Monday, October 14, 2013
Michigander Monday: Skaidrite Sparks
I'm pleased to welcome Skaidrite Sparks to Michigander Monday.
Debbie: Rita, please tell us a little about yourself.
Rita: I was actually born in two countries separated by the Atlantic Ocean. My mother originally gave birth to me in Latvia which is located on the Baltic Sea across from Sweden. Latvia's landscape is very much like Michigan with colorful changing seasons and a water wonderland with many rivers and lakes, dunes, orchards, blooming meadows, forests, farmland, and cities where educational and cultural institutions flourish. Exactly on my twentieth birthday I was re-born in Michigan as an American citizen and was renamed "Rita" which is easier to pronounce and by which I am better known in my professional life. Because I witnessed so much violence, genocide, and discrimination during WWII, it became my quest to try to make the world a better place. Education, children's welfare, and human rights have featured prominently in my professional and volunteer work. In 2006 I was honored as Lutheran Woman of the Year for my work in support of disadvantaged children. My multicultural experiences provided me with multifaceted career experiences as a librarian, university professor, human resource professional and medical practice manager. I also spent several years as a Cub Scout Den Mother when my three sons were in scouting. I enjoy travel and learning about different peoples and customs in all parts of the world.
Debbie: And, of course, we want to know all about your book.
Rita: From Flames to Freedom: Faith Rides the Rails is a memoir, based on my diaries, which recounts from a child's perspective the seldom addressed topic of how war affects refugees and children in particular. I was catapulted from a sunny childhood into the turmoil of Soviet and Nazi occupations during World War II. My childhood was engulfed in flames as our entire city burned to the ground and our family was driven from Latvia to German labor camps in cold and filthy cattle cars. Many of the civilians who were deported by force did not survive the hunger and suffering and were buried in unmarked graves along the railroad tracks. My personal witnessing of the Soviet mass round-up of thousands of Latvians for imprisonment in the Russian Gulag and watching in horror as masses of Jewish people are marched to their death by armed SS men left a permanent impression on me. I never forgave the dictators of these horrible genocides. Near the end of the war, I personally encountered Adolf Hitler face to face when he made a whistle-stop visit in an Austrian town and my classmates and I were commanded to welcome him with the Nazi salute of "Heil Hitler." I refused to raise my arm to salute this evil man who was responsible for the Holocaust and whom I certainly did not consider to be my "Fuehrer." At age ten I was not aware of the consequences my family might have to suffer as a result of my civil disobedience. But God was just, and we were saved by a miracle when American bombers leveled our town the next morning. We sought shelter in a shepherd's hut in the Austrian hills and I never had to return to the school again to face certain punishment.
Despite the bloodshed and horror I witnessed while living in trenches, cellars, and riding the rails, my story is not a tale of terror and a damaged psyche. My account written in retrospect tells of the faith, courage, and resiliency of my parents and the many angels who came to our aid in the persons of American and even enemy soldiers to help our family survive and start a new life all over again after we came to America when I was thirteen. Unfortunately history keeps repeating itself and thousands of refugees are left homeless today as a result of genocides as well as natural disasters. I hope that my story can give hope to other refugees and motivate the more fortunate among us to help others in need.
The book can be viewed at my website: fromflamestofreedom.com and is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and major bookstores.
Debbie: Other books or projects on the horizon?
Rita: I am always working on some photo essay and poems to commemorate somebody's life ranging from honoring my mother on her 90th birthday, contributing pictures to a grandchild's graduation show, to a tale of the first magic years of a great-great-granddaughter. Currently I am putting together a photo book of the amazing colors of nature weaving through the four changing seasons in Oceana County where our family has our own little woodland retreat.
Debbie: Upcoming appearances?
Rita: I have given talks in church and school organizations and am starting to arrange readings in libraries.
I will have a book signing at the Lutheran Child and Family Service Auxiliary Convention on October 17 at Our Shepherd Lutheran Church in Birmingham.
In April, 2014 I will be the speaker at the Luitheran Women's Missionary League Spring Rally.
The locations are posted on my Author Page on Amazon.com.
Debbie: Do you have a favorite Michigan bookstore? And/or a favorite Michigan library?
Rita: I have never encountered a bookstore I did not like or one that I left without buying a book. I particularly like The Book Nook in Montague where I also recently did a book talk. As a former librarian, I am partial to all libraries, particularly Madison Heights Public Library where I first started library work, my home town Royal Oak Public Library, and the University of Michigan and Oakland University Libraries where I had the privilege of working and teaching research skills. Since I have loved books all my life, I was pleased that when we took our grandson along on a trip to Australia, he picked the Library in Melbourne as one of the venues to visit though we never did see the books on deposit--the entire first floor was filled with computer stations.
Debbie: How about a favorite place in Michigan?
Rita: Michigan is blessed with being a real Water Wonderland from coast to coast and our family has enjoyed camping in many diverse State Parks and campgrounds. If I had to pick just one place, I would pick the Lake Michigan shoreline as it most reminds me of the Baltic Sea with the beautiful dunes and magnificent sunsets.
Debbie: Do you have a Michigan event or happening that you love to attend?
Rita: Michigan has so many exciting events, that again it would be difficult to pick a particular favorite. The International Fireworks on the Detroit River are spectacular, but we also never miss the fireworks on Silver Lake, Hart Lake and Hesperia in Oceana County and have enjoyed watching fireworks from a boat on Lake Michigan in Ludington. From listening to summer band concerts on the lawn of the Royal Oak Library, to small-town celebrations like the Ferry Ghost Town Days, and from cheering for the Wolverines at U-M Homecoming and Marching Band activities with fans reaching a hundred thousand, to the solitary and quiet beauty of gliding through snow-covered woods while pulled on a dogsled by a team of huskies--Michigan has unending opportunities for everyone's enjoyment.
Debbie: A few fun Michigan people we should all know about?
Rita: One of my favorite persons in Michigan is Ray Scott of Ypsilanti. Ray is a former Detroit Pistons basketball player and coach and currently serves as Ambassador for Children and Families at Wellspring Lutheran Services. This big bear of a man is filled with genuine interest in helping bring hope to children and families facing difficult circumstances. Whether it is in giving advice to a professional athlete, encouraging young children, speaking against discrimination and abuse, raising funds for foster children, giving witness to his faith in God, or putting an arm around the frail shoulders of a senior citizen, Ray's compassionate soul shines through his eyes. He makes people in all walks of life feel welcome and safe when he greets them with a big bear hug and makes everyone feel like a long-time friend.
Debbie: Something you'd like a non-Michigander to know about Michigan?
Rita: When I initially came to Michigan from New York in 1949, my classmates had warned me with stories of this being the Wild West where Cowboys and Indians were the majority population. I found Michiganders to be friendly and willing to extend a helping hand to a foreigner and a refugee like me, but it was confusing for me to read headlines about warring teams apparently made up of beasts and men beating each other on football fields while frenzied fans cheered for their favorite Wolverines, Spartans, Grizzlies, Crusaders, Tigers, Lions, Chippewas, or Ravens. Oh My! Michiganders are fiercely loyal.
Debbie: Last question. Some folks in Michigan refer to themselves as Michiganders, others as Michiganians. For our ongoing vote tally: are you a Michigander or a Michiganian?
Rita: One of my favorite places is Camp Michigania on Walloon Lake. This would make me a Michiganian.
Debbie: Michiganian it is! Rita, thank you so much for being here today for Michiganian Monday!