Love INC descends on poverty through rappelling event

Reporting

This piece was featured on the front page of the digital edition of the Missourian as a centerpiece.

People walking or driving along Broadway or Cherry Street on Saturday might have noticed several figures dangling from the Tiger Hotel.

Window washers? Spiderman? Nope, just Gary Pinkel, Paul Pepper and other local daredevils.

Over 50 people rappelled 140 feet down the front of the Tiger Hotel to raise money for Love INC, a local nonprofit with the mission of helping impoverished Columbia residents. The event also featured inflatable slides, bounce houses and a food truck.

Love INC raised more than $60,000 by Saturday afternoon, which brought them within striking distance of their $80,000 goal.

“This is actually our first big fundraiser,” said Jane Williams, a co-founder of Love INC. “I love the way this event is titled because we are trying to help people not go over the edge.”

The organization teamed up with the Tiger Hotel — which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year — and Over the Edge, an adventure experience company that works with charities and nonprofits.

Williams said Love INC exists to help make life better for those who don’t have the means to do it immediately for themselves. She was one of the first to make the descent, along with former MU football head coach Gary Pinkel and local TV legend Paul Pepper.

“I’m not sure I would do it if I could see,” said Williams, who lost her eyesight five years ago. Williams set a fundraising goal of $10,000 for herself — the highest goal of the campaign — which was reached when she was in a harness halfway down the hotel.

Williams said the fundamental message of Saturday’s event and Love INC is simple, yet universal: Help those in need however you can.

“Poverty is complicated,” Williams said. “Sometimes they need a person, sometimes they need a car.”

Mike DeSantis, Love INC’s mobilization director, said Over the Edge reached out to the organization during their search for a fundraising opportunity, and he could tell right away that it was exactly the type of experience they were looking for.

“This is a little wild and willy, and so are we,” DeSantis said, adding that most of the event’s volunteers are Love INC coaches who work directly with people in need.

In order to rappel down the front of the hotel, people who signed up had to raise at least $1,000.

A crowd of community members acted as a cheering section for those tasked with going down the building as families flooded the street Saturday afternoon. Onlookers also had the chance to take a slightly less intimidating trip down a 27 feet tall, 120 feet long inflatable slide.

Greg DeLine, president of Love INC’s board of directors, said the organization’s goals come straight from the heart.

Williams said plenty of problems that might seem small to people who are better off can close doors to those struggling with poverty — things like not knowing how to file taxes or find a consistent job.

She said the guidance Love INC provides is similar to the support she received in rappelling down the Tiger Hotel.

“I’m up there, I’m totally blind; (the help is) exactly what people need sometimes,” Williams said.

DeSantis said the nonprofit has also created a fund in tandem with banks across the city to allow Columbia residents access to zero percent loans.

However, he said, Love INC does more than just provide people with financial assistance.

“We sit down with people and interview them for an hour or two to get to know them,” said DeSantis, who frequently works with the organization’s volunteers.

Williams said it’s clear that people who say those in poverty should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” don’t work directly with the type of people who are helped by Love INC or understand what they are going through.

“What I did today wasn’t half as courageous as the people we work with every day,” Williams said.

In the following days, the post received a barrage of comments, some in support of the idea and some against it. And on Monday, Sycamore posted again, canceling the offer because of “the threat of legal action in response to our voter promotion” and thanking customers for their support.

A big pair of scissors makes it official: Grant’s massive renovation is history

Reporting

This piece was featured on the front page of both the print & digital editions of the Missourian as a centerpiece.

A song rang out Friday morning through Grant Elementary School’s packed gymnasium as a chorus of all ages celebrated a recently completed addition:

“We are one, standing hand in hand,” they sang.

In addition to Grant’s 300 or so students and their teachers and staff members, the event drew a vibrant range of guests: an alumna from 80 years ago, construction workers who labored on the yearlong project, Columbia City Council and Chamber of Commerce members, parents, former teachers and residents of the South Garth Avenue neighborhood.

In the moments leading up to the ribbon-cutting — complete with the requisite pair of oversized scissors — teachers and students did a call-and-response rendition of the school’s unifying motto: “I am Grant School.”

“It’s beautiful, it’s so beautiful,” said Betty Kemper, who attended Grant in 1935 and 1936 and happens to be the grandmother of school principal Jen Wingert.

Kemper, a former Hickman High School teacher, said her family has a long history with Grant, and she still lives “just down the road.”

After the ceremony, alumni and guests were invited into the school’s new cafeteria, where they were shown a sneak preview of a documentary about the construction made by Grant’s fifth-graders. It was produced with the help of Columbia Access Television and will be more widely shown at a later date.

Among those highlighted in the documentary were Brian and Mitch Stockman of Little Dixie Construction, who were honored at the ceremony for helping make the construction process a learning experience.

“One of the first things I remember is a kid coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey, when are you gonna get done with my playground?’” Brian Stockman said, adding the student couldn’t have been older than 5.

That was only one example of the extent to which Little Dixie became a part of the Grant community last year, Mitch Stockman said. He recalled a day he got to read a book about construction to a roomful of first-graders; the students had picked out the book, and it just happened to have equipment they were seeing outside their windows — cranes, plaster casts and the like.

“I cannot emphasize enough the community’s support for this school,” said guest Robert Winkelmann, whose two daughters attended Grant and who plans to volunteer there.

During tours of the new space, alumni frequently popped in and said hello to classes, pointing out rooms in which they used to learn and play.

On display in the front entrance are two desks from Grant’s original building, circa 1910, complete with intricately designed iron legs and inkwells.

Grant’s historic addition totaled $5.6 million, which voters approved as part of a 2014 bond issue, and included a new playground, cafeteria and kitchen, several classrooms and two elevators.

Four trailer classrooms are now part of Grant’s history — having been hauled away and put up for sale.

Kavanaugh hearing brings back painful memories for local survivors

Reporting

This story was written with the help of two other reporters. I conducted all of the interviews with the survivors.

For some survivors of sexual assault, the way Christine Blasey Ford’s story has progressed is all too familiar.

“The process she’s gone through these past few weeks is exactly what it’s like,” MU student Rachael Diehm said.

Diehm said the grueling criticism and character attacks Ford has endured throughout the confirmation process of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh remind her of why she had trouble speaking up about her own assault.

“I think everyone who comes forward like this knows what they’re getting into,” Diehm, 20, said, adding that she didn’t talk to anyone about what happened to her until she got to college.

A 21-year-old MU student who said she is a survivor of multiple sexual assaults agreed, saying that she wants to know what’s going on in the news but that it’s hard to relive her experience through Ford’s account and the ensuing response to the allegations.

The recent coverage “dredges up the same memories of not being believed,” she said.

The student, who wished to remain anonymous, said she has noticed a change in dialogue in recent years as more men show support for women, and more women continue to share their stories.

Diehm said the problem is now being better addressed, but that doesn’t mean everyone with a sexually traumatizing experience will speak out.

“The ones who come forward, it’s not because they don’t have those fears; it’s because they’re facing them,” Diehm said, adding that part of what made it so hard to speak out is her small hometown is one where everyone knows each other and news travels fast.

“I think visibility is important. Just talking about it, like, making sure people can’t ignore this. Because it’s a problem people face every day,” Diehm said.

There has been an increase in discussions about sexual harassment and sexual assault as a result of the #MeToo movement, MU spokeswoman Liz McCune said in an email.

However, McCune said that she did not have enough information to specify whether there has been a recent increase in students looking for support regarding sexual violence in correlation with the allegations against Kavanaugh.

Columbia Public Schools spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark also said in an email that the district does not have any data that would indicate the number of students recently seeking help, “nor could we correlate this to any specific national incident.”

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) stresses that reading others’ stories does not mean you are obligated to share your own.

RAINN has published other tips for survivors consuming media. These include “remembering that you are in control of the media you consume,” so if something is upsetting, there is no obligation to read or view it.

The organization also stresses the importance of talking to people you trust.

Jessica Henderson Daniel, president of the American Psychological Association, issued a statement that said sexual assault “is likely the most underreported crime in the United States. About two-thirds of female sexual assault victims do not report to the police, and many victims do not tell anyone.”

Daniel said that some memories can be recalled in excruciating detail, while others may be forgotten. “The American Psychological Association is concerned that public statements questioning the integrity of Dr. Ford and the veracity of her allegation due to her prior lack of reporting will make it even more likely that other sexual assault victims do not report their experiences,” she said.

Diehm said she doesn’t know if the Kavanaugh accusations will be taken seriously by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“And the thing is, the most shocking part I’ve seen is that even if it is true, a lot of people don’t care,” Diehm said.

Diehm said she has been affected by seeing the recent pushback regarding the Kavanaugh allegations. She said it reconfirms “personal fears of sharing stories like this.”

Dustin Knight, a senior at MU and survivor of sexual assault, said seeing the Kavanaugh accusation story in the news brought back difficult memories for him.

“Personally, this is an immediate trigger,” Knight said. “It brings back these emotional scars that I’ve of course dealt with, but it’s still there.”

Richard Sindel, president of Sindel Noble law firm in St. Louis, represents clients who have been accused of sexually violent crimes.

Sindel, whose firm handles cases in Columbia, is aware of how important it is to make his employees feel safe in the environment in which they work. He has seen examples of this importance as far back as 1991.

“I remember I was an attorney when Anita Hill came into testify, and we heard all that testimony,” he said, referring to Hill’s Senate testimony at the Supreme Court nomination hearing for Clarence Thomas. “We had a meeting at my office of all the staff — which was a fair number of women — to say, ‘Look, if this is going on, if we are joking around and kidding, but it is offensive, we need to know so we can address it.'”

Knight also emphasized the importance of talking about subjects like sexual assault and that coming forward is by no means an easy thing to do.

Diehm said it’s completely understandable when the costs outweigh the benefits.

“She was brave enough to come forward — most people can’t say that,” Diehm said of Ford. “It’s great that it can get to the top of everyone’s news feed. But, at the end of the day you have to wonder what she feels when she sees that too. Because that’s on her newsfeed, too. That’s trending on her Twitter,” Diehm said.

Trans ally workshop educates in a polarized time

Reporting

Here is a link to the published version of my story about Transgender Awareness Week.

A workshop helping people learn how to better support the transgender community kicked off national Trans Empowerment & Awareness Week on Monday, the day before highly anticipated midterm elections — the outcome of which may directly impact the transgender community.

On Oct. 21, President Donald Trump proposed legally changing the definition of gender to mirror that of sex. This would narrowly define gender as male or female based on physical characteristics present at birth, a determination that couldn’t be changed later. Such a change would effectively erase transgender people in the eyes of the United States government.

“We need cis people coming out for us. We need cis people standing up for us,” Espen Mullen, MU senior and treasurer of Oasis, a transgender support and advocacy group, said before the workshop. Cisgender refers to people whose gender identity corresponds to the sex they were assigned at birth.

Mullen said the strained political climate makes it all the more important to outwardly support the trans community. He said the workshop was an opportunity to answer general questions people may have about the trans community.

“We have a lot of people who are really well-meaning within the LGBTQ community who aren’t trans, and they really want to show up for the trans community, and they don’t quite know how to do it, and they don’t know how to ask,” he said.

Participants moved through five stations focused on the following considerations:

  • What is gender?
  • How to use pronouns.
  • Who are trans people?
  • How to be accessible.
  • How to protest.

Mullen pointed out that cisgender people often fail to recognize many ways they can directly show support for the trans community; for example, sharing or asking for pronouns in everyday conversation, even between two people who aren’t members of the trans community. The workshop provided a chart of pronouns, such as she/her, they/them and ze/hir.

“OK, you might make somebody feel bad if you ask for their pronouns or if you try to set a tone that it’s OK to share pronouns. But, like, that’s it. That’s all it’s going to do. It’s only going to hurt someone’s feelings,” Mullen said.

“It’s important to start hurting people’s feelings because it brings into the social norm asking for pronouns, offering pronouns as something that’s not only transgender,” he said.

The Trump administration also has attempted to ban trans people from the military, roll back discrimination protections for transgender people and eliminate protections allowing people to use the restrooms that best correspond with their gender identity.

Mullen said that although these things usually don’t amount to official policy changes, the effects of the administration’s anti-trans rhetoric are becoming clearer every day.

“People who disagree with the transgender community’s existence — just us existing in public, going about our daily business — are more empowered by an explicit public acceptance of discriminating against transgender people,” Mullen said.