Bullied throughout his childhood, John Sonnenberg’s experiences of ostracism and violence at the hands of his peers have colored his worldview, all the way from his hometown of Waseca to the Eastern European countries where he has taught English and done humanitarian work.
They have also guided him toward what he now sees as his life’s purpose: helping lost and misunderstood youth around the world.
Sonnenberg isn’t finished with that first chapter of his life, though. Those harrowing years are the subject of the first part of his new self-published book, “Getting It Right: My Story,” which he read aloud at the Waseca Art Center Thursday.
The book, Sonnenberg said, consists of “the opinions and the truths that I have learned throughout my life for keeping the darkness at bay.”
“I would try my best not to show emotion, so they wouldn’t get more pleasure out of it,” Sonnenberg said, recounting incidents of physical abuse he experienced in school. “Unfortunately with that, not showing emotion and being blank all the time, not a whole lot of people tried to get to know me, because they felt I was standoffish.”
Sonnenberg, now 30, read for about 30 minutes before taking questions from the audience, which included Josie Jackson, who taught at Waseca Public Schools when Sonnenberg was a student.
“I’m glad you’ve shared what you shared,” Jackson said. “As a teacher, I had no clue that it went on forever.”
Jackson said that there might have been some denial on her end at the time that it had been occurring.
Sonnenberg, who suffered from dyslexia, dysgraphia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other cognitive disorders, believes that he may have endured more bullying than students with disabilities at larger schools, such as those in Owatonna and Mankato. Since larger schools tend to have greater populations of students with disabilities, he said, perhaps those students banded together to protect themselves.
“There is protection in numbers,” Jackson said, to which Sonnenberg replied, “Unfortunately that’s something I didn’t have.”
Speaking after the reading, Sonnenberg said that he never thought he would bring his story back to his hometown, and that telling it at first was tough.
“But I’m from here, and people that have struggled and have disabilities, we have a voice,” he said. “I just hope that people can relate to me and I can relate to them.”
About his former bullies, Sonnenberg said hopes that they are happy and successful, and that if they were mean to him or other people that they’ve since changed their ways.
Sonnenberg, who started writing his book late in 2016 while he was attending Minnesota State University, Mankato, called the writing process “a pain in the butt, because I am terrible at spelling and grammar.”
He stuck with it, he said, only because he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“He’s a young guy, but I think he’s had some pretty crazy adventures,” Waseca Art Center Director Andrew Breck said of Sonnenberg. “It’s always good to get the perspective of how someone handles life events.”
Sonnenberg, who has spent time in Eastern Europe — mainly Ukraine — doing humanitarian work for various nonprofits, founded his own nonprofit, Humanitarian Exchange Ltd. The mission of the nonprofit, as written on the group’s Facebook page, is to “[minister] to the poor and impoverished communities around the world, by meeting their spiritual, physical, mental and emotional needs.”
The American Legion Department of Minnesota’s Law and Order Committee has named Waseca Officer Arik Matson as 2021 Law Officer of the Year.
Matson received the honor Friday, July 16, at the Department Convention at Jackpot Junction, Casino, east of Redwood Falls.
“Although I am here as an individual talking, this took a team effort,” Matson said. “Every day I am trying to get better and back to the way life was.”
Law and Order Committee Chairwoman Susan Edwards said, “If you look up the definition of ‘hero’ in the dictionary, you will find a picture of this man.”
Matson was shot in the head while on duty to a call in Waseca in January 2020. He is retired and hopes to rejoin the force someday.
Matson was joined on the convention stage by his wife, Megan, and their two daughters, Audrina and Maklynn. He was nominated for the honor by Waseca Post 228.
The American Legion honor of 2021 Firefighter of the Year went to Moorhead firefighter Anthony Cross. He was nominated by Moorhead Post 21.
The American Legion honored Moorhead’s Karson Ferden as Eagle Scout of the Year. He was nominated by Moorhead Post 21.
A Waseca man who assaulted another person waiting outside the library and prevented them from calling police has been sentenced to two years of supervised probation for interfering with an emergency call.
Jesse Allan Tollefson, 29, was sentenced last week after pleading guilty to the misdemeanor June 7. Per the plea agreement a felony domestic assault charge and fourth-degree damage to property charge were both dismissed.
According to the original criminal complaint, Tollefson came up to the victim who was waiting outside the Waseca Public Library April 26 and punched them in the face through the window. The victim said Tollefson then grabbed their phone and smashed it on the ground when they said they were going to call the police. The victim told officers that Tollefson did not say anything to them during the assault.
Tollefson was eventually located near the fairgrounds and taken into custody.
As a part of his probation, Tollefson is prohibited from using or possessing alcohol or drugs with the exception of prescribed medication and cannot enter bars or liquor stores. If he fails to comply with his probation, Tollefson will serve one year in the Waseca County Jail. His sentencing was handed down by Judge Carol Hanks.
In other court news
Nicole Georgina Weller, 28, of Owatonna, was sentenced last week to three years of supervised probation and 240 hours of community service after she was convicted in June for felony fifth-degree drug possession. Weller pleaded guilty June 10. Per the plea agreement, a second fifth-degree drug possession charge as well as a gross misdemeanor drug possession charge and misdemeanor theft charge were dismissed.
According to the criminal complaint, a local retailer reported Weller and an unidentified male suspect to the Waseca Police Department for shoplifting. When police obtained a search warrant for the vehicle Weller was apprehended in, they located a small mirror with a white powdery residue on it that field tested positive for methamphetamine. Police also found several controlled substance pills inside the purse Weller was carrying.
Weller’s sentencing, handed down by Hanks, was continued as a statutory stay of adjudication. If Weller successfully completes her probation, the conviction will be dismissed. Terms of Weller’s probation includes a mental health evaluation, completing a chemical assessment, and she is prohibited from using or possessing alcohol, controlled substances with the exception of prescribed medications, and firearms.
Weller is also facing a felony theft charge in Steele County. In that case, Weller was allegedly observed shoplifting from an Owatonna business on Jan. 4. Owatonna police searched Weller and recovered jewelry and perfume bottles hidden in her clothes totaling $1,407, according to court documents. She is scheduled to have a settlement conference in this case Thursday.