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New playground, Miracle Field prioritizes inclusion for all Owatonnans

The sound of Tim Truelson shouting “We did it!” rang throughout Owatonna’s Manthey Park Monday evening as more than 1,000 people celebrated the ribbon cutting of the We All Play Inclusive Playground and Miracle Field.

The city’s Parks and Recreation manager was one of several who spoke at the ceremony, all celebrating the and rejoicing in the community dream that took four years to become a reality. In 2017, local mothers Amanda Gislason and Missy Ahrens, who both have children with Down syndrome, began openly discussing that the Owatonna community was desperately missing an inclusive area that allows children of all abilities to play together.

After many discussions and partnerships throughout the community, and roughly $1 million in donations later, the park is no longer a community’s wish.

While the construction of the project was put on hold last fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ahrens said the pandemic also allowed the entire world to know what it means to feel isolated — something she says people with various disabilities and Down syndrome often feel.

“COVID took a lot of things away from us this last year-and-a-half, but I am grateful for the one thing it hopefully gave all of us here, and that is perspective and understanding,” Ahrens said. “When we use the term isolated we all understand what that means and how horrible it felt during just that short time we experienced it.”

“Thankfully we are starting to get back some of the things we lost last year and I am so grateful that we are able to gather here and celebrate, but my hope is that we don’t return to normal,” she continued. “My hope is that we grow to something so much better ... I’m challenging each and every one here to find ways to build inclusion in your life, in our community and within our school system.”

Gislason also challenged Owatonnans, saying that despite the playground’s completion, she wants them to continue with the work she and Ahrens started.

“Inclusion isn’t just for people with special needs, it is for all of us, but we must help those that are most vulnerable,” Gislason said. “We need to advocate for them, stick up for them and speak up when we see injustices.”

“The city and people of Owatonna have proved that they can unite to make this community a better place for all, so please go forward and include all individuals every day,” she added. “Make the effort … please go forward with the mindset that love and inclusion is what we all seek and teach your children to be kind.”

Gislason’s family recently moved to Wisconsin to be closer to family, but she reinforced the pride she has in the Owatonna community for coming together to make the parks system more inclusive.

Following comments from Parks and Recreation Director Jenna Tuma, Owatonna Mayor Tom Kuntz, Mohs Contracting President Scott Mohs, Owatonna Foundation President Denny Meillier and Truelson, the ribbon was officially cut and children of all ages, backgrounds and abilities continued to play together.

An inaugural baseball game immediately followed the ceremony, featuring the “buddy system” where each child was paired with an able-bodied adult or individual. Ahrens’ daughter Miley and Gislason’s son Gunnar, the inspiration for the community project, threw the ceremonial first pitches.

Rack 'em: Ribfest returns for 10th year in Blooming Prairie
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Meat lovers can rejoice at the return this weekend’s Ribfest, Blooming Prairie Youth Club’s 10th annual cook-off.

Ribfest, canceled last summer due to COVID-19, takes place from 3 to 7 p.m. Saturday at the Blooming Prairie Servicemen’s Club. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door, with a family maximum of $40 in advance and $50 at the door.

The goal of the cook-off, said Autumn Van Ravenhorst, board president for the Blooming Prairie Youth Club, is to raise money for the Youth Club, a nonprofit organization which receives 100% of the proceeds from Ribfest to continue empowering area youth with quality programs, community service and more.

“It’s just going to be fun,” Van Ravenhorst said about the event. “There’s something for all ages.”

The main event at Ribfest, naturally, is the cook-off itself, in which cooks compete for trophies, plaques and cash payouts in the categories of Best Ribs, Best Sauce and People’s Choice Ribs. Van Ravenhorst hopes that 10 cooks will end up registering for the event, each of whom will pay a $100 registration fee to enter. The top three Best Ribs winners will get tiered shares of the total amount collected from all the registered cooks, or a 100% cash payout. The first-place Best Ribs winner will also receive the golden pig trophy.

Cooks can begin setting up their stations as early as 7 a.m., where six racks of ribs donated by Hormel Foods will be provided to them. They have until 2 p.m. to turn in their ribs and sauce.

Ticketholders can sample the ribs and vote for the People’s Choice Ribs. For the categories of Best Ribs and Best Sauce, though, a group of impartial judges will taste all the cooks’ offerings. The judges include Kansas City Barbeque Society Certified Judge Richie Kubat, food and beverage writer Mike Stoll, and community leaders Justin Ohnstad and Erin Gillespie.

In addition to the ribs, Ribfest will have a variety of family activities, including a kids obstacle course, a dunk tank, face painting and music.

There will also be a cornhole tournament at 3 p.m. Registration is $40 for teams of two. Winners of the cornhole tournament, like the cooks, will receive a 100% cash payout, so the more teams that register the higher the cash payout.

Ribfest will also incorporate a silent and live auction this year in lieu of their annual Benefit Bash, also canceled due to COVID-19. The live auction begins at 7 p.m. and concludes the evening.

“We are up to over 70 items for our silent and live auction,” Van Ravenhorst said. She added that the organization has also received “an incredible amount of monetary donations.”

Given the opening back up of the economy after COVID-19, Ribfest being canceled in 2020, and a greater number of activities being offered at this year’s event, Van Ravenhorst said Blooming Prairie Youth Club is anticipating around 300 visitors to Ribfest, a somewhat higher turnout than years past.

“Our focus is the kids and families of Blooming Prairie and being able to provide quality services for them,” she said. “Blooming Prairie is a pretty amazing community with the amount of support that they provide organizations like ours.”

Use of fireworks leads to alleged assault with patio umbrella

An Owatonna woman is facing criminal charges after she allegedly assaulted a man for setting off fireworks at her home.

Tori Mae Keck, 22, was charged Monday in Steele County Court with one felony count of second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon and one misdemeanor count of fifth-degree assault that resulted in bodily harm.

According to the criminal complaint, just before midnight Friday, Owatonna police were dispatched for a report of an assault. The victim told officers he and Keck had been in an argument about the use of fireworks at her home, adding Keck was allegedly upset that the victim had set off fireworks knowing that the sound would upset her dog.

Keck allegedly struck the victim twice with a homemade weapon crafted from a patio umbrella. According to court documents, the victim sustained two large lacerations under his left armpit and a small laceration on the left side of his neck from the alleged assault.

The weapon used was not located at the residence where the assault took place, according to the report.

Keck’s initial court appearance is scheduled for July 30.

In other court news

• 21-year-old Chantel Leaann Sahr, of Lakota, Iowa, was charged Monday with one felony count of fleeing a peace officer in a motor vehicle as well as a gross misdemeanor DWI.

According to the criminal complaint, shortly after 11 p.m. on Sunday a Steele County deputy attempted to initiate a traffic stop after his radar recorded a speed reading of 82 mph on northbound Interstate 35 — a 70 mph zone. The vehicle, driven by Sahr, did not pull over and allegedly continued to weave between the two lanes and over the fog line. There was no other traffic at the time, according to the report.

The Rice County Sheriff’s Office and Faribault Police Department assisted by staging stop sticks at the first Faribault exit. Court documents show that contact was made with the front tires and the vehicle came to a rolling stop. While Sahr was being taken into custody, the Steele County deputy reported that she allegedly had bloodshot and watery eyes, smelled of alcohol, had slurred speech, and that she did not know where she was.

At the Steele County Detention Center, Sahr consented to a breath test which recorded a 0.20 BAC, more than double the legal limit.

An initial court appearance for Sahr has been scheduled for Aug. 19.

• On Tuesday, 33-year-old Joe Alexander Hernandez Casado, of Owatonna, was charged with one felony count of domestic assault by strangulation and two misdemeanor counts of domestic assault.

According to the criminal complaint, Owatonna police responded Monday night to a report of a domestic where the victim had allegedly been threatened with a knife. At the home, police found a woman outside crying with two children. The victim told officers that Hernandez Casado had allegedly held her down on a bed and choked her with his hands. When the victim tried to leave the home, she said Hernandez Casado grabbed her by the hair, according to the report. The victim said Hernandez Casado allegedly first assaulted her approximately about a month ago by choking her and dragging her by her hair.

Court documents show that a witness on the scene told officers that Hernandez Casado said he was going to kill the victim.

Hernandez Casado’s initial court appearance has been scheduled for Aug. 3.