Amy Arnold and Kelsey Sauber-Olds

Visiting Amy Arnold and Kelsey Sauber-Olds on their farm outside of Viroqua, I am immediately immersed in a sense of rich and collaborative effort. Three lively boys– Jae, 13, Solvin, 8, and Pelle, 7– float in and out of the large, open living space. They read, do school work, practice music, work on art, and play outdoors on this single-digit, Wisconsin morning. Every so often, they take a moment to join our discussion, as we sit around their dining table. Amidst their many ongoing projects, Amy and Kelsey are homeschooling their boys.

AASU Family

Amy and Kelsey moved to Viroqua in 2006, after leaving their Madison home in search of a rural life that could include both art and community. Once here, Kelsey worked as a fine-furniture maker and Amy as a fiber-arts sculptor. Six years later, in 2012, they joined forces to embark on a collaborative adventure in wood sculpture. What began as piecemeal work for Kelsey —creating wooden appendages for Amy’s fiber sculptures— has evolved into a full-blown partnership.   They now together imagine, design, rough-out, finish, and paint their expressive and whimsical wood sculptures. This arrangement also feeds their family life.

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Grounded in a nucleus of family, work, and farm life, Amy and Kelsey are steeped in a sense of purpose, warmth and connection. And when life at home is centered and attuned, they find they have deep wells of energy for sharing their gifts with others. Kelsey coaches a city-wide soccer team that he helped form and develop. Amy is involved with a community rights alliance and participates in a community-wide singing group. Like ripples in a stream, their “community” grows outward in “concentric circles.”

It seemed only natural that Kelsey would step forward to help rescue the small and flailing city soccer team soon after they moved to Viroqua, after earning a name for himself as a talented college soccer player. So when the local Christian Academy decided they no longer wanted to host the program, Kelsey was right there, ready to do whatever he could to provide an opportunity for any child who wanted to play soccer. He helped form a board of trustees and created Driftless United Futbol, a league in which 68 families now participate. 7 years later, DUF now oversees varsity and junior varsity teams, 3 middle school teams, a summer camp, a wintertime futsal team, and the “community classic” –an end of season match that pits parents and community adults against the Varsity team. Altogether this effort has been a large gift to the community, pulling parents and children from more than seven different area schools together with common purpose.

In similar spirit of outreach, Amy has been active in the local “Community Rights” alliance – a national movement, growing in force, which encourages local citizens to decide the future of their own communities. People “of [many] different political stripes and backgrounds come together with one overriding belief – that they should be the ones that decide the future of their own communities. They’ve even come up with a name for their brand of activism – collective, non-violent civil disobedience through municipal lawmaking. The shorthand is, they’re sitting down at the lunch counter together and they aren’t budging. (to read more about Community Rights, click here:http://www.occupy.com/article/local-lawmaking-call-community-rights-movement).

This initiative first made its way to Viroqua after a group of Viroqua residents attended a workshop in Decorah, Iowa, where the Community Rights work has been an ongoing project for some time. Amy attended the Decorah workshop as a way to gain more insight into local issues that were already having a large impact on life in her rural neighborhood.

Shortly after purchasing their house and land, Kelsey and Amy’s third son was born. And shortly after that, they discovered that the local electric company, Dairyland Power, was planning to build a coal ash dump less than two miles form their house. Amy “became a woman possessed” and quickly there was a community effort to protect not just their home area, but others as well. This endeavor connected her to all of her neighbors as they strategized in each other’s living rooms and attended meetings together. She describes it as “an awful, wonderful time”. Awful for all of the stress and heartache, but wonderful because of the community connections that came out of it. Over the ensuing seven years, these connections have proved invaluable as other violating corporate initiatives have threatened local control: as recently, when a proposed high voltage transmission line threatens to cut a swath though pristine organic farmlands and frac-sand mining initiatives abound.

Amy’s interest in the Community Rights movement grew from these issues festering in her backyard and a deepening desire to further develop her relationships with her neighbors. She notes that “strength and resilience comes from the depth of our relationships”, and she hopes that over time there will be a growing sense of “trust, interconnectedness, and friendship” that exists beyond the ties initially forged through community action. But cultivating these connections takes commitment and a willingness to be vulnerable in a culture where the predominant approach is to keep to yourself.

AASU Paints

Inspired by her friend Liz Rog of Decorah, Iowa, Amy has also cultivated connection by co-creating a local singing community. Coming together, to acknowledge and appreciate all realms of life through relationship and song, has been a grounding experience that translates easily into the rhythms of her family’s home life. Amy says that it provides her with a deep sense of connection, both human and spiritual, to the land, the seasons, her family, her close circle of friends, and all those with whom she shares ties. In short, community singing calls forth the large web of connectedness that holds us all.

As my time with Amy and Kelsey draws to a close, she shows me one last thing: a hand-drawn map of their rural “neighborhood.” Next to the map is a list of corresponding phone numbers and emails. I have often admired Kelsey and Amy for their involvement in community-building projects, but the big gem I took away from our time spent together was something so simple it could easily be overlooked or dismissed as effortless. This simple map of 20 houses is Amy’s most recent effort to work towards more connected community in a textured political climate where great expanse separates the homes. Motivated by her participation in the Community Rights Alliance and by the understanding that, for the most part, we all want the same things, Amy mustered the courage to approach her neighbors, asking them if they would like to be part of the map. This effort pushed Amy well outside of her comfort zone, but has resulted in an ever-deepening community experience.

At the end of the day, Amy and Kelsey find meaning in creating roots close to home and seeing that even the smallest moment of outreach can result in a deep sense of connection.

(to listen to Amy tell her story of the gifts that can come from asking for help, click here: https://vimeo.com/119058073)

Neighborhood Map

Amy & Kelsey Hearts