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Scholarship program keeps creating camp memories for kids

Before pancreatic cancer finally got the best of Tricia Tollefson eight years ago, she and her husband, Jeff, set up a scholarship program to send a couple Altoona elementary and middle school students a year to Camp Manitou.

It was a dream Tricia never got to enjoy but wanted to make come true for kids who couldn’t afford to attend the Eau Claire YMCA’s spectacular camp on the shore of Long Lake near New Auburn.

The 8izgr8 Camp Come True scholarship, named after Tricia’s favorite number (and the date of her birthday, wedding day and surgery date), has helped 21 kids make memories at Camp Manitou, with Jeff and Altoona school counselor Brooke Kaldor typically selecting the lucky recipients from among about a half dozen applicants annually.

This year was always going to be different — as Jeff thought it would be fitting to end the 8izgr8 program after eight years — but even he was surprised at how it would play out.

When Jeff picked up the unusually large stack of “Why I would like to go to Camp Manitou” essays from Kaldor on a Friday this spring, she informed him she couldn’t help him narrow the field to two winners. The essays, she said, were all too good and the kids all too deserving. With the awards scheduled to be handed out the following Monday, Jeff was in a pickle.

Not one to give up — just as Trish never stopped fighting in her two-year struggle with cancer — Jeff contacted camp director Brian Moore about the predicament.

Problem solved. With the aid of past donations and a grant from the national YMCA, Moore said the Y could provide scholarships for the 13 finalists unable to get funding through 8izgr8.

“The Y really stepped up,” Jeff said. “This is just outstanding.”

Kaldor was ecstatic about the solution — a reaction that only grew stronger when she saw recipients’ joy upon learning they would be among the nearly 1,400 kids going to Camp Manitou this summer.

In a speech to an audience including YMCA officials, donors, Jeff and members of Tricia’s family at a recent fundraising kickoff event, Kaldor explained how Tricia loved the outdoors and wanted part of her legacy to be enabling kids to attend camp who otherwise might not have the opportunity.

“There are not words to describe how grateful I am that these kids are given the opportunity to go to camp for free,” Kaldor said. “There are not words to describe the surprise and joy on their faces when they found out they were selected to receive a scholarship.”

Among the recipients is a cousin of one of the three Girl Scouts killed in the tragic crash Nov. 3 in Lake Hallie who couldn’t face going back to church camp this year without her cousin.

“This scholarship gives her the chance to go to a different camp and make new memories and the chance to be a kid for a week without all the worries and sadness she has experienced since last fall,” Kaldor said.

Other stories include a girl who lost her dad and was the first one to discover he had died, a child whose mother has a cancer diagnosis and a child whose family has never been able to afford traveling outside of the Chippewa Valley.2

In thanking scholarship supporters, Kaldor talked about how much their efforts mean to recipients.

“It is an opportunity for them to grow, to meet new people, to be outdoors, to be away from technology and to realize the power of a community that has poured into them to make this possible,” she said. “I truly believe each kid leaves camp a better person, a stronger person and person who one day may also be able to make a difference in the life of a child — just like you are doing today.”

Moore seconded the benefits of camp, calling it a place where kids gain a sense of identity and learn independence, as it’s usually the longest campers have ever been away from their parents. That’s why he is so pleased about the national YMCA grant that provides full funding to send at least 60 kids a year to Camp Manitou. Overall, the Y has provided full or partial camp scholarships totaling $443,000 to more than 1,000 kids in the past five years.

“To see all these happy kids this year and to look back and remember all the kids who have gone to camp on Tricia’s behalf, I can’t tell you how happy it make me feel,” Jeff said.

As a former camper and counselor myself who sent both of my kids to Manitou, I can assure Jeff the feeling will be mutual when this year’s scholarship recipients join all of the other happy campers for a week they’ll never forget.

Former Blugold in spotlight as nation's potential first gentleman

Theater student Chasten Buttigieg grew accustomed to being in the spotlight as a regular performer in plays at UW-Eau Claire.

But the audience size has increased exponentially for his latest role.

Chasten, the husband of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, is hoping to break ground by becoming the nation’s inaugural first gentleman.

Indeed, the August 2014 graduate of UW-Eau Claire and his spouse, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., were pictured on the cover of the May 13 issue of Time magazine under the headline “First Family.”

Chasten, whose last name was Glezman when he studied theater and global studies at UW-Eau Claire, has been no shrinking violet in the early days of the campaign. He has amassed 323,000 followers on Twitter, generated significant media coverage in his own right and been a fixture alongside “Mayor Pete” on the campaign trail.

“Chasten’s humor and openness have been his defining features since the national spotlight found him and ‘Mayor Pete’ earlier this year,” a Washington Post profile said recently. “It has made him a force on Twitter ... and a not-so-secret public-relations weapon for his husband.”

Business Insider declared last month: “The 29-year-old junior high school teacher’s wit, intimate social media musings, and polished speeches have prompted glowing media coverage and declarations that he’s ‘winning the 2020 spouse primary.’ “

Chasten uses his social media accounts to share photos of the couple’s dogs, talk “Game of Thrones” and poke fun at the campaign lifestyle and even his husband, such as in this tweet last week, “tfw (that face when) you buy a pint of ice cream for date night but the husband only brings you one scoop in a bowl,” over a photo of an appalled actress.

None of this comes as any surprise to his former adviser and play director Jennifer Chapman, associate professor of theatre arts and theatre program coordinator at UW-Eau Claire.

“I would say that his humor and the lightness that he expresses in such short little blips on Twitter are just him,” Chapman said. “That is the exact same person that I know. That’s not a performance or some highly cultivated image that emerged from a petri dish.”

The Washington Post even mused that “sometimes it seems like (Chasten) is having more fun than anyone else on the campaign trail” before quoting him acknowledging the pressure that goes along with his latest role

“There’s so much more on the line than, ‘Man, I don’t want to forget a line and mess up the show.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to say the wrong thing and ruin my husband’s political career,’ “ Chasten told the Post.

Sharing their stories

Chapman is particularly impressed with the Buttigiegs’ willingness to be open and honest about their personal lives, knowing that some people won’t like or accept them.

“I think they are very brave,” she said. “They are ordinary people who have really offered themselves to the American people.”

Their courage goes beyond the presidential run, which could be daunting enough, Chapman said.

“What’s unique about Pete and Chasten is that they are using this campaign as an opportunity to make their own identities visible and tell their own personal stories so America gets to see two young gay men who have overcome obstacles,” she said.

Chasten told the Washington Post about being bullied and called homophobic slurs while attending a high school in Traverse City, Mich., with zero students who openly identified as LGBTQ.

In a speech last month at a Human Rights Campaign annual banquet in Houston, Chasten shared his poignant coming-out story.

Though he reported having a great relationship with his parents now, Chasten told the crowd how he didn’t feel welcome at home after working up the courage to tell his parents he was gay at age 18.

“Eventually, I thought to myself, I can’t be here anymore, so I moved out without a plan,” Chasten said, detailing how he was scared and homeless, living between his car and friends’ couches.

True to his personality, however, Chasten also laced the presentation with campaign humor.

“Never underestimate what can happen when you agree to go on a date with a cute guy from South Bend, Ind.,” Chasten quipped. “Truthfully, being Pete’s husband has already been the adventure of a lifetime. I now live in a world where people take photos of me in the deodorant aisle at the grocery store.”

After pointing out how much progress gay Americans have made in the past decade — achieving marriage equality and ending the military’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy regarding homosexuality — Chasten pointed out that safety of LGBT Americans remains an issue and that protections vary from state to state. That problem could be solved, he said, if Congress passes the Equality Act, a bill seeking to amend the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“We need someone in the White House who will sign the Equality Act into law, and, luckily, I know a guy,” Chasten said, eliciting laughs from the crowd.

People person

Back in college, Chasten starred in several plays, including “Anatomy of Gray” and “Fuddy Meers,” both of which Chapman directed.

In addition to being funny and talented, Chasten was good at rallying people and including everybody in the room, Chapman said. She also recalled that Chasten had a particular interest in theater education and joined her on a tour of elementary schools and at an American Alliance for Theater in Education national conference.

Chasten went on to work for theater education organizations in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., and earn a master’s degree at DePaul University. He taught humanities and drama at a Montessori middle school in Indiana before taking a leave of absence to join Pete on the campaign trail, according to a profile in the Indianapolis Star.

Chasten and Pete met on the dating app Hinge in 2015. They got married in June 2018 at the Cathedral of Saint James Episcopal Church in South Bend. Chapman met Pete for the first time while attending the wedding and said he, too, seemed the same in person as he appears on the news.

Chapman said she believes Chasten’s public presence is “terrific publicity” for UW-Eau Claire because her friend and former student is displaying, for the world to see, the leadership, interpersonal and problem-solving skills the university seeks to impart to its liberal arts students.

Election challenge

Though Time called Pete, 37, the first openly gay person to make a serious bid for the presidency and the “early breakout star” of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, the November 2020 election is still 18 months away — an eternity in politics. And some question whether Americans are ready to send a gay couple to the White House.

Chapman, for one, maintained the question is problematic and said choosing a president should be about the person’s vision for the future rather than his or her sexual orientation.

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, agreed, saying, “If a candidate is qualified and can do a good job, then why not, whether it’s a woman or someone who is gay.”

Kind said Pete is an intriguing candidate because he’s young, forward-looking, a military veteran and a mayor in a red state with a record of getting people to work together to get things done. That’s a style that could appeal to voters at a time of constant polarization, Kind said.

Research shows that a candidate’s homosexuality might not be near the hurdle it once was, especially with younger voters, said Peter Hart-Brinson, an associate professor of sociology at UW-Eau Claire and the author of a recent book that explores the nation’s shift in thinking about gay marriage.

In his book, “The Gay Marriage Generation: How the LGBTQ Movement Transformed American Culture,” Hart-Brinson shares his historical analysis of gay marriage as well as stories gleaned from nearly 100 interviews with two generations of Americans about their views of gay marriage.

His conclusion: Young people generally understand homosexuality as part of someone’s identity, much like their race, while older Americans tend to think of it as a lifestyle choice, much like gambling. He classifies the younger generation as those reaching adulthood in the early 1990s or later.

Those generational attitudes cut across race, religion and even political beliefs, Hart-Brinson said, noting that polls now show about 70 percent of Americans support gay marriage.

“For most Americans, because they see homosexuality as being like race, they really wouldn’t see a vote for Pete Buttigieg as much different than a vote for Barack Obama,” elected the nation’s first African-American president in 2008, said Hart-Brinson, who just learned last week about Chasten’s UW-Eau Claire connection.

“In a crowded Democratic field, what’s going to matter will be how much a candidate can excite the voters,” he said. “It won’t have to do with his sexuality, but with what he says and how that resonates.”

If Hart-Brinson is right, then it’s possible Chasten could complete the improbable journey, in barely over a decade, from being homeless to living in the White House.

As Chasten said in his Human Rights Campaign speech, “I could be the first man in history to pick out the White House china.”