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Rachel Palermo

St. Olaf College alumni Rachel Palermo, who is finishing law school at the University of Notre Dame, will join the communications team in the Office of the Vice President. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/Polaris)


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Miniature Christmas-themed beach house replicates Hawaiian traditions, elements
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Although only 4x4 feet in size, Tracy Giza’s miniature Hawaiian Christmas-themed beach house is full of intricate details, thoughtful additions and unique ideas.

The Northfield-based artist and art instructor’s square U-shaped house was built for HGTV’s “Biggest Little Christmas Showdown” competition with the help of her daughter, Renee. Though the Giza’s did not make it to the finals, they did win their mini challenge which was to create a working water feature. With only two hours to complete the challenge in studio, they chose to make a koi pond with a water fountain.

The Giza’s Hawaiian themed beach house is 4x4 feet in size and is in a square, u-shaped design. Each element added to the exterior and interior of the house not only adds texture, but also realistic-looking components. (Photo courtesy of Tracy Giza)

Tracy, who does custom painting for clients and teaches painting classes for both kids and adults, has always enjoyed working in miniature, decorating doll houses for her daughters and nieces when they were younger. Since Tracy and Renee’s TV debut at the end of November, Tracy has had someone offer her a couple of unbuilt dollhouses and plans that were sitting and not being used. So far, Tracy says she has built one and plans to donate it to Make A Wish Minnesota for a little girl with cancer, named Lydia.

“She is getting her wish of a renovated bedroom and this house will go into that makeover,” said Tracy. “It is a beautiful Christmas house with all the trimmings, much like my Hawaiian Christmas house except with snow on the roof!”

Using a stencil, joint compound and earth tone paint colors, a realistic flooring was created in the structure’s courtyard. The lounge chairs, refreshing beverages and flip flops are just some of the standout details (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Diani)

Now that the competition house is back in Tracy’s possession, she plans to use it for parts for future commissions or work as its falling apart after much travel.

Researching, sketching and building

When Tracy found out the theme, “Mele Kalikimaka” (Merry Christmas in Hawaiian) she went into research mode, beginning with the Hawaiian vibe during December, traditions, types of holiday celebrations and exploring traditional Hawaiian food that would be served on and around the Christmas holiday.

“I discovered that food was very important in their holiday preparations, as well as decorations and the activities that families would engage in,” said Tracy. “From the water sports, beach play and enjoying the warm climate, folks are immersed into all the wonderful activities that the climate offers, even at Christmas.”

In hopes to make sure the house looked like it was “lived in,” numerous books lined the shelves above the fireplace where the stockings were located. Each individual book was made with folded cardboard. (Photo courtesy of Tracy Giza)

Tracy also discovered elements of Hawaiian festivities she was familiar with like stockings hung by the fireplace, multi-colored lights and brightly wrapped presents.

Brightly colored, wrapped presents are placed underneath the Christmas tree, which is decorated with candy canes, a beaded decoration and ornaments. (Photo courtesy of Tracy Giza)

After researching popular types of dwellings, Tracy began with a sketch. She built the house in three parts: the front and then the two sides. For her, the two most important areas were the family room and kitchen. Tracy found it important that it had an open concept look with large areas for people to congregate. She wanted it to feel “super homey and cozy” with a large fireplace, bookshelves, sectional couch and kitchen island with a large, family-style dining table. She said planning this part of the house was fun as she imagined people coming and going throughout the day.

Tracy and Renee made sure to include foods commonly found in Christmas eve Hawaiian traditions from salmon, roasted pig, fresh pineapple and desserts. (Photo courtesy of Tracy Giza)

The one-story house also features a deck in the back and three sets of French doors connected the deck to the three exterior walls in the back. Even though the house was a ranch, Tracy constructed it on stilts with lattice work around the base because of the heat, something important for air flow in Hawaii.

A different set of Christmas traditions

Since she wasn’t familiar with the particulars of an authentic Hawaiian Christmas holiday, Tracy found it most important to create the indoor/outdoor living space that was loved and utilized for family time gatherings and activities. In Hawaii, as well as most places around the world, Tracy found the holiday is about celebrating with the people who mean the most to them. Her story was about kids running around the beach, flip flops flung onto the back deck, porch pillows for comfortable conversation seating, and a table full of food as people meandered in and out.

“Being in Minnesota, I had to image a warm Christmas on the beach and that was my biggest challenge,” added Tracy.

From the sink, light fixtures and vanity, intricate details were added to the bathroom, with “volcano ash” stone walls laced along the wall. (Photo courtesy of Tracy Giza)

Each time Tracy builds something new, she finds she learns/improves, but creating the structure is always toughest, especially under the time constraints. Tracy said she learned to plan the structure a little better through this experience, so she didn’t have to go back to strengthen or fix what she had already done, following the philosophy, “measure twice, cut once.”

Pillows, blankets, a notebook and tray with a flower adorn the bed in one of the rooms of the beach house. (Photo courtesy of Tracy Giza)

When asked what room of the house is her favorite, Tracy chose the room she refers to as the “junk drawer” room. This particular space featured lots of shelving to hold beach towels, suntan lotion, baskets for flip flops, surf boards, sun hats, fishing poles and even a wrapping station. It was Christmas time, Tracy said, and a great place to finish the holiday preparations while visiting with the family.

Overall, Tracy enjoyed her experience so much and is grateful for the opportunity to be on HGTV.


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Grant supports minority-owned businesses in Faribault, Northfield
  • Updated

Starting a business is one way for immigrant and refugee families to invest in the progress and prosperity of their families, according to Rice County Neighbors United Director Mar Valdecantos.

To support a community that wants to thrive, particularly a community of immigrants and refugees, Valdecantos said it takes investing in long-term prosperity and getting out of cycles of poverty and low income.

“All of us as immigrants have this drive to better ourselves,” said Valdecantos, who also serves as vice chair of the Northfield Human Rights Commission. “So many of us have this drive that ‘I have so many opportunities that I need to take on and pursue.’ Supporting that future generation of growth is wonderful to be a part of. We want to build a better, more prosperous community where everyone is partaking in this wealth. That is really very, very powerful and beautiful and great to be a part of.”

Thanks to a $15,000 Inclusive and Equitable Communities grant through the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, Rice County Neighbors United plans to partner with Community Without Borders in Faribault to launch a business association to support new and existing minority-owned businesses in Rice County.

Pam Bishop, vice president of economic development for SMIF, said the thought process behind the Inclusive and Equitable Communities grant is that an improved sense of belonging for all community members leads to stronger economic opportunities. The grant is designed to benefit organizations aiming to increase equity and inclusion through specific projects, or to support entrepreneurs in diverse communities.

SMIF, Southeast Minnesota Together and Region Nine Development Commission created the initiative last summer and recently approved grants for 10 organizations totaling $160,000.

“In our work at the SMIF, we know that the demographics of our region are quickly changing,” Bishop said. “… Particularly through our work of the Prosperity Initiative, which works with minority-owned businesses, we know some of the struggles these folks have been having.”

The Neighbors United and Community Without Borders teams met for the first time Monday to discuss the grant plan. With plenty of minority-owned businesses in both represented communities, the team members considered three different ways to make use of the grant.

The business association, the main project Neighbors United and Community Without Borders will implement with the grant funding, will create a unified voice for minority-owned businesses. The grant, said Valdecantos, will help business owners understand how to navigate institutions in the U.S. by learning to access resources and tackle language barriers.

“It won’t be a physical space, but people can get together and share knowledge and have a unified voice when they go to the Chamber of Commerce,” Valdecantos said of the association. “We would like to continue this group [beyond the grant period], and Rice County Neighbors United has ambitious plans with working with immigrants and refugee communities.”

As another project of the grant, Valdecantos said existing business owners may become mentors to new businesses or individuals trying to start a business for the first time. The mentors would share their expertise and knowledge about achieving economic stability and growth.

The third leg of the project supports business starters as they apply to the state, pay their fees, develop their business plan, and create an official layout for their business. In the Northfield area, Valdecantos said Neighbors United will work with Chris Willock of the Northfield Enterprise Center and economic development authorities in Northfield, Faribault and Rice County to reach out to businesses and possibly acquire another grant to help businesses expand.

The Northfield Enterprise Center is in the process of doing a census of the businesses in the area, said Valdecantos, and that will be a useful tool for both Faribault and Northfield.

During the team meetings Monday, organizers considered minority-owned business owners to approach. Unless a commercial kitchen becomes available, Valdecantos said the grant can’t support those who want to sell their home cooked products due to food health and safety regulations. However, the grant may support food trucks or cover fees for setting up tables at summer markets.

“We’re very excited that this grant was made available to communities in southern Minnesota,” Valdecantos said. “We wish to keep working in the future, not just with the grant, but by keeping funds for this work and working with the city, both Faribault and Northfield, to keep supporting those businesses.”

Making progress

SMIF’s Bishop said the foundation received grant requests totaling $800,000, which made the selection process difficult. As the grant recipients make use of their funding, Bishop hopes the resulting models and systems serve as examples for other minority-supporting organizations in southern Minnesota.

“We were amazed at the applications; we had 45 applications,” Bishop said. “It was overwhelming the number. We were so pleased folks took the time to apply, and it demonstrated the need to advance equity in their community and reduce the racial wealth gap that might exist.”

One unique feature of the grant, which Bishop explained, is that grant recipients will have opportunities come together and talk about lessons they’ve learned from their projects, the barriers they’ve encountered and what they still need in order to make an impact. Southeast Minnesota Together and Region Nine Development Commission plan to organize these sessions every six months beginning in June.

“We want to assist in their progress,” Bishop said. “If they’re achieving some milestones, we want to celebrate those milestones, but we also want to make sure we can be a bit more intentional about assisting where we can.”

The grant projects, said Bishop, will also benefit SMIF and the two partnering organizations by helping them understand what they need to do next to support minority-owned businesses. At this point, she said there will not be a second round of Inclusive and Equitable Communities grant funding. However, as the needed resources for these businesses become evident, she said other grant opportunities may come about.

“We’re always pleased when we can successfully roll out projects like this that also include collaboration and partnerships,” Bishop said. “It took a whole host of people to design the grant and launch the grant, so it was a journey in and of itself to pull it all together. We were very excited about the response, and we’re hopeful this will change the life of other people as they build equity, inclusion and diversity in their communities.”


Northfield freshman forward Ayla Puppe eyes the net during Saturday’s 10-0 victory against Mankato West at Northfield Ice Arena. (Michael Hughes/southernminn.com)


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NPS expects to vaccinate 140 employees by midweek
  • Updated

Northfield Public Schools will have vaccinated 140 employees through Tuesday.

That’s slightly less than one-quarter of the daily average number of average of NPS staff. The district has provided the vaccinations through a partnership with Northfield Hospital & Clinic for Tier 1a workers including school nurses, health aides, special education teachers and educational assistants who work closely with children deemed vulnerable. Officials consider vaccines to be a key component in keeping students learning in-person while ensuring teachers are safe from COVID-19.

Those vaccination estimates come approximately one week after pre-K through second graders returned to in-person learning Jan. 19. Students in grades 3-5 are slated to return Feb. 1, and those in grades 6-12 are scheduled to come back to hybrid learning Feb. 2.

On Jan. 18, Gov. Tim Walz announced a pilot program to begin vaccinations of school staff who fall within the Tier 1b category. During a Monday Northfield School Board meeting, Superintendent Matt Hillmann said the district, relying on Minnesota Department of Education guidance, established a vaccination prioritization matrix and was allotted 10 doses of the vaccination per week initially.

Those first 10 employees were scheduled to receive their first round of vaccine by the end of last week. Tier 1b employees, who are being vaccinated through the MDE school staff pilot program, include elementary and early learning program school staff working in an in-person model, bus drivers, school-aged child care workers and employees working in a hybrid learning model with underlying health conditions deemed serious. Following that, middle, high school and Area Learning Center staff who are working in a hybrid-learning model and staff working primarily in settings where students are not regularly present and social distancing among adults can be maintained will be vaccinated.

Hillmann noted the district participated in a consultation with the Minnesota Department of Health’s regional support team Jan. 13 to verify that Northfield Public Schools could return middle and high school students to hybrid learning despite Rice County still having a county infection rate above 30 per 10,000 residents. Hillmann said the team found the district’s plan to be good but called on Northfield to be prepared to shift back to distance learning if needed.

Hillmann said the district has effectively implemented safety protocols, adding that despite there being 19 active cases in the high school within a 14-day period late last year, that number has since dropped to fewer than five.

Portage learning

As of Monday, Jan. 25, 565 Northfield Public Schools students planned to use the all-the-time online Portage option in the second semester. Another 115 expected to leave Portage for on-campus learning. Hillmann said a majority of the people who are returning from Portage say they are comfortable coming back to campus.


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