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The Caravan, Year 1: Grateful Reflections & A Photo Retrospective- Part 3 of 3 (Kenosha to LA)

In our third and final leg of our adventure (read about Part 1 here, and Part 2 here), we embarked into wholly new and exciting terrain, building bridges and being of service directly through music and theater, in both Kenosha, Wisconsin, and my home town of St. Ansgar, Iowa (which was an incredibly special week.) Then, we made our way home to the West Coast, via the natural beauty of national and state parks like Badlands, Yellowstone, The Great Salt Lake, Lake Tahoe and Bass Lake...

Kenosha, WI We arrived in Kenosha after a restful night in Chicago, where Kasper hosted us at his house starting with a Chicago deep-dish pizza (thank you Kasper!) There we were reunited with two of our beloved Caravan-mates, Samira and Paul, who'd returned to us after a brief hiatus away.

It was great to get a moment to regroup, give feedback on the experience so far, and check in on how we wanted to move forward with our newly assembled team, including Dennis, Adele, Kasper, Samira and Paul (and soon Catherine!) before we headed to Kenosha for our first event of what we were calling "The Kenosha Summer Shindig: Musical Collaboration & Community Bridge-Building."

The Kenosha Summer Shindig was largely a collaboration between The Caravan and the head of Braver Angels, Kenosha, Cameron Swallow. Cameron had been one of our leadership team members for The Re:United States Project in 2020, and we'd become friends and stayed in touch in the time since. When planning began for The Caravan, Cameron brought together many ideas, resources and people to make the week's events possible, including hosting the opening soirée at her beautiful lakeside home, Trinity House (thank you Cameron!)

(Entrance to Trinity House at Carthage College)

(Looking over Lake Michigan from Cameron's backyard)

Cameron warmly greeted me as I arrived early to help with the setup for our opening night jam session and backyard barbecue. Cameron's husband, John Swallow, is the President of Carthage College, and the two of them not only hosted the opening night event in their backyard, but they also catered the event, and let us stay at their house (thank you John and Cameron!)

Also staying at Trinity House were two of the members of the Braver Angels Music Team, Micah Hendler and Alma Cook. Micah is a musician and the founder of an organization called Raise Your Voice Labs, an org who helps groups use courageous conversations as the creative fuel for collaborative songwriting and filmmaking. Alma is also a fellow musician and friend (super talented singer-songwriter), who I'd met in Los Angeles through Braver Angels, and was getting to collaborate with for the first time on this project. Rounding out the Braver Angels music team with Micah, Alma and Cameron was Nashville-based singer-songwriter John Carroll, who'd driven up from Nashville for the week's events. The Braver Angels Music Team were coming together this week to fortify the Shindig's commitment to bridge-building through music.

(Braver Angels music team, Cameron, Alma, Micah and John)

For the first night's event, Cameron had invited many local Kenosha musicians of different musical styles to attend a backyard jam and barbecue. In the various corners of the property, pop-up collaborations took place between bluegrass, rock, classical, folk and jazz musicians, while guests ate, conversed and enjoyed the live music.

(Blue grass musicians jam in the front yard at the opening jam.)

After dinner, I facilitated a jam session between all of the attending musicians under the grand tent in Cameron and John's backyard, with different musicians rotating between the sets. The host band, Lunde, not only provided the backline/sound gear, but also ran audio (THANK YOU Jeremiah Lunde and the members of Lunde!) We finished out the night with an open jam where Lunde and an assortment of musicians, including hip-hop and spoken word artist and community leader Greg Bennett, flowed with inspiration and real-time collaboration, a perfect example of what's possible when we come together across differences to listen and contribute.

(Cameron performs with her blue grass band, Flat Creek Highway.)

The next capstone experience of the Shindig included the Braver Angels/Raise Your Voice Labs bridge building session, where Kenoshans from the red and blue sides of the political spectrum came together to first discuss how to rebuild Uptown, and then to write a song inspired by their discussion. Community stakeholders gathered at the Kenosha Creative Space, graciously hosted by Executive Director Francisco Loyola (thank you Francisco and the Kenosha Creative Space!) where a discussion was expertly facilitated by Cameron, using the Braver Angels "finding common ground" methodology.

(The agenda for the lab session)

The discussion was focused on Uptown, a neighborhood in Kenosha that was greatly damaged by fires during protests in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake, then followed by the violent actions of Kyle Rittenhouse, both of which made national news and deeply affected Kenosha residents. The conversation explored varied ideas of how to support healing and restoration within the community, including questions about business and residential development, aide programs, and education programs. This was a deeply emotional and vulnerable conversation, as the community was still processing a lot of the pain and trauma of the events. It was deeply impactful to be a part of, to witness these community members courageously share their opinions and feelings with one another in trust and mutual hope for a positive future.

(Cameron Swallow facilitates the Braver Angels Common Ground Workshop)

The morning's Braver Angels session was emotional, insightful, and largely fruitful as people reached across the aisle to truly listen to one another and better understand where each participant was coming from. This allowed for the afternoon's songwriting session to draw from the conversations in the morning, ultimately resulting in two different songs written in collaboration between red and blue participants, facilitated by Alma, Micah, John and myself.

It was amazing to watch and participate in the unfolding of this powerful creative process. I felt proud of my friends in the Braver Angels music team, who got to experience a dream/vision come to life with great success, and inspired by the community members who participated.

(Adele Thurston hosts as Librarian for The Human Library event in Kenosha.)

The following morning our Caravan team facilitated a Human Library event, combining both Kenosha local "Human Books" as well as traveling Books from our team for courageous conversations. We got to host the event overlooking the waters of Lake Michigan, at the Wyndham Garden Kenosha Harborside (thank you Wyndham Garden for hosting!) The conversations were connected and lively. Adele and I functioned as Librarians, while local residents stopped by to drop in for 30 minute conversations about people's lived experience of topics like race, immigration, abuse, addiction, neurodiversity and more.

(Jeremiah Lunde leads us through sound check before the showcase.)

The final event of the week was our creative showcase at the Kenosha Creative Space, where the two songs written in our lab space were then performed alongside some originals from our facilitators at our final showcase to end the week. Micah, Alma, John, Cameron and I all shared original music in the theme of bridgebuilding, and our brave workshop participants stood in front of an audience for the first time to share their feelings about Uptown.

(Alma Cook performs an original song as part of the showcase.)

(Micah Hendler shares about Raise Your Voice Labs process.)

This incredible week of events felt like a home run, a triumph of good intentions and great ideas meeting diligent planning. I have to again thank Cameron Swallow, John Swallow, the Braver Angels music team and the many Kenosha residents who came together to co-create this experience of music and bridgebuilding. It was a truly unique moment in our long Caravan journey, and we are excited to return next Summer to expand and hone this idea even further with our new Kenosha family.

St. Ansgar, IA Our final, and perhaps most meaningful, community partnership on our 7.5 week cross-country adventure was in my very own home town of St. Ansgar, Iowa. This was a really special moment for me, because so many people that I love flew in to take part in our week of bridge building through theater, music and conversations.

We were all really lucky to be hosted by my family at the farm that I grew up on, which was such a treat for me, because I got to share a place that was so formative, with so many memories with my friends (thank you Mom and Dad for taking such good care of us!)

(My mom, Michelle, welcoming our friends into the house for the first time.)

(My dad, George, telling Adele about my childhood home in front of our red barn.)

(Goats on the farm.)

After our first evening spent settling in and touring the farm (including time spent with the many chickens, cows, goats, dogs and cats) we woke up the next morning to take a tour of St. Ansgar with community leader Lindsey Falk (thank you Lindsey!) whose family has operated L.R. Falk Construction and Falk Stone Quarry, an important local business and resource, for 100 years.

(Lindsey gives us a tour of the Falk Stone Quarry.)

Lindsey shared with us the evolving process used at the quarry to gather stone for gravel and other uses, as well as about the ways the community itself has evolved and continues to evolve over the years. He gave us a tour in a reclaimed school bus, taking us to Demaris Hardware, recently purchased and remodeled by my friend and schoolmate Tyler Demaris and his wife Katie Demaris, as well as the new school building in town, and ultimately dropping us off at one of my favorite local businesses, Paradise Pizza, where I used to hang out with friends in high school for dinner and milkshakes. All three stops were examples of ways in which St. Ansgar is investing in the future, with new leadership, expansions, innovations and restoration of vital community resources and businesses.

(Our Caravan team heads into First Lutheran Church in St. Ansgar.)

The rest of our week was spent connecting with locals, friends and family through different activities, including a welcome mixer at my friend Bryce's house (thanks Bryce!) and at a church service and fellowship hour at the historic First Lutheran Church, where I was confirmed (thank you First Lutheran Congregation!) For many of our Caravan crew, this was the first experience of a traditional Lutheran service, and an amazing opportunity to spend quality time with congregation members who shared about their experience living in North Iowa, including their experience farming, living and worshipping together for generations.

(My family and our Caravan crew getting ready for church.)

A major highlight was getting to celebrate the holiday (4th of July) weekend with my extended family, hosted by my Nana at her home (thanks Nana and to my family who hosted!) Integrated with my siblings, cousins, nephews, nieces, aunts and uncles, our Caravan crew chatted, played yard games, ate barbecue and even sang the national anthem all together in honor of the occasion. It felt like a blending of my two families- my blood family and my chosen family. I know that it was a really special experience for my Nana who loves to host people at her home.

(Family and Caravan Crew intermingle for 4th of July Celebrations.)

(Me and my Nana, Bonnie Beyer, who hosted us for two barbecues over 4th of July weekend.)

Our final and central mission in St. Ansgar was to offer our skills as teaching artists to locals through a songwriting program for adults and a performing arts program for middle school, high school and college aged students, in collaboration with local regional theater company, Cedar Summerstock.

For multiple sessions we gathered at what was once my old elementary school, now a community center called South Square, to share our professional performance skillsets with whomever wanted to receive them. These programs were funded in part by a generous grant from Humanities Iowa (thank you Humanities Iowa!) which allowed us to cover travel costs for our teaching artists. The program was also greatly supported by Nancy Nickerson Lee, the artistic director and founder of Cedar Summerstock, who helped us host and advertise the program, as well as granted us access to her company members for master classes (thank you Nancy!)

(Bernadette Hollyday and David Jamison teach improv to middle school students.)

Collectively, we offered classes in songwriting, acting improv, movement, physical wellness and self-care, dance and even masterclasses/workshop labs for the students, all of which culminated in an evening fundraiser-showcase to support the school's performing arts programs.

(Kye Brackett and David Krich teach movement exercises to high school students.)

(Adele Thurston teaches movement theater techniques to middle schoolers.)

(Colby Fossey and Will Bartz of local band, Fossey.)

The fundraiser showcase was a fun way to get to cap off the week with the community, who gave funds toward the band, choir and theater programs at the high school. Co-hosted by my brother-in-law, Will Bartz (thanks Will!) we played fun cover songs, original songs from the songwriting program participants, and featured guest local singer, Colby Fossey of the band Fossey. The house band was composed of local residents Travis Charlson, Cody Fedeler and Marena Henkle, all of whom gifted their talents to the event (thanks Travis, Cody and Marena!)

(Caravan Crew members, Jessica Coffman and baby Dominic help strike and load out.)

(Adele Thurston and Michelle Caron count the bar funds at South Square.)

These programs were a really rewarding way to contribute and offer ourselves to and within the community, and it felt really nourishing to get to offer the talents and warm hearts of my friends and community to a place that gave so much to me.

(My mom, Michelle Caron, and Kye Brackett, hang out between events.)

Ultimately, it was moments like the one pictured above and below that felt the most meaningful and impactful to me. Getting to see my dear friend Kye and my mom hanging together on a couch in between classes, seeing my childhood friends and adulthood friends converse and share stories, these moments lit me up in a way that felt only paralleled by my wedding.

(Ben Caron, David Krich, Kye Brackett and Bryce Nickerson at the welcome party at Bryce's house.)

(Megan Rustad, Molly May McMahan, Ben Caron, Brian Huinker, Liz Schaub at the welcome party.)

The return journey home- Badlands, Big Sky, Yellowstone, Salt Lake, Lake Tahoe- Our return journey allowed us to talk about, celebrate and process our many weeks of travel and service work, while connecting with mother nature through this country's amazing natural spaces.

We explored Badlands National Park, with its striated spires and other-worldly canyon trails.

We drank in the beautiful skies and mountains of Big Sky, Montana, where we paddle-boarded, hiked and rested.

We spent a few days exploring the iconic Yellowstone National Park, a breath-taking expanse of wild-flowered grass fields, waterfalls, steam flumes, lakes and wildlife.

And we got to connect with our friends Patrice Pike and Drea Marz, whose music tour serendipitously linked with our return journey. We took in sunsets and sunrises at The Great Salt Lake, and Lake Tahoe, hosted by our friend Lisa Stefanac, who shared with us her family's history and love for Lake Tahoe's beauty and serenity (thank you Lisa!)

Final Weekend- Bass Lake, CA- Our final weekend was shared swimming, boating and hiking in Bass Lake, California, where our friends Adrienne Litchenberg and Lily Hoffman hosted us at their family's favorite vacation spot (thank you Adrienne and Lily!)

Many friends flew in and drove up from LA to celebrate the culmination of the project, and it was really useful to get to share stories and gratitude with them. These finals days at the end of the project taught me a lot about the importance of allowing time for celebration, processing, play, joy, rest, and storytelling, in balance with the hard work, planning, service and focus.

Our final night in Bass Lake we all gathered around a camp fire at Adrienne and Lily's campsite, and we ceremonially brought The Caravan to a close by singing songs together and acknowledging in gratitude everyone's contributions to the project while sharing highlights from the adventure. It was the perfect closing to this life-changing leap-of-faith, ending just as it started, held and celebrated by the community that has become the back-bone and life-blood of my life.

Arriving in LA/Closing Thoughts- The final drive back to LA was appropriately a duo-adventure with my brother David Krich driving the RV, M.J., and me driving Carrie's Chevy Volt, just as we started.

It was surreal passing the LA exit signs, after so many weeks away from my home and my husband.

All I was left with then, and now, were dual feelings of deep, deep gratitude and fulfillment.

Having crafted this project from a soul-level instinct that became an urgent need that became a heartfelt dream, I felt like our first year was incredibly successful in so many ways. The memories, impact, and relationships built are undeniable and indelible.

Certainly, there are ways we will change it next year, and likely every year after, but what we accomplished together was nothing short of miraculous.

And so, for the final time for this year's project, I want to thank every community partner, crew member, collaborator, funder and supporter who made it possible and who made it better than I ever could have imagined.

It is my honor to have been trusted and uplifted in collaboration with you all. I can't wait until we gather to do it again next year. :)

With love,

Ben Caron


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