When Lisa Korbel opened her in-home daycare and preschool, she wanted to incorporate kindness into her curriculum. A couple years later, she decided to get the daycare kids together in a project to raise money to make a fleece tie blanket to donate to a family in need at the Lily Sparrow House, a local women’s shelter at the time that has since been closed.
“We made the blanket to deliver to a boy. When we arrived, a resident answered the door and we told her who we were and why we were there,” Korbel said. “She started crying and said she had a son and took the blanket and was so thankful. Right there is when I decided we have to do something like this every year.”
The “Kindness Crew” was born, and each year since Korbel, along with the children who attend her daycare and their families, have been raising money and have donated to many local organizations such as Rachel’s Light, Beds for Kids, Let’s Smile, Inc., and Backpacks for Fosters. She said there is something so powerful in the kids seeing firsthand the difference they can make in someone’s life by doing a simple act of kindness.
Over the years, Korbel has decided on a small amount of money as a goal. Then as a group they shop for items and deliver them to the chosen organization of that year.
This year, Korbel’s $300 goal was blown out of the water. The children and their families raised $1,685. Some dug into their piggy banks and collected donations from families and friends. Thrivent made a $250 donation to the kindness crew and two families made and sold homemade cookies and hot chocolate mixtures to donate to the fund.
“We were blown away by the amount of support we received from the families and members of the community,” Korbel said. “We divided the money up and donated to Transitional Housing, Hospitality House, McKinley and Washington elementary schools, and the Owatonna High School and Middle School.”
One of Korbel's daycare moms works for the Owatonna Bus Company, and was able to use a bus so the kids could load up all the donations and drive to the respective locations to deliver the donations.
“The kids got the things we purchased off the bus and handed them to the people to use them,” Korbel said. “It was a big deal for them, and exciting to be involved from collecting money to shopping for items and then finally delivering them.”
Amy Vincelli, a mom of four who has had Korbel care for all of her children, said she greatly enjoys this tradition and her family continues to be involved.
“My kids have been with Lisa since she opened,” Vincelli said. “She adds kindness in everything she does, and it shows immensely through this service project. Teaching kindness to kids when they’re young stays with them. The seeds get planted and they’re going to want to do this forever and it’s so special.”
Traditionally, Korbel and the kids vote on an organization to donate to in November and shortly after collections for donations begin, lasting for about 30 days. When all donations are gathered, she takes the kids shopping for personal care items, household items, clothing, or whatever the designated organization is in need of.
“Some people wonder what the kids get out of this since most of them are so little,” Korbel said. “They understand the happiness when we deliver items, and they grasp the fact they’re helping families in need. I really just want them to feel good and proud about giving to others so then they’ll want to do it again and again.”
Billy Conway was known for a lot — he was the drummer for the critically acclaimed bands Treat Her Right and Morphine and the former captain of the Yale ice hockey team who was invited to try out for the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, among other things.
But to those who knew him well, especially those in his hometown of Owatonna, Conway was a man defined by his humility and as someone who never stopped expressing gratitude, even when things got tough.
Conway died from liver cancer on Dec. 19. He was 65.
Born in Owatonna on Dec. 18, 1956, Conway showed an early interest in music, recalling in an April 2020 interview with the People’s Press his experience wandering the racks of instruments in his elementary school gym, wondering what to pick out. Past the trumpets, clarinets and flutes, he ultimately picked up a pair of drumsticks.
“I’d faked it on pots and pans before, but it was the first time I ever hit a drum,” he said in the interview. “You bang and toot and the next thing you know, you’re in the grade school band.”
As he became more interested in music, he teamed up with his friends to form the band Steele. Rick Skalicky, whom he’d befriended in elementary school and who would become a lifelong friend, played in the band with him.
“It really was an amazing group,” Skalicky said. “I think seven or eight players cycled in and out of the band but four of them ended up playing professionally for a living.”
Looking back on what distinguished Conway as a musician, Skalicky described Conway's priorities as a musician.
“He did not overplay,” Skalicky said. “As a drummer, one of the easiest things is to overplay, play too much, but he really believed in simplicity … it didn’t matter how flashy he was playing, it was all about the song, what’s best for the song.”
This reflected Conway’s life more broadly, Skalicky went on — he never wanted to be the frontman of a band, didn’t name-drop even though he had relationships with major musical icons including The Band, Los Lobos and even Bob Dylan. Even a lifelong friend like Skalicky said he didn’t think he realized just how well-connected and influential Conway was until he visited him on his deathbed and listened to the stories he and others were telling.
Jeffrey Foucault, a songwriter who met Conway in 2009 and spent much of the following decade touring with him around the United States and Europe, said similar things about Conway’s integrity as he garnered increasing acclaim and attention throughout his career.
“He was a really special human being in the sense that he was able to protect his simplicity, which is difficult to do at any time but certainly in this time,” Foucault said. “It really takes a certain amount of discipline to be the kind of person that he was. I think he stood apart.”
Though many memories with Conway came to mind for Foucault — who called Conway his best friend, having spent over 100 nights a year with him for a decade while touring, mostly in hotel rooms and rental vans — he recalled fondly the two shows they played in Owatonna, once at the Central Park Bandshell. Many of the people he’d grown up with came to those shows to visit the Owatonna native who’d made it big.
“His old hockey coach came,” Foucault said. “He was like the legend of the hockey world over there in Owatonna.”
The COVID-19 pandemic was not easy for Conway, whose cancer had progressed by the time the coronavirus, to which he was now especially vulnerable, reached Montana, where he was living at the time.
Skalicky, who spent time with Conway in the final weeks of his life, said he appeared jaundiced and his face drawn in, though he was relieved to find his old friend’s mind as sharp as ever. Conway had recently ended his chemotherapy treatments.
In one of their final talks, Skalicky recalled Conway saying even though his ride was getting cut shorter than that of many others, it didn’t mean he didn’t have a great ride.
“He was a star athlete, a really good person and a person from Owatonna who did make it big in the music industry," Skalicky said. “When his story is told … he will be very well-remembered."
While local school districts have not, thankfully, been thus far impacted by recent threats of violence on social media, local school leaders are still deeply concerned about the all too often toxic impacts of social media discourse.
Schools across the country have seen a rise in threats since the Oxford High School shooting last month. On Dec. 17, a handful of Minnesota schools closed or switched to virtual learning in response to threatening messages received or posted online.
Across the country, schools were on high alert on the 17th, due to allegations that a trend on the social media app TikTok promoted school violence. In a tweet, the social media giant said that it was unable to find any evidence substantiating the alleged trend.
Still, 29 threats to Minnesota schools were reported to law enforcement in advance of the 17th, according to a statement from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. While DPS Assistant Commissioner Booker Hodges said he was not aware of any specific and credible threat to Minnesota schools, he asked parents and others in the community to stay vigilant.
While explicit threats to schools and students remain rare, Owatonna Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Elstad said that cyberbullying is a growing problem, with incidents and issues that start in the online world too frequently finding their way into the classroom.
“Things are done and said on social media — that would never be done in person — that lead to mental health issues and self-image issues among our students,” Elstad said.
As a longtime educator and school administrator, Elstad is hardly unaccustomed to dealing with bullying incidents. However, he said that a number of social media platforms, especially those which offer some level of anonymity, have proven particularly fertile ground for abuse.
“When you’re behind a screen, you’re 10 feet tall and bulletproof,” he said. “There’s no accountability.”
That’s not to say the effects of social media have been mostly bad — or that there’s much school administrators could do to put the genie back in the bottle, even if they wanted to, as St. Peter Public Schools Superintendent Bill Gronseth emphasized.
“Social media has become a big part of how people communicate,” he said. “It’s a powerful tool for connection and learning.”
While districts can choose to limit or block access to certain social media websites on their own computers, there’s little they can do to limit student use on personal devices. Instead, Faribault Public Schools Superintendent Todd Sesker asked parents to take the lead.
“I strongly believe that the only way we can curb the issues with social media is if parents take action to limit what they will allow their kids to have access to,” Sesker said. “If parents are particularly concerned about TikTok, they should take TikTok off of every device their kids have.”
While today’s students might know nothing of the era before the instant connection and communication of social media, it’s still mind-boggling to many even just a few years older than them, said Northfield Superintendent Matt Hillmann.
Given how powerful a tool social media is, Hillmann said users would be well advised to use great care, restraint and thoughtfulness in using social media. After all, unflattering photos or comments can be posted with great ease — and become nearly impossible to erase.
Unfortunately, Hillmann lamented that a call to use social media with restraint has too often been undermined by adults. Because children look to adults as role models, irresponsible social media use by those adults can lead children to pick up the same bad habits.
“There’s nothing more important than being a good role model for our kids,” Hillmann said. “I implore the public to take a look in the mirror. Are we using (social media) as a force for good or as a way to fuel rumor and innuendo?”
Before posting something on social media, Hillmann said that people should pause for a minute and give some thought as to the likely effects of their comments. Le-Sueur-Henderson Superintendent Jim Wagner agreed, lamenting that restraint has become an underrated virtue in an era of “too much information.”
“My personal opinion may be my personal opinion, but I didn’t need to put it all over social media,” Wagner said. “It’s not good or conducive to a healthy society.”