Tattoo baptisms

The reality of my line of work is that when students come up to me and say, “Miss, I have something to tell you,” I’ve learned brace myself; typically that phrase is followed by some sort of confession or a pregnancy announcement. But when Lisa walked into my classroom and said those words to me last year, she didn’t seem upset or panicked (as is usual with the teenage pregnancy announcement shtick) so I took a deep breath and tried to shake some of the tension out of my shoulders that had instantly accumulated there.

“What’s up?” I asked as I shuffled papers around on my desk, failing miserably at being non-chalant.

“Uhm, maybe I’ll tell you later. You look busy.”

I didn’t protest and instead tried to take a deep breath and blow it off. Inevitably “DSS happened” and I got swept away with my day teaching, completely forgetting about Lisa and the emotional cliff she had left me hanging on.

After lunch, she sauntered into my classroom for senior English. Before I could say anything, she turned her back to me and swept her hair to the side. As she did so, she revealed a tattoo reaching down her upper spine that read God is love and only love.

“Whaaaaaat?! Lis, I love it!” I stammered, allowing my pulse to slow (incredibly relieved that the thing she was dying to tell me about that morning was just a tattoo).

“You like it?” She launched into a story about how she had been on the verge of making a stupid decision after getting into a fight with her mom over the weekend. “Instead of smoking weed or something though, I decided to go for a “solo” like we learned to do at the conference in Alaska. I grabbed my coat and walked for a few hours while I thought about everything I’ve learned about God at DSS and on our trip— you know, how He’s always there for us… how He loves us… all of that. As I kept walking, I kept thinking about Eric’s words in Port Alsworth: “God is love and only love”. Before I knew it, I was standing outside a tattoo parlor. I decided I never wanted to forget those words, so I got them inked on my back; I want to live my life knowing that God loves me.”

By this point, the bell to begin class had rung and I had an audience of senior girls staring at me like I had lost my mind as I stood next to Lisa with my hands cupped over my mouth and tears running down my cheeks.

“Oh Lis. That’s beautiful. And such a big commitment for someone who wasn’t all that sure about God (let alone, Jesus) at the beginning of this school year.”

“I know, Miss. But I wanted to write it on my heart— I want knowing God’s character to change everything I do.”

By this point, I was in full on water-works mode. “Do you guys know what a baptism is?” I choked out, turning to the rest of my class. (I figured we were studying Mere Christianity and Screwtape Letters, so this conversation was mildly pertinent to the rest of my girls for academic reasons.)

“Isn’t it when someone gets dunked in water?” One of my girls pipped up.

“Usually… Does anyone know why people get baptized?” I pressed, doing my best to dry my happy/ sappy tears and put on my teacher hat.

*Crickets*

“Baptism is a public declaration of a person’s faith in Jesus. When someone gets baptized they’re saying to the world that they want to follow Jesus and live their life in a changed way because of the way He has changed them.”

I glanced around the room and met a bunch of empty, unimpressed stares before catching Lisa’s eye.

“Lis, correct me if I’m wrong… but I think that’s what you did this weekend. I think you got a Street School style baptism…?”

She smiled slyly, nodded, and took her seat.

~ ~ ~

My tears that day (as strange as they must have seemed to the rest of my students) were all joy, enhanced by the knowledge that mere months before Lis made the conscious decision to declare her love for the Lord, she doubted His existence, His goodness, His love for her (or anyone else for that matter).

Today, I sat in a similar posture as Lisa had the day before she brushed her hair to the side and revealed her new ink. With my arm extended, I chose to have someone etch Truth into me— similar to the way the body of Christ, my friends and family have done over the last year since our plane disappeared.

IMG_0750It is for freedom – Script by the lovely Katie Brown

“It is for freedom Christ has set us free.”

Those words from Galatians 5:1 are ones I have spoken to myself often since the evening of December 7th, 2016.

I will never forget the out of body experience that came with being curled on my knees on my kitchen floor, clutching the phone on which my best friend in Alaska had just delivered the news of the disappearance of Scott, Kaitlyn, Zach, Kyle, and our plane. I will never be able to stop seeing myself there, nor can I seem to forget the feeling of all of my breath leaving my body as my head was plunged back under the icy waters of grief, not even six months after Kevin and Geno’s deaths. I can still vaguely feel the way my lungs remained contracted for months, unable to fully inhale for fear of breathing in water— my own tears. A very wise friend assured me one afternoon that maybe that season of feeling like I was under water was meant to be a baptism, not the vengeful drowning of me, an “unworthy sinner” by my most Holy God. (Oh how I have kept that wisdom close to my heart.)

The words from Galatians 5:1 are those which I heard the Lord whisper to my spirit upon my first ever flight as pilot-in-command in April of 2016. As I manned the yoke in our Cherokee and screamed, “Oh my God! I’m flying!! I’m flying a plane! Who thought this was a good idea?!” like the spazz I am, I almost audibly felt him calm me: Shhhhhhh, sweet girl. I have set you free so that the freedom of the gospel might be spread to places only planes can go; it is for freedom Christ has set us free.

Those words are the ones which Scott teased me for mercilessly when I said I wanted to get them tattooed on my arm once I solo-ed in the Cherokee for my pilot’s license. In his typical snarky way, He would always extend an interpretation of the verse to include: “do not be yoked again to the slavery of the ground!” where scripture says, “stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Pilot jokes… they’re almost as bad as dad jokes… (And oh, Scott had such a knack for both.) 

Those words have been my constant reminder that the Lord has not allowed our loved ones’ deaths and Homecomings to be in vain; rather that their transference into the Heavens has been a means by which the gospel has been spread to the very ends of the earth— the most remote Alaskan villages, the Cambodian countryside, humble living rooms all over the US as Julie’s story has been written and read, and all over the world as the body of Christ has rallied our little Alaskan village in prayer.

Those words are a reminder of my calling in life: to be unashamed of the Freedom I carry within my bones because of what Christ has done on the cross, and to call others into that glorious Freedom.

So today, a day where my own grief and the grief I carry in my heart for my dear friends seems strong enough to suck me back under the icy waters, I chose to take a leaf out of Lisa’s book and baptize myself in Truth:

Even here, even now, the Truth remains that God is love and only love. In the midst of trials and sorrow, anniversaries of deaths, and the reminders of dreams and hopes deferred, my God is a God of freedom.

Christ came that we may be set free– that we might proclaim the beautiful, even if tragic, ways that His coming into world and our lives has changed everything.

Jesus, make our hearts believe.

Broncos2016

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Like the Lotus flower: When you find yourself standing in a field of sewage…

7 time zones in 3 weeks, sleep deprivation, transition, anger, loss, the roller coaster of grief: I’ve written about it all before, but as a refresher on context, that’s exactly where I was when my feet hit Cambodian soil for the first time in June 2016.  I’ve mentioned before that I was an emotional hurricane, but somehow that phrase still seems to fall short when I try to explain where I was at mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually when I boarded my plane leaving Denver last June. I’d considered backing out of the trip last minute. I tried to keep my little hurricane heart in Colorado, but the Lord scooted me onto a plane, despite my best intentions.

I was so broken and exhausted by my own inner turmoil leaving for my month abroad last year that I slept the entire 20 hours worth of flights from Denver to Siem Reap and a good 10 to 12 hours worth of layovers in between. When we finally made it to our hotel in Cambodia, I slept for another 7 hours. For those of you that are as bad at math as I am, that’s roughly 40/48 hours unconscious to the world. Like I said, not exactly the healthiest I’ve ever been…

Our first few days (weeks?) in Southeast Asia, my head was reeling.

The traffic. The pollution. The incessant noise– both in the streets and in the hotel rooms that I shared with my students. I was trapped in my own bitter inner monologue with the Lord and whenever I managed to get outside of my own brain for a moment, I flipped into sensory overload and wanted nothing more than to climb deep inside myself to find silence. But the deep inner silence I was so used to finding with the Lord was no where to be found.

Restlessness became my constant companion and the things that I usually did to process emotional upheavel (ie. running and writing) were next to impossible given the insane schedule (or lack there of…) I was keeping with my youth group kids. With my ability to find quiet refuge inside myself gone, time with the Lord was my only hope at peace and quiet. But to be honest? I saw Him as the cause of so much of my pain, and as such, running to Him didn’t have the appeal it usually did.

As I wrestled with/ against God/ myself while traveling throughout Cambodia last summer, the combination of the magnificent sights and temples, the brokenness and poverty in the country, and the whirlwind adventure of it all, overwhelmed me. As did the smell of durian and fish that wafted through the oppressive 100º heat/ 80% humidity combo everywhere we went. (Woof. I hope to God I’ll get the memory of that smell out of my mind someday…) I saw the Lord do glorious things and met kindred spirits on the other side of the earth that summer, but oh was I on sensory overload 25/7.

One of my most vivid memories of that season is simply of me laying in bed one night texting my best friend back in the States saying something to the tune of:

“I love it here, but my heart hurts and my head is spinning and I feel like my nerves are on the outside of my body. Everything, everyone I interact with touches them.  I’m tired and I feel raw.”

~~~

By the grace of God, my return to Cambodia this summer felt different, even though so many of my life’s circumstances and the questions I was asking the Lord before and during the trip were similar.

After a year of wrestling with the Lord and allowing Him to do some major surgery on my heart, mind, and body, I finally felt like my nerves were safely tucked back where they belonged– protected by layers of well fought for muscle.

On this year’s trip the sting of loss was still present as our team spent the 6 month anniversary of the plane crash that took our loved ones Home on Cambodian soil. Just like last year (and any youth missions trip, really) there were still many tears shed and many late night heart-to-hearts had. Many of the students I led were returning team members; although thankfully they’ve matured a bit and no one made me suffer through a rousing rendition of “99 Bottles of Root Beer on the Wall” this year… Praise Ye the Lord.

86762780-D4B1-495E-9F64-9D5449290062.JPGThe Cambodian traffic structure (or significant lack there of) still blew my mind this year as I watched motos with boxes stacked 5-high zip in and out of traffic, evading trucks with live chickens hanging upside down from the sides of their beds headed to market. The smell of durian still permeated the night markets’ air, and I watched yet again as one of my teenage boys teased a live crocodile with his GoPro. (Boys will be boys and I’m sure I’ll have more grey hair because of them.)

Each of these familiarities were gifts in their own quirky ways as I returned to the country that had captured my heart so deeply last summer. And yet, the Lord brought about His deepest mercy this summer to me in an unfamiliar and unexpected way.

Everyday and everywhere we drove in Cambodia there were Lotus flowers growing in the muddy ditches and fields on the sides of the roads. I realize it’s a weird thing to say, but the Lotus is my second favorite flower and somehow the Lord used it to speak tremendous grace over my mildly-reeling heart this June.

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Photo credit: Evan Wardell 

The Lotus is a flower marked by resiliency and its ability to grow into something breathtakingly beautiful out of some of the most murky, disgusting water on earth. Once the flower emerges from the darkness and begins to bloom, it does so slowly, opening one petal at a time until the entire flower is open to the world.

I love these flowers so much that I had a little chalkboard in my classroom last year that read, “Just like the Lotus flower…” as a reminder to my students and myself to be patient throughout the process of growth and the opening of themselves that would happen within my classroom walls.

After hearing me talk about that chalkboard and “Oooo” and “Ahhhh” over the flowers all trip long, I walked out of a rest station to find my youth group students in a swampy field snapping pictures of the giant flowers growing out back for me. As I walked out to meet them, my Chacos began to sink into the mud and I noticed a particular smell. I turned to say something to my co-leader and caught sight of pipes running from the back of the building where the restrooms were into the swampy field we were all standing in.

A field of sewage.

I was standing in a literal field of crap, watching my students take photos of the most beautiful flowers I’d ever seen in my life. (If that juxtaposition isn’t some kind of metaphor for what the Lord is doing in my life in this season, I don’t know what is…)

I instantly doubled over laughing and asked the kids if they wanted me to give them the bad news now or wait a minute until we weren’t standing in the water anymore. They chose ignorance and I began to usher them to our bus as I laughed to myself.

As we were walking out of the field, one of my boys leaned over to me and said,

“I know we were just standing in poop water. But getting a picture of those flowers for you was worth it. I think Jesus told me that you needed that picture.”

Ohhh my heart. Those were some of the weirdest, yet most sincere and sugary-sweet words I’ve ever heard come out of a 15-year-old boy’s mouth.

I don’t know if this year’s early rainy season was the impetus for the mass blossoming of the Lotus flowers, or whether those pink and white beauties were there all along last June and I was just too blinded by my own raw nerves, emotions, and exhaustion to see them. I tried to get an answer but I never stumbled across a botanist who spoke English in my time in Cambodia, and let’s just say that my Khmai is below-sub-par at best.

Either way, I know the Lotus flowers were God’s grace to me this summer– a tangible reminder that just as my students and I are able to testify to the undying Goodness and Faithfulness of God in the midst of a season of great heartache and loss, that that same God is growing good things in and around all of us through all of that “crap” too.

“For I [am learning to] consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.”

(Romans 8:18-19)

Nothing but the blood of Jesus

“What can wash away my sin?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

What can make me whole again?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

Whenever I hear that song, I’m immediately back in Hannah’s car driving the stretch of country highway between Kalona and Riverside in Iowa last May 31st. That night the humid summer air broke and gave way to a storm unlike many I’ve seen in my life.

As I drove, Latifah Phillips’ voice filled the car with that old hymn. I sang along so loud, so hard, for so long that I couldn’t breathe. As I continued to mouth the lyrics, I started bawling too hard to be driving so fast. The rain that had begun as a steady shower picked up to a downpour and I couldn’t see a thing. Seeing out of the windshield seemed to be a moot point though, given the ferocity with which water was coming out of my own eyes.

Still I kept driving, straight down the highway. Occasionally I would turn the steering wheel a smidge as lightening struck on either side of the car, illuminating slight curves in the long country road.

With the blinding lightening came claps of thunder that shook the car. On the fifth or six, I swerved the car off the highway, onto the dirt shoulder, and punched the brake out of panic. As the car skidded to a stop, I felt my heart pounding in my fingers as they death griped “my sister’s” steering wheel. I turned on the hazard lights to avoid further tragedy in our week and I screamed.

In hindsight, I don’t really know why I screamed. In that exact moment I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t feel helpless. I wasn’t angry or overwhelmed, and yet I was. I was all of those things. And in addition to every single emotion (and I mean every. single. emotion.) that surged through my body like fire in my veins, I was out of control.

I couldn’t fix anyone’s problems. I couldn’t bring our loved one back. I couldn’t heal, or resurrect, or be the one to bring anyone joy. Like Peter and John speaking to the lame beggar in Acts 3:6, all I could do was kneel beside the heartbroken people I loved and say, “Silver and gold I have none. All I have to give you is the name of Jesus Christ.” And in this pain, in their agony those words seemed to fall so short. In that season and in those moments, Jesus didn’t feel like enough, no matter what truths my mind tried to proclaim over my heart or the hearts of those around me.

Two months later and again eight months after that, I sat next to my sister and in silent solidarity with my brothers and sisters in Alaska and wept. Even though I understand that these circumstances are only our earthly losses, and that they have brought about our departed’s gains in the glorious presence of Christ, I still have days where I feel as though I can’t do anything but weep.

Daily I continue to wrestle with a lack of words and control– an agonizing experience for a writer and closet control freak like myself. No matter how much time has passed, I remain out of control, unable to heal the wounds of the ones I love and unable to do anything except kneel beside them and quietly offer Jesus.

This is a season in which my pride has been broken down– surely for the “better”– but in a way which my seeming capabilities as a writer and counselor have taken a hit. I’m learning to be “okay” with the fact that I still have moments in which gasping and crying and wordless screaming replaces speaking, which is likely for the better, even though it often hurts like hell.

Because it is in (and after) those moments that I am back on that highway, skidding to a stop, allowing the truth to wash over me:

“What can make me whole again?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

His power does not fall short in my inability to express the thousands of inexpressible emotions in my heart or comfort those around me. For here at the end of myself, He begins. And that is all any of us truly need– the blood of Jesus. Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

When the only path through grieving is… through…

On the heels of a year where the Lord taught me to live vulnerably in tight-knit community and through writing my heart out on this website, I came to a place at the beginning of last summer where words felt entirely inadequate to express the thoughts and emotions that flooded my body on a daily basis. In the span of two months, I had unexpectedly lost a dear friend, my “adopted little brother” in a motorcycle accident and a childhood friend to cancer. As I traveled last summer, I continued to journal and write privately, figuring that this lack of “words to share” would pass in due time.

When I resumed my “normal” life in Colorado in August, I felt strongly that I was being called into a season of silent processing with the Lord and I decided that a break from public writing was what I needed to do to respect that season of life. But as time here in Colorado wore on and transition turned to stability, my ability (and desire) to vulnerably share “where I was at” began to wane. Over time, I closed into myself, shutting nearly everyone else out so dramatically that most days I didn’t know how not to. (Aside: If I’ve done this to you, please, please, please know I didn’t mean to hurt you if I have. I want to sit down over a cup of coffee with you. I want to mend relationships. I want you to know that as much as it sounds like a cheesy relationship line or an excuse, “It’s not you. It’s never been you. It’s me. I’m a mess.”)

In the days that preceded the disappearance of my friends and our plane in December, I felt a shift occurring in my heart; I knew my season of silent processing was being called to an end. I knew I was supposed to start writing again. And yet, when the plane went down, a part of me went down with it. Obviously, the part of my heart that held Scott, Kyle, Zach, & Kaitlyn dear, but the articulate part of me was also lost that day.

For months, I’ve struggled with and through depression, trying and failing to express anything of real value without bursting into tears. Despite feeling the Lord pressing me to write or express my heart in whatever way I could, I couldn’t do it. Time and time again, as I’ve tried to write, I instead closed my laptop and retreated back into my own introverted brain.

In those moments, a part of me knew I was being disobedient to what God was calling me to in my grief. I knew closing myself off wasn’t a true solution to any of my problems, and yet in this complex season, I didn’t know how to stop.

Thus, I’ve spent my weeknights and weekends largely holed away from community, avoiding my laptop, and wrestling with the Lord in coffee shops and counseling, or while crying with my roommates on the Yarrow kitchen floor.

In the individual nights of these last few months I’ve felt the extent of just how little I have “it” together (whatever “it” is…). And to be honest? This realization of the extent of my weakness paired with this “calling” to be vulnerable in that weakness?? It’s scared the living daylights out of me.

I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to say it. I don’t know how to not tell other’s stories while telling mine because they’re so intertwined. I’m scared of unintentionally drudging up pain for the people I love, those who are walking through this complicated season of grief too. I don’t want to be “that sad writer” or ever come across as though I’m seeking pity, because I beg you to realize, I’m not. 

I so desperately want to feel “normal” again. I want to stop crying. I want to stop grieving from the core of my being.

But that’s not where the Lord has me… 

Instead, I’m here in this weird in-between– the place where I thought I was finally “okay” enough to attend a symposium on gospel-centered grieving and most days am more hopeful than I am bitter with God.

I’m here, in the muck and the mire of loss and redemption, joy and grief.

I’m desperately seeking contentedness with God’s plan when in actuality? I feel like I can’t handle being content with this new reality without the people I love. And the mere thought of trying to do so spiraled me into a panic attack Friday night at said grief symposium where I ended up running out of the sanctuary and ugly crying/ snotting into a close friend’s hair on our church steps.

This season isn’t cute.

It’s rendered me a mess. One giant freaking paradox.

Yet daily throughout this season, I have heard the invitation of Jesus to the weary in Matthew 11– “Come to Me.” And privately, I have. Through His sweet grace that I know I possess and yet so desperately crave more of, I come to Him a little more each day.

Today’s come to Jesus moment has been through obedience and tears; it is through a long overdue introduction/ continuation to this convoluted season through writing although I’d much rather remain silent and still, alone with Him and my little blue journal.

It comes through breathing life back into this dusty, neglected blog and it comes in the same vein as the words I’ve read time and time again this year: “The only way out of grief is through.”

Part of me hopes that maybe writing again will be the beginning of the end of this messy chapter. Most of me knows that more than likely it’s not; but I simply hope am confident that somewhere in this mess, in this journey through grief, I will see more of Jesus and I pray somehow you do too…

{To be continued}

“I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

(Psalm 27:13)

“Oh Holy Night, the weary soul rejoices…”

I’ve spent the morning curled up on the Yarrow House sofa here in Denver. Six different versions of “Oh Holy Night” have looped on my Spotify as I’ve sat, staring vacantly at our Christmas tree and the Bible in my lap. No matter how long I look at either, I’m unable to reconcile myself to the joy that either thing should bring me in this season of Advent.

It was on this day two years ago that one of my Street School students was killed in gang warfare. And even though it seems like two years have passed, it was just last night that we received what I still can’t bring myself to believe is the final word that four of my loved ones in Alaska likely won’t return home after their plane went missing on a flight from our village to Anchorage Wednesday.

On December 10th, a day that has already been agonizing these last two years, I admittedly have been struggling with feeling more helpless and hopeless than ever. I long to be able to fix something. Anything. I long to be 3,500 miles away from this sofa, embracing my dear friends in Port Alsworth whose lives have been forever changed by a routine commute that turned into all of our worst nightmare.

My heart breaks more and more for those I love with every text, phone call, and update I receive because I know there is not a single one of us from that beautiful little bush village unscathed by this tragedy. Within that heartbreak I have heard the screams and cries of my friends who have lost members of their family and there simply aren’t words for, or to say in response to, that kind of suffering or pain.

Even though I am in the city where Johnny died, physically close to those affected by that tragedy two years ago, I am incapable of doing anything to change the situation here either. We will never be able to bring him back, answer the still-outstanding questions, or heal the residual pain his family, my students, and our Street School staff still feel.

As my mind has swung between these tragedies, desperately trying to make sense of something, the only conclusion I’ve reached is this: Never in my life have I felt such a deep ache for Someone to save me or the people I love from the pain and brokenness of this world. Never in my life have I longed so deeply for a Savior. 

While my heart can’t seem to consider celebrating anything right about now, I know the truth: we will soon celebrate the fact that our Savior has already come.

The Bible in my lap, my brothers and sisters (near and far) who have prayed and cried with me this week, the song that keeps repeating itself over my computer speakers, and even the silly cultural tradition of sticking a dying tree in our living room and wrapping it in lights point me back to that truth–

Our Savior has come. Christ came, incarnate as a helpless baby, and died as the Most Powerful King to save us from both our sin and our sorrow. Past, present, and future.

Two thousand years ago He became Emmanuel and Emmanuel He is still.
God with us.
God with all who mourn.
God with all who weep.
God wrapping His arms around every person who knows and loves Port Alsworth, the Longerbeams, the Bloms, and Johnny’s family.
God indwelling in those of us who call Him Abba, Father.
God who came to rescue.
God who will make all things new.

And thus I proclaim over my own trembling heart and that of those around me, that even as the news we receive today and this week will likely worsen by earthly standards, the good news that Christ has come for us and can wrap us in His arms now and for eternity is. indeed. Good. News.

Even if everything else falls apart, His sovereign plan, loving promise, Good News, and ultimate sacrifice remains the same– it is the only Good News we could ever truly need.

“Oh holy night
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees, Oh heart the angel voices
Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine, Oh night, Oh night divine

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name!

Christ is the Lord, Oh praise His name forever!
His power and glory evermore proclaim

Fall on your knees, hear the angel voices,
Oh night, Oh night, Oh night divine.”

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Oh, Jesus. Make our hearts believe. Make our hearts believe while we are here on our knees…

~~~

If you, like me, wish you could do something but don’t know what to do, you can donate to any of the Go Fund Me accounts below. The first two are to help cover memorial service/funeral costs for the Blom and Longerbeam families. The last is to help some of the Bloms’ dear friends make it to Alaska for Scott, Zach, and Kaitlyn’s celebration of life.

Blom family memorial service / out of state family travel expenses

Kyle’s memorial service / family travel expenses

Help send the Brent/ Boe families to Alaska