The people issue


To bring you this special 2016 New Year’s issue of City Pulse, we sat down with nine interesting people who are doing interesting things in the Lansing area. We invite you to sit down with them, too. Grab a coffee, an herbal tea or a pint of Angry Mayor IPA, depending on your mood and the time of day.

We added a brief introduction to each interview and edited them all for length and clarity, but that's it. We wanted to put their faces and their words in front of you, like an early spring bouquet of humanity, with as little commentary as possible. These people are able to speak for themselves.

This is not a top-nine or most influential list, or even a list of people to “watch out for.” Labels like that sound authoritative, but don't mean much. Today's hot young politician, thinker or entrepreneur is tomorrow's cold pizza. Not that cold pizza is so bad. If we could, we'd sit down with everyone in the city, wherever they are in their life's journey, take a beautiful picture of them and find out what makes them tick.

But we can't, so we limited the bouquet to nine — two comfortable handfuls.

How did we pick? Once we decided not to hype the “best” or “most” anything, we simply looked for nine people worth sitting down and talking with. Our only real guideline was to try for diversity along as many axes as possible, from walk of life to gender, race and age.

If there's anything all nine have in common, it's that they are inspiring — but not like the people in those billboards, who climbed Everest blind, raised 100 foster kids or graduated college at age 95. These people are inspiring in a realistic way, maybe as role models, but also for the comfort of knowing they're out there, doing their thing as do-gooders, musicians, doctors, scholars and artists.

To help bring them to life for you, we arranged with an outstanding local photographer, Khalid Ibrahim, to take portraits of them in his Lansing studio, Eat Pomegranate Photography.

Get to know them a little. We enjoyed it.

— Lawrence Cosentino

Sarah Kovan Rhodes scholar

In November, Sarah Kovan, 21, of Okemos, was selected as one of 32 Rhodes scholars representing the United States. She is a senior at Michigan State University, where she will earn a B.A. in comparative cultures and politics and a B.S. in human biology. She is also a starting midfielder for MSU’s varsity soccer team, and she is a musician. At Oxford she will pursue an advanced degree in development studies and

plans a career in medicine.

— Mickey Hirten

What made you stand out from all of the hundreds of other excellent candidates to be a Rhodes scholar?

They are looking for a well-rounded candidate, someone who not only does a lot within academics, but also has other leadership experience, is involved with athletics, is involved with community service. Once you get to the interviews, it’s just your genuineness. When you speak on the stuff you are doing, do you seem passionate about it. Do you want to make a difference in the world.

How do you think your experience at Oxford might change you?

It will open my perspective. People at Oxford, similar to Michigan State, are doing research that is changing the world, research that is across disciplines in a lot of different fields. It’s the scope that is really intriguing.

In what ways are you like your mom? And in what ways like your dad?

With my mom (artist Jessica Kovan), I would say her intellect and the way that she thinks about issues is similar to how I think about them. When she goes after something she’s curious about, her mind just never stops, always keeps working and working until she solves the problem. That kind of drive and curiosity is something that carries me through my education.

For my dad (sports medicine physician Jeff Kovan), I’m incredibly interested in medicine and health. Seeing the impact that a physician can have on people locally is really inspiring.

And in what ways like neither?

Well neither of them is interested in soccer.

Can you reflect on your MSU experience?

I went into college knowing I was really interested in medicine and health, but the comparative cultures and politics majors that I’m in as well opened health into a broader perspective for me.

What about MSU would you change?

Just to make sure that all of the students are getting the opportunities that I have. I’d make study abroad even more of a priority. Research opportunities and things you get out of the classroom are so important for the development of a student. MSU has a great start there, and they can even push it further.

How have sports helped shape your life?

It’s really given me a sense of working with a team and allowed me to understand how you take a group of people and move them in a direction that uses your leadership to reach the goals that you want to reach.

You are an accomplished pianist. Tell me about what you play when you just have to play something?

I’ll play Chopin’s Waltz in A Minor. For me that ‘s really soothing. Also, I always find myself going to "Porcelain," by Helen Jane Long. Both wonderful composers. I use piano as an outlet away from everything else I’m doing. Before I have a big test, before I have a soccer game, I sit down and play. So that type of comforting slow music is perfect for me and how I use the piano. I also love singing, Broadway musicals, show tunes where I can play the piano and sing along. It’s a really different kind of outlet. Right now I’ve been playing a lot of “In the Heights,” a rap-type musical — a lot of fun to play and sing along. It’s a different vibe than the Chopin.

What will you bring with you to Oxford to remind you of home?

Probably a soccer ball. I’m hoping I’ll be able to play soccer over there.

Anything you want to add?

It’s really important to mention how important the support of the Michigan State and Okemos community have been through this process. I think sometimes it’s overlooked. The support I’ve gotten along the way, even when I first started the application, has been so continuous and understanding. People have reached out, have written me letters of recommendation. You can see the effect of growing up in the local community and then going to school in the same place. It has made the whole thing so much easier.

Next up: Ryan Claytor, comic book artist


Ryan Claytor Comic book artist

Ryan Claytor, 36, is a comic book artist who not only produces his own autobiographical comic, “And Then One Day,” but also runs his own publishing house and teaches people how to make their own comics. In 2008, he moved from California to Michigan to teach the first comic book course in Michigan State University’s history.

— Jonathan Griffith

What came first? Was it a love of art or a love of comic books?

I was drawing as a kid before I knew comics existed. I used to draw on fabric, and my mom would stitch it into pillows. So we had like a million poorly illustrated pillows around the house. I think her doing that really encouraged me to keep doing it more. So I was drawing first at about age 4 or 5. When I was around 8 or so, I remember my older brother was into comics. So by extension, I became interested in comics. The drawing came first.

When did you start making your own comics?

It wasn’t until after I got my BA in studio art at UC Santa Barbara. Right around my senior year, I remember my friend asking me if I’d drive him to the comic shop. I hadn’t thought about comics for about a decade at this point. While I was there, I remember browsing around and finding a book by my favorite artist from when I was reading comics, Sergio Aragonés. So I bought it on a whim, and that led into a deeper interest into comics. Once I graduated, it finally all clicked. I thought, “Why I am not trying my hand at this?”

What is your musical background?

I started playing piano as a kid. My mom is a jazz pianist as well as a teacher, performer and composer. I started taking piano lessons at age 6. When I was a senior in high school, I started teaching myself guitar. I taught myself by learn

What is “And Then One Day” about?

”And Then One Day” is my autobiographical comic book series. It’s gone through a few format changes. I originally started self-publishing them in 2004, and they were individual, singlepage strips about something that would happen my life. It could be something humorous or something somber. It just depended on the day and what was happening.

You self-publish “And Then One Day” through your own comic label, “Elephant Eater Comics.” How did that come about?

Like many comic book artists, I’m sort of a control freak. I want to have ultimate say over what hits the printed page, how it’s printed, what the format is. My books are pretty small in size, and a traditional publisher wouldn’t print them in the size that I prefer.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t your dad the inspiration for the name of your publishing label?

Yeah. He used to tell me all the time, “Well, it’s like eating an elephant. One bite at a time, and before you know it, you’re done.” I always think about that when I have big tasks in front me, like creating books, or when I was making my way through grad school. It keeps me grounded and pays tribute to the pops too.

You grew up and went to college in California. What brought you to Michigan?

My wife got a tenure track position at MSU, which brought us out here. We did our best to get a partner hire for myself at MSU, and they told me they’d give me one class for one semester and that’s it. I’d always wanted to teach a comics class, and I was in the process of getting one at one of the schools I was teaching at in California. I had some stuff already prepared. When they gave me that sweet deal for one class, I thought, “all right, this is the one class I want to teach, this comics class,” and they said, “all right. Have fun!” And now MSU has been offering it every year since 2009. Ever since then, I’ve been working toward beefing up the program. Now I have a comics minor proposal that got unanimous departmental approval. It’s not officially on the books, but we’re hoping for fall of 2016.

If there was one book you could recommend to someone that would convince them to give comics a chance, what would it be?

I made the mistake of trying to do this one time. If there is a way to tease interests out of a potential reader before making a suggestion, I always do that. We have every genre in comics now, so I’m not sure there is any one thing.

Next up: Liz McDaniel, musician


Liz McDaniel Musician

Local musician Liz McDaniel, 25, is the founder of Lansing Area Women, Trans and Gender Non-Binary Musicians, which aims to bring together diverse individuals who are a part of the Lansing area music community and create a safe, inclusive space to address the challenges facing female, transgender, gender nonbinary, non-conforming and gender fluid individuals in the local music scene and beyond. A young professional and part time student at MSU studying media and information, McDaniel grew up in Bath and has lived in Lansing since 2014. To reach McDaniel about this group, contact her at

— Nikki Nicolau

What is your musical background?

I started playing piano as a kid. My mom is a jazz pianist as well as a teacher, performer and composer. I started taking piano lessons at age 6. When I was a senior in high school, I started teaching myself guitar. I taught myself by learning some of my favorite songs, and then I began writing my own songs. I took an intentional hiatus from performing in 2013 — which turned into a longer, unintentional hiatus — but I am going to focus more on songwriting in 2016.

What is Lansing Area Women, Trans and Gender Non-binary Musicians?

I wanted to get to know more diverse people in the Lansing area and bring them to the forefront of the music scene in a way that creates more equality. Lansing does have a diverse group of people who are doing music and art, but it seems almost hidden. I want to bring the diversity to the forefront. The music industry is still very male-dominated, and I believe representation matters — especially for young people. If you’re a young person and you see someone like you on the stage, it makes you believe you can do that, too.

What does this group aim to do?

In addition to highlighting the diversity, I want to have some mentor/mentee relationships and get people in the industry who are more experienced involved with people who are just starting out to create a symbiotic relationship where we are all helping each other out. I hope the group can act as a resource and a place where people can share resources for anything related to the music industry.

What are your current goals for this group?

Short-term goals are to increase membership, get the word out and create leadership positions within the group. Longterm goals are more up in the air. I’m optimistic that it could be something that could last, and I hope it will be something that could be passed on and remain as a resource that could help anyone living in Lansing.

What problems to you look to address with this group?

Some problems I’ve experienced are women and non-cisgender men being seen as a novelty in the music scene and not being taken seriously or being stereotyped heavily. I want to get to a point where people don’t find it a surprise to see a woman playing a guitar. Normalizing the fact anyone can do music and making a culture of mutual respect is important.

Are there any issues specific to Lansing you believe should be addressed?

I want to see more women on the bill and new and diverse faces popping up more. The promoters in Lansing should be more conscious of diversity and seek out and showcase different talented people.

What inspired you to start this group?

Part of the inspiration came from a group my mom used to be in called “Sisters in Jazz.” The idea of, in her case, getting together with other women and playing jazz, a genre was very male-dominated, seemed like a very cool idea. I thought we should have something similar here which could be a safe space for women to come together here in Lansing.

I started out by reaching out first to people I knew and then combing through ReverbNation search results for Lansing and finding as many local bands as possible. Once I gauged people’s interest, I started building a Facebook group. We’re in the early stages; we have about 40 members.

Have you faced any opposition or lack of support from anyone in the Lansing area?

Everyone I have reached out to gave me positive feedback and wanted to be a part of it in some way. So far I’ve only heard good things from people.

What do you think this group offers the Lansing area music scene?

I believe art and music are an important part of any community. I live in and love Lansing, and I want to see more from this city. People should care about this because it can really create positive change.

I don’t foresee any negativity happening, and it will bring more diverse faces to the music scene. We can create more of a community feeling to the music scene in Lansing and bring everyone together.

Next up: Nick Stachurski, executive producer of Eightfold Creative


Nick Stachurski Executive producer of Eightfold Creative

Nick Stachurski, 24, is the executive producer of Eightfold Creative, a commercial production company. He has a business degree from MSU.

— Berl Schwartz

How did your passion for snowboarding play a role in your career?

When I was 16 I invested about $6,000 worth of film equipment to film snowboarding. To pay back my family, neighbors and friends, I started to develop the knack for networking to get wedding videos or sports highlight films as a 16-year-old and I started to brand my name and handle clients and money at a fairly younger age, and I realized I had the love and drive for curating stories, but I’m more of a producing mentality. What I actually do at a macro perspective is I create a platform for artists to create, so I find artists and help them identify what is their style and then connect them to projects and build a platform so that it can be executed on time and within budget.

How do you deal with creative conflict with your clients?

And with the team internally. This is one of my favorite processes because producing for me is massaging out any knots in a process. You can’t go right at the knot and attack it or otherwise you’ll actually hurt the problem more, but you can’t go too soft at solving the problem because you won’t get it done in time. For me, any process needs to be simple, elegant and have everybody see the vision at the end of the day. So if you can make your process, your creative process, simple and elegant, and allow everyone to see the same vision, you really find you don’t run into a lot of creative problems. You usually hit problems when not everyone sees the same end goal, so for me it’s really just making the end goal really clear and making it simple and elegant throughout the whole way.

A lot of young talented people fleeing Michigan or at least fleeing Mid- Michigan as soon as they can. Do you plan to stay here or do you have plans elsewhere?

The great thing is, due to the uprise of digital technology, the barrier to entry for this market is a lot lower than traditionally before. Our company that is 3 years old is shooting on the same camera that “Transformers,” “Gone Girl,” all the main movies are filmed on, the fact that we can even achieve that type of a production value is amazing. Ten years ago, that wasn’t feasible without startup cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Fewer people are moving out of the Midwest market because you can do it now in this area, whereas all the resources used to be in L.A., New York, a little bit of Chicago. With that changing, there’s a lot more people in this area. The hard part about it is finding them, building that community and knowing where they are when you need them. So it’s more of just, for me, a network that needs to be built, a stronger community, but with the film incentives dying and falling out, it’s made it harder because a lot of the independent contractors have picked up and moved to Georgia. Atlanta is a huge hotbed for film right now because they just improved their incentives.

How big do you think you can be?

You know, one of my mentors is Carl Erickson, he’s the founder of Atomic Object, which is a software development company out of Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor. He won’t live as long as his goal: a 100-year-old company. It’s only 25 years now, so most likely he won’t be here for that time. That’s a really cool goal to achieve, something that lives beyond your name.

Will you stay in Lansing?

Due to the competitive nature, we have already been doing a lot of work outside of Lansing, but with the digital technologies you can kind of do it wherever. I guess time will just tell whether the market can help sustain the type of business we want, but as of today, you know, I’m really happy here in Lansing.

How would you brand Lansing?

You look at Austin — Stay Weird. I’m not thinking that Lansing is that millennial and cultured as Austin, I don’t think Lansing should be Lansing Stay Weird, but they took a left-field approach with it and it works. There’s something here that can be very Lansing-based but it needs to be more oriented to the young professionals. Lansing and mid-Michigan orients very well to the baby boomers but it’s not hitting home to my generation.

Next up: Twyla Birdsong, blues/soul singer
{::PAGEBREAK::}Twyla Birdsong Blues/Soul Singer

Twyla Birdsong’s music, rooted in classic gospel and blues, but with touches of jazz, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll, has made a strong mark in a Lansing music scene that’s already crowded with talent. In May, the Twyla Birdsong Band won the Capital Area Blues Society’s 13th Annual Blues Brawl competition, which landed the band a slot at the upcoming International Blues Competition in Memphis.

Birdsong, 44, is working on a CD, “Don’t Waste Time,” which she plans to release in 2016.

— Lawrence Cosentino

I often see you singing while you’re walking around. Is that something you find yourself doing often?

Always. I’ve never been self-conscious; I don’t even think about it. Around the house, at work, in the grocery store. It’s just natural. People say, “Oooh, you have a nice voice.” Then I get embarrassed because I didn’t realize I was singing so loud.

What are some favorite music memories?

Growing up in our home, we were not supposed to be listening to secular music. But my sister was the rebel, and she had 96.5 going on, so I knew about Stevie Wonder, Rick James. “Ooh, what is he saying? Mama going to get you. Turn that off!”

Is your family musical?

I was raised in a church, always in the youth choir and young adult choir. My family is very musical, very jovial. There’s always music and dancing. My mom played the guitar for the church and she plays the harmonica. She’ll pull it out at the drop of a hat.

Were you born in Lansing?

I’m a transplant. I was 6 when my mom brought me and my sister here. Most of our family is in Michigan City, Ind., where I was born, and back in Mississippi.

How did you discover the blues?

When I grew up, riding in the back seat of my dad’s Delta 88, my dad would have Z.Z. Hill and B.B. King pumpin’ all the way from Lansing to Michigan City. That’s the blues I grew up on.

When did you start singing in a band?

I was living on the west side and working at Fisher Body in late 1990s, and that’s where I met Ron Snyder. He had a garage band (The West Side Healers) and they wanted a vocalist.

To me, I sounded horrible. But they were so patient with me and so willing to teach me. We got our first gig at open mic night at the Temple Club, around 1999 or 2000.

What was that experience like, singing the blues for the first time in a band?

It was bringing me joy, but it was kind of a conflict, too, being brought up in a Pentecostal church and singing blues. It’s the “devil’s music.” I was still going through a stint of depression and panic attacks. My mom was like, “Girl, the reason you’re so depressed is because you’re singing those blues.” But I was already depressed.

Then I came to the realization that when I am sad, I am by myself and I don’t have the music. When I am happy, I’m singing and I have all these new people around me. So I decided to embrace what makes me happy. That was a turning point for me.

What do you make of the Lansing music scene?

From jazz to blues to world music to folk music, it is an awesome scene. Jen Sygit, Cindy McElroy, Mike Lynch, Andy Wilson, Josh Davis, Betty Baxter, Betty Joplin, Freddie Cunningham. We are blessed. It’s like a music mecca here. People don’t even realize what a gem it is.

How would you describe the Lansing sound?

It’s very eclectic. It does not exclude people. People who love jazz still love the other things that go on because we intermingle so well with one another.

You’ve been working for a year on your CD. What’s your approach to recording?

People hear you do a certain thing and they think, “That’s her.” But I did a lot of things because I was still learning. I was learning the blues; I was learning Twyla. Now, in 2016, people will be pleasantly surprised about who Twyla is. I think they’ll be able to relate. So hopefully by this time next year I’ll have my own CD with my own sound out there.

How would you describe your sound?

I love blues, but I love it with a little funk to it. And I’m always going to bring my heart, which is gospel. I don’t push God down people’s throats, but that’s who I believe in. I want to help spread goodness. But it’s got to have a little funk — and a little stink on it, too.

Next up: Mark Meadows, East Lansing Mayor


Mark Meadows East Lansing Mayor

Mark Meadows is a former mayor of East Lansing and state representative whom voters just returned to the East Lansing City Council — and whom Council members promptly elected as mayor again. He is 68 and an attorney.

— Berl Schwartz

Why aren’t you somewhere warm enjoying a successful life?

My dad retired when he was 88. So we have sort of history in the family of staying active. He was an executive with the Chrysler Corp. until he was 58, and then he left and started a second profession, representing tool and die companies in their dealings with the auto industry.

So you don’t see a retirement?

Yeah. I think retirement is different for everybody. You know, I’m not really practicing law anymore, so even when I was on the Council previously I was still assistant attorney general for many of those years and then became a partner over at Willingham & Cote, an East Lansing firm. I decided I would retire officially from Willingham last November and thought at the time that I probably wouldn’t re-enter politics in any way. But there were a number of issues in East Lansing that I think were bothering me and other people. I decided to get back in the fray, but I waited. I really didn’t decide until early July. I had headed back out to the Appalachian Trail. I’ve been steadily hiking that, and I enjoy that.

Did you run into Mark Sanford?

No, I didn’t — you know, people, though, do bring that up, because they say, now, are you really on the trail or are you really … (laughter) … . No, I say I’m really on the trail. Actually, Mark Sanford is probably a good example of the guy who is left for dead but somehow becomes a congressman ... after all of that scandal.

What is your favorite part of the trail?

Southern Virginia. There’s some beautiful vistas in southern Virginia. But it’s also a dead zone. Your cell phone will work on most of the trail, so you’re never really quite off the grid, but in southern Virginia, you’re off the grid. There’s really nothing down there.

Run into some bears?

I didn’t see a bear until I got to Shenandoah National Park. I only saw the bear when it came out into the trail, looked at me like what are you doing here, and so you’re told to click your poles, make noise, they’ll go away, so he left, and I thought, God I should’ve gotten a picture. So I fumbled with my phone because it’s always off, and I got it to the point where I could take a picture, the bear came down, I fumbled a little more, the bear looked at me like I thought I gave you a chance to get out of here, (laughter) and then turned around, so I really only got a picture of the rear end. (Laughter)

Ok, well, that’s better than the mouth coming at you. What were you like in college, in those days?

I grew up in the '60s, I don’t know what else to tell ya … . (laughter)

Did you inhale?

I inhaled. I was a very much antiwar and pro human rights, I marched for civil rights … .

Did you go to MSU?

I did not. I wasn’t going to go to college. I went to work for Chrysler Corp., a la my father, and planned on a career as a tool and die designer. At some point I decided that wasn’t going to be for me, so I started college in 1966. It took me about six years to graduate. I went to San Francisco, came back to Michigan, lived in a commune, lived down in Kalamazoo. I went to many schools, Wayne State, Ferris State, Macomb County Community College, and ultimately I graduated from Western Michigan University. Then I went Detroit College of Law, now Michigan State.

It was a different world then. The high school degree probably pretty much guaranteed you a good job and an opportunity to buy a house, buy a car and raise a family, and today you don’t have that same guarantee. A college degree is much, much more important. It’s probably the equivalent of the 1965 high school degree. Maybe I should’ve got started a little earlier in all the things that I’ve done, but graduating from law school and going to work for Frank Kelley was a tremendously satisfying thing.

Kelley is a great argument for not retiring. He’s 91, he could still be practicing I think, he’s got some physical issues, but his mind is very sharp.

But for Dick Austin’s defeat, which was unexpected. I think Frank decided that was going to be his last term at that point in time, and we, his assistants, always thought, it’s too bad we have term limits now, because if we could only keep Frank in there … .

Next up: Ligia Romero Balcarel, military veteran


Ligia Romero Balcarcel

Military Veteran

Ligia Romero Balcarcel, 56, is a military veteran. She’s been a medical case manager for the Lansing Area AIDS Network for the past 17 years. She worked with Cristo Rey Community Center to address substance abuse issues. She graduated from Lansing Eastern High School. Her father worked in the auto industry, her mother in the public schools.

But as a child, she was a political refugee from Guatemala. When she was 8, living in Guatemala, things were good. Her mother was a nurse. Her father was a driver for U.S. Ambassador John Gordon Mein. But that all changed in 1968.

Mein’s car was targeted by Rebels of the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (FAR), according to the Association of Diplomatic Studies and Training. The rebels had intended on kidnapping Mein, but during the struggle, the ambassador ran. He was shot eight times, his body left on the side of the road. Romero Balcarcel’s father was a witness. And the trajectory of her life changed in an instant.

— Todd Heywood

How did you come to the U.S. from Guatemala?

Shortly after it happened, my Mom ended up getting a phone call at our home back in Guatemala, letting us know of the accident. Then the Americans took us into hiding because she was told that my brother’s and my life and, of course, hers was in danger because my dad was a witness to a murder. So we hid. Shortly, the U.S. government came in and put us on a plane. It was a Pan-Am flight, early in the morning. Leaving family, grandparents, home and belongings, we were shipped off to Miami.

Where did you go from Miami?

We came here. It was through my uncle, my mother’s brother, Domingo. He told my dad that there there were jobs in the car industry. So we moved to Lansing in the dead of winter, into a house on Porter Street with almost nine individuals living under a roof. It wasn’t easy. It was a lot of kids and quite a few adults, but if it hadn’t have been for the help my Uncle Domingo provided, I don’t know if the outcome would have been the same.

What was that transition from Guatemala and Miami, which are tropical zones, to Michigan like?

As kids I think we are resilient. We’re real resilient and we adapt real quick. I think that’s what helped us kids come from a tropical, mountainous, overly populated country to Michigan that offers four seasons and frigid temperatures. Skating, sledding and just simple things like making snow angels got us through the rough temperatures.

Emotionally the transition was tougher, because — yes we had my Uncle Domingo here — but we had left my grandmother behind. We had left everybody else behind. I think that was the toughest for us — for me — because I was so close to my grandmother. She was a midwife back home and delivered me and she delivered my brother. I think bonds like that are hard to come by.

Forget the snow — not knowing the language was the biggest challenge. I was made fun of a lot. I would hear things and I would mimic the kids in school, and they would laugh at me. I thought I was doing a good job talking English. Obviously I wasn’t because they weren’t understanding.

What is your overall guiding philosophy for life?

My life journey has taken me in so many different directions, but it always brings me back to one: To help people that are in need. I’m talking about the individual who could use a meal or some one that could use just an open ear. I mean helping those that need just a little bit of guidance in a problem they having. So helping those in need is crucial for me.

I have learned through my job there are so many clients that I work with that they have taught me to stop judging. There’s more to that person than the physical body. There’s a story behind every face. There’s a story behind every person that I meet. But I don’t know that story. I don’t know what that book is all about. So I need to spend a little time getting to know that book, getting to know that person so I can help.

And loving unconditionally. Loving the way I want to be loved.

Next up: Muhammad Hamdan, oncologist & hematologist


Muhammad Hamdan Oncologist & Hematologist

Muhammad Hamdan, an oncologist and hematologist at Sparrow Cancer Center, is a Syrian immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1990. He attended medical school in Syria at Damascus University and completed his studies in the U.S. at Wayne State University and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Hamdan, 52, moved to Lansing in 1999 and has been at Sparrow Health Systems since 2006. He is a practicing Muslim who worships at the Islamic Center of East Lansing.

— Ty Forquer

How difficult was it for you to come to the United States?

It has three aspects of difficulty: financial, educational and background.

My father was an accountant, an employee in the old government, so he was not able to afford my expenses in medical school. So I had to work, usually at night as a security guard, to afford my education.

In Syria, you have a limitation of success. I decided to reach out and find areas where I could have better education and better training, and the U.S. was the top of the line. I came with just a few hundred bucks in my pocket to establish myself here.

We were taught medicine in Arabic, and that threw in another level of challenge. I had to transfer all of my education to English. So I had to have two curricula: one in Arabic, which is what the university wanted me to do, and the other one in English, which I had to do on my own. So I had to buy English books and study it alone. It was not only a financial burden on me to buy these books, but also finding the time to study English and transfer my medicine into English.

In background, we have a different background in how we think about things in Syria. Not only is it an Arabic background, but also it’s a different religion. I had to bypass these challenges in order to be successful.

Do you still have family in Syria?

All of them. Except the ones who are missing or in jail or fled to Europe. But my immediate family, my parents and other relatives who came from the suburbs because of what is happening in Syria, are currently living in Damascus. There are about 16 people living in one house.

I call my family almost on a daily basis. Luckily, they are in a safe spot in Damascus where most are Syrian people.

They’re being left alone because, from the government’s perspective, they don’t make any trouble.

Have they thought about leaving Syria?

Dad is 86. I don’t think he’s movable.

Mom is in her late 70s, and she won’t leave without him. I don’t think they’re moving. Also, to move, you have to have enough funds to move. You’ve heard about people trying to go to Europe, what kind of challenges they’re facing, traveling by sea … it’s unfortunate.

Have you been following the political discussions about Syrian refugees? Does it make you angry?

I doesn’t make me angry as much as I feel sorry for the politicians here. They don’t have enough experience to understand other people’s background. So basically they want to have a pre-made jacket, which fits the American size, and apply it to everybody outside the U.S. It doesn’t work that way. To be able to communicate with people, you need to understand where they’re coming from, their background, their religion, how they eat, how they communicate. Unfortunately, they do not know much about the background of people. So that’s why they have not been understood well with their current policy, and they don’t know how to apply their policy somewhere else.

How do you keep track of what’s going on in Syria? Where do you get your news from?

I watch CNN, Fox News, ABC, but I also watch Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. I watch MBC too, which is an Arabic channel. I draw my own conclusions, based on my background as a Syrian and being in the U.S. for over 25 years. And I think there’s a big gap between the two. I wish the politicians in the United States would realize that.

I have been in a real, dear contact with the people of the U.S., and I have nothing to say but that Americans are great people. They are soft-hearted, they are very noble — I’m talking about the vast majority. Unfortunately, that is not what people outside the U.S. believe. There is a contradiction between what’s reality and what people believe — on both sides.

Next up: Tashmica Torok, founder of the Firecracker Foundation

{::PAGEBREAK::}Tashmica Torok Founder of the Firecracker Foundation

In June 2013, Lansing resident Tashmica Torok, a survivor of childhood sexual trauma, founded the Firecracker Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping other children who have experienced sexual trauma. The foundation serves 20 children and their families, offering psychological therapy, yoga therapy and parent/caretaker support groups. Raised in El Paso, Texas, Torok, 35, moved to Lansing in 2001. She also skates with roller derby group the Lansing Derby Vixens, but she has taken a sabbatical to focus on the Firecracker Foundation.

— Ty Forquer

What inspired you to create the Firecracker Foundation?

I had been going to therapy for my own trauma, and my therapist opened a book and showed me this chart of how the different types of trauma are categorized and what kind of things are included in that definition. And then next to that were the side effects of untreated trauma. So I looked at the chart, and I was on that chart, under severe. No one had ever told me that. And then to see all of the side effects and to see how many of those had played a part in my life, that was really the jumping-off point.

So I started to do a little bit of research about what happens when people suffer untreated trauma, and it’s everything you wouldn’t want for your kids:

PTSD, self mutilation, eating disorders, early incarceration, early pregnancy, all these terrible things. Then I started to think, there are millions of people that are making up these statistics, so what is happening for children now versus what happened when I was 8?

And while the treatment options are better, the accessibility is not better for children, and there’s not a lot of support for parents and caretakers. And that’s what started me down that path of how to create a program that I would have wanted for my family when I was a kid. So I invited a bunch of people over, people who could fill the gaps in my professional skills, and made a board of directors. I gave them this plan that I was going to raise $6,000. In my head, I thought it would cost $1,000 per kid, so we’re going to help six kids and go from there and see what happens. By the end of the year, I had raised $20,000, and we were off to the races.

Why did you choose to make yoga therapy a key part of your program?

After the mental health therapy, the yoga was really important for me. Roller derby actually led me to yoga because you’re playing roller derby, and your body is getting beat up, and I just wanted to protect my spine and make sure I’m not going to pay to go to a chiropractor the day after every practice. It wasn’t intended for my treatment, I just started doing yoga, and it was really healing for me.

So I started doing some research.

A lot of times, when someone suffers a trauma, specifically sexual assault, they disconnect their mind from their body, and their body can sometimes feel like an enemy.

Being in a space where someone is offering you options, empowering you to make choices about your own body, can be incredibly powerful for people. That was why we went to yoga so quickly. When you have children who are disconnecting or trying to numb their body, those are the things that are connected to eating disorders or self-mutilation or addition to drugs and alcohol. So I felt that if we could make sure that they’re making that connection and getting the calming techniques and the mindfulness techniques, that would be our best bet in insuring that down the line, they’re people who are integrated and don’t feel the need to do self-harming behaviors.

What are your goals for the Firecracker Foundation in 2016?

We’re working on a pediatric medical advocacy team, which is a team of individuals that responds to crises at the hospital. When a child is brought in under the age of 18, then our team would go and sit with the family and support that family through the process of the examination. This year, that is something that will be a focus. Aside from that, I feel like at this point, this is everything that I set out to do.

But even yesterday I was talking to someone about trauma-informed martial arts for a client. I don’t know if what our clients need will guide us into another form of treatment. There’s art therapy and music therapy and all kinds of things we could delve into in the next two to five years. But it will be based solely on what our clients need and what will help them heal.


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