school in Baghdad where Jamila is in the 11th grade. She heard about an opportunity to visit America from her bestie at school, and both applied. From 2,000 applicants across Iraq, Jamila and her friend were two of 200 who made the cut. She arrived in the U.S. in early July. Michigan was the second stop between stays in Vermont and Washington, D.C.

Colleagues International

For my part, it was an inspiring fundraiser for the Kalamazoo-based nonprofit “Colleagues International” (KCI) that drew me. My hand went up when the call for volunteers rang out, and the next thing I knew, I was part of this cool community of host families that had been opening their homes for years around the ‘Zoo. Stories abounded of the sheik who came to breakfast in full regalia and the Japanese girls who didn’t know what an oven was for, and the blind person from Uzbekistan who couldn’t believe there were Braille instructions in an elevator. The common thread in all of these host families was a genuine desire to experience people and their cultures in a wider world while respecting the things that made us feel closer and connected within it.

Jamila’s parents would have been so relieved to know that. Afaf and Adnan Al-Helfi, along with younger daughter Shams, were excited and supportive, but understandably anxious. Relations between the U.S. and Iraq have not been chummy, to put it mildly. As I write, there is a security alert on the US Embassy website forbidding all travel to Iraq due to risks of terrorism, kidnapping, and violence. But it’s a situation the U.S. is trying to improve.

The Iraqi Youth Leadership Exchange Program (IYLEP) is part of the solution. Ammar Aqlan, program officer for Washington D.C.-based World Learning, the organization that implements this exchange on behalf of the State Department, told me via email, “The program certainly builds bridges of mutual understanding between both countries. It both deepens and broadens participant understanding of U.S. culture while putting their home country in a new light.

“Participants and alumni find this experience as a way to discover about the U.S. as well as the beauty of their own country. We hear many participants and alumni saying that the program changed their view of the U.S., especially around friendliness, diversity, and the lifestyle of American people as they live and interact with American families and people. The program does foster people-to-people interactions that correct misconceived perceptions about each other. Participants find that the many realities in the U.S. are similar to other countries, unlike how it’s generally presented in the media. One participant shared with me yesterday that he thought Americans were arrogant but when he got to know them, they were very friendly and kind.”

Since 2007, many Iraqi students who’ve been involved in this exchange have gone onto careers in diplomacy, civic leadership or other areas that draw on learning experiences through IYLEP. There are alumni who have gone to occupy governmental positions, including Ministry of Exterior, according to one of the Iraqi staff. The head of the Iraqi Youth Parliament is indeed an IYLEP Adult Mentor, Laith Raji, who was hosted in Jacksonville, Fla. last year.

Being Part of a Family

While here, Iraqi students are taking classes on leadership, problem-solving, and team-building. I wondered why they couldn’t do those kinds of things back home. “Why come to the States for that?” I asked Jamila.

“It’s good practice to figure out how to do things with unfamiliar people. In Iraq, the goal would be to win – just to win. But here, the leadership training is about working as a team, and being creative in solving challenges together,” she answered. “We have dialogue sessions. We can talk about the problems we’re having in Iraq and discuss solutions. We realize we can’t go back and change our world because we are young, but we have this opportunity to learn these skills.”

In the process, they’re improving their English fluency, meeting local groups and entrepreneurs, going to concerts, visiting museums. I was especially pleased that they toured the Ladies Library Association downtown—the first building in the United States built by women independently. And in Michigan exclusively—they’re staying in the homes of host-families.

“We’re very proud of our unique brand of hospitality,” said Jodi Hope Michaels, executive director of Kalamazoo’s Colleagues International (KCI). “Most of our visitors stay at hotels and only have time for a meal in a home. We love it when our visitors are able to stay with a family host—experiencing day-to-day life with Americans, as is the case with IYLEP.”

Since 1971, KCI has hosted thousands of international visitors from all over the world. Professional exchanges for emerging and established leaders, internships, job-shadowing, youth leadership programs, and seminars are tailored to the specific interests and needs of both the exchange visitor and KCI. KCI is proud to be the only city in the U.S. to host IYLEP-Arabic since its inception three years ago. It is wonderful to have Iraqi youth join the people from more than 100 countries whose representatives have tasted perch and toasted marshmallows with their local West Michigan “family” over the years.

The Vicksburg Connection

For Jamila—and five of her friends who visited her here—that experience has centered on fun things Vicksburg had to offer. I’ve taken Jamila for ice cream at Apple Knockers, fishing at Klines Resort. We’ve taken walks around town (she finds our gardens and yards beautiful) and wandered through the shops and eateries. We visited the Farmers Market and enjoyed the July 15 village celebration at the Vicksburg Pavilion. We (tried to) catch frogs and paddle-boated on Sunset Lake. We also went to the community theater at the Comstock Auditorium, and had the most exhilarating speedboat ride at South Haven on Lake Michigan.

Everywhere we’ve gone, Jamila has been touched again and again by the hospitality she’s experienced. “American people are not like what we see on TV. They are kind and nice. They respect our differences.” Although Jamila herself doesn’t, some of the IYLEP girls cover with the hijab, a veil that many Muslim women wear over their head and shoulders. Jamila was worried that this could single them out, but “no one has treated us badly,” Jamila reported.

To reassure her mom and dad, “We communicate daily using WhatsApp, and I tell them about my day.” They love seeing her iPhone videos. “I already knew it was beautiful here because of the internet pictures, but the people are incredibly nice and that has been wonderful. The only hard part of the trip so far is homesickness,” Jamila admitted.

Summer camp homesickness is surely a universal condition, and I wondered what other things Iraqi and U.S. teens might have in common. She surprised me by pointing out “Iraqi and American youth are quite different. Especially in education, Iraq doesn’t focus on our specific talents and thoughts—American kids seem to do that easily.”

So what advice would you give a 16-year-old American girl, I asked her. “Americans have everything we don’t have. For example, freedom and wearing what you want or saying what you want. I think she should appreciate the freedom she’s got,” Jamila advised. Then she added, “Socially, we have some similarities. I go to the mall to hang out with my friends, but only in Baghdad because it’s more modern.”

This is no small thing. Jamila can leave her home without a male escort or head-covering because she comes from a progressive family. In fact, she plans to become a heart surgeon one day, a goal her parents support enthusiastically. Yes, her husband will be picked for her, and she cannot even kiss him before they’re married. Yes, she can say no to the match (whew). Yes, it is scary to live in a place that is so volatile, but things are so much better in Baghdad than they once were. Yes, she’ll leave the States soon, and perhaps never come back, but it has been the experience of a lifetime for her.

What will she take with her when she goes? “I liked perch, but I miss Dolma, which is stuffed grape leaves. In Iraq, we make ours with rice, beef, lemons, and spices—cumin, coriander. When I get home, that’s the first thing I’m going to eat!”

Food aside, “I can tell people what Americans are really like. We can understand each other if we get to know each other,” she said, adding, “So Leeanne must come visit me someday! Of course she will!!!”

Of course, I will, beautiful girl. In English, the word for that is YES.

Area Racer in Amateur National Motocross Championship

motoAn area 16-year-old is taking his motocross talents to an event in Tennesee.

Stephen Persing Jr. of the Mendon area is to compete in the 38th annual Rocky Mountain ATV/MC AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship at the historic Loretta Lynn Ranch in Hurricane Mills.

More than 22,000 competed for a chance to qualify for the event; Persing was one of 1,446 that made the cut. Persing is a junior at Mendon High School. He has been racing since the age of 7. He started out on a bicycle that looked like a dirt bike with shocks, then went to a battery-powered Hot Wheels. His mom Kim, who works at PNC Bank in Vicksburg, then gave him with a real dirt bike and he was off to the races.

“The Amateur National at Loretta Lynn’s is the best of the best motocrossers in America and around the world” said Tim Cotter, director of MX Sports which produces the event. “’Just being there makes you an elite racer and a top athlete. “A solid finish at Loretta’s would give you instant national recognition and a possible professional career,” he said.

Persing has had help from sponsors, including G. Persing Plumbing and Heating, Lang Tuning, SC4 Racing, 100% Goggles, Slick Products; Acerbis, R Moto Perfected, Vortex Racing O’Neal, Mustang Sally’s, Raise the Bar Performance Horses, Blue Ray Beach Tanning, Beck’s Hybrids, John and Jenni Hayward and Wilss Barber Shop.

Persing will be racing in the Schoolboy 2 class (12-17). He is an alternate in two other classes. The race action will be broadcast live daily at, through August 4 for a total of 40 hours of live coverage. In addition, two highlight shows featuring the event will air on NBC Sports Network in the fall.