The April 2016 Voices in the Valley radio play “One Day in Edellen” begins with traffic noise, a screech of brakes and a voice that eerily intones, “I am silence. And I am everywhere.” But a different story starts with a different voice, one that battles silence, one that empowers St. Croix Valley-area students (and students far beyond) to find creative writing voices of their own. Stephani Atkins is the woman behind the voice. And because she’d prefer to remain behind her students’ amazing accomplishments, perhaps the best way to introduce her is in a story of her own.
Part One: Volunteer and Mother
Dina Livingston has been friends with Stephani Atkins since they attended third grade in Cottage Grove, Minn., back in 1980. Even as a child, Livingston says, Atkins loved to write, recalling the stapled-together books and scripts for plays created when they were kids. “She’s one of the best people I know,” Livingston says of her lifelong friend. “She’s always been motivated to do things that help people. She’s strong—tiny, lovely, vivacious and strong.”
Smart, too. Atkins started out in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, but felt constrained by some of the rules of journalistic writing. “I wanted to be more creative,” she says. In 1992 she graduated from Northwestern with a degree in history and a focus in culture, and completed NU’s program in secondary teaching. While at college she met her husband, with whom she eventually had four children. The young family moved to Stillwater in 1993. “There is no other place I’d rather live,” Atkins says.
For the next 20 years, Atkins devoted herself to full-time mothering and what she calls “professional volunteering.” “I never stopped writing, organizing and creating programs for youth and adults,” she says. Atkins created a three-year youth ministry curriculum and was an advocate on several fronts for public school funding. She served on nonprofit boards, including for the Stillwater Public Library Foundation, and helped plan fundraisers for other local nonprofits. Atkins even got voiceover experience by narrating the local Nutcracker ballet production. “Sometimes I worked part time for pay,” she says, “but I always chose to return to the life of a volunteer. Essentially, I had the luxury of helping wherever I was needed, remaining flexible to focus on the needs of my children as they arose.”
Part Two: Mother and Writing Advocate
But stories change, often in ways beyond our control. In 2010, Atkins’s husband was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer; he passed away in spring 2014. Now a single mother of four, Atkins was forced to reinvent herself. In early 2015 she served as a long-term English substitute teacher at Liberty Classical Academy in White Bear Lake. When she added a creative writing segment to the curriculum, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Parents asked her if she would conduct creative writing classes for their kids over the summer.
“While a lot of us might dream about developing an organization where you write with kids,” Livingston says, “Stephani will be the one to start it. And everyone will want to come.” In summer 2015, the Shire Literary Center was born. Its mission: “To nurture secondary students in their literary efforts, support their creative writing goals and provide a welcoming environment to connect with teachers, mentors, authors and with each other.”
That first summer, the Shire offered three classes at ArtReach St. Croix in Stillwater, drawing students from the Valley and as far away as the Twin Cities and River Falls, Wis. In addition, founder and executive director Atkins set up two advisory boards for the new literary center: one made up of only students and one, called the Guardians of the Shire, composed of adults. In short order, the Shire youth advisors had organized a suspense-writing workshop and scheduled it for the weekend before Halloween 2015. Twenty-five students attended the workshop, and more than 100 came to a related open house.
A winter/spring 2016 Shire class on how to write a radio play was offered, and nine students enrolled. Around that time, Mark Berriman, who was involved with the Shire, moved to a position at KLBB radio in Stillwater. Atkins recalls texting him.
“I was walking down Main Street, and I texted Mark, ‘You know what you should do? You should create a radio show called Voices in the Valley and use it to let people tell their stories.’” An hour later he called back: KLBB loved the idea. Atkins’s next brainchild: students from The Shire would write and produce a radio play, culminating in an ongoing podcast series, #hushpodcast. To fund the undertaking, she applied for a grant from the St. Croix Valley Foundation; though she had never written a grant before, she got it. An audio drama team of 18 secondary students set out to write, produce and perform, as a radio play, the first episode, “Don’t Cry Over Cold Tea,” of the (eventual) podcast series #hushpodcast. Both the prompt (“One Day in Edellen”) and the radio play (performed live at the Water Street Inn in Stillwater on July 28) are available for listening on the Shire website, theshireonline.com.
Part of Atkins’s vision for the radio play project was enlisting the help of stage and theater professionals like Alan Frechtman, who had years of experience at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul working on A Prairie Home Companion. “Stephani makes things happen,” says Frechtman. Her enthusiasm and spirit are infectious, he says: “If there are obstacles to get over, she never gives up. She’s great for kids,” he says. “She’s great for adults.” While consulted as an expert, Frechtman considers his experience with #hushpodcast an opportunity for him, too.
Part Two-and-a-Half: All of the Above
Any good storyteller knows that Part III is generally the resolution, the denouement, the winding down. For this reason, we’ll call the next phase of Atkins’s career something short of Part III, because it appears there is no let-up in her plans for tapping the creative energies of youth in the St. Croix Valley and beyond. She and her audio-drama team would like to see a newly created episode of Hush every month, and to air it the first Saturday of the month on KLBB’s Voices in the Valley.
“Once each episode is aired, it will be available as a podcast on theshireonline.com and on Soundcloud,” Atkins says. She’s working on getting the word out about Hush through the e-newsletter #hushpodcast (#hushpodcast on Google). She’s also happy to introduce the new nonprofit StoryArk, through which she plans to nurture her—and the Valley’s—ongoing love of a good story.