Weavers have local gathering under shady maple

Vicksburg resident Lisa Beams shows how she pulls wool from a clump in order to comb it. Beams and three friends gathered in her front yard in early July to spin wool for the first time in more than four months.

By Jef Rietsma

It was a small but happy reunion, and a reminder of how easy it was to take “normal” for granted in the days before coronavirus.

Four friends who are members of the South County Fiber Arts group gathered under the shade of a massive maple tree July 8 in Lisa Beams’ front yard on Channelview Drive in Vicksburg.

It was their first time together in four months and the joy of reuniting was obvious. There was lots of laughter, plenty of chatting and evidence of a strong camaraderie, as each member of the quartet worked with machine-like precision.

“Except for me … I’m just here for the social component,” said Portage resident Terri Drafta with a laugh. “I didn’t even bring anything; I’m just here to talk.”

South County Fiber Arts group has about a dozen members but the four decided to gather for an impromptu weaving session. The end product of their labor? Yarn.

The beginning of the process started with Beams, who combed raw wool into small nests that would then go to a spinning wheel. Jodie Gerard worked a spinning wheel and Julie Renzema used a drop spindle to perform the laborious task of drafting.

“It’s a wonderful social activity, knitting, and making things with the fiber and the yarn is great,” Beams said. “But the social part of it has just been wonderful. We’ve missed each other
so much.”

Renzema, meanwhile, said the companionship with like-minded people is something she has missed greatly since mid-March.

“It’s not a requirement for us to spin our wool – at one point in history it was a necessity – but this is our version of a quilting bee,” she said. “It’s just so much better doing this when we can be together and not conversing over Zoom.”

Drafta said the reunion was a long-anticipated moment and she loved every minute of the gathering.

“The great thing about this group is, I just kind of came into the group, they accepted me from the first night,” she said. “Everything that I’ve tried they’ve encouraged me that I can do it, though I’ve proved them wrong. But I’m still trying, at least.”

Though they didn’t have a set schedule to meet again, the women said they hope the next gathering would be with the entire South County Fiber Arts group.

Vicksburg discusses alcohol on public properties

Outdoor seating at downtown Vicksburg’s Village Hide-A-Way.

By Rob Peterson

New state legislation that would allow alcoholic drinks to be served on public property was described to the Vicksburg Village Council by Manager Jim Mallery.

The legislation, which became law July 1, gives a municipality the authority to create a social district where patrons are allowed to consume drinks purchased from a local bar, restaurant or brewery. The law is intended to provide more space for social distancing and help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Vicksburg could, for example, designate a site downtown “commons area” where patrons could carry alcoholic drinks from an establishment into a space shared with other businesses. Currently, each establishment must have its own fenced-off outdoor space for serving alcohol.

The law requires that the municipality have a management and maintenance plan, including hours of operation and clearly marked signage that defines the common area. The legislation is open as to how large the area may be, but it must be adjacent to at least two restaurants, bars or breweries.

The drinks must be in plastic containers clearly marked with both the name of the common area and the establishment that sold the drink. The drinks may not leave the common area, nor are they allowed in another restaurant, bar or brewery.

Director of Community Engagement Alex Lee indicated that the staff is researching other communities that have created similar districts. “When we have carefully reviewed all these inputs, have business support, and have a workable plan, we will present to the council for additional review and input,” he said.

In other action, the Village Council approved event requests at the Pavilion including Harvest Fest, which is currently still scheduled for Sunday, September 27.

Mallery updated the Council on the sale of excess village-owned property on TU Avenue. The property was originally purchased by the village as part of a larger tract for the trail extension, but only a portion of the original tract was required for the trail.

The Council supported staff in its efforts to apply for federal funds as part of the CARES economic assistance act. Mallery indicated that he is still looking into allowable uses of the funds, but its purpose is to assist with payroll for essential employees such as police and Department of Public Works staff.

Mallery also updated the Council on the new public parking lot on Kalamazoo Avenue, adjacent to the post office. The Village has installed solar lights and has plans for bike racks and “free parking” signs. There will be a ribbon cutting, but no date has been set.

Council member Adams commented on the need for two additional Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee members. He reminded attendees that July 22 was the last day one can apply to run for office in the fall election.

Council members took a moment to remember active community member Bob Merrill, who passed away recently.

Attendee Jackie Koney expressed gratitude to Village staff for allowing local businesses to adapt to social distance requirements due to Covid-19. Staff provided “curbside pickup” locations for businesses and made arrangements for village-owned picnic tables to be used in outdoor service areas.

Schoolcraft resets village clean-up day to Sept. 19

By Max Hutchison

The Schoolcraft Village Council at a July meeting rescheduled the village-wide Clean Up Day previously scheduled for June, to Saturday, September 19th, from 8 a.m.-noon. Residents can bring items to Clay Street across from the Ken Krum Recreation Center.

Details regarding what items residents may drop off can be found on the Village’s website or in the Summer 2020 newsletter.

The council’s meeting, its first since the lockdown in March, was its first-ever online session via Zoom. All members were present and visible in the conferencing app, along with several resident attendees. Also present was Johnathan Ballentine from the village’s information technology staff. While the virtual meeting was conducted largely in the same manner as the council’s in-person meetings, council members cast their votes using the Zoom app’s internal electronic voting tool.

Two budget items kicked off the meeting’s agenda. An amendment to the budget transferred funds to balance the budget. Revenues were higher than expected for the 2020 fiscal year, allowing the Village to shift funds without dipping into its general fund. “Really, we did pretty good,” said Finance Director Tammy Young. The Council also opted out of a state law which sets limits on contributions to employee medical benefit plans.

In an attempt to ensure the timeliness of the Village’s newsletter, the Council approved an expedited method for reviewing President Keith Gunnett’s standing article. Previously, the article was not subject to the Council’s oversight; the Council began reviewing it in October, 2019 when the viewpoints of council members diverged on the necessity, process, and costs associated with approving a village sanitary sewer system. While the process has since involved a month-long review by Council members, the new process will allow Village Manager Cheri Lutz to approve Gunnett’s article on shorter notice, raising issues with the full Council only when she identifies a potential issue.

Rounding out the agenda, Trustee John Stodola made known his desire to keep the Village active in the County’s Disaster Mitigation Plan with the pandemic in mind. “Things are profoundly different now than they were six months ago when we last got together,” Stodola commented. Lutz informed the Council that she had been in contact with the County, and a representative would soon be attending a village meeting to give the Council an update on the Disaster Mitigation Plan.

While the sanitary sewer project was not listed as an agenda item, it was briefly discussed in the council’s committee reports. Stodola remarked that a Wightman engineering consultant will be visiting the Council in the coming months to discuss an alternate proposal for the sewer plan. While Stodola was unsure of the details, he said he believes that the new plan will involve a sewer line running down Route 131 toward Kalamazoo. A longtime Wightman employee, Alan Smaka, who has advised the Village in the past, has since left the engineering firm to work as a project consultant for the South County Sewer Authority. Stodola also confirmed what had previously been discussed at Council meetings, that Vicksburg would not be joining Schoolcraft on a sewer project. Stodola did note, however, that Lockport Township has expressed interest in joining the project and would be discussing the possibility with the South County Sewer Authority going forward.

Schoolcraft accepts Stitt’s resignation

Superintendent Stitt praised for his nine years of service.

By Travis Smola

The Schoolcraft Board of Education approved a final one-year contract extension for Superintendent Rusty Stitt, who has submitted a letter of resignation to the district effective at the end of the 2020-2021 school year.

The board also approved an athletic participation fee of $75 per student, $150 for a family.
At the meeting, Stitt thanked the original board members who originally hired him in the letter as well as many administrators, teachers and community members whom he worked with during his time in the district.

“I am extremely honored to have been given the opportunity to lead Schoolcraft Community schools for what will be 10 years by the end of the 2020-21 school year,” Stitt said in the letter.

“As a collective team, we have done some amazing work to improve the district, impacting student achievement and elevating professional practice.”

Stitt highlighted numerous changes he’s proud of from his time in the district: implementation of standards-based grading, the 1:1 technology program and most recently, voter approval of a $39.9 million bond issue to construct new educational facilities. Stitt said the contract will allow his youngest daughter to graduate an Eagle. He also added he will probably look for another superintendent post in a different state following the conclusion of his contract on June 30, 2021.

“I will always sincerely treasure the years I served here as your superintendent,” Stitt said in the letter. “It has been an honor! I thank each and every one of you for your support and outstanding dedication to the Schoolcraft community and its magnificent students!”

Board Vice President Jason Walther thanked Stitt for his years of service. “Rusty came to the district nine years ago, and at that time there was a lot to focus on and go to work on,” Walther said. “I think there is just a tremendous amount of positive things that occurred in Schoolcraft.”

Those thoughts were echoed by a few other trustees, including Wade Rutkoskie. “I also want to thank Dr. Stitt for his time. Obviously, a year-long retirement celebration is in order from the district, so [I’m] looking forward to celebrating that time with him and working on the transition, which I know he has been thinking about as well,” Rutkoskie said.

The board approved an athletic participation fee starting in the 2020-2021 school year that applies to both middle school and high school athletes. The cost will be $75 per child or $150 for a family.

The motion was approved without much discussion, but board meeting materials say the addition of a fee was to help the district avoid having to cut its athletic trainer position. Athletic Director Jeff Clark said in the meeting materials that the district will be required to pay $25,000 a year to keep the services of the trainer and the new fees will help cover those costs.

“Financial support from the State of Michigan for the operation of local schools has not kept pace with the rapidly increasing costs for school districts,” the letter to the board reads. “All districts have been forced to make adjustments in operating procedures. Schoolcraft Community Schools is no exception.”

The school is asking any parents with questions or concerns about the new fee structure to contact Clark. Families who may not be able to afford the fees are requested to contact the superintendent.

Schoolcraft alumni hand out scholarships

By Sue Hendriksma

The Schoolcraft Alumni Association had to cancel its annual banquet and meeting this year due to the COVID crisis. However, the Executive Committee announced that scholarships totaling $6,000 were awarded to two 2020 graduates.

Two local companies, Chem Link and Schoolcraft Veterinary Clinic, sponsored specialized scholarships this year. Kalamazoo County State Bank also provided a donation used in supporting these talented 2020 graduates. Alumni Association scholarships are supported through donations by many members who are encouraged to pay it forward, remembering that today’s students will be the leaders of tomorrow.

The recipients: Karson Leighton is planning to attend Middle Tennessee State University to study music business. Karson received a specialized scholarship sponsored by Chem Link, and also an Alumni Association Scholarship. Karson is a songwriter who started to become familiar with the music business when he released his first song to the public. His goal is to be involved in the business aspects of music.

Erin Lockwood will attend Kalamazoo Valley Community College, where she is already a college sophomore on the Dean’s List, and then enter Western Michigan University to study child and family development. Erin received a specialized scholarship sponsored by the Schoolcraft Veterinary Clinic. She has a strong desire to serve people in need.

The Schoolcraft Alumni Association awards one or more scholarships each year. Including the 2020 recipients, 96 Schoolcraft High School seniors have received scholarships in various amounts that total just over $50,520. Each year, a list of all scholarship recipients is displayed at the association’s banquet and other events.

Seniors must apply through the school using the association’s application criteria, which takes into consideration not only their GPA, but extracurricular activities as well as service projects. Students are required to provide a short essay and also provide a recommendation from another individual (generally an instructor) who knows them well. The Executive Committee determines how much can be awarded in a given year based on donations received over the last year. The Scholarship Committee screens all applicants and determines who receives the awards.

Schoolcraft creatively honors graduates

The SHS graduation ceremony followed recommended guidelines.

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

Community members and school leaders paid tribute to Schoolcraft High School’s 82 graduates in many ways throughout this unusual academic year, culminating in a socially distanced-ceremony and a coordinated “Shine the Light” parade.

In June, an anonymous donor contributed a huge boulder, a symbol of the class of 2020 graduates’ strength and solid reputation, now permanently placed at the stadium flagpole. Principal Matthew Dailey directed an event, painting hands and celebrating the 82 seniors who left their handprints on the rock.

The community continued to celebrate these students: In addition to yard signs to decorate seniors’ yards, poster-sized pictures of the SHS graduates line the athletic field fence. The highly visible gesture is another community member’s gift to recognize these students and the unusual circumstances of their senior year.

On July 24 and 25, Dailey visited many graduates’ homes to deliver diplomas and to greet students and families. Dailey appreciated the ability to personalize the moments for his students, saying each stop “was an especially valuable and meaningful experience for me, and one I will most certainly remember as a highlight during the difficulty of a pandemic.”

Following the appropriate guidelines, on Friday, July 24, the district held a graduation ceremony on the athletic field for the 147th graduating class of SHS. Recognizing students, family, and staff, Dailey addressed the students: “The unrelenting support of the Schoolcraft community has been on honoring your achievements, thanking you for your contributions to our school community, and sharing our excitement for all of the future possibilities ahead for you.”

Finally, at 9 p.m., students loaded school buses for an event called “Shine the Light.” Following a planned route throughout the village and outlying neighborhoods, area residents greeted the graduates by flashing lights and sounding horns, helping to close a meaningful and memorable day.

Vicksburg schools: More questions than answers

By Jef Rietsma

Editor’s Note: The Vicksburg school district by press time had published several options for reopening which depend on the trend of COVID-19 infections. They include all-virtual education and, if the trend of infections levels off and declines, giving parents and students a choice of virtual or in-person education. A draft chart of the options can be viewed at vicksburgcommunityschools.org. 

With more questions than answers, Vicksburg Community Schools Superintendent Keevin O’Neill in a mid-July board meeting said a clearer picture regarding back-to-school details should be available by the end of July.

During the July 13 meeting, O’Neill spent more than 10 minutes recapping the state of VCS. Additional information was provided during more than 20 minutes of audience questions and board responses following O’Neill’s update.

He restated the highest priority: the health and safety of the district’s students and staff.

“We’re not interested in opening up schools unless we know people will be safe,” he said. “No way would we ever want to put anyone in a situation where they didn’t feel safe or healthy.”

O’Neill made a number of references to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s 63-page MI Safe Schools Roadmap and the mandate that districts develop return-to-school plans. The district-created plans must take into account whether the state is in Phases 1 through 3, Phase 4 or Phase 5. A plan for each of those three levels is required.

He said the course of action the district took from April through the end of the academic year, where curriculum was administered online only, was an example of Phase 3.

“One of the big things that’s happening on the county level is what’s known as the Kalamazoo Virtual and Innovative Collaborative, and that is an online option for families that will choose their children to do their work 100 percent online and not come to school,” O’Neill said. “When we look at Phase 4, which we’re currently in, it allows for face-to-face instruction. That’s what we want to do and we want to make our plan robust as far as health and safety are concerned.”

He said Whitmer’s Roadmap includes options from required and strongly recommend, to recommended and considerations. He said the district will have to digest all options and figure out which will be applied under what circumstances.

Still, O’Neill sided with research that shows face-to-face instruction is most effective and anything less is just not as optimal. He remained optimistic that face-to-face instruction will be allowed.

O’Neill, beginning his third year as Vicksburg superintendent, said personal and collective responsibilities will be major components to the district’s back-to-school plan. Engaging all stakeholders, he noted, is paramount. Being flexible will be critical, too.

“We have to be nimble; we have to be able to pivot back and forth from plans,” he said, adding that a critical issue to come out of Whitmer’s Roadmap centers on masks. “I’m not going to lie, I’ve talked to parents who said ‘There’s no way I’m going to send my kid back to school if he has to wear a mask.’ We know that. We understand that. Everybody feels differently about this.”

O’Neill said at Phase 4, the state will require students and teachers in sixth through 12th grades to wear face covering, while elementary students will have to wear a mask in common areas. At Phase 5, masks are optional.

By the end of July, O’Neill expects the district will have on its website a draft of information related to each of the three phases, 1 through 3, Phase 4 and Phase 5. The district is soliciting feedback from all stakeholders in order to compile a final draft due to the state on or before Aug. 15.

“There’s lots and lots of little things that we’re going to look at every possible scenario, what ifs, possibly adding more lunches to every schedule to ensure that our cafeterias are safe, one-way lanes in hallways and walking in single file,” O’Neill said. “And we haven’t even got into athletics and extra-curriculars yet. Learning is number one right now and that’s what we’re going to focus on.”

In response to audience questions, O’Neill provided answers and clarification, noting that the district would provide only online learning if the region is in Phase 3. The Kalamazoo Virtual and Innovative Collaborative will be available only in Phases 4 or 5.

He also said cleaning protocols will be “robust” and could happen hourly, in some cases with student assistance.

“The protocols we’re going to have to look at in elementary rooms, we’re going to have to get rid of the reading carpet, we’ve got to get rid of all the fluff, we can’t have things shared,” he said. “We need to open up every classroom at every level so that we can space the best we can and then once we get all those protocols in place, then we may have to move some kids … there’s so many dominoes that are going to fall in place to make sure safety is number one and those are some of the things we’re going to have to do.”

In other action:

• O’Neill said the district is in a holding pattern as far as hiring or layoffs are concerned. The district is awaiting more information from the state regarding 2020-21 school-year funding.

• He noted that through online registration, the district has 263 students enrolled in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten for 2020-21.

• The board approved the services of Thrun Law Firm and auditor Plante Moran for 2020-21.

• Board members authorized bids for the following construction-related projects: flooring removal and abatement, $8,682; acoustical ceilings, $29,862; resilient floor coverings, $84,450; interior painting, $5,310; interior lighting, $18,022; tennis court resurfacing and repairs, $112,995; and stadium fencing and concrete repairs, $39,295.

• Bids for dairy and bakery were awarded to Country Fresh, $46,590, and Aunt Millie’s, $6,470.

• A request by Ravenna Kahler, Sunset Lake Elementary and Vicksburg High School band teacher, for 12 weeks leave starting Aug. 31 was granted.

VHS graduation ceremony held — at last

Jennifer Brown was the first of Vicksburg High’s class of 2020 to receive her diploma at the district’s graduation ceremony July 23. School board President Skip Knowles presented diplomas to graduates.

By Jef Rietsma

Vicksburg High School’s class of 2020 is now officially part of the district’s history. Finally.

The district-organized graduation ceremony July 23 was anything but traditional. Still, all that really mattered in the end was that a graduation ceremony for the school’s 170 seniors happened.

“I’m very happy for these kids today, but, gosh, I hope it’s the last time we have to hold a graduation this way,” school board President Skip Knowles said. “I do need to say, though, everybody worked hard and we were firmly committed to being able to pull a graduation off. And we did.”

Knowles said it took an extensive amount of coordination and planning in order to stay in compliance with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders regarding crowd sizes.

He noted the ceremony – staggered in small groups over the course of more than three hours – actually over-complied, as graduates and their family members gathered 10 yards apart then proceeded forward to the southwest end of the football field for a photo and for the graduate to receive a diploma.

Knowles conceded the 30-foot distance was easy to measure because graduates and their family members stood at every 10-yard interval, clearly marked on the turf.

He said one upside to the unprecedented ceremony was graduates being able to be pictured with family members prior to receiving their diploma. Knowles said family typically is in the stands while the procession takes place on the field.

“We did a virtual graduation too, so they actually have something they can look at for the rest of their life, as long as there’s the internet,” he said. “They can look at all the speeches and all the graduates and everything else. So, if you want to look at that as a positive. Classes before them didn’t have that.”

He said the class of 2020 will go down in history as a unique group that experienced unprecedented circumstances. He is optimistic the obstacles and setbacks will make the young women and men of 2020 stronger and show greater perseverance as they blossom into adults.

Knowles said he is proud how district administrators and staff worked together to make the event special for the graduates. He thanked all the volunteers and said he looks forward to a more traditional ceremony next year.

“Hopefully,” he said. “I’m crossing my fingers.”

New Schoolcraft pastor introduced to community

Pastor Annamarie Groenenboom

By Betsy Connelly

The First Presbyterian Church of Schoolcraft has welcomed a new pastor, Annamarie Groenenboom. After holding her first and only in-person service on Jan. 12, all services since have been broadcast via Facebook Live to maintain social distancing.

Although many from the congregation have not yet had the opportunity to get to know Pastor Annamarie, she has collaborated with the presbytery and the community to come up with some creative ways to worship. Congregants can attend bible studies on Wednesdays and vespers on Sunday evenings, both hosted by Pastor Annamarie on the church lawn. Her Facebook Live services have reached congregants who are homebound or otherwise unable to be physically present at Sunday services. She has also been able to meet from a safe distance with members in nursing homes.

Pastor Annamarie says she has lots of ideas to “enrich the lives of not only those inside the church walls but also those in the broader community.” She and the church’s Christian education director and elder have been working together to create outdoor activities for children, youth and families to participate in. These activities include recreating bible stories with sidewalk chalk on the church driveway, family movie night on the church lawn, and a socially distanced scavenger hunt throughout the town. She’s also reached out to pastors of other churches in the south county area in an effort to organize interdenominational community activities.

Originally from Grand Rapids, Pastor Annamarie is glad to be back in Michigan. After she and her husband, Mitch, met at Calvin College orientation, both attended the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s of divinity and he earned his Ph.D in chemical engineering. After graduate school, they moved to Maryland where Annamarie worked as the Stated Supply Pastor for Christian Formation at Lewinsville and Mitch worked as a research fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Now back in Michigan and close to home again, Pastor Annamarie said, “West Michigan is just my people. Everyone here is so polite and nice to each other. You really get a sense of community that you don’t have in bigger cities. Plus, my family and friends are all in Michigan. It’s such a joy to be able to visit my parents for just one day. The family values are different in the Midwest and people focus more on the importance of religion in people’s lives.”

Though she’s only been in Schoolcraft a few months, she’s already felt the friendly warmth of the Schoolcraft community. “It’s nice to have people who notice that you’re present and will wave and be welcoming of a newcomer. In Maryland, we didn’t know a single person in our neighborhood and when you’d wave at someone, they’d look at you like ‘Is there something wrong with you?’ I also feel like Schoolcraft is a really safe community. I see a lot of children playing outside together.”

The youngest pastor First Presbyterian has ever had, Pastor Annamarie plans to use her fresh perspective and open-mindedness to address changing needs of the church. While assessing the needs of the church has been difficult without one-on-one contact with the members, one of the most prominent needs she’s observed is access to safe fellowship. “I’m a firm believer that the church should be a safe space for every person, no matter your age, race, gender or sexuality. My goal is to figure out how we create that safe space for every person to come in and feel welcomed.”

100 years ago…

When the movies came to Vicksburg: In the 1920s, residents could take in the latest movie at the Sun Theatre on North Main Street, where the old PNC Bank parking lot is now. At the beginning of the decade, patrons watched the silent movies of Charlie Chaplin, but by the end of the decade, the “talkies” were introduced. Thanks to Vicksburg Historical Society.