2018 Youth Empowerment Conference

This blog post is actually from an interview with my 12 year-old-son, JR, on his experience at his first-ever African American Youth Think Tank event.  He is sharing his thoughts, and he also took the photos you will see below.  I think he did pretty well for his first time assisting with a blog post and trying to use a camera on subjects in constant motion!

The 4th Annual Youth Empowerment Conference was held on February 16 at the Roosevelt Middle School in Cedar Rapids.  The event was attended by local schools in the area, with the Iowa City region also busing students up for the event.  This year’s theme was “Everyone Has A Purpose; What Is Mine?”.   JR says his purpose is to be a foreign-exchange student and visit other cities around the world.

The morning consisted of inspirational speakers; an explanation of what the Think Tank is (a way for people to discuss current issues, hold seminars, and provide inspiration for our youth); and several sessions with local leaders Dr. Carols Grant, Kim Fitten, and Dr. Okpara Rice.  JR’s favorite speaker of the morning was Miss Iowa and KZIA 102.9 Radio Personality, Jenny V.

The keynote speaker of the conference was Jason Sole, PhD, from Chicago.  Check out a previous post about Jason here.  JR enjoyed this speech and was impressed with how Jason turned his life around to go to college after being in a gang.

Local businesses offered a career fair for the youth to dream and plan for what they want to do in the future.  JR’s favorite business owner was John Grant from Chameleon Candy.  John’s business serves “Little Jimmy’s Italian Ices” at local events, and he can also be booked for private parties and corporate events.  Check out his website here.

At the end of the event, local artists provided a live concert for the kids.  Rapper Jordan Burgett from Cedar Rapids performed first.  Dizzy was up next, and Buddha was the final rapper.  Buddha was impressive with all of the big words he was able to rhyme.  The concert closed with R&B artist Alicia Monee, whose beautiful voice filled the auditorium.  JR’s favorite song was her performance of “The Man In The Mirror” by Michael Jackson.  Everyone was up out of their seats and dancing along!

Alicia Monee
Alicia Monee 

The Youth Empowerment Conference is a free, annual event to support youth in our area.  For more information, see the African American Youth Think Tank Facebook page.

Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit

Recently, we had the chance to see Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at the beautiful Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. I had actually not heard of Jason before, but my husband had and really likes his music. I was very impressed when I heard him play.

James McMurty
James McMurty and his band perform the opening set.  Photo Credit:  jhlstudios.com

James McMurty from Austin, TX was the opening act. If you like guitar, this is a great set to watch. James and his band play really great Folk/Americana music with lots of guitar switches and great jamming with each other.

Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell on guitar; band member Derry deBorja on accordion.  Photo Credit:  jhlstudios.com

Jason Isbell is from the Muscle Shoals region of Northwest Alabama. His music is Folk/Alternative Country. He and the band The 400 Unit are currently on tour to promote their newest album, “The Nashville Sound”. Jason won 2 Grammys in 2016 for Best Americana Album (“Something More Than Free”) and Best American Roots Song (“24 Frames). The crowd went wild as he played “24 Frames”; it was definitely one of their favorite songs played that night! Jason won 2 more Grammys in 2018—Best Americana Album (“The Nashville Sound”) and Best American Roots Song (“If We Were Vampires”).

One of the awesome graphics!  Photo Credit:  jhlstudios.com

A magnificent light show illuminated the concert. The colors were very basic whites, blues, greens, and browns that enhanced the classic, soulful feel of his songs.

My favorite songs of the night included “Decoration Day”, “White Man’s World”, and “Last of My Kind”. “Decoration Day” chronicle a feud between two families and how the cycle will finally stop. “White Man’s World” tackles the tough issues of social privilege and inequalities among the cultures in this country. “Last of My Kind” really resonated with me because I am from a small town in Central Iowa when we just do things a little bit differently and a whole lot more simple than everyone else. Now I live in a bigger city and sometimes I just feel lost in the shuffle.

If you have a chance to hear Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit on their tour, you won’t be disappointed! Ticket prices are very reasonable and well worth the time spent listening to great music.

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Winter Reads

It’s been so cold this winter…who wants to go outside much?  Here are some of the books I have been reading lately:

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

I love to read books from authors who attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.   This book by Angela Flournoy does not disappoint.  It is her first novel, and she does a great job while she chronicles a family crisis in the city of Detroit.  The crisis unfolds in modern times; however it has its roots in the previous generation  that came to Detroit from Arkansas.  The 13 Turner children grew up on Yarrow Street in Detroit, and watched their neighborhood decline as the auto industry fell apart.  The family has to decide if they should keep their mother’s house, or let it go back to the bank since it is not worth anywhere close to what is still owed on it.  In the process, several of the children face their addictions, and even what appears to be a “haint”, or ghost, they feared followed their father from Arkansas.

Two by Two by Nicholas Sparks

Russell Green thought he had it all.  A great career, a beautiful wife, a big house in a great neighborhood.  For years, it seems nothing can go wrong.  His daughter is born and she becomes the center of his world.  When she is six years old, his wife Vivian announces she is going back to work.  Soon, Russell’s world comes crashing down.  Russell is left as the primary caregiver of his daughter as Vivian starts to work more and travel with her job. Vivian decides she wants a divorce, and Russell loses his job and tries to start up his own advertising firm.  In the process, the custody battle becomes quite vicious and the family is in danger of losing their home.  The surprise way the story works out shows the unconditional love parents have for their children when they finally decide to put aside their differences and put their families first.

Eat Dirt by Dr. Josh Axe

The title of this book makes it sound really gross, doesn’t it?  It’s not gross at all!  Basically Dr. Josh Axe is telling us that in order to get well again, get ourselves to the point where we are not so sick anymore, is to eat fresh, organic food.  If you have allergies, autoimmune disease, or any kind of illness, this book is a great way to figure out how to get back on track for your situation and heal yourself.

What are you reading this winter?

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A Very Cherry Holiday and Old World Market

Cherry Building

The Cherry Building is a hidden gem in our community.  It is right next to the New Bo Market, yet so many people overlook it.  The building was built in the early 1900’s as a dairy equipment manufacturing plant.  Today it is home to many small businesses, art studios, and retail shops.  The first weekend in December is known as “A Very Cherry Holiday”, when the building is buzzing with fun, food, music, and laughter.

We toured the shops in the building during the event, spending several hours enjoying our time and speaking with various artists and business owners.  Enjoy some of the highlights of our visit!


The Ceramics Center and Glass Studio was open for demos and for children to play with the clay.  I knew we had a great ceramics center there—I had no idea the glass studio was there as well!

5 Seasons Orch.jpg

The Five Seasons Jazz Trio entertained us with beautiful music as we meandered through the building.


A surprise awaited us as we rode the freight elevator!

The Trolley between New Bo and Czech Village.

The Czech and New Bo Districts provided a free trolley for transportation between the two areas.  We rode the trolley to the Czech Village for the Old World Market experience.  Hay rack rides were available outside the Czech and Slovak Museum.  Inside the museum, a vendor market featured lovely Czech handiwork, Christmas wreaths, chocolate truffles, beer tastings from the Lion Bridge, and so much more.  Face painting was available free of charge for children.  We were delighted to see children in traditional Czech clothing performing and dancing!  There are so many more treasures that await when you visit the museum and library inside (more to come in a later post!).

Horse Rides.jpg
Horse rides outside the National Czech and Slovak Museum.
Czech Dancers.jpg
Traditional Czech costume and dancing.

The Cherry Building is located at 329 10th Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids.  The National Czech and Slovak Museum is located at 1400 Inspiration Pl. SW.  Current admission prices (as of 2017) are $10 General Admission; $9 Seniors; $5 Active Military; $5 Students; $3 Youth Ages 6-13; Children 5 and Under are Free.

Fall Scapes

A brilliant person, Ferris Bueller, once said, “Life moves pretty fast and if you don’t take the time to stop and look around you might miss it.”  Well said, Ferris, well said.  I took the time this fall to stop and enjoy the beauty around Eastern Iowa as the leaves changed and a new season began.

5 Seasons Fall
A beautiful fall day in the City of Five Seasons, Cedar Rapids!
Pumpkin display at the Hy-Vee on Johnson Ave. in Cedar Rapids.
Train Bridge
A view of the train bridge by Quaker Oats in Cedar Rapids.
Time Check
Trees change into vibrant colors at Time Check Park in Cedar Rapids.
Wapsi Mill
The Wapsipinicon Mill in Independence.

From Prison to Ph.D.

Sole Book

Imagine growing up on the streets of Chicago.  Your future seems bleak.  Kids in your class have parents that just disappear.  Your father is addicted to heroin and just can’t get things together.  People you know, kids you know, are dying on a regular basis.  Your mama works hard to hold her family together so you can at least have a stable home.  But the lure of money, drugs, and a fast life is too much to resist and you find yourself sucked in anyway….

That was the life of Jason Sole.  He recently came to Mount Mercy University to share his story with others.  The kids in his school grew up with trauma after trauma.  I think this is a key piece that Jason has identified as to why kids in poverty and violent situations just become numb to the world outside them. 

 As a teenager, Jason was a great basketball player.  He was playing with some of the best coming out of Chicago.  One day after he returned home from basketball camp, he returned home to a very disappointed mother—she had found the drugs and money he stashed away.  Jason was sent to Waterloo, Iowa to live with his aunt and finish high-school.  Life in Iowa was still rough for him.  His aunt battled mental health issues and he still encountered racism.  He did graduate high school without failing a single class and his team made it to the state tournament.  But all he could think about was how he left his team back home in Chicago and they lost the city championship because he wasn’t there to help them.

 The lure of gang life was too hard for Jason to resist.  After high school he returned to the life in both Chicago and Minnesota.  Multiple arrests followed, and once he was shot in the leg–almost losing his leg. 

 Jason soon figured out that education was the only way out of his current situation.  He earned Bachelor and Masters degrees in Criminal Justice.  He is finishing up his doctorate in Public Safety Leadership.  He is now training criminal justice students and law enforcement officers around the country about gangs and how to handle the delicate situation most of these kids come from. 

Jason’s current project is teach his criminal justice classes, and give his speeches, wearing a hoodie.  His thought process is that if we can “Humanize” the person behind the hoodie, we can break the stereotype that a young black man in a hoodie is up to no good.  In reality, he is a person just like all the rest of us. 

Jason has written a book about his experiences called From Prison to Ph.D.  It is a great story about giving people a second chance and what they can accomplish.


Sole Signature
The message Jason signed in his book for my son, JT.


The Map Room


The Map RoomTaste the flavors of the world without even leaving Cedar Rapids.  How?  Simply by visiting The Map Room!  This new pub recently opened up downtown.    The atmosphere is warm and cozy inside, almost like stepping into your grandfather’s study.  Interesting maps of all kinds hang from the walls.  The beer and wine list is well-rounded and is not so long it makes it hard to choose what you would like.  Creative craft cocktails are also available.  The best-kept secret about this place is how good the burgers are.  Oh my goodness, they are awesome! 

 The Map Room uses locally sourced meat for their burgers.  Each one is named after a major city around the world.  My husband ordered a New Orleans burger made with mortadella, ham, salami, mozzarella, provolone, and a spicy olive relish.  I ordered a Saigon burger topped with ham, mortadella, cucumber, pickled carrots and radish, jalapeños, cilantro, and mayonnaise.  It has a bit of a kick to it!  One of the most popular burgers served here is the Memphis.  The Memphis is topped with American cheese, pulled pork, French-fried onions, pickles, and a house-made BBQ sauce.   Gluten-free buns are available.  The salads change daily, based on ingredients the chef has available.  Broccoli salad was the choice available for us.  Some days, a kimchi potato salad is available.  I can’t wait to come back and try it!

New Orleans
The New Orleans burger on a gluten-free bun.
The Saigon burger on a gluten-free bun.

Not so adventurous when it comes to your food?  You also have the choice to build your own burger.  If you don’t feel like eating a full meal, you may choose from a variety of appetizers served over fries or crostini bread.

I definitely recommend this place for a unique experience.  Curiosity will draw you in, comfort will bring you back.  The Map Room is located at 416 3rd St SE in downtown Cedar Rapids (formerly known as Stella’s).