'This has been one of the best times of my life, to be honest with you'
News reporters as a general rule welcome tips from readers and viewers, and one tip in particular arrived via email a couple weeks ago: If the Times was looking for a story about a person trying to make the most positive situation possible out of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting school closures and distance learning and parents working from home, we might want to sit down and chat with Lisa Altepeter.
“This is the first time she has been home with her kids, as a usual working mom, and has embraced these months as a family strengthening time,” the reader said in her email.
Sitting in Altepeter’s living room a few days later, those words were read to her, and her face brightened.
“Oh, that’s so nice,” she said.
“As long as we’re healthy,” Altepeter continued. “I find myself starting a lot of things I say with that…as long as we’re healthy. So, as long as we’re all healthy, this has been one of the best times of my life, to be honest with you.”
That’s not true for most families, in Crookston and beyond. Kids have spent two months learning from home, and their parents have been frazzled trying to navigate them toward shore through rough academic waters…shore being the unprecedented conclusion of this school year. Moms and dads are working remotely, or not working at all. Checkbook balances might be perilously low. Everyone’s stuck in tight quarters with not much to do, and they’re getting on each other’s nerves.
It’s not like none of that hasn’t happened or isn’t happening in Altepeter’s north-end bungalow, but she decided early on to make every effort to embrace this time, and she’s still holding onto it as tight as she can, despite the fact that her particular family and life situation brings a lot to the table, more than most, at least.
She’s divorced. She has two jobs, one as a Head Start classroom aide for Tri-Valley Opportunity Council here in Crookston, and another as an autism training specialist for the State of Minnesota. Her oldest son, Dillon, 28 and a warehouse manager at American Crystal Sugar in Crookston, is engaged to Casandra O’Connell and they will be married in late July. Her oldest daughter, Kayla, 18, graduated from high school this spring, and she lives in Park Rapids with her dad (Altepeter’s ex-husband), who has battled cancer off and on for years. In the Crookston home with Lisa are daughter Emma, 14, finishing her freshman year at Crookston High School, and Nick, wrapping up his seventh-grade year at CHS. Nick is on the autism spectrum. Specifically, he has been diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).
While Emma does distance learning homework in her upstairs bedroom and is definitely not interested in getting her picture taken for the local newspaper, Nick sits on an arm of the couch to catch some of the early phases of the Times’ interview with his mom before venturing into the dining room to play on a laptop computer. Two three-month-old miniature Australian shepherds scurry about the house excitedly, and, there’s a cat somewhere, too, although it never reveals itself during this visit.
Discussing the last two months in their home and with her kids, Altepeter calls it a “gift” more than once.
“I have never been able to stay home with my children; I have always worked full-time, so, to me, it’s been a gift to be able to work from home and be with my children,” she said. “I’ve never had that option, and I consider that a gift.”
Lots of families this spring are rediscovering the joys of completing puzzles with thousands of pieces and playing old-fashioned board games, and there’s been some of that in the Altepeter home, too, in addition to several projects around the house put off for years now being completed. But actual art has been created in this house, too. Pictures are being painted, of flowers and in honor of veterans and relatives who are no longer here, of nurses on the front lines during the pandemic, among other subjects. Poems are being written. Yes, poetry is being created in the Altepeter house this spring.
“The kids are spending more time with our animals and they’re concentrating less on sports and more on family, and we started doing one (house) project after another and it seemed to lift our spirits as we got one done, and then another,” Altepeter said. “I’m no different than anyone else in that (before the pandemic) I’d get home from a long day at work and the last thing you want to do is start a big house project.”
It’s almost been a trip back in time to the “good old days,” she adds.
“We’re all together for supper and we actually have conversations,” Altepeter said. “And when they need help with school, I’m here to help them hands-on. There’s been a lot of good to come out of this in our house…as long as we’re all healthy.”
How they got here
The daughter of Gary and Mary Altepeter, Lisa Altepeter’s earliest years were spent at the family farm in rural Euclid. She went to Cathedral School and then the family moved to Rochester, where she attended junior high school. Her dad wanted to get back to the Red River Valley, so they settled near Moorhead. She graduated from high school there. She went on two earn two associates degrees and eventually earned her bachelors degree in applied business management from the University of Minnesota Crookston, with a minor in marketing. She and her family moved to Park Rapids for a few years after she got her degree but she and Emma and Nick returned after the divorce. It was very difficult to separate Kayla and her siblings, Altepeter said, but it made sense at the time and it has worked out. Altepeter and her ex have joint custody of Kayla, who spends almost half her time in Crookston. She’s already had a small gathering celebrating her high school graduation in Park Rapids, and another similar, intimate gathering will be held for her in Crookston next week. Kayla in the fall will start down a school and career path aimed at becoming a dental assistant, a dental hygienist, or maybe even a dentist, Altepeter said. (A trip in early May to Colorado as a graduation gift was obviously cancelled. “Hopefully we can go in the fall or winter, but who knows?” Altepeter said.)
Before settling into her two current jobs, Altepeter managed The Summit assisted living apartments when they first opened. She worked for the Diocese of Crookston as well, and Mount St. Benedict. In addition to her autism training position, she is close to earning her early childhood certificate for the Head Start job.
When Nick was diagnosed with PDD-NOS, his mom shifted gears and took a position with the Polk County Developmental Achievement Center in Crookston. “I wanted to learn more about adults and kids who live with various disabilities,” Altepeter recalled. The DAC around that time opened its new multi-sensory room. You had to pay by the hour to use it, unless you were on the DAC staff. Altepeter saw how it positively impacted people situated on various points on the autism spectrum, including Nick.
“It’s a phenomenal room,” Altepeter said. “You can take people into that room who are literally having a meltdown because of various sensory issues that plague them, and within a minute or two, there’s an instant calming effect.”
Nick over the years and since his diagnosis has engaged in various activities in the community that also include others facing various disabilities or challenges, but in many ways, his mom said, the isolation that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting social distancing is right up his alley. “He struggles with social anxiety,” Altepeter said.
Nick’s diagnosis certainly has its quirky, yet, when it comes to autism, largely typical and predictable behaviors.
He stopped wearing jeans years ago. He only wants to wear loose, baggy clothing that doesn’t cling to him or touch his skin a lot. Once his clothes have been washed and dried enough times to start forming fuzz balls to any degree, Nick can’t wear them anymore. “He doesn’t do fuzz balls, especially if it’s sunny and hot,” Altepeter explained. “He will get really itchy and really start to scratch his legs. Extreme temperatures, hot or cold, are an ongoing issue.”
“I don’t like fuzz balls at all,” Nick adds, from his perch on the arm of the couch. “I don’t like being all itchy.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Nick and Emma’s personalities are around 180 degrees different from each other. “While Nick’s loving school at home and doesn’t mind being alone, Emma is a social butterfly and it’s very hard for her to not see her friends in more normal situations,” Altepeter said. “She misses her friends, misses seeing them in person. We love to talk about today’s kids and all of their screen time, but when it comes to something like this, they want to actually be with their friends.”
Altepeter figures Nick would be the “last person on earth” to get COVID-19 because he’s long been “obsessive” when it comes to cleanliness, especially washing his hands. “He takes more precautions than even I do at home, and that’s saying something,” she said. For example, Dillon popped by recently and gave Nick a Coke he’d bought at a convenience store. “Nick would only hold it by the very top of the cap, and he went straight to the bathroom and washed it thoroughly before he opened it,” Altepeter notes. “He’s extra cautious. He won’t eat anything that hasn’t been wiped down first. Anything from the ‘outside’ gets wiped down.
“Nick’s personality is more careful,” his mom continues. “He is taking this situation very seriously. I think it comes back to his sensory issues and not wanting things to touch his skin. The thought that a virus is in the air is very scary to him, and he worries about protecting his eyes, ears, nose and mouth. It frightens him.”
Mostly because of that, the family’s habit of watching the news on TV every night has waned of late. “It’s so much of a focus on the number of cases and death statistics, and I think it instills fear in kids,” Altepeter said, recalling one of the last newscasts they watched. “Nick looked at me and his eyes were big. He said, ‘Is it really true what they said? Did more than 400 die in one day in New York?’” she recalled. “At that point I decided it wasn’t appropriate for him to be subjected to that day after day.”
Although she never got an official diagnosis, Altepeter said it’s possible she had COVID-19 in April. She was quarantined for 14 days over the middle of that month.
It started with a consistent fever of around 103 degrees that persisted for four days. She went to the doctor, who, Altepeter recalled, told her she couldn’t be diagnosed with coronavirus because there was no test available for her to take. “So he was going to treat me like I had it anyway,” she said.
She was sent home with advice to switch from ibuprofen to Tylenol, double her water intake and drink Gatorade to hydrate, take Mucinex to protect her lungs if she actually had the virus, and stand over a steamer or pot of boiling water twice a day for 10 minutes a time. While her fever came down some after a couple days, it remained in the 100 to 101 range for a few more days.
“It was scary,” Altepeter recalled. “I’ve had what you might call the normal flu before, and this wasn’t normal.”
While she never did have the awful cough and difficulty breathing that so many COVID-19 patients have struggled with, Altepeter said she battled the most severe body aches she’s ever had, she had swollen hands and fingers, and red patches on her skin from her toes all the way up to her abdomen.
In all, it was around nine days with the fever, the skin patches, and those awful, throbbing body aches. With no reliable treatment and no vaccine, Altepeter said the doctor told her the best thing for her to do was stay at home, follow the instructions and treatment strategies he gave her, and self-quarantine for two weeks after she felt better. “Unless my fever hit 104, he said don’t come back in,” she recalled. “He said the safest place for me during that time was home.”
When she’s not performing work-related tasks from home, Altepeter said she sort of floats back and forth between Emma and Nick, trying to make sure school work is getting done, and done as well as possible.
Add her to the chorus of parents who say it’s been tough.
“I have more than six years of college under my belt, but that doesn’t mean I can help them with Spanish or CAD (Computer-Aided Drafting),” Altepeter said. She said Nick is in geometry and she’s spent many nights helping him with that, going over many problems. “He gets most of it, I think, but he gets stuck and I can’t provide a lot of help, and he doesn’t always get the right answer, and that’s difficult for him,” she said. But if it’s multiplication, it’s another story. “He can multiply double digits by double digits in his head,” Altepeter adds.
Algebra is her favorite subject, but that doesn’t mean Altepeter is a big help in that area, either. “They learn it way different now than I did,” she said.
While she’s sure that teachers have been hammered with questions from parents and students this spring, Altepeter said she has constantly encouraged her kids to reach out to their teachers when they need help. “My kids are probably like a lot of kids in that they don’t want to ask for help, especially from a teacher in a one-on-one situation,” she said. “Maybe it’s a pride thing, or they’re embarrassed. I think it’s a young person’s nature to avoid seeking out help and just act like you know how to do it. They want to be independent.”
Thankful to call this place home, trying to be positive
While in more normal times a lot of people might shudder at the thought of being a kid on a rural farm or small-town living in general, far away from the bright lights and big cities, Altepeter wouldn’t have it any other way, in more normal times, or during these most abnormal times.
“I’m very thankful we live in a small town,” she said.
Even north Moorhead, where her parents live, is big enough to make her uneasy. Her dad is considered high-risk because of his medical issues, so her mom is venturing out on essential errands. A nursing home where dozens of COVID-19 cases have been reported is two miles from their home.
Altepeter says she tries to be as objective as possible when considering the pandemic, and remain as positive as possible.
“We just have to look at ourselves individually and our own situations and ask ourselves, ‘How can I be a part of the solution instead of being part of the problem?’” she said. “I think a lot of people are thinking about themselves first, their business, their family, and when they look from inside-out like that, they get mad. They’re mad at the governor right now.”
She said it should be clear that Gov. Tim Walz isn’t making the decisions he is for personal or political gain, because they will likely hurt him down the road more than they help him. “If you’re in the government, you’re going to want businesses open as soon as possible and the economy as good as it can be so you have a better chance of getting re-elected,” Altepeter said. “He’s getting flak from both sides, and I get that. People are angry and frustrated. They want this over with and things back to normal right now, even though it’s not over and normal is probably a long ways away. I see everyone’s points, but I don’t know if we’ve even seen the worst yet in Minnesota.”
Life going forward is going to require adjustment, she said.
“I’m sure there is not one person who isn’t frustrated that they can’t live their life like they did a couple months ago, but taking precautions are our new reality,” Altepeter said. “You have to protect yourself, your family and those around you. My heart goes out to nursing home residents and others who are so isolated now, but were already somewhat isolated before all of this happened.”
All that empathy aside, there are more projects to tackle. Kayla’s small graduation reception – only 10 on the invite list – will be here before you know it, and Dillon and Casandra’s wedding ceremony on July 25 needs to be planned, too. If allowed, it will be what you might call a normal, large ceremony. If that’s not possible, the couple has decided they will still have an actual ceremony, with only 10 people in the room.
“That’s life, that’s our life right now,” Altepeter said. “It’s all of our lives. We have no choice but to live them, so why not make the best we possibly can out of all of it, and learn from it?”