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'Tobacco is sacred' Collaborative aims to unite children, families

Children at the Lincoln Park Children and Families Collaborative use various rattles and other instruments to play along with area musician Robi Meyerson recently. The collaborative’s mission is to strengthen the neighborhood by connecting families. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service1 / 5
Missy Meyer, facilitator for the Lincoln Park Children and Families Collaborative’s parent group, talks about upcoming events with several mothers, including Angie Johnson (from left), Dani French and Kobreina Carlson recently. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service2 / 5
A whiteboard bears the Lincoln Park Children and Families Collaborative’s mission statement and rules. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service3 / 5
Olivia Carlson, 6, helps Robi Meyerson lead a song heavy on vowel sounds at the Lincoln Park Children and Families Collaborative recently. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service4 / 5
Lincoln Park Children and Families Collaborative Director Jodi Broadwell receives a hug from Nevaeh Carlson, 9, recently. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service5 / 5

DULUTH — Large stalks of tobacco hang at Duluth's Lincoln Park Children and Families Collaborative. There's a play kitchen and a workbench. On a nearby wall is a large mural of the sun, the moon and the words "Tobacco is sacred." Children huddle near it on the floor.

Paula Urrutia moves around the circle, burning sage in an abalone shell. Little hands guide the smoke toward their faces. "Bodies calm," Urrutia says before asking why they smudge.

"To think good thoughts," says one.

"To bless everybody else," says another. Urrutia, the collaborative's director of cultural programming, nods and continues around the room.

It's the start of the nonprofit's Monday night family gathering. Each week, there's an hour of programming for children and parents, then a shared community meal. Children's activities include lessons in Anishinaabe culture, super stretch yoga, tobacco education, among others.

The parent group is a mix of planning events, hosting speakers and simply connecting with other parents. "It's considered a mutual, self-help support group," said executive director Jodi Broadwell. The ultimate goal is to build support.

That's in line with the collaborative's mission — "to strengthen the Lincoln Park community by connecting families who care about young children."

The Monday night family gathering is one of the nonprofit's ongoing offerings. There's Emaanjiwaang (Feelings) curricula — education on coping strategies and healthy social/emotional skills through traditional Ojibwe language; Circle of Security, coaching on child behavior; and Meet on the Street events aimed at community-building. The nonprofit was founded in 2011, and it's been located in the Lincoln Park Commons since 2014.

The main room at the collaborative is large and colorful. There are several wooden tepees. One is made of doors. One has a "library area" sign and a wide-brimmed hat on top and fluffy pillows on the bottom. Homemade dreamcatchers hang from a decorated stick, and signs read "apabiwin: chair" on the backs of child-sized seats.

On a recent Monday evening, many of the children opted to huddle on the floor around singer/songwriter Robi Meyerson, who held an apple and asked them what they saw.

Some said scratches and bruises.

"Do you think it'll be bad in the middle," she asked, cutting off a slice.

"Mostly good," one replied.

The bruises are where the apple fell from the tree, Meyerson said, segueing into a life lesson. Then, she led them in "If You're Happy and You Know It."

Down a couple of flights in the Lincoln Park Commons, delicious smells filter into the cafeteria. Parents congregate around coffee cups and printouts.

The parent group usually starts with a check-in, sharing highs or lows, said Missy Meyer staff facilitator.

While Meyer used to plan topics for the evening's discussion, she now just shares family-friendly events and lets the conversation go where it needs to.

"We've all been together for so long now," she said. "We are all learning from each other, we're all getting information from each other's experience."

Dani French has been attending Monday nights with daughters Adeline, 9, and Penelope, 7, since the start. The camaraderie and being able to relate to other parents during family night are a draw, she said.

Soon after 6 p.m., a dinner of mixed vegetables, mashed potatoes, chicken breasts, oranges and watermelon was served. Children entered the cafeteria. Some grabbed centerpieces made of paper flowers and flameless tea lights and placed them on the tables.

The children made the centerpieces, Broadwell said. Nutrition, gardening and healthy eating are also part of the programming, and the ambience helps promote mindful eating through a calming atmosphere.

"We never know what kids are walking in with," Broadwell said. "Part of what we try to do is teach kids is how to calm their bodies."

During dinner, the Reilly children circled around a table. Their mother Angie Johnson, Duluth, sat nearby, and the family resemblance was evident.

"It's really nice, especially when you can just hang out and talk," Lilly Reilly, 12, said of Monday nights. Lilly talked about their visit to Chuck E. Cheese's during a recent trip to the Twin Cities and the Minnesota Zoo — orchestrated by the collaborative's parent group.

"My little boy was so excited because he'd never been there," Johnson said. She has been coming to the collaborative with her children for a couple of years. Everyone has a different background and perspective, and that adds to the group, said the self-proclaimed introvert.

"It takes a certain kind of atmosphere for me to bring my kids out, and this is really a comforting space. I care about the people who are here, and I trust them. They know stuff that nobody else needs to know," she said, describing the other parents as "my people."

When Johnson's son, Aiden Reilly, 7, suffered his first seizure, French reached out.

"She immediately contacted me, 'Do you need me to come and sit with your kids.'

"It was his first seizure, so I was really scared," Johnson said, adding it was nice to know she had support.

Kobreina Carlson, Duluth, saw a flyer for the parent group. When she started coming, she didn't want to share, but it was comfortable and inviting, she said. Today, it's her biggest form of support as a single mom, and daughters Olivia, 6, and Nevaeh Carlson, 9, look forward to coming, too.

"A lot of kids have grown up coming here," Johnson said.

"Our kids are growing together," Meyer said.

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Reach her at mlavine@duluthnews.com or (218) 723-5346.

(218) 723-5346
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