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Old stump transformed into luxury home for lawn figurines

Your new neighbors may seem odd, and there are certainly a lot of them, but they are both quiet and respectful.

About 20 gnomes have found a home in a large stump on 1510 8th Ave. NE in Owatonna, and landlord Shelly Malecha says that she’s hoping even more will take up residence. Currently drawing up plans for an addition to the top floor of the house, Malecha proudly shows off her lawn art masterpiece that took a village to help create.

“I knew this tree had to come down, but it was so big — the tallest on the block — and I was just thinking, what the heck can I do?” Malecha said as she described the giant cotton poplar that she had removed from her front yard last summer.

When she first moved into her home in 1991, Malecha admits that she was unaware of what kind of tree was on her property. She said that the tree was small then, but cotton poplars can grow up to 6 feet each year. By the time she had it removed – largely because it was dying rapidly — Malecha said that the tree could have easily fallen on any of her neighbors houses, including those who live across the street.

“It was a really nice, big shade tree and I was sad to see it go,” Malecha said. “But it had to come down.”

Knowing she would be left with a giant stump in her yard, Malecha asked her husband leave a large portion of the stump intact so that she could get creative with something new in their yard. Unfortunately, Malecha said her husband forgot, and they were left with a large flat stump in the middle of their front lawn. Luckily, though, that didn’t remain the case for very long.

“A gentleman on Rose Street who makes things out of stumps had just cut down a big tree in his yard that had been hollowed out by carpenter ants,” Malecha said. “I stopped by and told him I would take one piece off his hands right there.”

After rolling the chunk of tree trunk onto a trailer and accepting help from some friends with a tractor and a forklift, Malecha fumigated the hunk of wood to eliminate any remaining ants and got straight to work to provide a home for her small collection of gnomes. After cutting out a door and making a front step for the stump, Malecha received a handmade gnome home from James Virechek to place atop the tree. Thus, the home for gnomes was complete – for now.

“I’d really like to add more to the top,” Malecha said of upcoming renovations to allow for more tenants. Since the first set of gnomes relocated to the stump last summer, Malecha said she has continued to collect more and more throughout the year.

“All the neighborhood kids love to come up and check it out, opening the door to look inside,” Malecha said, exposing the cluster of gnomes hanging out inside the base of the trunk. “I also get cars stopping all the time to take pictures. It’s really been a lot of fun for everyone.”

As the gnome kingdom continues to grow on her front lawn, Malecha invites visitors to stop by the stump and open out the door of the trunk to check it out. She promises the residents won’t mind in the least.

DHS, Allina emphasize telemedicine amid pandemic

As the coronavirus pandemic drags on into a third month, patients across Minnesota have become increasingly reliant on telemedicine.

Locally, Mayo Clinic Health System has dramatically increased their use of telemedicine, where physicians conduct office visits via video chats. The Rochester-based outfit, which serves more than 60 communities throughout Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, has instructed its providers to utilize telemedicine whenever possible.

Similarly, Allina Health, which operates District One Hospital in Faribault as well as Owatonna Hospital, now conducts more than 60% of its appointments online, compared to less than 1% before the pandemic.

Allina’s new emphasis on telemedicine is at the heart of its newly launched Virtual Care Campaign, which seeks to reassure patients that it’s safe to receive medical treatment even as COVID-19 continues to ravage communities Allina serves.

Across the state, medical institutions like Allina Health have seen significant decreases in the number of patients seeking essential care. Those patients who do come in are often very sick, facing severe complications and a long road to recovery.

Fear of contracting the virus is certainly understandable. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, 295 Rice County residents have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday, putting the county in the top five counties for case count outside of the seven-county Twin Cities metro.

Nonetheless, Dr. Amy Elliot, who serves as Director of Medical Affairs at District One, strongly urges patients to seek the medical care they may need, and not to wait until they’re even sicker. She said that if in-person care is necessary, Allina Health staff work assiduously to keep patients separate. In addition, Allina staff work round the clock to keep their facilities clean, and staff, visitors and patients are expected to be masked at all times. Patient-facing staff wear a mask and face shield, while patients are given cloth masks.

“As care providers, we don’t want people skipping care because they’re worried about getting infected,” she said. “We’re trying to offer lots of ways to help people get around the risk.”

However, Elliot said that patients can receive a surprisingly wide range of care via telemedicine, enabling them to avoid having to leave the comfort and safety of their own home. For patients in rural areas, that can save not only peace of mind but time and money as well.

Rapid change

While the technology enabling the significant shift to telemedicine has been in place for years, most providers have preferred to stick with face-to-face appointments. In addition, Medicare and other health insurance often haven’t reimbursed care providers for virtual appointments.

On both counts, change has come rapidly. On March 30, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that it would reimburse physicians for telehealth visits at the same rate as for in-person visits.

Effective March 1, the change covers checkups and medical care provided for any reason, not just coronavirus care. Medicare also expanded access by scrapping a rule that required all telehealth visits to take place on devices meeting federal online privacy and security standards.

U.S. Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar feel that doesn’t go far enough. Together, Minnesota’s two senators introduced the Health Care at Home Act last Friday, with the backing of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the American Psychiatric Association and other organizations. The bill is designed to reduce the gap in coverage for telemedicine visits in comparison to in-person visits. It also prohibits restrictions as to which particular medical issues are eligible for telemedicine reimbursement.

Other restrictions existed at the state level, including limits on the number of reimbursable telemedicine visits per week and a requirement that telemedicine appointments be conducted over video chat rather than by phone.

Maisha Giles, the Minnesota Department of Health’s behavioral health director, said her agency has worked rapidly to help care providers across the state adapt to telemedicine. In addition, she said, the department has provided flexible grant funding for providers.

Thanks to that support, care providers like Fernbrook Health Center have been able to rapidly switch to a telemedicine-based model. Fernbrook, which has six offices in southern Minnesota, barely utilized telemedicine before the crisis but now uses it almost exclusively.

Peter Miller serves as a psychiatrist and medical director for the Community-Based Services in Direct Care and Treatment for the state, providing crucial services for people dealing with mental illness, developmental disabilities and chemical dependency.

Faribault is one of five communities in the state which has a community clinic through the program, known as Southern Cities Clinic. It provides crucial care to patients with developmental disabilities, severe mental illness or traumatic brain injury.

Since the pandemic hit, Direct Care and Treatment’s clinics have been closed but have continued providing consultation via telemedicine. Miller said that is likely to continue even once the pandemic lifts.

“It’s been very well received,” said Miller. “We’re hoping to keep doing the same thing once we get back to a more normal schedule.”

Miller said that DHS is examining how teledentistry could be used in the long term to help dentists treat their patients. He said he’s excited to see the state expand its telemedicine services to serve patients in a convenient, yet efficient manner.

Bryan Carleton, a registered nurse who treats Psychiatric Patients at Southern Cities Clinic, said that the clinic had experimented with providing telemedicine for years as a way to help homebound patients.

Just before the pandemic, Southern Cities began experimenting with “E-Prescribing,” submitting prescriptions to pharmacies electronically. Thanks to that and other trials over the years, he said his department was as well-prepared as any.

“When the pandemic hit, we had the tools and experience we needed to hit the ground running,” he said.

Sarah Kingland, seen here driving to the basket against Rochester Lourdes at the Mayo Civic Center on December 27, 2019, has was named to the Big Nine All-Conference team this past season. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)


No. 1 seed-Blossoms the team to beat in mascot competition

“There is only one thing worse than being named the Blossoms,” said H. Peterson, a former teacher and coach in Blooming Prairie. “And that’s getting beat by them.”

While the spring sports season may have been cancelled, the Blooming Prairie Public Schools’ Awesome Blossoms are still in the midst of a heated competition — having made it to the second round of a statewide mascot bracket orchestrated by the Minnesota State High School League. Determined by popular vote, Steele County’s favorite flower handily defeated the Ely Timberwolves in the first round earlier this week. Starting Monday, it will have to once again defend its top-ranked position against the Edgerton Flying Dutchmen.

Both teams are part of the 16-school Pretzel & Cheese Region — now down to eight schools after the first round. While Blooming Prairie cruised past the Timberwolves with 76% of the vote, the Flying Dutchmen are also coming in following a blowout over the Cleveland Clippers. However, Edgerton is the eighth seed overall in the region — making the No. 1 seed Blossoms a heavy favorite to win next week. Since the competition began on Monday, nearly 25,000 have cast their votes on Twitter, chiming in on the two regions that have had their matchups as of Wednesday.

While parsing through the roughly 400 schools who are members of the Minnesota State High School League and large enough to have a athletics program, media specialist John Millea said he first narrowed the field down to 64 especially unique mascots — spread out over four groups with 16 schools each. In creating the Pretzel & Cheese, Pork Chop, #ThankARef and #BeTheLightMN regions, Millea started by selecting a No. 1 seed for each grouping. He continued on until the No. 8 seed and then added in eight more unranked schools.

Although there were some difficult decisions to be made — including cutting the 65th-ranked Pumas of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis — Millea said he always knew that Blooming Prairie would be a top competitor.

“The Awesome Blossoms, that’s an all-timer!” he laughed. “I don’t think anybody is surprised that the Awesome Blossoms and the Moorhead Spuds are the No. 1 seeds. Those are no-brainers, and I would not be shocked at all if those are the final two teams.”

With a few upsets and close calls — including a 0.8% loss by the Sauk Centre Mainstreeters to the Grand Forks Green Wave — he added that anything could happen. For the moment, though, the Spuds look to be Blooming Prairie’s stiffest competition. On Tuesday, Moorhead advanced in its #ThankARef Region with 77% of the vote over another local favorite, the Waseca Bluejays. Positioned on opposite sides of the bracket, a final round of Blossoms vs. Spuds is a distinct possibility in the coming weeks.

In Blooming Prairie’s first round of voting, over 1,300 people participated, and the Blossoms widespread fame has led to statewide interest in the small Steele County district. Alison Mach, associate principal with the Blooming Prairie Public Schools, was invited on Tuesday to talk to a radio station all the way in Fargo about the district’s mascot.

“I was shocked to hear from them,” she said. “It’s kind of fun how far this has spread, just over the course of a couple days.”

In order to get ready for the interview, Mach added that she went back through the history of the mascot, chronicled by former principal and writer LeMar Nelson. According to this research, Mach said the nickname dates back to the early 20th century.

“The information that LeMar had was that in the early 1900s, when Blooming Prairie used to compete with Austin, the Austin newspaper would write that they were playing, ‘the boys from Blossom town,’” she explained. “That kind of became the nickname for the school.”

She added that there were attempts over the years to change or adapt it, with the aim of making it slightly more ferocious. Ultimately, these efforts culminated in the logo that the district has to this day — drawn in the late 1970s by then-student Tom Ressler. Peterson, who also served for years as the mayor of Blooming Prairie, remembers having Ressler in his art class at the time. He added that it wasn’t a specific assignment or project, it was just an idea that the student wanted to pursue.

Peterson said that, shortly after, another Blooming Prairie resident sewed up a costume to match and the use of the new logo just kept growing. Getting to see it through the years, one of his fondest memories is when a Blooming Prairie football player was captain of a statewide all-star team. “It was really neat seeing that logo on the helmets of all of the players.”

Over the years, Mach agreed that the mascot has helped put the town on the map in some ways, amplified by high-performing teams like this year’s state football champions.

“I came from Pine City, and we had the dragon which was a lot more intense,” she laughed, of first becoming a Blossom nearly two decades ago. “I saw that we were flowers but from there, your mascot’s your mascot. I keep saying there’s a lot of pride with that, and I’m proud we have a mascot that people talk about.”

Giving people a chance to express this pride was one of Millea’s goals in starting the bracket competition this year, the first of its kind for the Minnesota State High School League. At a time when communities can’t come out in person to cheer on their athletes, he added that they can at least continue to support — and vote for — their beloved mascots. With the second round of the competition set to take place next week, Millea added that it will likely be another month or so before he gets to announce this year’s winner.