Easterseals program serves New Bern’s special needs community

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Patte Whitfield and her son, Oliver, share a moment together on the patio of E.M.P.O.W.E.R. after school program in New Bern. Oliver, 6, has significant hearing and visual impairment and severe cerebral palsy, among other special needs.

The sights and sounds are familiar to parents everywhere: a gaggle of children racing each other from one fence post to the next; two friends maneuvering an armful of miniature cars and dump trucks across a plastic picnic table; a small girl armed with a red plastic ball chasing down playmates twice her size.

Standing in the middle of the daily whirlwind of activity at E.M.P.O.W.E.R. after school program, a visitor would have to squint hard to differentiate it from several dozen other local daycares. But despite appearances, the New Bern program is addressing an often hidden need, one that all too often goes underserved in small communities throughout the nation.

Located on Trent Boulevard, E.M.P.O.W.E.R. (Engaging and Motivating People through Opportunities, Wellness, Education and Recreation) is a nonprofit Easterseals UCP program that serves individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as their typically developing siblings.

“We definitely consider ourselves helping the whole family,” explained Site Director Katrina Taylor, during an interview at her office. “The biggest benefit of our program to the community is that it really meets a large need that has gone unmet for years, which is just having an array of services for individuals with disabilities to take advantage of, which children that are considered normal just take for granted.”

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Jared Purser, right, and his twin brother, John, take part in a yoga relaxation class at New Bern’s Easterseals UCP E.M.P.O.W.E.R. after school program. The class is just one of the activities the program offers for area special needs children and their families.

The program, which opened in December 2016, was initially funded by a grant provided by Trillium Health Resources, a local governmental agency that manages mental health, substance use and intellectual and developmental disability services in eastern North Carolina. It serves individuals from ages five to 22.

“There were two administrators from Easterseals who wrote a research funded proposal to Trillium,” said Taylor. “Trillium loved the idea because it helped to meet the needs of a long list of individuals who are waiting to receive services.”

E.M.P.O.W.E.R. works with individuals with an array of needs, including autism, cerebral palsy, and mild to severe attention deficit disorder.

One of the keys to meeting those needs was choosing the right staff for the program. According to Taylor, Easterseals provides employees with extensive training, both face-to-face and online. All staff members are required to undergo nonviolent crisis intervention training and are given guidance in dealing with individuals with specific disabilities.

But the most important factor when hiring staff may be one that’s hard to quantify, said Taylor.

“We look at the staff that we bring on, how they might fit and their ability to handle children with disabilities and any unexpected behaviors. A lot of it comes down to personality.”

For staff member Jamie Heath, who has been with the program since it opened, the decision to work with children with disabilities was as much personal as professional.

”I have a lot of family members that have special needs. My son has different types of disabilities and I have two sets of twins in my family that both have autism,” she explained.

Mackenzie Carmon, who was in his third week at E.M.P.O.W.E.R., said the job allowed him to utilize skills not usually accessed in the “normal” workplace.

”I like helping people, helping kids. It’s a challenge to learn something new about different people. It takes a positive person, a person who acts like they have a little bit of kid in them,” he noted.

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Staff member Lauren LaPonza lends a hand to student Lainey Ehlers as they inspect the playground.

E.M.P.O.W.E.R. provides after school pick up for students at area elementary, middle and high schools. Arriving at the site at approximately 3:30 p.m. each day, the students are led through a series of activities that include arts and crafts, sports, and the occasional visit from a yoga instructor.

“I think this week they’re learning about animals and insects. A big focus for us is them getting their homework done, because a lot of kids fight their parents on that,” explained Glenda Lenk, assistant site director.

“Mainly you’re trying to come up with an easy way for them to learn,” added Carmon. “Sometimes they learn better if you can make it into a story. Not so much like school learning, but fun learning.”

Taylor said the students also influence the curriculum.

“They have been very vocal about what their interests are and the staff kind of move accordingly.”

In addition to the after school services, E.M.P.O.W.E.R. also offers respite care and, beginning in June, a summer camp.

Taylor said E.M.P.O.W.E.R. also hopes to initiate a health and wellness program for adults with disabilities beginning this summer. The program would serve young men and women who have aged out of the after school program.

Taylor said the service is tentatively set to begin in August, and would run Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to noon.

“Some of the feedback we’ve gotten from parents is that once they’re out of the school system there’s really not a lot for them to do, with the exception of some different programs that are at the community college that they can transition into,” said Taylor.

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Students Mackenzie Richardson, left, and Lainey Ehlers enjoy a laugh with staff member Shea Barnes.

With the threat of possible funding cuts to after school and summer programs proposed in President Donald Trump’s budget, Taylor said she is keenly aware of how fragile programs like E.M.P.O.W.E.R., which rely on federal funds, have become.

“One of the biggest things is just making sure our program will be sustainable. Fundraising for us is a huge thing. Donations are huge for us. And just having parents involved as well as the community to promote the awareness of the true benefit of our program is important for us as well.”

Patte Whitfield understands those benefits all too well. The mother of five special needs children, Whitfield has long been an outspoken advocate for a program such as E.M.P.O.W.E.R. in the New Bern area.

“I don’t think most people have a good idea of the need in the community for a program like this. I think the common thought is that for kids with special needs and disabilities there’s a daycare just up the street,” she commented.

With three children, Kaden, 14, and 6-year-old twins Lainey and Oliver attending E.M.P.O.W.E.R, Whitfiled has taken over the role of president of the program’s parent advisory committee.

“Kaden has autism and dwarfism; he’s very small for his age. Oliver has significant visual and hearing impairment and severe cerebral palsy, among other things. And Lainey, while she shares some issues with Oliver, is for all intents and purposes a typical six year old,” explained Whitfield.

E.M.P.O.W.E.R. offers a far more congenial atmosphere for special needs children than typical daycares, said Whitfield. Despite the push in some quarters to “mainstream” children with mental and physical disabilities, she believes providing a sense of equality may ultimately be more important.

“I believe there’s a really strong body of evidence for kids to be with other kids that are the same as them. Inclusion is great, but there are also kids who come to a time in their life when inclusion isn’t necessarily the best thing. It’s hard to be the one kid who has a disability with 16 other kids who don’t.”

Like Taylor, Whitfield said she has concerns about the financial sustainability of programs like E.M.P.O.W.E.R.

“With all of the funding cuts that are coming down, it worries me,” she admitted. “This program being able to run itself is important to me, not just for my kids but for everybody that’s coming behind them. We’ve got to fund raise; we’ve got to get the community aware. This is an awesome program but we need the community’s help.”

Whitfield said the after school program has given her children a sense of belonging they’ve never before experienced, a reality that came into focus after Kaden was recently hospitalized for two days.

“When we got home there was a stack of get well cards, and he knew that everybody had wondered where he was and missed him,” remembered Whitfield. “I’m his mom, I can tell him all day long that I love him and miss him, but it’s a different thing knowing everybody here missed him and wanted him to come back. That adage of ‘Where everybody knows your name’ — it’s a powerful thing.”

That camaraderie is evident on any given afternoon at E.M.P.O.W.E.R., as the children file off the buses and excitedly head to their assigned activities.

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Jerry Lotts, Jr. takes a break before tackling another round of arm wrestling with Lindsey Purser.

“Basically, everyone you see here is my friend,” said Jerry Lotts, 14, catching his breath after a game of dodgeball. “I just think of them as being friends, I don’t think of them as weird at all.”

Lotts, who was diagnosed with autism at age 10, said the program had an immediate impact on his life.

“It’s different now because I get to play with kids like me instead of just going home and getting fussed at for not doing my chores. Now I come home and do my chores.”

Lotts said he was looking forward to taking part in the program’s summer camp activities, which will include trips to Creekside and Fort Totten parks.

“If I didn’t get to come here it would be sad,” he offered.

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Kaden Ehlers, left, and Konner Kunigonis bond over their shared love of model cars and trucks.

Nearby, Kaden Ehlers and Konner Kunigonis revved up a line of toy cars before sending them crashing across a tabletop.

“My favorite part is playing with the cars and hanging with my bro, Kaden,” said Kunigonis, adjusting his rakishly-cocked white fedora.

According to Lenk, the children aren’t the only ones who have found a connection through the program.

“It’s nice to see the parents come together and help each other out in different ways and the networking they bring into it,” she noted. “Because sometimes the family will have a need and another family is willing to come in and help them. It is kind of a close knit community that we’re building.”

Taylor said there are numerous ways community members can help support E.M.P.O.W.E.R.

“We need donations. And that’s not necessarily just financial; we’re always in need of different resources that aren’t always covered by our budget. So any way that the community sees fit to get involved with our program, whether it’s volunteering their hours or promoting our program to family members and church members, that’s what we need.”

Lowering her head and touching her cheek to Oliver’s, Whitfield said goodbye to her son and prepared to leave him on a day that would mark his second full week at E.M.P.O.W.E.R. Confined to his metal pediatric chair, Oliver raised his head and smiled crookedly. His friends would be arriving soon.

“My kids are just kids, they love the same things that every kid loves,” said Whitfield. “And the things that are important for my kids are the same as what’s important for every other kid. We just do it a different way.”

For more information about the E.M.P.O.W.E.R. after school program, visit their website at http://www.easterseals.com/NCVA/our-programs/childrens-services/after-school-program-new.html, call 252-670-1955, or visit their site at 1722 Trent Boulevard.

 

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Painting with light: Former Duplin County teacher captured life one frame at a time

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The photos are faded now, their images grown ghostlike and wan beneath years of haphazard care and the slow chemical breakdown of materials that once fixed them in time and space.
Yet, despite their obvious wear, a sense of place lingers in the images, amongst their captured light and shadow, as palpable as the smell of hickory-scented chimney smoke or the feel of rough-hewn lumber on a country church.
The photos serve as a visual last will and testament for Edgar James Wells, Jr., a Rose Hill-born WWII Army medic who returned home to teach English at both B.F. Grady and East Duplin high schools. During his teaching years, Wells was recognized with high school yearbook dedications, teacher-of-the-year nominations and other honors.
But Wells’s influence on the Duplin County community went far beyond his career in the classroom. A talented pianist, he played at numerous local weddings, funerals and church services.
And after retiring from teaching, he became something of a gentleman gypsy, a man who appeared to be everywhere and nowhere at once.
James Boney, a Teachey native who grew up with Wells, can still remember his friend knocking on his door at night, stories on his tongue and a camera in his hand.
“It was absolutely nothing, 11 or 12:00 at night to meet him on the road going or coming,” Boney remembers. “Or he would show up at our door at 9:30 or 10:00 at night and just come in and sit down and visit until whenever. But before you started talking about anything, he’d have to take your picture.”
After Wells passed away on July 28, 2015, Boney, who served as the administrator of his estate, got a first hand look at the thousands of photos Wells had taken and collected over the years.
“There were six of us in his will and what we did was we spent, I don’t know, like four weeks, three days a week, of nothing but going through his pictures. There’s a room at his home in Teachey and the whole wall was stacked up with packs of pictures,” says Boney.
The packs were distributed among Boney and the others named in the will according to the contents of the photos. Whoever could identify a family member or old home place took home a packet.
Boney guesses many of the photos date back to the 1960s.
“We didn’t find any old, old pictures,” he says. “Edgar moved like five or six times and I’m sure he took pictures back in his younger days as much as he did in his later days. But we didn’t find any from the ’30s or ’40s; that’s what I would have wanted to have found.”
Though the pictures that Boney and his wife, Norita, brought home represent only a handful of Wells’s photographic output, they show a man nearly obsessed with capturing the details of daily life: church dinners; artfully decayed buildings; blonde-haired children laughing on a newly-cut summer lawn;  a gas station attendant casually leaning on a gas pump.

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And according to Boney, hundreds and hundreds of flower photos.
“Every time he was at our house he had to go in the backyard and snap away at the flowers,” he remembers.
There’s nothing polished about the photos Boney brought home. But their power will be familiar to anyone who’s ever discovered a  box of yellowed snapshots in a thrift store or family attic. It’s the power of memory, of faces and landscapes that linger on the edge of dreams, of a time when the world seemed lit with a different, gentler sun.
They aren’t the work of a photographer schooled in composition or overly concerned with the fine details of exposure. No, it’s clear that Edgar Wells picked up his camera, aimed it and fired the shutter for the  simplest, and most profound, reason imaginable — for the pure pleasure of the thing.
“He mostly used the little throwaway cameras in his later days,” Boney remembers. “We found some older 35mm cameras also and a Polaroid, probably a dozen cameras or so in his belongings. And tube after tube of film cartridges; he didn’t throw anything away.”
In his final years, Wells moved back and forth between the Murray House in Kenansville and the Country Squire Inn in Warsaw. But he also kept a house in Teachey to store his belongings, including the photos.
“There were several houses, nice houses, that he just stored stuff in,” explains Boney. “He went in and they were… his friends.”
According to Boney, Wells took great pains to have his photos cropped and printed to the standards of his own eccentric eye.
“He would get the pictures printed and he would outline them with Post-it Notes, and he would highlight the portion that he wanted to see better and he would take those back and have them re-printed to that portion. He might have 10 made, and once he looked at them and got them like he wanted them, that was pretty much it, they went over in his box.”
Though the Boneys were able to identify many of the people and places captured in the photos  they brought home, some remain a mystery.
“This one was taken in the Teachey Presbyterian churchyard in the 1930s,” Boney says, holding up a faded black and white image of children crouched in a circle. “We don’t know who anyone is in there.”

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Another mystery photo shows a group of somberly dressed men flanked by horse-drawn carriages outside what appears to be a country store.
“Edgar’s mother was from Monroe, and this may be from there,” Boney surmises. “It may just be something he saw that he liked and had a picture made of a picture. We just don’t know.”

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Wells’s photos have inspired Boney’s own creative pursuits. Though many of the houses seen in his friend’s photos no longer exist, Boney has made miniature replicas of a handful that he remembers from childhood.
“That’s my little hobby. This was my dad’s grocery store back in the ’50s and it was right where the Teachey Post Office is today,” he says, pointing to a model perched in the shed behind his home. “I’m trying to build the houses that are no longer here.”
Even in the final days of his life, Wells kept a camera at his side, the Boneys remember.
“When he was in the nursing home and people came in he wanted a picture. He got to the point where he couldn’t press the button on the camera,” says Norita.
“Then I would have to go get them developed for him,” her husband laughs..
Until the very end, Wells remained involved with the lives of his former students, says Norita.
“He would go to their homes and meet their parents. He’d come and talk about somebody he knew and then he’d talk about their grandma or their aunts and uncles, their whole family. His memory was sharp.”
And along with his photos, Wells left James and Norita one final, appropriately unique gift — a new addition to the backyard  flowers he once loved to preserve on film.
“When he went in the nursing home I had to help move his stuff out of the Country Squire,” recalls James.
“There were two bags of daffodil bulbs that he had bought that were still in a shopping bag. And here they are. So that’s Edgar’s daffodil corner.”

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Voice of experience

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Austin Obasohan’s voice still carries the rich, singing accent of the small Nigerian village where he grew up, an accent that can, at times, deceive American ears. But when the Superintendent of Duplin County Schools speaks about education, there’s no mistaking his very clear determination to make a difference in the lives of children, a determination born of both struggle and faith.
“The best way to open up the minds of our children is education. If you have knowledge, you can impact the world, you can have conversations that will bring people together,” says Obasohan, relaxing in his office on an unusually warm winter’s day last week.
Born in 1959 in southern Nigeria in the village of Nifor, a farm community not unlike Duplin County, Obasohan’s family struggled to make ends meet. As the oldest son of seven children, much of the burden fell on his shoulders.
“It was a very, very poor community,” he remembers. “I had a lot on me. Not everybody could go to school in my village; it’s not like here where we have free education, you have to pay some fees, and we struggled with that.”
At age nine Obasohan’s parents sent him to work for his father’s uncle, a man of means who offered to pay  their son’s school tuition in exchange for his labor.
“I was like a houseboy or something. The deal was I serve them for four years and then they pay my tuition for four years,” he says.
Though he’s loath to label it as such, Obasohan’s years of indentured servitude sound little different from outright slavery.
“I never got to really eat the food that I cooked, I barely had what was left. So one day I start frying these eggs for them, and it smelled good in the kitchen,” he recalls. “Because of fear and my respect for authority, I knew I better not take anything to eat, even though nobody’s watching me while I’m cooking.
“So one day I got mad and I fried an egg for me and I ate it.  Man, they came and they saw me and they whipped my tail.”
The arrangement with his uncle ultimately ended in acrimony.
“Man, it still gets to me, even today, to think about it,” Obasohan says. “When it was time for me to go to high school he disappointed us and told us he doesn’t have any money, that the money he planned to spend on me he was going to spend expanding his wife’s business.”
After returning to Nifor, the teenager was forced to stay back a grade to give his parents time to raise money for his sister’s education. And like one of the tall tales told by grandparents all over the world, Obasohan actually did walk four miles, one way, to school each day, rain or shine.
“I walked those miles everyday because education was so important and I didn’t want to let my father down, and I knew the only way I could handle the load behind me was to get my education,” he says emphatically. “I know the only way I can get out of there and restore a sense of pride to my family was make that sacrifice.”
For years, Obasohan walked those miles in his bare feet — he wouldn’t receive a pair of tennis shoes until the 12th grade.
“We would walk and do our homework on each others backs,” he says, mimicking the maneuver. “At night there was no electricity, so we had to be creative.”
Like a lot of children small of stature and limited in resources, Obasohan also suffered at the hands of bullies.
“When I was little I was so short, so small. I thought I was going to be 5’2” max. I got whipped so bad in school by these big guys, they beat me up good. I had no economic class, I had no voice.”
Obasohan used the abuse as motivation to defeat his tormentors the only way he knew how — academically.
“So after I got beat a lot I said ‘Man, what am I going to do.’ So I turned that anger into getting more serious at academics. Now those guys wanted me to help them with their schoolwork, so they became my bodyguards.”
That drive would eventually propel the young man from his home country in search of opportunity. He would land first in the United Kingdom, where he earned his bachelor’s degree from Sussex College of Technology. Touching down in the U.S. in 1981, he received his doctorate from Appalachian State University, and his specialist and master’s degrees from Virginia State University.

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Obasohan would go on to work as a teacher and assistant principal in New York,  Virginia and North Carolina.
“That first year of teaching in 1981 (at the New York Career Institute) I said ‘Man, this is it.’ And I’ve been married to it ever since,” he says.
Coming from a deeply religious family, Obasohan said he drew comfort from his faith during those early days in the States.
My mother always told me ‘If you just find the Christians, the people who have the same faith as you, then adjusting to the culture will not be difficult. It’s the same way all over world, whatever faith you chose, it’s the same way of worshiping the same way of doing things.”
In 2008 Obasohan took over the superintendent’s job at Selma City Schools in Alabama. Two years later, he was hired by the Duplin County Board of Education to head up the county’s school system.
Obasohan said his goal was always to serve as an administrator, a role he knew would allow him to implement policies benefiting students and educators alike.
”I was seeing the professional practices that were occurring, the policy implementation that was occurring in the schools where I was working, and I knew I wanted to treat these kids better than that,” he explains.
As the father of three children with his wife, Uyiosa (daughter Modesty, and sons Justice and Trust) Obasohan has seen the sacrifices he made during his own childhood pay off in front of his eyes.
“I tell them the stories of what I went through. They don’t have to walk to school, and I’m just so happy we were able to give them a better life,” he says.
The young boy who once bore the brunt of cruel classmates has grown into a passionate defender of bullying victims.
“People don’t understand what bullying does,” he states. “Bullying is a way of oppressing others, taking other people’s rights away, and it’s just wrong. It really destroyed me when I was growing up.”
Now in his seventh year at Duplin County Schools, Obasohan said he remains as committed as ever to providing the best educational opportunities for each and every student.
“Myself, and my community had no resources at all,” he says of his early life in Nigeria. “I want every child to know that circumstances do not define your destiny. It is how you respond to your circumstances. Every challenge I went through I saw as an assignment to make a difference.
Obasohan said he still lives by the words of his 90-year-old mother, who he talks to by phone every day.
“My mother always told me: ‘It’s better to say this is the spot where a man was killed for standing for what is right, than to say this is the last spot where we saw the man before he ran away.’”
“You can’t choose an assignment you’re not willing to die for; education is what I’m willing to die for.”

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Crazy Mary’s divine playground

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Mary Paulsen says she heard the voice of God for the first time in 1996. The message was clear: construct a village in her front yard for the 6,000 dolls she had accumulated since childhood, when she would rescue discarded toys from trash bins around her Sunset Beach neighborhood.

Two years later, Paulsen received another decree from on high, this one with instructions to take brush and paint to canvases of window glass, illustrating her visions of colorful creatures both holy and psychedelically secular. The third and final mandate came five years ago—collect bottles, any kind of bottles, and use them as glass siding for a new gallery.

Though she had no experience as either an artist or a carpenter, Paulsen wasn’t particularly troubled by the new direction her life had taken. “The Lord gave me visions in my head; he gave me the knowledge of how to do all these things,” she explains.

Through a process that’s as hard to define as the place itself, Paulsen has managed to combine her spiritual directives into a sprawling fantasia equal parts childhood wonderland and Gothic nightmare — Mary’s Gone Wild Folk Art Garden and Doll Village.

Located a few miles off U.S. 17 in the small Brunswick County community of Supply, the village unwinds like a mashup of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” “Sanford and Son,” and “The X-Files.” It also recalls Paradise Garden, the rambling sculpture museum created by another well known — and divinely inspired—Southern folk artist, the late Rev. Howard Finster of Georgia.

Other than a welcome sign by the highway, the only greeting offered visitors to the village is written on a piece of cardboard taped to a dusty curio cabinet:

“Remember if

you steal

from here you have just

stole from

the Lord not me

and He will be your judge & jury

amen”

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“I don’t know whether to be impressed or freaked out.”

So says Brian Weber, a Jacksonville native on vacation with his family, as he navigates a series of lopsided treehouses that tower over the village’s entrance. The reaction is understandable — Mary Paulsen’s singular vision made reality is, undeniably, both impressive and freaky.

The main village consists of large-scale dollhouses, each roughly the size of a small shed, which have been constructed to represent specific themes. Bible verses, cryptic quotes, and bits of Paulsen’s singular advice decorate many of the walls. Dolls in various states of ruin and undress peer out from behind boxes or beneath weeds. Several staircases lead nowhere or simply terminate in mid-air. And throughout, nearly every available space is overflowing with the decaying odds and ends of daily life: rotary telephones, novels, coffee mugs, rooster figurines — they’ve all found a home in Paulsen’s other worldly art project.

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Each dollhouse leaves its own, peculiar impression. In the school building, wall length paintings of cartoon characters Tweety Bird and Sylvester guard over an assortment of dusty children’s toys, sports trophies, and comic books. A sign at the school’s entrance declares, “Jesus Christ is Lord over this school and over all this village.”

One of the most striking buildings is the chapel, a quaint mauve and ochre hut with an interior that is either charming or unsettling, depending on one’s attitude towards inanimate toys shaped like blank-eyed children. On each side of the chapel’s small alter a congregation of ragged dolls, some dressed in their Sunday finery, others sporting Bubble Yum T-shirts and gypsy scarves, sit expectantly in miniature pews. Watching over it all, a weathered watercolor of Jesus rests atop a grime covered organ, his eyes turned toward windows painted with images of dancing angels.

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Navigating Paulsen’s surreal playground, visitors will find little in the way of guideposts or explanations. Some may be left with the inescapable feeling that there is meaning, dancing just at the edge of consciousness, hidden in the juxtapositions of the commonplace and the bizarre, the religious and the ribald.

It would take days, weeks maybe, just to see, much less make sense of it all.

 

Out back behind the dollhouses in the Folk Art Garden, Mary Paulsen is bent over a new project, trawl in hand. Slapping mortar around the base of one green jar after another, she carefully places them around a metal hoop stretched over a small garden of flowers.

Dressed in a light blue top and matching slacks, her copper hair ruffling in the slight breeze, the 66-year-old is relaxed and in rare humor.

“Sometimes I look this good and sometimes I look even worse,” she jokes, breaking into an infectious cackle. “Most people my age don’t do as much as I’m used to doing. The Lord has kept me in good health. I still climb ladders and hammer nails.”

Paulsen’s latest project is situated between several buildings, composed mostly of bottles and painted windows, that are startlingly different than those in the dollhouse village. Stepping into those structures is not unlike walking into a church, the rooms aglow with light filtered through their multi-hued glass walls.

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Across the street, a haughty, scarlet haired mannequin in a yellow polka dot bikini beckons the curious towards Paulsen’s art gallery, which contains hundreds of her larger than life, day glow window paintings of frolicking mermaids, amorous fish, waltzing turtles and other improbable wildlife.

Paulsen remembers her family was initially less than enthused with her artistic calling.  “They thought I’d gone off the deep end. They kept telling me I should do something useful. But they stopped talking when I did my first painting and had it sold  for $80 before 10:00 the next morning.”

Paulsen says visitors come from across the U.S. and beyond to take home one of her original works. “People say it wouldn’t be a vacation without if they didn’t stop here. Some of them have started what they call ‘Mary’s Rooms’ with my art that they’ve collected.”

Paulsen donates a portion of the proceeds from her art sales to Feed the Children, a nonprofit hunger relief organization.

Though her life has seen its share of heartache — both her father and first husband were killed in accidents at sea — the woman some have labeled “Crazy Mary” seems at peace with the turn towards the alternative her life has taken. Her newfound carpentry skills even helped bolster her romantic life — the artist and her current husband, Paul, were married in the chapel dollhouse.

“I’ve done a few wedding’s there,” notes Paulsen, who also happens to be an ordained minister.

And in her sixth decade,  the young girl who once rescued unwanted dolls is still recycling her neighbor’s discarded goods. According to Paulsen, most of the bottles and windows she uses throughout the Folk Art Garden and Doll Village are donated.

“It’s like the things I need just materialize when I start a project,” she remarks, sweeping her hand across an adjacent lot filled with stacks of glass materials she’s yet to find a use for.

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According to Paulsen, the Smithsonian has already laid claim to her schoolhouse. Beyond that, she said she’s given little thought to what will become of her life’s work after she’s gone.

“I hope my grandyoungins might want to take it over and carry on, but you never can tell about that,” she says.

In the end, it matters little whether Paulsen is divinely inspired or touched with madness: her mission to create a space outside the confines of the “normal” world is a holy one, either way.

“There’s nothing here that’s gonna’ hurt anyone; it’s here for everyone to walk around and look at,” she explains. “It’s here to show that there are still good things in this Earth. We already have enough bad.”

 

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New Bern’s silent sanctuary

Growing up in New Bern during the late 1970s and early ’80s, I always thought of Cedar Grove Cemetery as the center of my riverfront hometown. For reasons having little to do with geography, the roughly two and half acre plot of land seemed to represent an unofficial demarcation point between New Bern’s fascinatingly derelict historic district and the newer city of Winn-Dixie grocery stores, mall arcades, and auto dealerships.

Behind its walls embedded with shells, mollusks, and other river invertebrates was a world older even than the city’s towering Masonic Temple and Harvey Mansion (though not quite as old as Tryon Palace). The Spanish moss draped cedar trees that gave the cemetery its name and the archaically alien mausoleums stood in even starker contrast to a modern society that seemed increasingly infatuated with surface gleam, entertainment and “that new car smell.”grave12

If I had known even a portion of Ceder Grove’s history back then, I would have had even more reason to be enchanted with the burying ground. Established in 1800, the cemetery was owned by Christ Episcopal Church until 1853, when it was transferred to the City of New Bern. According to local historians, it’s almost certain that the cemetery was established in response to the yellow fever epidemics of 1798-99. During the epidemic “so many persons succumbed that at night trenches were dug in the Christ Episcopal church yard in a line near the adjoining property to the northwest… and the bodies were buried there indiscriminately,” reads one contemporaneous account.

After 1802 the cemetery became the major New Bern burial ground. The grave markers and cemetery records read like a “Who’s Who” of 19th and 20th century North Carolina’s most influential citizens: William Gaston, congressman, writer, state supreme court justice, and author of the North Carolina state song; William Williams, a portrait artist who painted from life the only Masonic portrait of George Washington; Moses Griffin, who established a free school and served the state throughout his life; John Stanly, lawyer, politician and public servant; and Mary Bayard Clarke, 19th century New Bern poet and writer.

With a good map a visitor might even locate the grave of perhaps New Bern’s most famous son, Caleb Bradham, who concocted his Pepsi-Cola formula in a local drugstore in 1893.

Cedar Grove Cemetery also bears witness to the region’s brief but lethal engagement in the Civil War. At the cemetery’s mid-point a bronze Confederate soldier rises 18 feet above its granite column, parade rifle at rest, a canon ball propped by his right foot and a sword slung at his side. The monument sits above a vault where approximately 67 Confederate soldiers are interred. A Latin inscription at the statue’s feet reads, “Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori,” (“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”)

But for all its famous dead and memorials to history’s murderous advance, Cedar Grove Cemetery may be more well known among tourists for its looming black entrance arch than its celebrity occupants. Built from the same “shell stone” as the cemetery’s wall, legend has it that if the arch “weeps” or “bleeds” its sticky, rust colored ooze on a pallbearer passing beneath, the unlucky individual will soon be the guest of honor at his or her own funeral procession.

Inscribed over the arch gates is a hymn composed by Francis Lister Hawks, grandson of Tryon Palace architect John Hawks:

“Still hallowed be this spot where lies

Each dear loved one in earth’s embrace

Our God their treasured dust doth prize

Man should protect their resting place.”

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In 1972, Cedar Grove Cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today, three and a half decades after I first toured its grounds as a young boy, the cemetery is part of a downtown that has seen massive revitalization, as the city long ago embraced its heritage and earmarked funds to preserve its historical structures.

For me, the cemetery now feels more than ever like a sanctuary, from the renovated old homes and parks that draw the tourists and from the big box stores that have invaded New Bern’s business district. An island, for the living and the dead, carved from an older and stranger world. I drive past its walls sometimes just to remind myself that it’s still there, and that I am too.

 

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