Braxton Thalberg, 13, of Grinnell was honored in May 2022 with the Iowa Motion Picture Association “Award of Achievement for Best Actor” for his part as Justin, in the Iowa-based feature film, Charcoal Skies. The film centers around Deena (Emily Portner), a single mother, and her 11-year-old son, Justin (Braxton). Deena is struggling to navigate a delicate and confusing relationship with her reclusive, artistic son. Mill Creek Entertainment released the film on Jan. 17, and it is now available on iTunes, Microsoft, Google, Vudu, Amazon, Comcast, Cox, Cablevision and Spectrum.
By J.O. Parker
The family drama, Charcoal Skies, featuring Grinnell’s Braxton Thalberg, is now available from various digital retailers.
Mill Creek Entertainment released the film on Jan. 17, and it is now available on iTunes, Microsoft, Google, Vudu, Amazon, Comcast, Cox, Cablevision and Spectrum.
Braxton, 13, the son of Wade and Cecelia Thalberg of Grinnell, is a seventh grader at Grinnell Middle School.
The film centers around Deena (Emily Portner), a single mother, and her 11-year-old son, Justin (Braxton). Deena is struggling to navigate a delicate and confusing relationship with her son.
With limited parenting skills, Deena tries to understand her reclusive, artistic son who wants to be the next Vincent van Gogh.
“Justin doesn’t like to associate with other kids or want to leave the solace of his bedroom,” noted info on the film. “His recent diagnosis of having a schizotypal disorder (early schizophrenia) only complicates matters.”
Although an elderly neighbor woman provides Deena and Justin with solid support and guidance, their ordinary lives are difficult in the small, working-class city. Through chance encounters and tragic events, they both find meaningful connections and learn to accept themselves and each other.
The film was written by Beth Hinde who along with her husband, Danny Hinde, were the executive producer of the project. The film was under the direction of Bill Cooper and was filmed in June 2021 in Cedar Rapids over an 18-day period.
The film features 56 actors and actresses along with additional staff including Emily Portner, Braxton Thalberg, Ben Rollins (Gods of No Mercy, Unhuman Nature), Bill Cooper (Rise Against the Fall, The Great War), Ernest Howard (Same Girl, Halfway House) and Wes Worthing (The Fence, Peace Patch).
The movie was originally slated for production pre-COVID. Hinde had cast a lead actor for the Travers’ role four years ago. With the later than anticipated production of the movie, that actor left for other obligations. Hinde said she knew Wade through other projects and that is how the connection with Braxton was made.
“I told Wade, ‘Hey, let’s have Braxton read for me,’” said Hinde in an earlier interview.
“This was Braxton’ first feature film,” said Hinde. “Not only is he talented, he was a true professional throughout.”
The film was an official selection in the Columbia Film Festival. Charcoal Skies was a finalist at the AFIN International Film Festival in Australia.
“Having Mill Creek Entertainment pick up the project was beyond my wildest dreams,” noted Hinde.
Braxton was recognized in May 2022 by the Iowa Motion Picture Association with the “Award of Achievement for Best Actor” in the feature film category for his work in Charcoal Skies. Braxton was up against five adults and another child actor in receiving the award.
“Saying I am excited about the release of this film would be an understatement,” added Hinde. “It took years of setbacks, cancelations, and rewrites. It may be cliché to say things happen for a reason, but in this case, I totally believe it.”
“Things went awry many times, but the day we started shooting, everything went off without a hitch,” Hinde said. “This was the effort of many people, who without them, this would not have been possible.”
Wade, who has been acting in commercials, movies and a few television shows during the last five plus years, and Braxton work through the Peak Agency in Des Moines.
“I’m really excited for everyone to be able to see this film,” said Braxton. “Everyone worked very hard to get this filmed during Covid, which was a challenge. It’s filmed entirely in Iowa so I hope everyone here gets a chance to watch it.”
Leah Keller, left, and Melissa Gary, right, established Chris’ Heart Fund in April 2022 to benefit local families across Poweshiek County who are facing disaster or hardship by meeting immediate needs to lessen the burden of a crisis. The fund is named in honor of Leah’s late husband, Chris Keller, who died in the aftermath of the derecho in August 2022. The two ladies were recently honored by the Greater Poweshiek Community Foundation for their work in helping others.
By J.O. Parker
Turing tragedy into action is something that Leah Keller and Melissa Gary took to heart early last year when the duo established Chris’ Heart Fund.
The fund benefits local families across Poweshiek County who are facing disaster or hardship by meeting immediate needs to lessen the burden of a crisis.
It was set up to honor Melissa’s brother and Leah’s late husband, Chris Keller, who was killed in the aftermath of the derecho in August 2020.
Melissa came up with the idea for the fund and she shared it with Leah and the two worked together to establish the fund in April 2022.
“I wouldn’t have done anything without her,” said Melissa.
Since establishing the fund, Leah and Melissa said four families have been helped with everything from gas money to paying their rent and also providing food at a funeral luncheon.
“We were also able to give a small gift to each of our Poweshiek County Officers during this holiday season,” said Leah.
Chris was known for his generosity and love for the Brooklyn community. At the time of his death, Chris was one month shy of serving 18-years on the Brooklyn Fire Department, three of which he was fire chief. He was employed by the Brooklyn Municipal Utilities.
When asked to share thoughts on her late husband, Leah said it would take days to tell you everything she would want others to know about him.
“I can sum it up by saying, ‘Chris was one of the most amazing, caring people you could meet,’” Leah said of her late husband. “We wanted to be able to honor Chris by continuing to give to others just as he always did.”
The Greater Poweshiek Community Foundation (GPCF) recently recognized and honored Leah and Melissa for their work with Chris’ Heart Fund.
Leah and Melissa actively seek out families that might benefit from a helping hand when their needs are greatest. Anyone can reach out to Melissa (641-990-0095) or Leah (641-990-4561) at any time if they know of someone in need.
“We then take the request to our board and do what we can to help ease a little bit of that burden,” said Leah.
Donations to the fund are tax deductible and checks can be sent to the Greater Poweshiek Community Foundation in care of Chris’ Heart Fund, P.O. Box 344, 1510 Penrose St., Grinnell, Iowa, 50112. Donations can also be made on-line at greaterpcf.org.
Leah said every donation helps keep Chris’ loving, giving heart alive.
“It means the world to us to have others donating in honor of Chris,” she said.
Elizabeth Hansen, a now retired Grinnell High School English and Speech teacher and author of Daisy’s Tale, left, is shown with illustrator Makaella Mitchell during the Grinnell Jingle Bell Holiday. Hansen and Mitchell collaborated on the book project. Since publishing the book, Hansen has partnered with the Greater Poweshiek County Foundation (GPCF) and the Pioneer Bookshop in Grinnell to raise awareness about pet adoptions at PALS (Poweshiek Animal League Shelter) located south of Grinnell. Books are $10 and can be purchased at the Pioneer Bookshop and at GPCF.
By J.O. Parker
A now retired Grinnell High School English and Speech teacher and a local illustrator have collaborated to publish a children’s book.
“Daisy’s Tale,” by Elizabeth Hansen with illustrations by Makaella Mitchell, a former student of Hansen’s, was released in October 2022.
The book is a “mostly true” story about two rescue dogs who came to live with Hansen, her husband and two kids.
“They were our beloved family pets,” said Hansen. “I always wanted to capture their unique friendship and how they became best friends.”
Since publishing the book, Hansen has partnered with the Greater Poweshiek County Foundation (GPCF) and the Pioneer Bookshop in Grinnell to raise awareness about pet adoptions at PALS (Poweshiek Animal League Shelter) located south of Grinnell.
Everyone who donates $10 to GPCF or purchases a copy of the book at the Pioneer Bookstore for the same amount receives the book with all the proceeds going to PALS.
The idea for the book came about in the spring of 2016. Hansen, who spent 33-years teaching at Grinnell High School, was asked to teach Education 341, the English Language Arts (ELA) Methods course that semester at Grinnell College while education professor, Jean Ketter, was on a sabbatical.
In one of our class discussions, Hansen said a student asked her about the challenges she faced as a teacher.
“I told the class about how I was teaching a new Capstone course (at GHS) that required students to identify an area of passion, do research, write a paper and create a product based on the research,” she said. “It was challenging because I had never been through that process before.”
Hansen said the student looked at her and said, “You can change that.” Meaning that not only was I going to teach the class, I was also now going to do the work my students were doing.
“What an eye-opening experience,” said Hansen. “My passion as a new grandmother was reading books to my granddaughter, so I decided to research writing a children’s book with the thought that the story about Daisy was one I wanted to tell.”
Hansen said she wrote the book during the Capstone course, the third-trimester in 2016, in about 8 – 10 weeks.
When thinking about an illustrator for the book, Hansen remember Mitchell. She said Mitchell was in her Capstone class her senior year and would often be drawing during class.
“Knowing that some students learn more effectively when they are engaging their brains through creating art, I asked if I could see her work,” recalled Hansen. “I was so impressed and began to notice her artwork displayed outside of the GHS art room.”
Six years later, after Mitchell had graduated high school, Hansen said she saw her at a local bank and thought about her wonderful illustrations and how they needed to be released. She thought they would be a perfect fit for her book, which had been stored on her computer, so she asked Mitchell if she might be interested in collaborating on the book project.
“She is a gifted artist and I knew she would capture the essence of the main characters,” noted Hansen.
Mitchell, who has been doing graphic artwork for about 10 years, said working on the book with Hansen was a fun project.
“I felt so lucky to help her with this process and illustrating her adorable pups,” said Mitchell.
It took her about two weeks to complete the illustrations for the book project. The book features 10-15 pieces of art, all hand drawn, inked and colored with colored pencils.
“She gave me an idea and it was so fun to run with it,” said Mitchell. “Liz was an absolute delight to work with as well. I couldn’t pass up that cute of a story. Plus, anything with dogs makes everything better. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to work with.”
Once the two collaborated on the book project, Hansen said she spoke with her family about the book and they encouraged her to reach out to Linda Foegan, an Atlantic, Iowa-based book designer who had worked with her family in 2015 to put together a book of stories about her father after he passed away.
She also had the students in her Capstone class read the book drafts and provide feedback. Other mentors she called included Alana Whisenand, a GHS English teacher and mom who gave great advice about language. Chelsey Kolpin, the GHS/GMS teacher librarian, was also a great resource in making the book possible.
“And one of my former students, Jaylene Hall, was another inspiration as she was a published author as an eighth grader,” added Hansen.
Hansen said all ages will like the story and message in “Daisy’s Tale.”
“The book is written to appeal to beginning readers with words that they know and will be able to read aloud,” she said.
After retiring from teaching at Grinnell High School in 2017, Hansen joined the Grinnell College Office of Community Partnerships, Planning, and Research in June 2017 and became the Executive Director of the Grinnell Newburg School Foundation in 2019.
Hansen and her husband, Jay, have two adult children, Rachel, a third grade teacher in Ankeny Schools, and her husband and two daughters and Caleb, who currently lives in Jersey City, N.J.
As for the future, Hansen said she would like to continue to write and is currently collaborating with her 7-year-old granddaughter on a project.
In addition to supporting PALS, copies of “Daisy’s Tale” have also been donated to Drake Community Library and the two Grinnell elementary school libraries.
“A huge thanks to all who assisted me with the development and publishing of this book and to everyone who has supported PALS by purchasing a copy,” said Hansen.