A letter from a former board member
It was 'the bad boys' school', or so my older sons told their little brother until my friends Pauline Donahue and Monica Villars bought the Svea School at auction in 1987. Then it became a dream, and later a reality. Thirty-one years later, it is the place that I can say brings tears of joy and satisfaction to my eyes. It is a place of creativity, determination, and commitment. And while not quite finished, I marvel at this schoolhouse on the prairie and what it took to build it into what it is today and will be in the future.
Soon after Donahue and Villars purchased the schoolhouse, DEMO inc, the non-profit, came into being. I was tapped to be one of its original board members. I'm not sure what in my experience qualified me to be on the board at that time, but I'd been involved and helped to create other non-profits in the area (Theatre: Dreamland Il in Benson, for example), knew about a few things like grant writing and non-profits, and I loved the Arts and the passion these two women shared for the "idea" of creating a center for the Arts on the edge of the rich farm land that surrounded the Svea School.
Those first meetings were filled with the excitement of goal setting and with the reality that this would be no quick fix, no overnight sensation that everyone would embrace and help come true. It would be a challenge. Initially, we rocked back and forth between success and failure like infants in a basket cast on rough seas, having to learn, like the fundraising babies we were, the ropes required to navigate the difficulties of planning and taking on such an enormous task. This was before the real work on the Svea School even began. Thankfully, mingled with those worries about "would anyone show up" for fund raisers was a great deal of laughter, camaraderie, and a determined belief that DEMO and the Svea School would become more than an empty promise of possibilities.
Creativity has always been the cornerstone of DEMO inc, and of the values that Donahue and Villars espouse. I co-taught an early DEMO class at the local community college in DEMO's first year or two, adding my skills in teaching writing to their estimable ones in paper making and book structures. Later, as the Senior Events Manager at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, their lessons were shared with hundreds of children at Fall Festival. As a mentor/ teacher with the National Writing Project's Tampa Bay and its summer writing programs for children in West Central Florida more than 20 years later, the lessons and examples learned at DEMO continued not only on my behest, but through countless others who are artists, teachers, and community volunteers, repeating those lessons and making them their own. The Svea School and classes taught by DEMO spawn and help develop creativity locally, but they also create a long-lasting flow of ideas that grow, adapt, and benefit children and adults beyond the county, West Central Minnesota, and its Minnesota borders. Early on, Villars & Donahue brought in the Savannah College of Art and Design as a collaborator. Other groups also joined the effort, as did adults and students from across the state. Collaboration and creativity have long gone hand in hand when it comes to Demo inc and its model.
I had the pleasure of re-visiting DEMO this spring in May for an afternoon. Within three years of first work with DEMO, I relocated to the Twin Cities where I became a professional event planner, serving in positions where my experience and training were for a while used to benefit DEMO from afar. The philosophy of "give, get, or get out" for board members that strengthens and supports organizations is one I learned while working with organizations that hosted quarter million-dollar-a-year galas and fund raisers in the Twin Cities area, but what I really wanted to see in each of those projects and organizations I worked with was the determination that I had seen first in Donahue and Villars, the women who inspired my increased interest in non-profit volunteerism, who feed my involvement and perhaps your own. Determination is all about their active and ongoing fund and friend raising on behalf of Demo inc It is their organization, but it is also yours and the organization of every person who has taken a DEMO class, volunteered at an event, donated or supported the non-profit through attending, bidding on, and taking home an auction item. Yes, Donahue and Villars, are Demo inc and today they are as much the Svea School as those children who attended the school until its closing in 1961. They fundraise. Create. Clean. Build. Mow. Paint. Remodel. Refinish. Teach. And they inspire. Their determination is a gift of love for their community and for the Arts. Walking through the building each time I've visited over the past ten years brings the same reaction it did this spring. Tears of joy. Tears of gratitude. Tears of amazement and hope. And I am always lost for words something unusual for me — because of the determination that has and is paying off in rebuilding the Svea School in its own footprints but with a much more colorful and decorative soul.
With their tenacious spirits, Donahue and Villars worked through those first years of "what in the world do we do now" to a place where there is a pattern and plan. Much of their efforts still come from their own pocketbooks, from their own sweat and tears. There is a commitment that makes Demo inc work and that makes the Svea School a great example not only of rural Minnesota historical preservation but also one of the powers of Art in the world in which we live. Svea School is there not just for this generation but for the ones that follow.
In 36 years, when the school celebrates its 116 anniversary, I hope to be there standing along-side Donahue and Villars, celebrating their great commitment to their dream and to education, but also will cheer on the small part in building for Creative minds and hands in West Central Minnesota that we have all participated in over the past 36 plus years. I encourage all of you to continue this good work, and to do what you can, where you can, to spread the word and the pride you have in what is happening on the edge of farmland, and truly at the heart of what we all believe is possible with the right amount of creativity, determination and commitment. With these, anything is possible.
Janell Marmon, Mayville, North Dakota
Retired educator, writer, former DEMO Inc Board Member