A senior moment: Time to honor and help caregivers

By Danna Downing

As we age yet another year, it is always a time of reflection and often a time of grief. Our job is to not just endure the grief, but to use it to grow our capacity to love those who are left. It is also a good time to honor all the caregivers in our lives and to explore the unique ways each of us can become a caregiver when and where needed.

During this past holiday season, I encountered four caregivers and heard their stories. I would like to share some of the wisdom I heard from them with you.

Recently I attended a meeting of the Kalamazoo County Older Adult Advisory Committee. In a sidebar conversation with a retired nurse, she shared her experiences when she was providing palliative home care to her dying mother. She reflected on how hard it was to be a good caregiver when she could only find respite care for two hours each week so she could leave the home to do grocery shopping and other necessary chores to keep their home running. She also spoke of the transcendent experience this dedication had returned to her in later years. “I am so glad we have the senior millage here in Kalamazoo,” she reflected, “so others have more resources to help them than I had. In fact, that is part of why I decided to volunteer to serve on the county advisory board.

I recently drove by a dear friend working to get her yard ready for winter. I had not seen her for a while and swung back into her driveway to see how things were going. She shared that her dad had recently been admitted to a nursing home because her mother was no longer able to provide the care he needed. It has been tough on the whole family. Fortunately, they found a nursing home within safe driving distance and her mom spends her days at the facility just to be sure things are going well. The two sisters who live locally provide support and intervention for their mom. “There is no manual written for how to navigate the situations we are facing,” she says. “I am grateful that my sister and I can be there to help; I only wish there was more we could do,” she adds.

We recently attended the funeral for a remarkable community figure. It was very sad. However, it was also very uplifting in many ways. It stood out and reflected the family’s amazing capacity to love and support their loved one over an extended illness; a wonderful experience to share with all attending.

Finally, I had the privilege of visiting another amazing older adult who has given much to our community for many years. She is convalescing at home after graduating from rehabilitation and told me in no uncertain terms she is “lucky to be alive!” She credits her caring family, attentive health professionals and the “good folks” at Vicksburg Family Home Care who are helping her gain strength and experience joy during the holiday season. As I left, she asked if I noticed the beautiful ramp outside her door that the SAFE AT HOME program based at South County Community Services provided. “Be sure to use the handrail and use the turn-around so you don’t have to back out on that busy road,” she cautioned me, still the caregiver herself after more than nine decades.

These stories speak volumes and hopefully they inspire readers to admiration and action. Someone is counting on us!

Community corner: Holidays at SCCS

Santa’s helpers Sheri Louis, Anne Liggett, and Lauri Wiessner.

By Drew Johnson

As the holidays wind down at South County Community Services, I am left with an amazing feeling of gratitude — for the volunteers and donors who helped us make Thanksgiving and Christmas special for SCCS families, for the gratitude and grace shown by our clients, and especially this time of year, for the blessing of having my own home and the ability to be with my family. I am also grateful for my job, which allows me to spend the holidays helping people and working together with a lot of amazing community members, without whom we would never be able to do so much.

Over the last month or so, we’ve been:

  • Organizing and distributing holiday food so that all our neighbors can have a traditional holiday meal in their home.
  • Working with Generous Hands and local churches to arrange gifting sponsors for the families that we have helped in the past year.
  • Serving a “formal but fun” holiday meal for area seniors.
  • Working with Generous Hands to throw a holiday party for our families with gingerbread house decorating, gifts and books for each child, pancakes, and (of course!), Santa.
  • Collecting donations that honored friends and family while giving back to the community.
  • Doing all the normal SCCS things — helping people with food in the pantry, making sure that everyone has access to utility and rent assistance, and delivering food to seniors.

It’s been a busy end to the year, but an exciting one too. Next month, I’ll write about what we’re planning for next year, but for now I’m going to go take a long nap. See you in 2023!

Drew Johnson lives in Kalamazoo and is the Director at South County Community Services. He has a small quarter acre homestead with chickens, bees, and hops (and more!), a wonderful wife, and three energetic children. He can be reached at 649-2901 or ajohnson@southcountycs.com

For more information on South County Community Services, please check out our Facebook page at facebook.com/southcountycs or our website: southcountycs.com

Mill renovation carries on into 2023

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe 

Many readers and community members have inquired about the recent progress of the Mill project. I have heard all kinds of rumors and speculation, natural when the site has looked quiet from the street for several months. To bring us all up to date, I sat down over dinner at Jaspare’s Pizza with Jackie Koney, chief operating officer of Paper City Development and John Kern, director of the Prairie Ronde Artist Residency. During our evening together, they provided a summary of progress and several projections for the next phase of the projects. This information is organized by topic.  

Tours of the Mill  

Tours have been popular and well-attended and will continue indefinitely. Interested people can schedule a tour by registering at vicksburgmill.com (click on the Events tab). The hour-long tours are led by Mill staff and usually are held three times a month. Attendees see portions of the interior of the property, improvements that have been made and future plans. Mill staff also answer questions and provide history of various parts of the property.  

Mackenzies and the adjacent Prairie Ronde Artist Gallery 

A point of pride for Koney and Kern is the April 15, 2022 opening of Mackenzies Bakery at 103 East Prairie Street and the Prairie Ronde Artist Gallery space next door. This was a major undertaking in the Mackenzies’ space which included lead abatement, major utility work, and careful design to honor the past. Koney and Kern are pleased with the spaces and their use by the community. Mackenzies has been well-received by the South County area, and the bakers continue to bake traditional favorites, while offering a different specialty bread each day. Mackenzies also offers some after-school specials for students, who are encouraged to gather at the tables in the bakery and gallery. The gallery space is open to the public when Mackenzies is open and features rotating exhibits by Prairie Ronde artists. 
For specifics about Mackenzies, visit its website: mackenziesbakery.com. 

Prairie Ronde Artist Residency continues
The residency which now has hosted nearly 100 artists is continuing to gather momentum. Kern indicates that feedback from artists has been positive and that many of the participants immerse themselves in the community, which supports the local economy. The program continues to grow and holds more and more gallery events. Kern has also created several “pop-up” music events, which currently are limited to special invite. Eventually, when 107 S Main has been renovated, this will change, and the events will be open to the public. Looking forward, Kern envisions a second residency program which focuses on musicians. Kern shares that the residency program is highly competitive—with a 5% acceptance rate among applicants–and is recognized internationally. 

Outdoor and educational projects 

Several ongoing programs involve area schools and students.  

Vicksburg High School agriscience teacher, Dr. Noreen Heikes, led her horticulture classes in the development of a commercial bee-keeping operation, housed on Mill property. This project began two years ago and involved a grant and student study of sustainability and pollinators. This fall, 30 pounds of honey were harvested. Also, an edible forest has been created with several of Dr. Heikes’ classes over the span of the last six years. 

As has been the case for the past seven years, hydrogeology students from WMU conducted field studies at the Mill through their Hydrogeology Field Program this past summer. As a part of the variety of activities undertaken while on site, students hand drilled a test well to study water clarity.  

Koney and Kern are proud that the Mill supports experiential learning for students of all ages.
Cone Top Brewery Museum and Mill Visitor Center open

Cone Top Brewery Museum is located at 108 South Main Street. The museum hosts rotating exhibits and is open several times a year during community events. Eventually the museum will be housed at the Mill.

Phase 1 of the new Mill Visitor Center is at 106 South Main Street. During the holidays it held a pop-up store featuring Mill items for sale, various historical displays, and future plans. The Visitor Center will be open to the public on Tuesdays from 3-6 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. through January.  Additional exhibits will be added in February, in time for the IceBurg Festival on February 11. 

Mill Family Reunion and Food Truck Rallies  

In early October, the Mill held its fourth family reunion for mill employees and their families. Approximately 200 people attended the popular gathering. This will be an annual event. Historical artifacts and materials for self-guided tours have been incorporated.

Paper City has also worked with the village and Kalamazoo Experiential Learning Center to support the area food truck rallies by not only hosting a number of events on site, but by also supplying bands for the entertainment.

The Mill and parts of Vicksburg are now historic districts 

Cheri Szcodronski of Firefly Preservation Consulting, LLC, conducted research, wrote a formal nomination, and conducted presentations of her findings regarding the creation of the Vicksburg Historic District. Paper City Development provided the funding for this lengthy process. Both the Mill and Vicksburg Historical District are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One advantage of being listed is the funding that is available for rehabilitation at the state and national levels. At this time, the funding for homeowners is limited to a state tax credit program through the MEDC. But for businesses involved in historical repurposing, there are federal tax credits available to help with the projects. A listing is also a point of pride for communities.  

The Mill property status 

The building is now stable. In 2019 the first masons began work on the exterior bricks and as of October 2022, the brick repair and restoration is substantially complete on the exterior of the 420,000-square-foot building. Roof replacement (17 acres of it!) is 90% complete and all 650 windows have new frames. The lead abatement is complete, and some site cleanup has been done. “Mt. Vicksburg,” the pile of contaminated soil at the south side of the building, was removed in July. This was costly and exhaustive work, but essential and important, not only for the project but for the health of the community.  

Now the team is conducting research to make decisions that will lead this project to sustainability and a position to begin generating revenue. This is a careful process that will determine the best use of the former paper mill. Koney describes 2023 as “a big decision-making year.” Koney’s hope is that the project will be nearing completion at the end of 2026.