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Retracing biblical footsteps PDF Print E-mail
Written by Isaac Kreider   

Nicole Brandt explores setting of the Bible in ancient Near East

Camping near the Dead Sea on the other side of the globe is nowhere near like home for a lot of people, but for Nicole Brandt, it might have been the next best thing.

“I was somewhere that it just felt right to be,” Brandt said about one of her week-long hikes in the Judean desert with a newfound friend. “The majority of our hike was uninterrupted by the presence of other people, which meant that I had time to think and really get a feel for the land and an understanding of the region.”

Brandt, a 2010 Holyoke High School graduate, has recently returned home to Holyoke after four months of adventuring and volunteer work in Israel, Jordan and Egypt. Setting out on her journey in early January, she was aiming to better understand some of the areas where events in the Bible took place.

She graduated in May 2014 from Nebraska Christian College in Papillion, Neb., having majored in biblical studies with a concentration in biblical interpretation. During her studies, she maintained a strong emphasis on biblical languages and context of the Bible.

During college, she had spent an exciting week in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. After graduation, Brandt began finalizing plans to make this latest journey to the ancient Near East region.

Nicole Brandt is pictured with one of the Egyptian pyramids in the background. Brandt recently returned from a four-month adventure through the landscapes of the Bible in Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

To supplement her explorations, she connected with a host farm through WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms — or some prefer Willing Workers on Organic Farms — and is a network of national organizations that help place volunteer workers on organic farms all over the world.

Her trek around and through the mountains near the Dead Sea, nestled along the Israel/Jordan border, came during some time off between two such farms.

On the first farm, “Goats with the Wind,” she, of course, tended to goats, assisted with cheesemaking and helped in the on-site restaurant that the family runs. She noted the highly Arab lifestyle and how her stone and plaster room was exposed to the outside elements and made for a true native experience.

“It’s such a good way to learn something new,” Brandt stated. “The work helped me to appreciate herding culture’s place within the land.”

The second farm she stayed at, named “The Tender Way,” was a preserve for rare and medicinal plants in the area. At this farm, hundreds of plants were closely tended in greenhouses, and she did a lot of gathering, drying and preserving herbs and making tinctures.

“I kind of got stuck there because everything was so interesting to me,” Brandt reminisced. “I definitely want to be able to use natural methods to help myself and others.”

Beyond working with the herbs of the farm, she also learned to use a scythe and how to make bread and soap, both of which she noted are important and “pretty exciting.”

Several other field trips easily fit into Brandt’s schedule. She visited places like the ancient cities of Tel Dan, Masada and Qumran. Qumran is an archaeological site in Israel’s West Bank and is best known as the area where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

“It was pretty cool seeing a place where peo0ple dedicated themselves to the study and preservation of the Word of God and other texts,” Brandt said. “Everything about Qumran was amazing.”

Brandt also ventured from her “home base” of Israel and traveled into Jordan to the areas of Petra, Wadi Rum and Amman. Later, she also made her way farther south into Egypt, hitting Cairo and Alexandria, exploring everything from libraries and museums to catacombs.

Nicole Brandt stands above the Treasury at Petra during her recent journey to the ancient Near East. Petra is a city hewn of sandstone in Jordan.

“It seemed like on every hill you find ancient cities, lots of caves, remnants of city walls and various Greco-Roman preservations that groups are working to keep up,” Brandt described. “I also saw a lot of destruction — places that had been bombed and the aftermath that followed.”

Brandt shared details about how she would often make “friends for a week” with whom she would travel for a while before parting ways. A particular aspect that she keenly observed was how many people were genuinely concerned for her well-being.

“I stood out in some places, but lots of people were crazy chivalrous,” Brandt added. “It really taught me a lot about acceptance and being open to differences. Interacting with Muslims, Jews and Christians — people surprised me.”

Despite standing out in appearance, she otherwise fit right in.

“In Egypt, I was fortunate to get to ride horses out by the pyramids at night,” Brandt excitedly explained. “That’s something the locals do, not a touristy thing. It was a spectacular experience. I felt like I was in a movie.”

Undecided on what the next chapter of her life story will contain, Brandt is looking into a few Chicago-area seminaries as well as graduate schools in California and Washington, D.C., where she might possibly study ancient Near East history.

“Part of me thinks traveling forever would be wonderful,” she mused cheerfully. “But part of me is strongly considering grad school and the desire to contribute to a program in that way. I will certainly look to go back to that region. Someday I would love to return as a professor and lead groups.”

There is no way to fit four months of incredible adventures into one newspaper story. More thorough depictions of Brandt’s journeys can be found on her blog, “Can I Tell a Story?,” at

Holyoke Enterprise May 28, 2015

Memorial Day program remembers the fallen PDF Print E-mail
Written by Darci Tomky   

“Today, as I think of this flag, I think of fallen soldiers.”

Spc. 4th Class Gary A. Unrein addressed a small crowd at Holyoke Cemetery Monday, May 25, during a Memorial Day service that honored and remembered fallen members of the country’s military.

With a loud, booming voice, Unrein recounted his service in the Army during the Vietnam War. “Gary, do your duty, serve, come home safe,” his father told him in 1967.

“There’s no ifs, ands or buts. You guys are going to Vietnam. We have a war going on,” Unrein was told during training.

“We trained for one purpose — to go to Vietnam,” he said.

Spc. 4th Class Gary A. Unrein passionately addresses the crowd during Monday’s Memorial Day program at Holyoke Cemetery.  

—Enterprise photo

Instead, Unrein found himself stationed in Germany, where he drove for an officer for 17 months, ready for combat at any moment.

“The Army colors, the colors are blue, to show the world that we are true,” Unrein sang as he concluded his address with lyrics from an Army cadence.

Dick Jones, commander of American Legion Post 90, reminded attendees that this holiday began as Decoration Day May 30, 1868, when the Grand Army of the Republic established it as a day to use flowers to decorate the graves of those who had died in the Civil War.

Jones and Richard Brown read the memorial honor roll, and Terry Barth said the Memorial Day prayers.

Guest vocalist for the service was Dani Brandt. She and Greg Wakeman played taps, and the honor guard performed a salute.

Placing of the memorial wreaths for VFW Post 6482 and American Legion Post 90 was done by Caroline Daise and Eunice Oltjenbruns.

Holyoke Enterprise May 28, 2015

School adopts new salary schedule with $33,500 base PDF Print E-mail
Written by Brenda Johnson Brandt   

It’s been 10 years since the certified staff salary schedule has been updated; base raise is $2,500

Financial constraints for the past 10 years have resulted in a decade-old salary schedule for certified staff in Holyoke School District Re-1J.

But that is going to change with the 2015-16 school year as a result of the school board approval of a new schedule at its May 19 meeting.

The new base pay will see an increase of $2,500 to $33,500 for teachers with a bachelor’s degree and one to three years of experience. For a master’s degree with one to three years of experience, the base salary has been set at $36,500.

Superintendent’s Advisory Committee members worked with Superintendent Bret Miles to develop a new pay schedule that would be competitive for new recruits, promote longevity in the district and be sustainable.

SAC members developed a draft salary schedule and attended last week’s meeting to emphasize their support for it. Members in attendance were Kerri Gardner, Kristie Pelle, Lynn Schneider, Angie Powell and Rhonda Smith.

In a new, simplified format for a salary schedule, the committee removed multiple columns for education hours beyond a degree and set two simple columns: B.A. and M.A.

Step increases for years of experience were set at $500 with a B.A. and $550 for an M.A. per year for steps 4-14, $550/$600 per year for steps 15-25 and $600/$650 per year for steps 26-40 and beyond.

The board set a goal to adjust salaries this year, and budget considerations cited some one-time state moneys for small rural districts that will be received as a result of the Rural Flexibility Bill. Detailed discussion about jump-starting a salary schedule increase with these funds ($150,000) was held.

Since the funds will not be appropriated going forward, sincere consideration was given to the sustainability of a new salary schedule to maintain funding for it in future years.

The concept of jump-starting a salary schedule change has some risk because it’s based on what is believed will happen with school finance in subsequent years.

In order for the plan to work, Miles pointed out that some assumptions would need to occur. The three assumptions include a level or growing pupil count in the district, state-funded increases to the School Finance Act that are equal to or greater than the 2015-16 increase and that there must not be large fluctuations in other costs such as health insurance, fuel or utilities.

In a contingency statement, it was noted that if the district would see a decrease in pupil count, if state funding would come in less than their assumption or if there would be a dramatic increase in some high-cost areas, the plan could be at risk.

With the reserve already at $1.2 million, the lowest point allowable by the district, a change in the assumptions would require cuts in spending.

Four considerations were noted that could be prepared for if spending cuts in the future are required. They include suspending or reducing capital projects for a year, not giving step increases, employees covering their own health insurance increase and not filling open positions.

In the end, the vote of approval for the new salary schedule reiterated that the district, board and employees must acknowledge that the need for a long-awaited and improved salary schedule justifies the risk potential for future revenue assumptions.

Miles highlighted two budget summary documents at last week’s meeting. One showed the $150,000 of Rural Flexibility dollars included in the capital projects line item. The second showed the dollars used for personnel costs to support a new teacher salary schedule.

He pointed out that both are feasible options. The first has no risk, and the second has the set of assumptions that would have to be in place in order to work. If they don’t hold, contingencies would need to be made.

All six board members present at the meeting voiced their support for the teaching staff, appreciation for the salary schedule proposal and agreement that the risk is justified in implementing a new salary schedule.

Michelle Van Overbeke applauded the collaborative effort in the salary schedule proposal. Some board members attended the staff meeting and felt the staff was well-informed about the assumptions that go into a multi-year commitment involved in a salary schedule change.

Later, when asked about classified salary schedules, Miles said they need work as well, but the district can only afford to do one at a time. He pointed out that the classified pay scale has been adjusted a few times in recent years, and he recommends focusing on teacher salaries this year and looking at classified pay in the future.

Budget parameters for the 2015-16 budget were approved last week and will guide the work in finalizing details in the budget.

The top five parameters include:

—build the preliminary budget using a student count of 592.

—balanced budget.

—personnel expenditures are the top priority.

—all options should be considered to implement a new teacher salary schedule.

—implementation of the 1:1 device program should be done with the existing technology budget.

The final five parameters are similar to past years. They include continuing to monitor class size, maintaining extended learning opportunities for at-risk students, allowing flexibility in capital projects, replenishing the reserve that is now at the lowest point allowable by the board, and continuing to explore and evaluate innovative approaches to increasing revenue.

Holyoke Enterprise May 28, 2015