It’s not new news that Montana’s suicide rate ranks as one of the highest in the nation and residents of the Flathead Valley are all too aware of what it feels like to live in that reality. And while they were founded over 20 years ago and remain the only organization solely focused on suicide prevention, the Nate Chute Foundation is growing, evolving, and optimistic as they continue to support their community.
When 1999 Whitefish High School graduate Nate Chute unexpectedly took his own life just weeks before attending Montana State University, his parents, Terry Chute and Jane Kollmeyer immediately felt called to process their grief through action to prevent further loss. Soon after Nate’s passing, his parents established the Nate Chute Foundation and registered the organization’s 501(3)c nonprofit status. Quite literally a kitchen table organization, the board consisted mainly of friends of the family who were looking for a way to bring about change and prevent further tragedy.
In the early years, NCF provided funding for specialty training for teachers, local clergy, and police officers; suicide prevention commercials on local television stations; the Whitefish High School ROPES program; Whitefish CARE; depression screening for students; and mental health counseling. As the organization thrived and local donations spoke to community’s desire for more support, they hired their first paid employee, an Executive Director, in 2017.
Today, the foundation has three full time employees, two part time employees and a volunteer board of directors made up of nine community members. I spoke with Kacy Howard, Executive Director; Jenny Cloutier, Program Director; and Nicci Daniher, Development Director, recently about the local nonprofit and how they are working to promote mental wellness and reduce suicide in our community. I was moved by the dedication of these three native Montana women who are committed the mission of the NCF. They are all Certified QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) Instructors, which is the most widely taught training in the world as an emergency response to someone in crisis and can save lives.
Howard, who was born and raised in the Flathead Valley and a close friend of Nate’s in high school, has been at the helm of NCF since 2017. Before working with the foundation, Howard spent nearly a decade working in community mental health. Howard oversees all of NCF’s operations including programs, fundraising, and nonprofit and board governance. And, while she loves the behind-the-scenes work of helping NCF thrive, she says that the most impactful and energizing part of her work is getting to connect with the humans in our community and help cultivate safe spaces to have really difficult conversation about the real-life issues that we all face. “There’s something cathartic and healing about getting to call on the grief and loss that has been a part of my story to help others find hope in their own,” Howard says.
After living and working as a mental health therapist for three years in Australia, Daniher is grateful to be back in her hometown. She has a Master’s Degree in Advanced Clinical Social Work from Columbia University. Daniher saw how many of her classmates, including herself, suffered from depression and anxiety in high school and was drawn to the idea of utilizing her long-standing relationships in the Valley, along with her knowledge of mental illness, to support the NCF through development and fundraising. “I want to change the climate and improve the wellbeing in our schools for my own kids and the future generations.”
As one might imagine, working in the realm of suicide prevention can take its toll. Especially after experiencing a suicide cluster in 2021 in which 10 local youth took their own lives, NCF knew that there was opportunity to grow their programs to help better meet community needs. After soul searching and researching, the organization decided to move into the space of resilience building and upstream prevention: instead of just focusing on risk factors, warning signs and how to help a friend with suicidal ideation, they wanted to be able to add selfcare strategies to their offerings. Howard explained, “In some ways, traditional suicide prevention efforts are too focused on crisis mitigation. We believe that we need to start looking upriver and do more resilience building work to help people have the skills and connections so that they hopefully don’t get to that crisis moment, or when they do, they are at least better prepared with some tools and skills to navigate that place."
In order to expand programming, it was necessary to bring in new staff. After serving on the NCF board for two years, Jenny Cloutier joined the team. Her Master’s of Education and Certificate in Nonprofit Leadership, as well as also being a lifelong resident of the Flathead Valley, brought a familiarity with schools and strong connections to other nonprofits and businesses in the Valley. Said Cloutier, “I love that the programs we offer are free of charge. From removing financial barriers for those in need of professional services to providing over 2000 local students with suicide prevention training to implementing prevention strategies in local organizations and businesses – we are really looking to create a community that is aware and competent.” She added, “Mental health does not discriminate. It affects us all.”
School presentations are the largest program at the NCF. Presentations are facilitated in 7th and 9th grade health classrooms across Flathead Valley. The classroom setting allows these discussions and trainings, using evidence-based curriculum, to be held in a smaller setting where students feel more comfortable asking questions and adults can be aware if any young person seems to be struggling with the content. Topics covered include how to start and manage difficult conversations about mental health, healthy self-care, and coping strategies, and how to reach out for help.
In 2022, the Nate Chute Foundation:
I asked about the series of PSAs that are on the foundation’s website that I found to be very powerful. Daniher explained that while these stories were launched during COVID to reach people that were missing day-to-day contact, the messages have proved to be effective tools and stories of hope even after the pandemic. The series is called From Surviving to Thriving: Stories of Hope & Resilience and I’d encourage you to take a look.
The stories are told by local members of the community in hopes that they will inspire you to remember to never give up hope, that help is available, and recovery is possible. We are all in this together.
As we wrapped up, Howard remarked that Nate’s parents continue to be involved in the foundation. “They turned a tragedy into something that helps the community.” She praised their passion and dedication.
Although it’s hard to know the value of all the foundation does, Cloutier added “The support the community has shown is amazing. People believe in what we do.”
988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline - Text or Call 988
Community Access to Services: NCF offers financial assistance to help those in need access critical therapeutic services and support.
We provide funding for youth and adults to receive preventative counseling, postvention counseling for individuals and families impacted by a suicide, and funding for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) through Logan Health Whitefish Behavioral Health.
Community Training: NCF offers five different evidence-based prevention curriculums free of charge to business and organizations.
Trainings for Schools: NCF provides health class presentations, educator professional development, and policy & procedure consulting.
What can you do?
What started as a grassroots mission by teachers to serve underprivileged youth in Kalispell has blossomed into something the entire community can be proud of.
The HEART Program is a nonprofit organization that encourages growth and graduation by helping meet the basic needs of Kalispell and Evergreen students struggling with homelessness.
Is homelessness really a problem in the Flathead Valley?
“Yes, and it is greater than you think,” says Casey Driscoll, HEART Program Director.
As she explains, “Families that were barely getting by pre-Covid, have found that they can no longer afford to stay in their rentals or homes.” With a vacancy rate of only 1% in the area, landlords have been able to increase rates nudging this vulnerable group out.”
There are programs for many but finding space for families is tough. “Many of the older kids take to couch surfing, and try to get by without being seen,” Driscoll said.
Let’s look at the three segments that make up the Heart Program that serves Pre-K through High School:
The HEART Locker is a facility that acts as a “store” at no cost for students to receive clothing, school, and hygiene supplies.
This is where the program started, and it continues to grow. Kids can shop and find stylish age-appropriate clothes along with clean hygiene items to help them fit in and build their confidence. Come Prom time an area of the store is converted to the “Prom Salon” and the kids can dress the part for one of school’s biggest events. The HEART Locker is open to all students with the only rule being to “take what you need and use what you take.”
The HEART Markets are located on the high school grounds to give supplemental nutrition
to students in need of food.
The markets were added approximately four years ago with generous donations from the food bank and have expanded with additional donations from the public and assistance from the kitchens at each of the high schools. The markets are available at Flathead High School, Glacier High School, Linderman Education Center, and have now expanded to include Kalispell Middle School.
The HEART Locker Learning Center is a location that allows students a quiet and safe
space for schoolwork.
This space is not only important for students to complete schoolwork, but it offers a positive, comfy place to just be and relax. Volunteers serve as the staff and tutors. Currently the Learning Center is open after school Monday-Wednesday.
How did Casey Driscoll get involved? “Happenstance,” she says. She had worked in higher education and completed her master’s degree in Psychology. She had planned to go into the Peace Corps when Covid-19 hit and opted for AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) project to help expand the HEART Program. As the VISTA project was wrapping up, the HEART Program started looking for a director and she “fell into it.”
I asked Driscoll what inspires her and she replied, “I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t for the students. I have met people and learn about their traumatic experiences and they are still here showing up and trying.”
She follows with a story about a student from last year who enrolled herself and wanted to graduate. This student was driving daily from the Canyon and her car broke down. Luckily the HEART Program was able to assist with matching funds to get her vehicle repaired. “She was the first in her family to graduate and is now at FVCC (Flathead Valley Community College),” she added.
Driscoll is from upstate New York but loves it here in Montana. “It’s been great,” she said. “I ski, hike, and love outdoor activities.”
Besides Driscoll, there is one other paid staff position at The Heart Locker. That is the Case Manager position filled by Bigfork native, Elizabeth Langley.
I asked Langley what a case manager does. She replied, “It’s really hands on. I meet weekly with students at three different high schools.” She went on to explain that there are about 75 students she works with regularly in helping navigate the system. She looks for and connects students with resources that can help them in school and beyond. She wants to “teach them how to advocate” for themselves.
The basic goal is to get the students housed … off the couch or out of the car but it goes beyond that according to Langley. They don’t have the support that many of us may take for granted. She’s helped locate birth certificate copies, applying for a first job, finding mental health resources, and so much more.
“The face of homelessness in the valley is not what they (residents) assume it is,” said Langley. Students are homeless due to “no fault or choice of their own.” She found her way to the job following her work as an intern in the program while working on her master’s in Social Work. Her compassion is inspiring as is her determination to help the students.
Langley shared a success story about helping a student who rarely smiled and was doing the best she could to get by despite her circumstances which included living in a small camper. She needed to insulate her camper with foam board before it started to get too cold this winter. Langley was able to help get the camper insulated, and the grateful student texted her in thanks. “I could feel the smile via the text.” She continued, “the small wins are so important.”
Another success in the HEART Program is the Drop in Center for the older kids between 16 and 24 years old. The center came to fruition due to a team effort in which both Langley and Driscoll took key roles. It is funded by a HUD grant with the purpose of serving this at risk group of people and helping keep them off the streets.
With a job like this I asked Langley how she decompresses. “By holding onto meaningful stories even if they are sad…and the small wins.” She added that having students reach out to her shows that she is reaching them. That gives her hope and energy to keep going.
What an inspiration to meet both Driscoll and Langley and learn about The HEART Program. I know that we’re lucky to have these two dedicated ladies (and all the wonderful volunteers) committed to helping our youth in the valley succeed.
Learn more by visiting www.kalispellheartprogram.org.
How can YOU help?
You can give…
For me reading is an escape and when I find a really good book, I have a hard time putting it down. I get wrapped up in the characters and can hardly wait to see what happens next. The historical fiction novel, Bone Necklace, by author Julia Sullivan is one of those books.
Admittedly, I knew very little of the Nez Perce tribe and the and the war in 1877 and appreciated the references to actual events during that time.
Sullivan does a masterful job of developing the characters.
I found myself understanding the troubled Jack Peniel hoping he would find answers and peace while he leads the U.S. military through Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana while tracking the Nez Perce. His entire life he seemingly makes the wrong decisions all while trying to earn the respect of his tough father.
I was compelled to cheer for Running Bird, the Nez Perce warrior whose culture is being desecrated. He is a gallant fighter who is desperately trying to save his family and fellow tribe members. Although greatly outnumbered in multiple battles, he never gives up.
Then there is Nicole Lowsley, the English painter vacationing with her husband in Yellowstone National Park who literally gets caught in the crossfire. The realities of life in the west during this period are really brought to life through this character.
While reading I was transported to the mountains and plains of Montana in 1877 working my way to the Canadian border and political asylum with the Nez Perce.
No war is pretty and this war is no exception but the story needs to be told and heard as it continues to resonate today. The underdog fighting against goliath and the courage it takes to stand up and protect those that can’t protect themselves.
My recommendation…read this book!
P.S. My husband, a history buff, loved the book too.
Learn more Bone Necklace and how to purchase it at www.juliasullivan.com
About the author
Julia Sullivan is an author and an attorney.
After taking an interest in the history of the Nez Perce War while visiting the Big Hole Battlefield in Wisdom, MT, Julia spent over 20 years researching, drafting, and editing what would eventually become her debut historical novel Bone Necklace. Her research and preparation for the book led her to both the Library of Congress and the National Archives.
The issues explored in the novel resonate with her work as an attorney and her passion for justice.
Julia has represented inmates on death row, undocumented immigrants, and victims of domestic and elder abuse. She provided countless hours of pro bono work as Executive Director and Chairman of the Board of MAIP (Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project). Her focus has been on righting the scales in a system where corporations or the very wealthy often have the upper hand – while lower-income individuals frequently had their entire lives destroyed by a system that often fails the most fragile.
Julia lives with her husband in Annapolis, Maryland and Hamilton, Montana.
I have always wanted to visit Italy. And, on that trip, I thought it would be great to attend a cooking class.
My dream become a realty this winter when my husband and I were able to go to Europe to visit my daughter, Sarah, who was studying in Brussels, Belgium at the time. The first stop was meeting her in Florence, Italy. There we would see the sites and go to one of the original cooking schools in the Tuscany region, the Accidental Tourist.
I chose Accidental Tourist after checking out reviews on Trip Advisor…everyone raved about the hosts, the setting, and the food. The trip included a tour at a nearby winery so how could I go wrong.
Come to find out that the Accidental Tourist is one of the oldest cooking schools in the region and now there are close to 100. The owners, Marco and Majla are involved in every aspect of the operation.
I asked Majla what sets them apart from the other schools.
“I think the key is staying unique. While other cooking classes come and go, we represent a combination of what the other schools offer.” She continued “We have the expertise of a Culinary Academy, without the coldness of steel counters, high hats and big numbers of students; we offer the authentic atmosphere as well as the tradition of generations (like an Italian Nonna’s hearth), with added teaching skills, and without the language barrier; we afford the privilege of very intimate classes (maximum eight people down to just one single traveler), and the very highest quality ingredients available in the country and in the world, without the extra-cost of luxury.”
Having experienced this firsthand, I’d say she hit the nail on the head. We met our van driver (who happened to be Majla this day as her regular girl had the day off) in Florence at an easy to find location just a short walk from our Airbnb. Sarah and I were joined by another American who happened to be on an extended six-month trip in Italy. Together we headed up into the Tuscan hills.
About 20 minutes later we approached this amazing villa on the highest hill complete with a watchtower. The villa is 900 years old and has been in Majla’s family for six generations. It was an orphanage before becoming the farmhouse it is today. During WWII, Rodolfo Paoli (Majla’s grandfather) provided shelter to and saved the lives of many hiding from the Nazis. Majla said “The square in our town is named after my heroic grandfather, as he risked his life during WWII to help others.”
We were escorted into the lower level of the home where there was a comfortable dining area with seating for up to 10 people, along with a small kitchen off to the side where Marco was busy preparing delicious courses for dinner. We were led to the back room there was a large work area with a huge butcher block table. Majla served Chianti and shared stories of the villa, her family, and the area, while we followed instructions and made homemade pasta.
While the pasta was resting, she took us on a tour of the home and up to the top of the watchtower. The views were simply breathtaking.
I could tell early on that creating pasta and enjoying a meal together was only one component of the day. I asked Majla about a favorite experience with a group. She said, “Something really special seems to happen when people spend a few hours preparing together and then sharing food and wine around an old table, where you can FEEL so many other people have sat and shared before! Total strangers to me and to one-another truly open up. At the end of each class and dinner, there are so many hugs and kisses!”
She continued, “We have had three marriage proposals in our kitchen! One was planned, so I knew about it ahead of time but the other two proposals were impromptu. You can imagine the surprise, and cheers, and tears, and oooohs and ahhhhhhs!
“And the fact that a human being in love who plans to spend the rest of his life with another,
walks into my home, and in a matter of hours decides that it is good enough to get on his knee and open a jewelry box by the end of the evening, is the biggest certification of HOME I could ever hope for!”
Philanthropy runs deep in Majla and Marco’s family.
She explains their involvement in Fondazione Progetto ARCA:
“With the premises that you and we are the “upper case Accidental Tourists” the lucky ones who can choose the destination and duration of their wandering, and can set the date of their return home; lower case accidental tourists are the less fortunate, who leave without luggage, itinerary, a return ticket, or a home to return to.
“Over 2 decades of making a privileged living, made it consequential to extend some of that warmth to those who can’t afford it, by supporting Fondazione Progetto ARCA, an organization that assists homeless and people in extreme need.
“For every meal we serve a paying guest, one is donated to the organization. Simple as that: one to one.”
They have also continued her grandfather’s legacy by creating a special space called “The Emergency Room” in the villa. It is a large cozy room that sleeps four and is available for anyone who is - indeed - in an emergency situation including: a missed or cancelled flight; stranded with nowhere to stay; medical staff on temporary duty at the nearby hospital (due to COVID19); and even a solo traveler with a case of loneliness.
Spending the day with Marco and Majla with my daughter ended up being the highlight of my visit to Europe. As their website says “As heirs of this abode, we want to honor its vocation: to treat strangers as guests, turn guests into friends.” I can say they succeeded with us.
The only thing I would change is to have my husband go with us next time. He would have loved it as much as we did!
Addio per ora!
San Donato in Collina, Italy
WhatsApp +39 3486020257
The Accidental Tourist is a cultural association, not a business enterprise. 100% of the profit after paying workers is used for projects such as the Emergency Room, supporting the Foundation, the Barter program, etc. Every year we come up with new projects. The yearly membership fee is 15 Euro.
At this time of emergency we would like to ask those who have enjoyed an Accidental Tourist experience, those who would like to in the future, or those who simply like our philosophy, to support us by becoming an Accidental Tourist for 2020.
Megan Apple accomplished an amazing fete last summer…she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in its entirety. The trail gained notoriety in the 2014 film “Wild” starring Reese Witherspoon. The PCT’s southern terminus is just south of Campo, California (about an hour south of San Diego on the US-Mexican border) and ends 2,653 miles later in Manning Park, British Columbia (on the US-Canada border). Apple started in April and traversed California, Oregon, and Washington State on her adventure. She turned 28 years old just before she reached the end of the PCT in September.
I’ve known Megan her entire life and although very impressed, I’m not surprised that this determined young woman did exactly what she planned and set out to do.
Her parents, Holly & Andy Apple, have always supported Megan and her adventurous ways. She graduated from Whitefish High School then attended Idaho State University and earned her degree in Outdoor Education. As a youngster, she spent many weekends with her family at their cabin north of Polebridge, MT just a few miles from the Canada border. She was always venturing off into the woods there exploring nature. She recalls, “When I was in 5th grade I had the thought to do a Maine to Washington border walk.”
When asked what her motivation was for wanting to hike the PCT she said, “It is just a cool adventure. One of the biggest that you can do in the U.S.”
Megan hiked for a month on the PCT two years before her 2019 completion. She had the time off work and thought it would be fun, so she wanted to try it out. She really enjoyed her time on the trail and decided to do the whole PCT in the future.
She started preparations months before she took her first step. She gathered gear from her previous trip and did an inventory of what might be needed for her voyage.
Megan said, “I did some hikes, but you can’t really prepare for hiking 20 miles a day for days on end.”
It wasn’t just the supplies she’d need on the journey as there is no way she could start out with the full load. She had to coordinate the delivery of supplies at trail angel houses and post offices along the way. It was just Megan and her pack, so she had to meticulously plan her entire trip.
“Finding the right shoes was my biggest issue,” she said. She explained that trail runners are great, but they rip up easily. Hiking boots are good, but they are heavy. Ultimately, she used five pair of trail runners plus a sturdier boot that she ended up getting rid of on the trail.
When she arrived at the start, she overnighted with a trail angel where she was fed and spent the night.
Trail angels are a significant part of the PCT. They provide numerous forms of assistance to hikers including offering their yards and homes for camping or bunking, rides to and from the trailhead, food, shelter, receiving resupply boxes, stocking water caches in the desert, allowing you to fill up on water at their homes, and so much more.
“The Trail angel community is amazing,” said Megan. She continued, “They take you in, provide food and shelter, and so much more to help you achieve your goal. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
The first 300 miles through the California desert is “really easy” according to Megan. That jaunt took 15 days. The mind-boggling part is that at this point she still has 2,353 miles to go. For the entire PCF, it took Megan 5 months and 3 days. I should also note that although she certainly wasn’t trying, she lost 22 pounds in that period of time.
She has so many incredible memories that she’ll be able to share for a lifetime. She recalled a time in the Sierras at Muir Pass (11,969 feet) with a friend, Lefty. It was a long tough trail in the snow, but the sun was shining, and they ran into some fellow hikers and found a hut to hang out in together.
Like Lefty, Megan received a trail nickname as well…she became known as Sprout. I’m guessing in this circle she will always be known as Sprout.
As you can imagine, Megan said that there was a lot more traffic on the south part of the trail. At that time, she’d pass a couple people each day. As she ventured north there would be longer gaps of seeing civilization, but typically, there would be a town every 3 or 4 days.
Climbing Mather Pass (12,100 feet) was the scariest part of the PCT for Megan. “It was very challenging with a heavy pack,” she said. Then she encountered a stream and added, “I was scooting across a log to cross the stream and if I slipped, I’d be swept up by the current,” she said.
In addition to the trail angels, Megan said she couldn’t have done it without her family including her parents, grandparents, and her aunt. They supplied both moral and supply support throughout the journey.
When asked if she had any advice to pass along to someone considering hiking the PCT, she said, “You don’t have to do the whole thing to experience the PCT. Just a week is enough to experience the culture. Doing any section is totally worth it.”
Is there another hike like the PCT in her future? She said that she is interested in the more remote trails that require more planning like the Idaho Centennial Trail at 900 miles. “If I do 5 months again, I would go to another country that isn’t necessarily in a place that is so familiar,” she added.
How did Megan follow up her PCT fete? This winter the adventures continued when she managed a Heli-ski lodge about 2 ½ hours from Anchorage, AK. She’ll be back in Whitefish for a bit then this summer she’s planning to work at an organic vegetable farm outside of Seattle.
I personally love hearing about her travels and realize she just may be someone that has figured out the key to happiness is living life to its fullest.
Interested in learning more about the Pacific Crest Trail, visit pcta.org.
Most people pay their respects to our military veterans on Veteran’s Day with good reason…our freedom, our liberty, and for some our lives. There are a few individuals that have made it their mission to go out of their way to thank and treat veterans throughout the year. One of those people is local resident Drea Huck. She does it by sending coffee care packages from home to our troops with inspirational notes and messages. Huck currently supports eight active military personnel groups weekly.
Huck’s ties to the military are not by chance. She is from Slovakia, and her father was in the military there. Her father rose to the rank of Major although he is now retired. She said her connection to the military is “in my blood.” She described herself as a “child of the world,” and her first trip to America was with an exchange program to California over 15 years ago.
Now she is a permanent resident and like many in this area, she has a career with Starbucks. She started as a barista, then she managed her own store for a few years where she said, “you see it all.” In her current position as a Facilities Representative at the SSC (Starbucks Support Center), she handles orders from the field with suppliers and vendors. Although she misses seeing her regular customers day in and day out and the great connections she made with them, her new position allows her to make an impact in a different way.
Huck has embraced the “Adopt a Unit” program. She personally packages up about 125 pounds of coffee, and often other treats, for shipment and travels to the post office weekly to ship to deployed troops. She noted that Starbucks donates the coffee for the packages.
You can hear the emotion in Huck’s voice when she speaks of the program and how she cares for the troops she supports. She wants them to know that they have not been forgotten. “I always tell them to be safe,” she said. Huck receives notes, emails and even gifts from soldiers. One recently sent an email that said, “You have no idea how much it means to us to have you support us.”
Huck also shared her pleasure with the fact that her employer’s support of the military goes far beyond the Adopt a Unit program. Starbucks is committed to veterans and military spouses and in the past five years have hired over 17,000 to work in many different capacities for the company. Huck said that this Armed Forces Network program helps soldiers transition from the military to the corporate world. Soldiers most often make terrific employees as “they are disciplined and make great leaders,” she added.
She is also very proud of her involvement in the Marine Raider Foundation. The foundation was established to provide benevolent support to active duty and medically retired Marine Raiders and their families, as well as to the families of Raiders who have lost their lives in service. Huck stressed that many members of the special forces at times are forgotten because “technically they don’t exist.” She wants to be sure they aren’t forgotten. The foundation aims to meet needs unmet by the government with an emphasis on building resiliency and supporting the full reintegration of Raiders and their families to civilian life.
Huck has become a Miles for Marsoc community athlete raising money for the foundation in memory of a fallen soldier Staff Sgt. Sky Mote and others. Mote was awarded the military’s highest honor, the Navy Cross, following his heroic death in Afghanistan in August of 2012. She says of her involvement, “It is the most incredible thing I have ever done.”
As we wrapped up, I asked what her message was to our readers about soldiers with Veteran’s Day approaching. She said, “We can truly live our lives because of them. Don’t forget about them.”
Marine Raider Foundation, https://marineraiderfoundation.org/
Drea Huck’s page, https://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/drea-huck/milesformarsoc
Starbucks Veterans Programs, https://www.starbucks.com/responsibility/community/veterans
I had a vision of the “Dynamic Duo” when I sat down with Melaine and Chris Thompson recently to chat about their new partnership and how they got to this point.
“It has been a 25 year evolution,” Chris said. “This business is the natural next step.”
The business he is referring to is Thompson Design + Build. A culmination of their talents pooled into a business that is reminiscent of Chip and Joanna Gaines of “Fixer Upper” fame.
Melaine was described to me as “a blogger, home designer (self taught), creative genius…” by Leigh Henderson from Alexa’s Café. After that introduction, I knew I’d better meet her.
Melaine’s blog “My Sweet Savannah” (mysweetsavannahblog.com) started over 15 years ago with primarily hand painted furniture and signs that she was selling to supplement her income and hobby. It has evolved since then to include home design, recipes, DIY projects and more. She also has a very popular Instagram page (also mysweetsavannah) with over 58,900 followers at press time. Country Living Magazine named her one of the Best Design Blogs and her work has been featured in numerous other design sites.
It’s clear that Melaine has a real eye for design but its more than that. She shares the look and the DIY steps for those wanting to give it a try. “You can learn to get a high end look without spending a lot of money,” she said.
To stay relevant and on top of things takes a lot of work. Following our morning coffee at the end of September, she was heading home to bake Christmas cookies for some upcoming blogs for holiday preparations.
Just recently Melaine partnered with Molbak’s Garden + Homes on a front door display. “Molbak’s wanted to make it easy for customers to have a beautiful entryway,” she said. Melaine’s design was featured on Molbak’s website and the store as well as her own blog. Customers could go in and purchase all or part of the display or they could even have it delivered. Many of the pieces of the display sold out in a couple weeks. Melaine plans to continue to work with Molbak’s in the future on projects like this and possible workshops.
Chris has been a contractor and builder his entire adult life. He had been considering branching off on his own for quite a while and he said, “I continued to ask myself, can you do this?” He would be leaving a comfortable corporate job and that prospect was scary.
They knew they had the components of design with Melaine and build with Chris so they decided the (natural) next step was working together. He said, “We want it to be fun. A place where we can showcase our work.” That is how Thompson Design + Build was formed.
Before they even got to this step, they already had a great success “Design + Build” story…their own house.
The Thompson’s were high school sweethearts at Woodinville High School and married 22 years ago. They had a daughter, Savannah, namesake of course of Melaine’s blog and a son, Cody. They loved the Crystal Lake area were Chris’s family lived and knew they wanted to be in that neighborhood but also knew it would be difficult to afford.
They opted for a small affordable 900 sq. ft. fixer upper home and went to work. “The house is a cool story of evolution,” Chris said. I saw the before and after photos of their home renovation and what they did is simply amazing. Melaine added, “We want to inspire people. There are still [affordable] places out there.” Referencing projects in the Eastside that they can definitely help with.
They love the aspect of the business that they can make decisions that are right for them and their family. The challenge to get creative and not spend a fortune (within a clients budget) feeds them both.
When asked about their passions, Melaine said, “Family first.” Then added, “I love inspiring people.” Chris said, “That we’ve always been part of the community.”
Thompson Design + Build
To say I was only a little amazed after stopping by the property of Ron Alessandrini and Mike Osterling would be a huge understatement.
The RAM (Ron & Mike) studio/shop, yard/gardens, and home in Woodinville has so many wonderful features I hardly know where to begin.
But instead of beginning with the place, I should start with my gracious hosts, Ron and Mike. They both can be described as truly the “hosts with the most.” The positive aura and energy that you feel around them is present from the minute you are acquainted. I felt as if I had known them both for years. Genuine, sincere, and caring are just a few of the attributes that come to mind to describe them. (Thanks for the introduction Larry!)
Ron is the Vice President of an import company with an office in Monroe. He visits China often, which is reflected in much of the art I viewed during my tour. Mike is a Realtor. They both are caregivers to the property, artwork and home where they live.
John Clise whose family developed Marymoor Park built the home in 1965. The home was surrounded by 15 acres and “was praised by architects nationwide and recognized for its unique design,” according to Ron. When John Clise passed away his wife Mary sold the property and it went through many hands before Ron bought it. It had been subdivided to the current (close to) two acres and had fallen into almost complete disrepair. Ron said, “[The house was] two weeks away from being tore down.” Ron visited the house with the Realtor. He walked into the living room, with its’ floor to ceiling windows covered in boards, and said he’d take it. Many neighbors, and likely the Realtor, thought he was crazy, but he wanted a place that he could sink “sweat equity” into.
That was 15 years ago, and Ron and Mike have sunk a ton of sweat equity into every area of the (RAM) homestead.
We started our tour in the shop/studio, which has become quite the gathering place for the neighborhood and friends since a snowstorm in 2012 according to Mike.
The studio side is a place where creativity is encouraged. There are antiques and collectibles everywhere and a large counter/table graces the middle to use for work projects. I would call it “art projects” as everything I saw was a unique work of art. There are chandeliers varying in size and design covering the ceiling and wood disks from tree stumps ready to form tables. “We are big on repurposing,” said Ron.
They are not sure as to when it began, but people started bringing stuff in and it has snowballed from there. One thing is certain; they both agreed that it is a lot of fun working on the projects. I asked if they had an outlet to sell their (RAM) art. Ron admitted that they have thought about it but hasn’t happened. For now, they enjoy giving items as gifts or donating them to local auctions that support area schools.
Just off the studio is a big shop area that is more for storage at this time to house the future projects. There are plenty of back up supplies housed here to keep them busy for years!
We next ventured out and around the yard and gardens.
There are so many wonderful sites and hidden gems in their yard. It is really amazing! From monk guardian statues from the Ming dynasty (1,110 years old), to a koi pond, to a graffiti wall (that Ron commissioned to have painted), to sculptures (glass, metal, and wood), to secret sitting areas, a monkey paw tree, and flowers, flowers, flowers, there is much to behold and ponder. Ron and Mike do all of the yard work themselves. “It is a stress release,” Mike said. “It is a ritual and fun to work in the garden,” he added. They said start every morning and end every evening with a walk in the gardens – I would too! I must add that they presented me with a beautiful bouquet to bring home that I enjoyed as I wrote this story.
Ron mentioned that it’s not unusual for them to arrive home to find a yoga class or a bible study-taking place on the lawn or a neighbor picking flowers in the garden. There have been weddings of friends on the property as well. They encourage it all and are happy to share their blessings.
It is not surprising that the gardens/yard have been a favorite on the Woodinville Garden Tour in the past. Next year, they are slated to be a stop again.
We ventured into the house next where I admired a private art collection that rivals many galleries. Artists featured include Picasso, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Dr. Seuss, and the list goes on. “All art has a story,” Ron said. It’s important for him to be sure the art is on display for all to see and enjoy.
The house has definitely been “saved” and looks terrific. A big testament to that would be the kudos they received from Joslyn (JC) Clise, John Clise’s daughter, when she visited some 40 years after she lived there with her family. She drove up and introduced herself after the house appeared in a magazine article.
Ron says he is “very blessed.” He continues, “Look what life has given us…so much.” I would return that sentiment as these two gentlemen give so much back. The law of attraction is at work in a big way at the RAM homestead.
From her favorite production at Woodinville High School, Noises Off, to her current role as the young Darlene Snell on the critically acclaimed original Netflix series, Ozark, Brooke Butler is paying her dues and getting noticed.
I caught up with Butler recently to see how she’s faring with her new role and living the Hollywood dream so to speak.
When I mentioned that things seem to be going really well and asked if she feels like she’s paid her dues, she said, “Never. I never stop working to improve. You never think you are good enough. I’m always in class, writing or performing.”
“It [acting] is extremely cut throat,” Butler said. She is grateful to have found a group of wonderfully supportive friends and colleagues but that has taken time and it isn’t easily found in the industry. They are genuinely happy for each other when someone lands a role. “It is a big enough industry and there is a place for everyone if they are willing to work hard,” she added.
Butler knew from a young age that she wanted to be an actor. She said growing up in a smaller town with a “sheltered childhood” with Christian values has given her the foundation to fall back on when things got crazy. She credits her parents for instilling strong values and letting her know that you have choices in life and the path you take will determine the end result. She also praised others in her life that have been her support system and said, “I am grateful for my upbringing.”
Part of that hard work growing up in Woodinville involved drama classes, voice lessons, and dance classes.
She complimented Hjalmer Anderson from Woodinville Repertory Theater as her first acting coach. “He always believed in me,” she said. Butler went on to say that he taught “the method” and that is how she prepares to this day.
Butler fondly remembers Larry Bridges as her first vocal coach. She had to sing Ave Maria during a recent audition and said that Larry would be so proud as to how far she’d come.
Since I wrote a story about Larry this summer, I reached out to him about Butler and he said, “I loved teaching Brooke. She was always open to growing as a singer and actor. She had the drive and discipline. I never doubted she would do something special with her life. I am so proud of her success and expect even greater things from her.”
At WHS, she remembered the play Princess and the Pea and that she was initially disappointed for being cast as the Evil Queen thinking she was more the princess type. Now in hindsight she said, “It really helped in my future
career and is making things more interesting.”
Following high school, Butler attended University of Southern California (USC) where she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Dramatic Arts and graduated with honors.
You might recognize her for her breakout role as the flesh-eating cheerleader, Tracy Bingham, in All Cheerleaders Die that premiered at the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) and is currently a Top 5 on Netflix. The role was especially fitting since Butler was nominated as a Top 20 cheerleader in the nation while at USC.
She went on to gain attention in theaters starring opposite Todd Lowe (True Blood) in the haunted house tale, The Remains. Butler has also acted in several television movies and is currently filming the pilot Queen Fur for Showtime.
The role of Young Darlene Snell in Ozark is has been great for Butler. “I love taking someone who is misunderstood and make them relatable. I like playing those characters.”
As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked her if she had any advice for others wanting to become an actor and she said, “Be ready to work really hard. Believe in yourself. Be willing to give up everything for your dream.” Then she chuckled when she added, “Take back streets on the way to auditions to avoid traffic.”
For more about Brooke Butler visit www.BrookeSereneButler.com
When we met at a nearby coffee shop, I instantly knew that Alie Renee Byland was an old soul, despite her youthfulness, with a heart of gold.
Alie (Martinez) grew up with her four siblings in rural New Mexico. They were homeschooled, and she told me how her mom would sneak money from the grocery budget to pay for piano lessons. To this day, music is still a very big part of all of their lives.
When Alie was 11 years old, her dad moved the family to Albuquerque where they settled into what she describes as “the ghetto.” It was there that her father, a Pastor, started renovations on a large duplex that was always open to visitors and those in need. “He was an amazing man,” Alie said of her father.
“There were always a lot of different people around—a lot of opportunities to play music.” By age 13, Alie was part of a band and played music in church. She was raised with a strong faith base, but it was “more towards and based on serving,” she added.
To reinforce my comments of the serving and giving nature of her family, in 2008 the Martinez family received an Extreme Makeover: Home Edition complete with Ty Pennington spending a week in Albuquerque. For those unfamiliar with the popular program that was on the air for almost 10 years, families are nominated for the “makeover” oftentimes based on what they have given back to that community. The show’s staff and volunteers in droves come forward to help and together they completely rebuild the family’s home in a week. All the materials and labor are donated.
Alie left home at 18 to attend a Christian college in Seattle, and that is where she met Jake Byland. Jake was raised in Woodinville in very different surroundings than Alie, but that didn’t matter. Alie loves where she comes from and maintains, “we are who we are, and there is no sense in changing.”
Alie recalled a conversation during her second year in college that Jake and her dad had. Her Dad ended the call to Jake with, “Give my baby girl a hug.” Her dad died two weeks later, and she returned to New Mexico to be with her mom and her family. For the next 14 months, Jake was her friend and sent many prayers her way. As time went on, Jake asked Alie’s mom for her daughter’s hand in marriage and on the third request, she finally said yes.
Alie returned to Washington, and to Woodinville, to marry Jake. They lived on his family’s property in a cottage he built.
It was there that Byland (the band) was formed, and they started to perform at wineries in the area.
After her father died, it was different to play music. She was (and still is) grieving. “I don’t believe that time heals. I believe you need to go through the process.” She thanks The Healing Center (in the Ravenna neighborhood of Seattle) for helping her in that process. “It is an amazing organization. When I walked in, I felt comfortable and loved,” she said.
Part of the healing process was creating music. Together Alie and Jake made the melodies, wrote the lyrics and eventually recorded Byland’s first album called Desert Days. They did it all themselves including building the studio that they recorded the album in to Jake mixing & mastering the entire album. Although Alie is quick to point out though that many people, especially Jake’s family, stepped up to help raise money to support the album. “It is a great community of people and I am really thankful,” she said.
Desert Days memorializes her childhood in Albuquerque and her late father. The song “What a Man” is an amazing tribute to her dad and when I listened to it later that afternoon tears rolled down my cheeks as I thought of my own father. She told me the last song on the album “Lying on the Couch” includes an actual voicemail that her father left her so many years ago.
After listening to Desert Days, I can attest to the emotion that went into the entire album. Alie sings beautifully and the wisdom she shares through her lyrics are a gift to us all.
The Byland band has an upcoming performance on October 20th, and proceeds from both ticket sales and merchandise will go to The Healing Center. Merchandise for sale includes beautiful jewelry that her uncle made. (He used to make jewelry with Alie’s dad.) The money raised will go towards scholarships to help others dealing with grief.
The show will be at the High Dive (513 N 36th St, Ste G, Seattle) and opens with local bands Hallstrom, Temple Canyon, and Skylar Mitchell Raye Band.
Byland will have a seven piece band including Maggiejean Martinez, Alie’s little sister and the drummer in the band; Chris Hanson, bassist; Torry Anderson, keyboards; Bri Bloemendaal, electric guitar; Cameron & Jodi Reed, strings; and of course Alie.
Alie and Jake are already working on another album, and she is continually honing her craft and collaborating with other musicians. She said that she has met so many people that have inspired her and have helped her. “Music should bring people together,” she said.
Visit www.bylandmusic.com for a sneak peak of Desert Days, purchase the album, or learn more about the upcoming show. Music is also available on iTunes and Spotify under Byland.