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The totally true story of 2009-2010 at Huss School

Once upon a time in a land not so far from here, a FOR SALE sign appeared. Now, this FOR SALE sign wasn’t just any old FOR SALE sign. It was planted deep in the frozen ground in front of Huss School, a 27,000 square foot building built in 1918 on four acres of land in Three Rivers, Michigan. Though the city lay quiet under a blanket of snow, this sign disturbed a seed. Now, this seed wasn’t just any old seed, but an imagination seed that, under just the right conditions, could yield a harvest of dreams for the little town and all the people in it.


The first condition for the seed to sprout was a $20,000 down payment. This was no small sum of money and *culture is not optional, the organization that wanted to buy the old school, had emptied its piggy bank to the very last penny for the $1,000 ESCROW payment when it made the offer. A miracle would be required. And so people all over the world prayed and sent e-mails and made donations large and small until, 40 days later, *culture is not optional (which we’ll call *cino for short) had raised $25,000 to buy the school.

Now what, you might ask, would a small non-profit organization like *cino do with a big old school? Well, the folks at *cino had been hard at work for several years already, publishing an online magazine every other week, printing a quarterly journal, hosting conferences and camping events and speaking all over the eastern United States. They had heard the good news that Christianity, the religion they’d grown up in, wasn’t just a stifling list of beliefs, but a beautiful way of life with implications for all things: for neighborhoods, for families, for architecture, for food systems, and so, so much more. They wanted to spread this good news and tell stories about how people everywhere were putting their faith into practice creatively in very ordinary, everyday things.
For these folks at *cino, Huss School and the land around it represented a vast, magical, wide-open space where nearly anything could happen! Maybe kids in the neighborhood could make art and grow vegetables as ways of learning responsibility and self-esteem. Maybe adults could learn skills like woodworking and cooking that would give them joy, but also equip them to support their families. Maybe village elders could find a place where their skills and memories could be passed on to younger generations. Maybe college students could come for a semester to live together, study together and serve in the local community through volunteer positions and internships. Maybe everyone who came could get just a little bit more imagination to see the infinite possibilities beyond their current circumstances.

So, after the $25,000 miracle, *cino and its board of directors suddenly owned a big old school. The first several months were spent figuring out logistics like mowing the lawn and replacing broken windows. The folks at *cino did fret about money. They knew they had done the right thing in buying the school; they and so many others were very excited about the possibilities. But time just seemed to stand stock still at 8th and Broadway.

Exciting connections

Then, in January 2010, the whole project started to break wide open. In a sprawling old building with no heat or running water, a college film class saw a rare opportunity. They braved the cold for three days to learn about lighting and production while creating a ten-minute suspense film. Catered dinners by a local budding chef kept them warm and well-fed. In March, when spring had just begun to poke its head out of the ground, another group of five college students decided to spend their spring break in Three Rivers. They began each morning with prayer at The Hermitage Community west of town, where they were staying, and then spent every morning working at Huss School. Oh, they scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed until the old food came off the walls in the gym and they raked and raked and raked until every last leaf on the lawn was in the compost pile. Along the way, they were joined by several other volunteers who helped trim bare branches, cut down dead trees and consolidate all the leftover stuff in the school for a rummage sale.

The spring break group was just the beginning. In May, another group came up from Indianapolis to volunteer–nine adults and nine kids. They stayed overnight at a local church and then, the next morning, mapped trees on the property, weeded the parking lot, painted over some nasty graffiti and, most importantly, caught the frog that was hiding in the mud puddle. They celebrated their accomplishments with food from Uncle Rhemus at the Scidmore Park Petting Zoo before heading back home. And June brought what was probably the biggest surprise so far: three of the college students who came for spring break decided that they wanted to come back to Three Rivers after graduation to live and help work toward the big dreams for Huss School. Five more followed, for a total of eight college graduates so far. All in all, over a hundred volunteers have served around 1,500 hours at the school.

And it hasn’t all just been maintenance (though the neighbors have said they appreciate the good care *cino is taking of the place). The *cino interns have taken a big bite of imagination and they’ve started dreaming, too! They’ve researched dozens of grants and are just beginning to write them. They’ve begun relationships with some of the neighborhood kids and played games with them. They’ve invited their friends and family members (about 20 of them on 4th of July weekend alone) to come see what’s happening here in our small town. They’ve settled in to the rectory at Trinity Episcopal church and started volunteering at the soup pot, working downtown, inviting new friends over for dinner, going to movies at the Riviera. Some of them are pondering staying for a whole year. Oh, AND: they planned and organized the Future Festival–let’s not forget about that!

2010 Huss Future Festival

The Future Festival took place on July 24, 2010 and featured a rummage sale, live music, a bake sale, a coffee house, a ping pong challenge, art vendors, a Huss history room and an interactive art exhibit. Planned by the interns with the help of a committee of community members, the Future Festival was a chance to invite people in once again to a place that holds so many memories of the past and so many possibilities for the future. Visitors from five states showed up along with a whole bunch of local folks and by the end of the day, about 350 people came to share their stories and become part of the school’s future. It was a lovely party, even for those who lost a game of ping pong to Grandpa Duke or emptied their pockets.

Triple Ripple Community Garden

The Future Festival was a highlight of the summer season at the school, but we can’t forget the community garden! Way back in February, a case of right-place-right-time put *cino folks in touch with Julianna Sauber and Brenda McGowan. Around a humble kitchen table in the middle of a hard freeze, an idea sprouted into a mission, which grew into a glorious garden! With land at the school and water donated by the city of Three Rivers and seeds and gloves and tools and plants from all over God’s creation, Triple Ripple Community Gardens grew and donated over 1,000 pounds of fresh vegetables to families in need throughout the area, including some who helped work the garden themselves. Kids and adults alike put plants in the ground; faithfully weeded and watered and harvested; and then celebrated at the end of the season with a potluck dinner.


While summer was yet warming the soil and the school at 8th and Broadway, two more groups of volunteers made the pilgrimage from Grand Rapids, Michigan to begin a new phase of work: demolition! Get that old carpeting out of there, *cino folks said. We want to see the maple floors again! Get that old drop ceiling down; we want to see the history of the space. Get those piles of junk out of the boiler room so the old elevator can breathe! It was a dusty job, but somebody had to do it. And 35 students and staff members from Calvin College came through, filling a 30-yard dumpster in just 7 hours of work spread over two weekends. Visitors on the workdays were especially eager to see evidence of a key memory from their kindergarten days: the circle on the floor.

Next steps

Nowadays, the garden folks are packing it in for the winter and *cino is seeking energy for the future. 2010 has been a good, full year so far at Huss School, with many people from near and far stopping the school by for all sorts of reasons–tours, sales, work, memories, and of course, fresh cucumbers. Each and every one of them has been invited to see not just what is, but what could be. If these bold and creative *cino people can do what they’ve done so far without any sort of working budget, imagine what they can do when there’s a community kitchen at the school turning produce from the local land into old fashioned canned goods for sale and distribution! Imagine what they can do when there’s a pay-what-you-can restaurant at the old Huss School serving people of all economic levels with fresh, healthy, gourmet food! Imagine how local teen-agers might change their perception of Three Rivers when there’s a youth-run space for film and live music that engages them in event planning and promotion for amazing artistic activities right in their hometown! Imagine the ripple effects when there are 12 college students coming to study and serve in Three Rivers every semester, planting the seed of a lifelong connection with this community!
The seed of imagination has sprouted at Huss School and it stands to grow as infinitely tall as Jack’s beanstalk, but it won’t happen overnight and it won’t happen without your help. If all the parents and grandparents and Woman’s Club members and church members and business owners and artists and teen-agers and trades people and neighbors can dream big dreams and then get to work together–why, who knows what might happen at 8th and Broadway. The small things that have already sprouted there have encouraged dozens of folks throughout the community and put Three Rivers on the map for hundreds of folks around the world. What can you give to keep the dream growing up and up and up?

This is not THE END of the story; it’s just the beginning. And may we all live happily, creatively ever after…

Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma

Kirstin is a member of the *culture is not optional core community and is the Head Caretaker at GilChrist Retreat Center.