Nate Thiel remembers nothing of the green sky, the vaporized tree or the lightning bolt that entered the back of his head, exited his left ankle and threw him 30 feet into a pile of downed trees in the middle of the Canadian wilderness.
Nor does the Breck senior recall that his heart apparently stopped and that he initially lost his hearing and sight. He remembers only the pain that tore through his body when he woke up a day later in a hospital 500 miles away.
Doctors told Thiel's parents that they didn't know how their son was alive and that he might never walk again.
Yet 15 months later, Thiel not only has regained full use of his arms and legs, he's also the starting quarterback for the Mustangs,who are 4-3. The only residual effects of the strike are three scars, a numb little toe and bouts of back pain.
"Am I amazed he's playing football?" said his father, John, also Breck's head football coach. "I think it's amazing he's walking around at all."
Nine boys and girls in bare feet and crisp, white karate uniforms line up between the slide and the parallel bars at My Gym in Eden Prairie, waiting for their chance to practice the round kick.
Jake Erling, their black-belted karate teacher, known as "Mr. Jake," brandishes a red pad as a young sandy-haired boy raises his knee, turns and lands a blow with his foot. "KEEE-AAH!" the boy yells.
"Nice, Ben," Erling says. "That was a good, hard kick. You're awesome!"
Ben scampers to the back of the line, beaming.
When Erling was Ben's age, compliments like those stuck with him forever. Because he has cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening genetic disease, people said he wouldn't live long. But simple words of praise in karate class made him believe he could be whatever he wanted to be.
"Come on, Will. Blast it. Nice kick, Will!"
On a sunny Saturday in October, I spent 30 minutes eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich -- and enjoyed every morsel. I sat back on a picnic bench and closed my eyes, drinking in the warm autumn sun. Nearby, sparrows twittered from a maple tree -- and their high-pitched trills sounded like nothing I'd ever heard before.
Or maybe I simply hadn't noticed.
It's hard to notice when you never slow down. And rarely did I ever slow down -- until signing up last fall for an eight-week mindfulness class at the University of Minnesota.
There, I would learn to tamp down my stress through a course based on meditation and gentle yoga. I would learn that life isn't just a race to the next thing, and the next thing after that.
Most important, I would spend large blocks of time doing nothing. Gulp.
When the right knee isn't tender and sore, it's stiff and achy. But Katelyn Riddersen can't bring herself to stop playing.
The Totino-Grace High School junior plays volleyball year-round despite a knee that has been severely injured since last winter.
"My doctor told me what I could do to fix it -- that was take four months off because I'm overworking it," Riddersen said. "I said no way. I couldn't do it. That meant I would fall behind, and I didn't want to."
Others -- many others -- feel her pain.
Lequetta Diggs sat at a table in the corner of Caitlin Reid’s first-grade class and held up a flash card with the word “BRING” in bright green letters.
“Big,” suggested a little boy sitting across from her. Diggs responded patiently: “Look at the card.”
The boy read the word correctly this time, and Diggs nodded and handed him the card.
Soon, two more students wandered over to play the flash card game and began calling out the words they saw.
Diggs, 73, spends four mornings a week as an AARP Experience Corps volunteer at Maxfield Magnet Elementary in St. Paul. The retired nurse is one of 70 Experience Corps members helping to boost students’ reading skills in 11 schools in St. Paul and Minneapolis.
When Vikki Casey Steward signed up to be an advocate for AARP Minnesota three years ago, she had “no idea the potential for impact the role offered beyond, for example, working the booth at the State Fair.”
Instead, two weeks after signing up, Steward, 62, of Eden Prairie, found herself at the state Capitol, meeting with her state senator and representative.
Soon after that, she met with her U.S. representative, Republican Erik Paulsen.
“He was very receptive; it didn’t matter what we brought up,” Steward recalled. “This is what people don’t necessarily know: Our representatives are genuinely interested in what people think and care about and want to hear from them.”
Just outside her high-rise condo in downtown Minneapolis, Jean Greener has her pick of walking options. A pedestrian greenway winds west to Loring Park, with a lake and fountain. Heading east leads to Nicollet Mall, a walkable 12-block stretch of restaurants, cafes and businesses. And in the winter, an expansive network of indoor skyways is available just across the street.
“You can be real urban, or you can play with the squirrels,” said Greener, 73, who tries to walk about three miles a day. “Walkability is obviously important. It helps you stay healthy. It gets you places. It’s just a way of relaxation and enjoying yourself.”
Minneapolis has long been known for its sprawling network of parks, bike paths and walkways. That’s just one reason that this year it became Minnesota’s first city to join the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities. Such communities must commit to improving outdoor space, transportation and housing.
When Sally Downing retired from her job as a medical assistant for health reasons at 57, she and her husband signed up for catastrophic health insurance, gritting their teeth when they paid the monthly $427 premium.
“It was annoying, paying for it every month and knowing we’d probably never use it,” said Downing, 64, of Minneapolis. Because the policy, which carried $17,000 deductibles for each of them, didn’t cover medications or preventive care, “we both didn’t go to the doctor very much.”
Early last year, Downing learned that she qualified for Medical Assistance—Minnesota’s version of Medicaid—thanks to expanded eligibility through the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA). Her medical care has been free since she enrolled in May 2014.
Eric Schnell defies easy categorization. He’s a “techie” and number cruncher who cares deeply about social justice. He’s a dreamer with a record of getting things done. He’s expounded on the potential of self-driving cars and helped kids who designed and built a garden at their school.
Now, the soft-spoken 51-year-old has acquired another moniker: “disruptor”—someone who disrupts stereotypes of aging. It’s the category from which he was selected as one of “50 Over 50” Minnesotans by AARP Minnesota and Pollen, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that promotes community building. The list celebrates the state’s “most accomplished, inspiring leaders” over 50.
“Having personally benefited and learned so much from elders, [I think] it’s kind of extraordinary that we haven’t brought more attention to the gifts of older adults,” said Schnell, a Shoreview resident who has spent his career helping nonprofit and educational groups improve the way they operate and fulfill their missions. Last year, Schnell cofounded Self-Driving US.org, a nonprofit dedicated to making self-driving vehicles accessible, reliable and affordable to people with disabilities.
Kay Stoffels has been around books nearly all her life, working for decades as a librarian before health issues forced her to retire. So the idea of putting a dollhouse-size library in her own front yard naturally appealed to her, except for one thing: the price tag.
“Money isn’t very plentiful, and I couldn’t afford to do it,” said Stoffels, 72, of St. Paul, who suffers from severe scoliosis.
When Stoffels learned she could set up a library for free, she was thrilled. Since December, she’s had a weather-resistant box stationed near her sidewalk, housing a variety of books, from romance novels to historical fiction to mysteries. And in spite of the “awful winter” that has kept her homebound, Stoffels said the tiny library has received plenty of use and helped her feel less alone
Barb Heinzen, 68, likes to drive so much that she takes weeks-long, multistate road trips each year with a friend. After attending an AARP Smart Driver course recently, she feels more reassured than ever when she’s behind the wheel.
“Now, when I’m out there, I’m very in tune,” the Bloomington resident said. “I want to make sure I have three to five seconds between me and the car in front of me. I want to make sure I use my turn signal when I change lanes. I’m always looking in the mirrors to make sure of what’s around me. There’s so many things I’ve learned.”
Last summer, Heinzen completed an eight-hour AARP Smart Driver class at Bloomington’s Creekside Community Center. She found it so rewarding that she signed up to become a volunteer instructor.
Minnesota ranks third—behind only Florida and New York—in the total annual number of participants in the AARP Driver Safety program, the nation’s largest refresher course tailored specifically for older drivers. Last year, about 40,000 Minnesotans completed it in classroom settings or online.