Tag Archives: Photojournalism

Woman finds shelter and compassion at local homeless shelter

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Renee Benner smokes a cigarette outside of the Isabella County Restoration House on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017.

Renee Benner is no stranger to sleeping in her car.

Homeless for the second time, the 53-year-old from Shepherd, Michigan hit hard times starting five years ago when the trailer that she owned was condemned.

The ceiling and floors were collapsing in the 30-year-old trailer that Benner owned.

“I’m old and I can’t do everything like they wanted it done in lickety split time,” said Benner. “We just could not get it up to code in the time frame they gave us. When they condemned it, where do you go? It’s November.”

After losing her home Benner lived in her car and continued working her midnight shifts as a Customer Service Manager for Walmart.

“I was still working full-time,” said Benner. “I’d most of the time park my car in the parking lot at work, sleep all day, get up, get ready for work, go into work, get out of work, and then go to the soup kitchen for breakfast.”

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Renee Benner and Gary Wisniewski sit together at the Isabella Community Soup Kitchen on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017 shortly after Benner got off of work from her waitressing job at Legends Diner.

Benner said she didn’t worry too much about where she parked to sleep though she said others have complained that police kick them out at night.

“I’ve slept in Mill Pond Park, one of the worst parks there is in this town,” said Benner. “I’ve slept there overnight and cops never disturbed me. They do at other parks because the homeless are not allowed there. The other parks close at 8 at night so they have to kick you out of them. I think the difference is they’re sleeping at night whereas I’m sleeping during the day.”

Benner continued that routine for two and a half months until she started going to the Isabella County Restoration House (ICRH) just before Christmas in 2013. She stayed at the shelter and continued working until she found an apartment in February of 2014.

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Renee Benner packages up the fixings for burritos and taco salad in the kitchen at the Isabella County Restoration House on Nov. 15, 2017. The food was transported to the overnight shelter where volunteers and guests were able to enjoy the meal.

The ICRH, located at 1114 W. High Street in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, provides temporary shelter and assistance to those in need in Isabella County. It is a rotational shelter and local churches provide shelter overnight and the churches where guests stay changes week to week.

“The first day I was scared out of my wits, I’d never been in that situation before. And Ryan made me feel comfortable,” said Benner.

Ryan Griffus is the Executive Director at the ICRH and has experienced the struggle of living homeless firsthand. He fled from his abusive father at age 12 and was homeless until he was 18 years old.

“My biological father was a monster,” said Griffus. “He was an addict, as violent as they come. There were a lot of events preceding my leaving that made me go, but one particular week, my fifth fistfight with him that week was my sign that I had to go. I packed up a garbage bag and I bolted.”

Griffus said his experiences motivated him to pursue a double major in child development and psychology from Central Michigan University. He later went on to study management at Davenport University.

“There was no way I was going to let what I had walked through for those years left in vain and not utilize that experience,” said Griffus.

Before becoming executive director at ICRH he worked with Child Protective Services, foster care, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

“I felt limited so I decided to go get a grad degree. I chose business because I wanted to learn how I could affect a community and the population I care so deeply about on a more macro level,” said Griffus. “It was a perfect storm because all of a sudden the homeless shelter needed an executive director, all the things fell in to place.”

The 2016 U.S. Census Bureau reports that in Isabella County, 23.4% of the 71,282 residents are living in poverty.

Griffus says the night shelter currently has 33 mats, which are essentially foldable mattresses that the overnight guests sleep on. Recently ICRH was awarded a grant for $2,000 that Griffus said will go toward ordering new mats to replace the old ones.

“We have some that are still in pretty decent shape, but they’ve been around for five years and they’re just beat up,” said Griffus. “They’re pretty pricey so that $2,000 I’ll probably use on 15 to 16 mats.”

Griffus said the shelter prefers using mats rather than cots because cots are problematic.

“When we first started this we considered cots and cots were a logistical nightmare,” said Griffus. “We talked with other shelters, visited other sites and talked about what worked good and what didn’t. Cots broke down a lot faster and were replaced constantly. It just wasn’t feasible as far as moving and storing either so we elected to go with the mats that are pretty heavy duty, but they take a beating. If you’re moved every week, you’re slept on every night, you’re going to get worn out.”

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Renee Benner enjoys a cup of coffee, what she calls her lifeblood, at the Isabella County Restoration House on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017.

Benner says her typical day when she hasn’t been working the night before begins at the overnight shelter.

Guests are woken up at 7 a.m. at the overnight shelter and the bus leaves for the Isabella Community Soup Kitchen (ICSK) at 8 a.m. Benner said the churches feed some sort of breakfast ranging from an entire spread to just breakfast snacks such as doughnuts.

The soup kitchen opens at 8 a.m. and guests can either stay there until the ICRH day shelter opens at 1 p.m. or go wherever they would like at that point.

Computers were recently donated to the day shelter so guests can use the computers to apply and check on job applications, check email, or just keep in touch with friends and family. There are volunteers there throughout the day that are able to assist.

“It’s so important for me the interpersonal care that we’re able to provide and I love that about our organization because you actually get to feel like you’re cared for,” said Griffus. “Then we start hitting the areas of need and services, but first and foremost we just got to love and welcome.”

Nighttime intake, or sign up for those who will be staying overnight at the shelter, begins at the day shelter at 4:30 p.m. and the bus comes to the ICRH between 6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. to take the overnight guests to the church. Once they arrive at the church, the guests are not allowed to leave, unless they have permission like Benner for work reasons. This excludes chaperoned smoke breaks.  The churches provide dinner for the overnight guests at around 7 p.m. and require lights out at 10 p.m.

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Renee Benner and another guest smoke outside the Isabella County Restoration House (ICRH) on Sunday, Nov. 28, 2017. The ICRH is located at 1114 W. High Street in Mount Pleasant which is leased from Victory Church.

During the summer of 2017 Benner found herself in hard times again when she broke her arm and was unable to work. Unable to pay rent, Benner decided to cash in $4,000 of her 401k, but she never received the check.

“There was nothing I could do to catch up. Somebody had gotten my check delivered to them by mistake instead of me and they signed the check and cashed it,” said Benner. “I took six months trying to track it down and they finally told me there was nothing they could do. I cashed in extra figuring I’d pay ahead. Well it didn’t work in that way. It worked in the way that somebody else got ahead and Renee got further behind.”

Benner appreciated her landlord who worked with her for as long as he could while she was unable to pay rent and attempted to track down her stolen check.

“I can’t blame him,” said Benner. “I mean six months with no money, what was he supposed to do? He didn’t evict me but he couldn’t keep letting me stay. I was paying rent but it wasn’t never going to get caught up. I hold no grudges against him. He could have taken me to court during all of this time, it’s been four months. He hasn’t. Sooner or later he’s going to want all of it, nothing I can do, I pay what I can. It isn’t much, but I pay what I can.”

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Renee Benner waits in the foyer on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017 while guests at the Isabella County Restoration House get onto the bus that will take them to the overnight shelter.

Benner now works midnight shifts as a waitress at Legends Diner in Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Mount Pleasant, Michigan and has been there for just under four months. She lost her job at Walmart due to absences which accumulated because of illness, her broken arm, and hearing loss due to a bee sting to her ear.

The schedule of the rotational shelter is hard on Benner because she works midnights.

“It’s hard on the nights I work because unless I sleep in my car, most of the time I don’t get sleep,” said Benner. “Once in a while I can find someplace to curl up and sleep.”

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Renee Benner tries on shoes at Clothing, Inc. on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017 to replace her old shoes after the heels came off of them.

The building for the day shelter has couches, but there are no beds available for Benner to sleep. It is rented from Victory Church on a 3-year lease and they share it with other organizations such as United Way, Clothing, Inc., and The Care Center. Guests who come in to the restoration house and have need for hygiene products can find assistance at The Care Center and if they need clothing or a new pair of shoes Clothing, Inc. can assist them—all under the same roof.

“For the past two or three years we had been talking about what it would look like if we had the opportunity for all of us who deal with similar missions to not work in these silos anymore, you do this over here and you do this at that building,” said Griffus. “Last year I’d come in at intake, ask everybody what they need for clothing, take down these lists, drive down to the clothing closet across town, fill bags and bags of clothes and deliver them. It was labor intensive and cumbersome. That’s one example of how the creation of the center we have is so efficient. You get somebody in who has multiple needs and we can start to chip away within minutes we are addressing very emergent needs. What’s good about that is that it takes that initial worry off of the person who’s coming in, which is the most important, it makes them feel comfortable and cared for immediately, but also frees up our staff to be able to do different things now.”

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Volunteers at Clothing, Inc. show Renee Benner paperwork she needs to sign after picking out a pair of shoes on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017.

Griffus said he would love to have a permanent shelter and rotate volunteers rather than buildings.

“When we were researching what it would take to a community of this scale, it is about a quarter of a million dollars a year,” said Griffus. “Currently we are operating at about $117,000 budget per year for this. Some work to be done.”

The ICRH accept donations through its website and also has a wish list of supplies needed on Amazon.

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Renee Benner protects her candle from the wind at a homeless awareness event at Central Michigan University on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017.

As for Benner, she has an interview with EightCAP, Inc. on Tuesday, Dec. 4 to see about getting assistance for housing. EightCAP provides a variety of services for those in need, and housing for the homeless is one of them.

Benner said she was put at the top of the list because they prioritize housing assistance for those that are homeless, but it normally could be a five-year wait. She will find out during her interview if they will pay for a portion or all of the housing and will likely be in a home again within a few weeks.

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Land, Sea, and Family

In Rockland Harbor, off the coast of Maine sits a historic windjammer called the J. & E. Riggin.

The 120-foot schooner was built in 1927 in Dorchester, New Jersey as an oyster dredger by Charles Riggin and is named after Charles Riggin’s sons Jacob and Edward, J. & E. for short.

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A mast on the J. & E. Riggin.

The Riggin continues the tradition of family with its current owners Captains Annie Mahle, 50, and Jon Finger, 56, who have two children Chloe Finger, 19, and Ella Finger, 16, who work on the ship during the summer.

They have a business aboard the Riggin that offers eco-friendly sailing vacations with meals prepared by Mahle and her crew. Though there might be a destination in mind, the ship relies on the wind, tides, and weather to determine destinations and possible itineraries.

The Riggin’s sailing season is from late May to the beginning of October. From November through April crew works on projects on the ship.

 

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Captain Jon Finger plays the guitar in the galley of the J. & E. Riggin on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017.

Mahle and Finger met in 1989 while working aboard a different ship and married in 1993.

Finger has a Master of Sail 500-ton license and served in the U.S. Coast Guard.

Mahle, originally from Farmington Hills, Michigan, graduated from Michigan State University (MSU) with a degree in psychology.

“I knew I had to go on and get an advanced degree, and I was fine with that, at least until I got to my senior year,” said Mahle. “I realized I can’t make myself take any of the tests, look at any of the schools—I just couldn’t make myself do it.”

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Crew member Amy Wilke makes sure the ropes are secure after raising the sail on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017.

She decided to take a year away from school.

“I thought alright, I’m going to travel. I’m going to sail, and I’m not calling home for money,” said Mahle.

A friend of hers mentioned that her parents own a schooner in Maine and when Mahle called the owner said Mahle could have a job if she could begin work the day after graduation.

She began work on the Stephen Taber, where Mahle met Finger, and the ship docks next to the J. & E. Riggin in Rockland Harbor, Maine.

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The J. & E. Riggin docked at Pulpit Harbor, Maine on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017.

Mahle is not only a captain and a mother, but also a professional cook and a published author.

After graduating from MSU, Mahle studied at the Culinary Institute of America, and trained for three years under Swiss Chef Hans Bucher.

She has published three cookbooks At Home, At Sea: Recipes from the Maine Windjammer J&E Rigginand Sugar & Salt: A Year At Home and At Sea, which is split into two books.

Aboard the schooner Mahle provides meals for the guests, and cooks with a wood burning stove while at sea for up to 30 people.

The menu is seasonal and tailored to what is brought from Mahle’s garden. She strives to use as many fresh and local ingredients in her cooking as possible.

Mahle said the weather is an element in not only how it affects the boat but also how it affects her cooking and the heat of the stove.

But she said that an advantage of cooking with a wood-burning stove is the enhanced flavor, primarily using mixed hardwoods. Mahle gets up at 4:30 a.m. every day the schooner is sailing so she can light the stove at 5 a.m.

Breakfast is served at 8 a.m., lunch at noon, and dinner around 6 p.m.

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Annie Mahle starts lunch in the galley of the Schooner J. & E. Riggin on Friday, Oct. 6, 2017.

Mahle said Finger had wanted to own a schooner since he was 16 years old, but she wasn’t entirely on board with the idea.

“It’s a lot of work, there’s a lot of capital investment, and I didn’t know whether we’d be able to do a family and own a schooner well,” said Mahle. “Turns out it’s the same wherever you go. Raising a family is raising a family. Where you raise your family is less important than how you raise your family.”

She said they came to an agreement.

“First, if either one of us feels like the business is affecting our family adversely, then we get to cry uncle and we’re done, that’s it,” said Mahle. “The second one was that he gets to pick the first 20 years, I get to pick the 20 years, what it is we are doing for work.”

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Crew members Mark “Chives” Godfrey, 20, from El Paso, Texas, and Erin Nolan, 20, from New York, New York, make sure the sail is secure on the J. & E. Riggin on Friday, Oct. 6, 2017.

In 1998 the couple bought the J. & E. Riggin from the previous owner Dave Allen who had converted the ship to accommodate passengers in 1977 for a total of 24 passengers and six crew.

“We chose the Riggin first because she had a wood stove and she didn’t have an inboard engine and she was, from our perspective, the right size. We just liked the look of her,” said Mahle.

Mahle said Finger was walking down the dock one day and Allen was changing the oil and the oil was just dripping down Allen’s elbows when he called to Finger grumpily, “You want to buy a schooner?” and when Finger responded yes Allen said, “Let’s go to breakfast.”

“I knew the business, but owning the business—you have to wear a lot of different hats, but you get to choose the hats that you wear,” said Mahle. “There are some hats that you might not be as good at as others but you get to get good at a lot of stuff.”

The Riggin has no electricity while it is away from the dock. The ship’s power is battery operated for lights in the cabins and bathrooms, called the “head” on a ship as a nod to the old days when the toilet was located at the front, or the head of the ship. During the evening, the crew put out lanterns on deck so guests can safely find their way around the deck after it gets dark.

The ship also has a water tank that is warmed by the wood-fire stove so guests may take a shower after the water has been warmed from cooking breakfast.

“Some people I think look at what we do here and feel that we live without,” said Mahle. “And I don’t feel that way, I don’t feel that I have less here. I’m not waiting to get back home so that finally I can x, y, z. Some people will say, ‘Finally you get to sleep in your own bed,’–I do sleep in my own bed. I have two beds. I don’t pine for one over the other, I like them both. They’re both cozy, I’m next to my husband in both places. As a matter of fact, when I’m home, what I pine for are sunsets where I can see everything. The whole, 360 degree sunsets, which I cannot see at home, or just the feeling of living outside. That’s what I miss more than anything else.”

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Captain Annie Mahle knits while watching her husband play the guitar in the galley of the J. & E. Riggin where crew and guests have gathered on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017.

Amy Wilke, 29, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, works as a deckhand on the Riggin.

She learned about the Riggin from a blog post and it instantly sparked her interest.

“The article made sailing the Maine coast sound incredible and immediately I wanted to go,” said Wilke. “The guy I was dating at the time didn’t want to come with me and forbade me from going alone.”

Wilke said that when the relationship ended a year later, she booked a six-day trip for August 2015 aboard the Riggin.

“It was the first time I had ever stepped foot on a sailboat and it was one of the most incredible weeks of my life. I was heartbroken when I got home and ran a google search for tall ships closer to home so that I could become more involved,” said Wilke.

Wilke returned to the Riggin for additional trips and through that got to know Mahle and Finger.

Wilke still lives in Wisconsin and works full-time as an electric distribution control operator. She uses her time off and vacation time to work on the schooner.

“One of the hardest things to adjust to as a crew member is lack of privacy,” said Wilke. “We have our own spaces but sometimes other people (crew) need to get in those spaces because it may be where something important is stored. We were very fortunate to all get along easily which makes any adjustment process easier.”

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A photo of Captains Annie Mahle and Jon Finger’s daughter Chloe is placed amongst utensils in the galley of the J. & E. Riggin.

 

Mahle and Finger’s children grew up on the ship and around the business.

“Being a parent is crazy, and amazing, and when you add your kids in a workplace environment- there’s always a high concern on our part about the level of professionalism,” said Mahle. “We created a family atmosphere here, so our kids grew up around crew members and guests who gave them so much. It’s just rich. Rich and amazing.”

“Every year was a different challenge,” said Mahle. “We’d see behaviors and we’d think, oh gosh how’s that going to go on the boat, what are we going to do, and what are our strategies about how to deal with that. But what we tried to do was strike a balance between what the boat needed in terms of while being a family friendly environment not being completely kid focused. It’s not about the kids, it’s about our guests who are coming to stay with us.”’

Though they still managed to get into trouble every once in a while, as children do.

“There’s a lot of eyeballs on them, so they couldn’t be naughty all that often. If one of them were here I think they’d say I got really good at whisper yelling or “the look” where they talk about this laser look that I give them,” said Mahle. “Then I would whisper in their ear and try to have this conversation that was quiet and private so that they had some choice in the matter and some ability to talk about their emotions while not making whatever was going on for them public.”

Mahle attributes the business as a part of what helped shaped them as individuals.

“As they’ve gotten older, they have a really good sense of people now. They’re comfortable around adults and both of them, as I’ve witnessed anyway, have a really clear sense of self,” said Mahle. “The other thing that we’ve taught them is, I hope, because we have so many people around there’s lots of different opinions, and walks of life, and ways of making a living and just because someone else does that, thinks that, says that, and lives that way-is just interesting, speaks about them.”

Eventually Mahle and Finger started having a family friend come stay with Chloe and Ella while their parents were sailing with guests.

“When they got a little older and school got more important they decided it’s really crazy to go from the boat, to home, to friends and repeat. It’s like going from two different divorced households but never knowing where your stuff is at all. There’s three different places your stuff could be and it never felt like it was in the right place for them.”

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The crew of the J. & E. Riggin enjoy a toast after docking from a wedding sail for Bryan and Shannon Pollum on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017.

The couple’s oldest daughter Chloe attends Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania and is pursuing a degree in Environmental Science and Biology though she said that she would also love to run a boat.

Chloe said she thinks her parents would love to see her or her sister Ella take over the ship, but currently the J. & E. Riggin is up for sale.

“They have always made it very clear to us that our level of involvement with the boat and the business is completely up to us,” said Chloe. “They always say that they chose to do this and there is no pressure on either Ella or I to make the same choice.”

“I think I am in complete denial that the Riggin will eventually be sold because that boat is such an integral part of who I am and who I want to be,” said Chloe. “I know my parents will find really good people to take over her care and continue to steward her in the way that we have.”

Chloe said she hopes that if the Riggin does get sold that she hopes it stays in Maine and continues to sail.

“These old boats need to keep going to stay alive so they don’t get converted into a dockside restaurant or something like that,” said Chloe. “They were built to sail and that what they do best. We are keeping a piece of history alive by continuing to work her.”

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A moon is starting to appear from behind the clouds while the J. & E. Riggin is anchored in Pulpit Harbor, Maine on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. Lanterns stay lit overnight so crew and guests can find their way safely along the ship’s deck.

From Army Life to Derby Wife

***Derby wife: A term coined by Kasey Bomber of the Los Angeles Derby Dolls in 2003. Urban Dictionary defines as “A roller derby soul mate, the woman who you knew from the first second that you’d been separated at birth, who will hold your hair when you throw up after drinking too much, arrange bailride in the ambulance with you and set your real husband straight on the Derby world.”
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Cassi Ackels-Weatherby hugs her 5-year-old Saint Bernard, Lady, while enjoying an after work beer on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017.

 

26-year-old U.S. Army veteran Cassi Ackels-Weatherby has always been a skater. As a child, she enjoyed inline skating and going to the skating rink. In 2009 Ackels-Weatherby decided to try roller derby.

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Cassi Ackels-Weatherby “Battle-Scarred Beauty” looks at her coach Chris Ryan “Thunder” during a training drill for Central Michigan Mayhem’s practice on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017 at The Hardwoods in Ithaca, Michigan.

 

Ackels-Weatherby said her mother pointed out a flier hanging in the hallway of their workplace.

“She made a comment about how I should play because I’m a brute,” said Ackels-Weatherby. “I went to practice the next day.”

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Cassi Ackels-Weatherby puts on her knee pads for roller derby practice at The Hardwoods in Ithaca, Michigan on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017.

Her roller derby career was interrupted shortly after joining the Central Michigan Mayhem team when she was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. She was there for a year and worked as an 88M Motor Transport Operator, what Ackels-Weatherby said is just a fancy term for a truck driver.

She was deployed for a second time to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from 2015-2016 and since coming back has active with Central Michigan Mayhem and is the head of both the fundraising and event committees for the team.

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Cassi Ackels-Weatherby “Battle-Scarred Beauty” laughs with Central Michigan Mayhem teammate Candice Roestel “Vex Machine” during a break from practice on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017.

After returning from her deployments Ackels-Weatherby settled on Battle-Scarred Beauty as her roller derby name. She said wanted it to be feminine but also to acknowledgement to her military experience, something that had been part of her life for eight years

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Central Michigan Mayhem roller derby skaters practice at The Hardwoods in Ithaca, Michigan on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017.

During the day, she works as a Board Services Coordinator at the National Charter Schools Institute in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. Ackels-Weatherby and her mother usually meet for lunch and sometimes carpool to work.

Since returning from her last deployment Ackels-Weatherby has been living with her mother while looking for an affordable place to live that will allow her to bring her 5-year-old Saint Bernard Lady, and her 4-year-old German Shepherd, Sheriff.

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Cassi Ackels-Weatherby talks to her mother while getting dressed for roller derby practice at their home in Sumner, Michigan on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017.

Ackels-Weatherby said she would eventually like to go back to school and pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

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For a sports assignment for school I’m following Cassi Ackels-Weatherby, a roller derby skater for Central Michigan Mayhem. The story and additional photos will be posted next week.

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26-year-old roller derby skater Cassi Ackels-Weatherby skates backward during Central Michigan Mayhem’s practice on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017.

Brown Farms: Four Generations Strong

Since buying Brown Farms in Wheeler, Michigan in 1976 from his mother after his father’s death, James “Jim” Brown, 76, and his wife Phyllis, 75, have owned and operated the farm along with two of their four children, Matt and Darren, and a handful of hired workers. They farm cash crops and currently grow sugar beets, cucumbers, corn, soy beans, and black beans.

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Darren Brown carries material needed to mix in a tank to spray a soybean field on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. 

According to their son, fourth generation farmer Darren, 47, he estimates Brown Farms now owns about 3,500 acres, a far cry from the 40 acres Jim bought in 1976.

Now a full-time worker on the farm, Darren started off as a residential truck driver and hauled propane until the day his daughter Ellie, now 14 years old, was born.

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Darren Brown holds the nozzle on a tractor equipped with sprayers after mixing fertilizer before spraying a soybean field on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. 

He lives less than five miles away from Brown Farms with Ellie and Barbara, Darren’s wife of 17 years. Barbara is a teacher at Breckenridge High School and the couple have three children, two of which are from Barbara’s previous marriage: Benjamin, 24, and Lindsay, 21, both of which are working in Grand Rapids.

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Ellie Brown, 14, holds a picture of her showing her steer Bridget at the county fair in 2014. 

Ellie is a freshman in high school and an avid dancer with a passion for cows. She has shown steers for seven years and the family currently has 10 cows.

She hopes to attend South Dakota State University and work with cows.

“The cows outnumber the people in South Dakota,” Darren jokes.

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Darren Brown and his mother Phyllis Brown look through old photographs at her kitchen table on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. 

Darren’s parents Phyllis and Jim still live on the farm and Jim has yet to retire, still running for parts and driving the big tractor, but now taking off days to go golfing once in a while.

Phyllis grew up on a farm held an active role on Brown Farms and after marrying Jim.

“When the boys were little I used to drive tractors once in a while,” she said. “When they got tractors with cabs on them, I would put the kids on the floor on a blanket and they would sleep all afternoon while I drove. Back then, you took meals to the field. You packed the dinner and you took it to the field and all four kids, tried to keep them on a blanket so they could sit there and eat. There used to be more late nights then working, so sometimes that was when they saw their dad. They were in bed by the time he would come home.”

 

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Darren Brown (left), his daughter Ellie Brown (middle), and wife Barbara Brown (right) eat a quick dinner on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017 before his wife and daughter leave for Ellie’s dance classes. 

Phyllis said she hopes to see the farm continue and became emotional about the uncertainty that her grandchildren will want to continue the farm.

“What do you do with the farm if your kids don’t want it? Or need it,” Phyllis said. “I think that’s basically what Jim’s worked for, is so that there’s something for them. We weren’t blessed with a lot of grandsons; we only have four. You can’t pick what the kids are going to do. As long as they’re happy, the ground is a good investment.”

 

 

Shadow in Saginaw

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Last week as part of an assignment for a class I spent the day job shadowing a working photojournalist. I ended up spending the day with Jacob Hamilton, 25, a native of Chicago who currently lives in Saginaw where he recently moved in with his girlfriend Ellen. Jake is an photographer for MLive Media Group and works between both The Saginaw News and The Bay City Times as a multimedia specialist.

When I arrived at The Saginaw News my first impression was surprise at how open and welcoming the office is. In my head I had imagined those depressingly ugly gray cubicles that workers try desperately to cheer up by pinning up photos, figurines, or perhaps a plant or two. The MLive Saginaw office is just one big room, save for the bathroom and the kitchen area. The main area has a few rows of desks with power stations where the employees can work from.

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Employees at The Saginaw News, a media news company owned by MLive Media Group, work out of their office located at 100 S. Michigan Ave. in Saginaw, Michigan on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017.

It was interesting to see how the staff communicated. The reporter had a story saved as a draft in what looked like could be a WordPress blog post and then Jake would upload the photos and at the bottom in the tag box he would tag his editor and just look over and verbally tell his editor that it was ready to be edited. No one had to get up from their spot or phone over to a different part of the office or send an email, it was just kind of easy going and fluid.

For the first assignment we went to Tasha’s Loc Shop, where owner Latasha Campbell plans to expand into a new location.

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Latasha Campbell works on a client’s hair at her new location on Dixie Highway in Saginaw, Michigan on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017.

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Latasha Campbell re-twists her client Leonardo Shack’s hair to tighten the dreadlocks at her new location on Dixie Highway in Saginaw, Michigan on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017.

It was a bit challenging to photograph here because the space was fairly narrow and I was trying to be hyper-aware to not get in any of my mentor’s photos. It was interesting to see his working style. There was also a reporter there and she was asking questions and every once in a while, Jake would ask a question, something I also like to do. Lots of people say photographers should be a fly on the wall but I feel like by asking questions and developing a small relationship there and showing interest in the subject’s life, it allows the subject to feel more at ease with you and the camera, therefore generating better photographs overall. It was reassuring to see a media professional doing something that I just did from instinct.

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Jacob Hamilton, photographs Latasha Campbell, owner of Tasha’s Loc Shop, and Leonardo Shacks while Campbell re-twists Shack’s dreadlocks on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 at her new location in Saginaw, Michigan. Hamilton, 25, is a multimedia specialist for The Saginaw Times.

From there we went back to The Saginaw New’s office. Something I did not realize prior to this job shadow was how crucial of a program Photo Mechanic is in the industry. According to Jake, it is essentially the standard. I have used the program a sum total of once, so that was a bit worrying to me. I feel comfortable using Adobe Photoshop but watching him edit using Photo Mechanic seemed significantly more efficient and I made a mental note to learn as much as I can about the program. Adobe Photoshop seems really great to use from single photo editing, but from what I see Photo Mechanic makes more sense to utilize in terms of being able to see multiple photos at once and click which you’re going to use and then arrange for use in a photo story or a gallery much easier. You can’t really see arrangement in Photoshop so this seems like a much more useful tool in practice.

After that we drove out to Midland to photograph the Midland Balloon Fest. We got there a bit early so there weren’t a lot of prime photo opportunities yet, but once they got the first balloon up in the air it seemed like very quickly the rest of the balloons went up.

The experience I gained from this assignment in my opinion made it probably the most beneficial assignment out of any I have done thus far during my time at Central Michigan University because of its practicality.  It gave me the opportunity to see firsthand how the newsroom operated and gain a basic idea of expectations, deadlines, and editing procedures.

Prior to shadowing Jake I mentioned that I was unsure about my future as a photojournalist in regards to working at a newspaper. I was considering nearly any alternatives because I felt that there isn’t any job security in working for a newspaper. As someone who has strong family ties, living near my family is essential for me. As someone who also has anxiety, the uncertainty in having a job on a day to day basis I feel would not be good for my overall mental health. I voiced these concerns and Jake answered all of my questions with patience and kindness. Though I know it is unrealistic to find a job in this field I can work for 30 some years in the same place and then retire, it is worrisome to see recent graduates getting let go from jobs every six months or so and moving on. I’m not much of a nomad. Following this experience, I feel better prepared to look at newspaper jobs as a viable option.

Escorts of Michigan

***Names in the article and video have been changed to protect subject’s identities.

State and federal laws prohibit the exchange of sex for money, but in the adult entertainment industry those called escorts walk a fine line between legality and criminal activity.

Regularly included under the umbrella of prostitution, escorts are paid for their companionship and time rather than the sexual acts.

Escorting is not technically illegal as long as the service provided does not include sex. Hence the distinction between charging for time spent together and not the acts.

26-year-old escort Faith uses the umbrella term but makes the distinction of prostitution with what she called survival sex, having sex out of extreme need for money or even food or shelter.

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Faith shows some clothing she wears when she works as an escort at her apartment Sat., April 15, 2017. 

Faith has been working as an escort for two years.

“It’s more like a career,” said Faith. “You’re trying to build a business, a label, a brand based on your personality, the clients you accept, what you do, the way you present yourself, the photos you take, your website. All of these things that end up showing whether or not you’re obviously having survival sex or if this is what you’re doing as a profession.”

Faith works with the full support of her boyfriend Andrew, whom she is in a polyamorous relationship with. She is also a mother.

“I have no qualms about what I do. I’m very proud of it,” said Faith. “It affords me a lot of things for my 5-year-old that I could not if I didn’t do this, there’s no way.”

Though she is happy with her job she no longer speaks with her family.

“My younger sister told our parents what I do,” said Faith. “They told me I was a bad mom who was endangering the welfare of my minor child and that I should let my daughter be with them because I was such a bad mom.”

Faith said she finds the hypocrisy and stigma surrounding her work appalling.

“That I am sitting here 24 hours waiting for you to call and I am ready for you because I want you to come and show me things that I have never seen before. Like no, sorry I have to go grocery shopping, I don’t have time for your ass,” said Faith.

“America is one of the largest consumers of the sex industry and yet, we condemn it so intensely and so profoundly,” said Faith. “I think it was George Carlin that said, ‘Sex is legal. Selling is legal. Why is selling sex illegal?’”

Other than financially, Faith said that her work has helped her personally.

“It’s helped my confidence,” said Faith. “It’s in my ability to communicate my needs and expectations from other people, it’s helped my ability to set, and maintain, appropriate boundaries. It’s helped me immensely, immensely. I don’t regret anything.”

One of the reasons Faith likes working as an escort is making connections with people.

“There is one story that I’ll never forget,” said Faith. “It was a guy who was probably 450 to 500 pounds. Logistically I was like, alright. We’re going to have a good time. Afterward he asked me, ‘Do you know why I was able to finish? Because I usually don’t.’ and I asked why and he said, ‘Because I genuinely felt like you wanted to be here.’”

“It just makes me feel good to make somebody else feel good. I like what I’m doing and I don’t feel like there’s anything wrong with it,” said Faith.

Z, 45, and her boyfriend Doug, 53, are swingers and have been together for eight years. A few years ago Z, who normally does accounting and payroll work, was on unemployment.

“It started really as a joke,” said Z.  “I was on unemployment and that was coming to an end. He said to me ‘You know like those checks are going to stop in a month or two?’ and I was like ‘Oh yeah I guess I should look for a job. Maybe I’ll just be an escort.’”

Z said they laughed and walked away after the exchange and Doug asked her two weeks later about it.

“And I said ‘Would you be okay with that?’”, said Z. “And he’s like ‘Well I’m okay with all the rest, we’ve been swinging, why wouldn’t I be okay with that?’”

Z has been working as an escort now for six years and works primarily in eastern Detroit.

“After I started doing this I actually did go back to work for about a year and a half,” said Z. “I was doing this very part time and I was working full time and I really just hated being in a cubicle again.”

Doug is supportive of Z’s job, something she said he wanted to hear all about when she first started.

“The stories are all the same,” said Doug. “At one point I just said, this is repetition. It’s amazing how it doesn’t really vary. The guy comes in, they screw, she gets paid, they talk for a little bit, he leaves. Wow. That’s it. What am I going to get jealous about?”

Doug believes more people should take advantage of the services escorts offer.

“If people were a little bit more open minded when the guy said wow she looks cute and the woman goes, well go fuck her, get it out of your system and then come back to me type of thing, think about all the divorces that could be saved,” said Doug.

Wayne State University student and Detroit resident Eliza Fitzgerald has been working as an escort less than two years. The 22-year-old and has been using the job as a way to pay off school.

It is currently Eliza’s only source of income following her ex-boyfriend, whom she had worked with, revealing her as a sex worker.

 

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Eliza Fitzgerald, an escort based in Detroit, Michigan, before class at Wayne State University on Wed., April 19, 2017. 

“I had to quit that job. He was abusive and I was fearful of him,” said Eliza. “So all of a sudden I didn’t have a job except for sex work and I really had to lean on that. It was really difficult because I still hadn’t gotten the hang of the industry. You’d try to work safely but when the rent’s due you might make some decisions that weren’t as safe.”

Eliza’s rates for the Detroit area start at $350.

“It’s kind of feast or famine. You might make your entire rent in one or two days, and so the other 28 to 29 days of the month it can be really scary,” said Eliza.

Eliza used to use Backpage, a classified advertising website that has since been taken down after coming under fire that their adult services section was being used for prostitution and human trafficking, including minors.

Just before Christmas Eliza arrived at an appointment and discovered the man had brought a gun.

“They didn’t hold the gun to me or anything, but they made it very clear that it was in their pants,” said Eliza. “They were very aggressive. I kept telling them to stop biting me and I couldn’t really raise my voice as much as I wanted to. I just really wanted to kick them out of the room, but I didn’t feel like I could. It was kind of like a coercive situation. And that was kind of a turning point for me when I realized I need to work differently.”

Escorts use a reference system, a vetting service for people they meet for appointments. When a client contacts an escort looking to make an appointment the escort then asks for their references. If the client has used an escort before they provide the names of other escorts they have seen and the escort will then contact the previous escort and make sure they are a legitimate provider and that the client is safe to see. If they are a first-time client each escort has system that varies. The escort may ask for personal contacts, social media information, or meet the client publicly (and at the client’s expense).

“If I get a bad gut feeling about somebody, I don’t see them,” said Z. “It’s not worth it for me to go to jail and to spend thousands of dollars, then to lose $200. I don’t care.”

As a way of protection, escorts also have online websites where they share information about clients they blacklisted to warn other escorts from providing for them or letting them decide if they want to see that person. Clients may be blacklisted for, of course violence, but also for shorting providers on their fees or wasting the escort’s time with missed appointments.

Eliza believes destigmatizing escorts is important and encourages escorts who can be out to “be out.”

“Some of the stigmas people have is that we’re all trafficked,” said Eliza. “There’s also a lot of stigma that we have drugs. Like I have clients sometimes ask me if I have drugs. Not just weed, but like cocaine and things I didn’t even know were drugs.”

Danielle has over started in the adult entertainment industry 20 years ago. She began as a dancer at 24 years old as a way to pay her way through her biotechnology degree at Michigan State University and is now a traveling courtesan.

As a dancer, Danielle said she would have men come to the club and ask her out to dinner.

“I would say yes, but if you want to take me out to dinner on a Friday night you have to pay me whatever I would make that night at the club,” said Danielle. “So it was that kind of transaction. It wasn’t like a previously thought out plan, it was like oh okay, yeah sure take me out but I still have next semester and book to pay for so if you give me $500 we can have dinner.”

Danielle said she liked working in a lab but she loved dancing and traveling and being an escort allowed her to do that.

“If I was contracted to do a project in a lab I would have to be there all the time,” said Danielle. “It’s not like a 9 to 5 job. If your bacteria is going to mutate you have to be there to see it happen. The uncertainty of having work was really scary. Where of course traveling and dancing and being an escort was job security.”

Danielle tours for about two to three days a week, three weeks out of the month.

“If I’m on tour in a certain city I’ll put up ads a month ahead of time,” said Danielle. “I book in advance; I get deposits and then I go. I sometimes schedule my tours intentionally around events that I would enjoy.”

Danielle’s rates normally range from $500 for one hour to $2,500 for eight hours. When she is touring exclusively her charges $3,000 for 12 hours to $15,000 for the week in addition to travel expenses.

“I always think that’s interesting when they’re (the client) like hey do you mind flying with this airline because I have points here,” said Danielle. “Ironically it’s usually Delta.”

 

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Danielle checks in with her travel agent at AAA before going on a tour on Wed., March 22, 2017. 

“A lot of escorts know a lot about travel,” said Danielle. “Be a member of every hotel chain and every travel discount thing you can be a part of because it all works together. AAA discount saves me a ton on hotel and travel. And restaurants, people don’t always know that.”

Danielle is a feminist but feels frustrated that as a sex worker she’s not allowed her own agency.

 

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Danielle walks into an airport in Lansing, Michigan on Wed., March 8, 2017. 

“They want women to look pretty and be smart and have jobs, but they don’t want to acknowledge that I would want to have sex or want to take my clothes off,” said Danielle. “They don’t want to admit that that’s my choice. And on the other side of it, the far left feminist groups are more constantly thinking that I need rescuing and that I’m a victim. I’m not sure what they think I’m a victim of. It makes it very difficult to be a strong independent woman who wants to be a leader when both sides are telling me that I’m a victim and I need rescuing or that I’m completely brainwashed by the patriarchy.”

“Stigma is alive and it is real,” said Faith. “If one person destigmatizes sex work because of this I would be very happy.”