AP Photo/Duane Burleson AP Photo/Duane Burleson

Let’s not kid ourselves: These post-pandemic months have been long. But from Michigan team victories to inspirational acts of service, these cheery moments are sure to spread holiday cheer.

MICHIGAN—This holiday season, gather around the fireplace to share in warmth and cheer with loved ones. And of course, no family gathering is complete without ample storytelling to go around. 

If you’re in need of a hefty serving of good news to share this season, look no further. You’ve found The ‘Gander’s list of our favorite 10 stories sure to spread the holiday joy. These stories range from sports teams defying odds to lifelong Michiganders who turned their dreams into reality.

We encourage you to share with your friends, family, and loved ones to help bring a little brightness into their lives.

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Photo Courtesy JR’s 50 Yard Challenge

8-Year-Old Mows Lawns to Help Community

JR Achterhoff isn’t a young man of very many words—he’s one of action.

This summer, he undertook a special type of challenge: To help his community in Muskegon County, he mowed 50 lawns for veterans, elderly people, single parents, and people with disabilities. And he did it all for free.

Achterhoff, 8, comes from a family of service. His dad is a firefighter and a public safety officer. 

When asked what drove him to undertake the 50-lawn challenge, he smiled, looked at his dad, and said “You.”

His dad says nothing makes Achterhoff happier than helping people. Even if they’re in the car on the way to a fun event, he would rather stop to try to help someone with the hood of their car raised, asking “Daddy, can we go help them?”

Achterhoff doesn’t give long answers when people ask him what made him want to give back, but his short-and-sweet mantra sums up why he does it perfectly: “To help people.”

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Photo Courtesy Tina Renshaw

Young Michigan Musicians Take the Global Stage

Meet two of Michigan’s most gifted brothers: Parker Renshaw, age 6, with his violin “Victor,” and big brother Cameron, age 10, with his blue lightning bolt cello. 

“Violin is my favorite thing to do in the whole, wide world! I think that violin fits me because it is small, and I’m small too,” said Parker, a first grader at Marshall Elementary School in Byron Center, Michigan. “I love to perform Victor in recitals.” 

Parker enjoys performing different genres of music, from classical to hard rock. He loves to have jam sessions with his brother, Cameron, and they perform together regularly at local retirement communities, weddings, and recitals. Parker just won his first competition–American Fine Arts Festival Season 2021–and looks forward to performing in the winner’s recital at Carnegie Hall in 2022.

Parker also enjoys playing with LEGOs, swimming and tubing. When he grows up, he wants to be a veterinarian, like his dad.

“I chose to play the violin because I wanted to play an instrument like Cameron… but I definitely didn’t want to play the same instrument as him!” Parker said. “I have the most fun when I get to play with Cameron. He’s my best friend and we sound pretty good together!”

Rising cellist Cameron Renshaw, age 10, is gaining recognition for expressive performances that are beyond his years. 

At the age of 8, in his second year of playing cello, he made his orchestral solo debut with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. As a first place or grand prize winner of numerous international competitions, he has had the honor of performing in some of the world’s greatest concert halls, such as Carnegie Hall and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. 

He has been featured on local and national media, including WOOD TV, MLive, and a performance on the Ellen Degeneres Show in 2020. Most recently, he soloed with an orchestra in Bucharest, Romania.

“I absolutely love being on the stage!” he says. “Whether I’m performing in an outdoor porch concert for seniors or a large concert hall, I try to express myself in different ways and play my heart out for the audience. I try not to focus on the notes, but more the phrases that contain them through the bow distribution and the tone colors that I want to create with my cello. I know it’s a great performance when I feel like I connected with the audience.”

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Photo by Isaac Constans

Hometown Little League Team Brings Home Gold

The Little League World Series had run every year from 1947 until 2020, when the pandemic shut the famous youth baseball competition down. But when Taylor North headed to Pennsylvania in 2021, alongside baseball talent from around the world competing for prestige, glory, and recognition that propelled previous winners to major-league careers, the team knew it had to make up for lost time.

At just 11 to 12 years old, Taylor North players are already accustomed to the limelight. They’ve had ESPN interviews, features, and photoshoots. Returning home to Michigan, their hometown welcomed them with a victory parade that wrapped around city streets and culminated with a fireworks display.

It was the first time the team had come home since it set out for Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to compete in the Little League World Series. There, the players were kept in strict social distancing protocols, even from family.

“It feels great. This is my first time seeing how much support we’ve been getting, so I mean this is surprising obviously,” star player Cameron Thorning said to The ‘Gander, gesturing toward a crowd of supporters. “And it’s great.”

Michigan won the championship 5-2 over Ohio, a game that Taylor North controlled the whole way. Thorning’s two-run home run a game earlier catapulted the team from the verge of elimination into the championship game. 

Little League alumni have gone onto remarkable careers, in baseball and beyond. The next stop for Taylor North though, first, is back to school. 

Heading into the tournament, Thorning said his favorite college team was Ohio State. Hopefully, the victory parade and hometown support will be enough to convince him to stay a Michigander as he continues what promises to be a rise to stardom.

“I didn’t think we’d make it here at the start of the year, but once we started getting rolling, I knew we had this,” Thorning said.

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Photo Courtesy Harshini Anand

High Schooler Spreads Public Health Message

When 16-year-old Harshini Anand steps foot into her high school halls as a newly enshrined senior, she’s on a mission. And no, it’s not to win student body president.

Rather, she’s sparking critical conversations with her friends and classmates about vaccines.

“I was just seeing a lot of vaccine hesitancy and a lot of misinformation being spread around young people in my own community,” Anand said.

During the pandemic, social media has been a battleground for science and truth. Misinformation tends to dominate the conversation too often, leading people to resist science, evidence, and the success of vaccines in curbing COVID-19 deaths. 

Anand is leading efforts to take back momentum in her community, starting with her school but reaching out much further.

One by one, she’s reaching out to friends, classmates, and strangers to genuinely hear them out. And from there, she’s directing them to experts, proven statistics, and helpful resources to make the best decisions about protecting themselves and their families. 

“Using the app or the medium appropriately, using the right language to appeal to young people so that they can gain this new perspective,” Anand said.

Anand is a part of the Washtenaw County Health Department’s vaccine ambassadors program. The program enlists community members to reach out in different circles they’re plugged into to raise awareness and correct misconceptions about the vaccine.

Ambassadors are already making progress. Anand had a particular call in which she was able to walk through a friend’s concerns to fill in gaps and help lead her to an informed, secure decision-making space. 

“I came to realize it wasn’t her being against the idea. She was just unsure how to approach it,” Anand said. “We just had a conversation. I answered any sort of questions she had, or if there were questions I couldn’t answer, I pointed her to the right resources. And by the end of it, she was a lot more sure about the vaccine.”

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Photo Courtesy Adrian Joseph

New Business Thrives After Opening During COVID-19

Meet Adrian Joseph, owner of Goodfellas Bakery and a proud Lansing native.

In case you couldn’t guess from the name, Joseph is a fan of mafioso movies. And with the menu, he tries to do them justice, with the “Made Man” and the “Don” standing out as just two of his creations.

At Goodfellas, it’s all about the family—specifically, mid-Michigan pride. Goodfellas uses locally sourced ingredients, and it has driven more traffic to Lansing’s stadium district, a burgeoning area close to downtown and state offices. Joseph has enjoyed giving back.

“I realized this specific area of downtown could use more breakfast options,” he wrote in a Lansing State Journal column. “Imagine watching one of your favorite mob movies while having that realization — and at that moment Goodfellas Bagel Deli was born.”

Goodfellas opened during COVID-19, and in a time when so many businesses have closed, it has been recognized with a best new restaurant award. 

“I believe if you were fortunate enough to survive this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as a small business, there is truly nothing that can stop your success now,” Joseph wrote. 

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Photo Courtesy David Ringler/Cedar Springs Brewing Company

New, Local Brewery Wins Big

Cedar Springs Brewing Company has brought a pint-sized sip and taste of Bavaria to West Michigan, and recognition has followed. Owner and founder David Ringler describes his restaurant and brewery as a “taste of Munich without the plane ticket.”

Since opening in 2013, Cedar Springs Brewing Company has received its fair share of attention, especially in the form of awards. Most recently in 2021, it was recognized by Australian International Beer Awards, but that’s only one of the more than 30 honors it has received.

Ringler always had an eye for travel, and after living abroad for several years and working in the hospitality industry, he wanted to bring what he grew to love abroad back home.

“I returned with a desire to share “Gemütlichkeit” (a warm, comfortable, feeling of friendship) as much as I could with my hometown,” Ringler said.

Cedar Springs Brewing Company has experienced the pandemic as much as anyone, but that feeling is still there, carried on by the staff and Ringler, whose official title is “director of happiness.”

“I enjoy working with our team and our guests and get tremendous satisfaction watching people enjoy the flavors that I fell in love with while living abroad,” Ringler said.

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Photo Courtesy Brian Peterson-Roest/Bees in the D

Nonprofit Brings the Buzz Back to Michigan 

Brian Peterson-Roest is busy as a bee right now.

He’s a fifth-grade teacher with a host of hyperactive kids. He’s a beekeeper with a dedicated garden on his roof. And he’s the founder of Bees in the D, a nonprofit aiming to bring back Michigan’s declining pollinator population. 

Now he’s in the process of setting up a bee education center.

“People are realizing that pollinators are pretty darn important to our food industry and the natural world,” Peterson-Roest said.

Michigan has historically been one of the best states for bees thanks to its diverse environment. But pesticides, loss of land, and other factors have decimated bees’ numbers. 

That’s what led Peterson-Roest to start Bees in the D and lead comeback efforts.

Bee enthusiasts and educators are going out to inform the public about the role that bees play in agriculture and the environment and how they can help.

As Peterson-Roest has learned, bees don’t only thrive in rural pastures and sprawling farmland. Instead, bees like biodiversity, meaning small, individual gardens can help give native bees the food they need. 

In his personal rooftop garden, Peterson-Roest has seen the return of bees, both native and not. That’s not empirical evidence of a comeback, he says, but it does show how one garden can make a difference.

“They were there for me at a time of my life. I now want to be a voice for the bees,” he said.

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Photo Courtesy Elena Reads

Eighth Grader Goes Viral for Book Reviews

Despite the pandemic, Michiganders have accomplished incredible feats, including Elena, an eighth-grader from Oakland County who’s already made her name as a well-known book reviewer. 

In the past three years, Elena has read and reviewed more than 175 books, and along the way, she’s connected with the authors to chat about their work. All told, she’s interviewed more than 60 authors, illustrators, and book lovers—including Michigander Jean Alicia Elster and New York Times bestseller Erin Entrada Kelly.

“I like to read because you get to learn new things EVERY SINGLE time you open a book,” Elena writes on her website, Elena Reads, which has accumulated a regular following. “It’s also fun to imagine the story happening. It’s like a movie inside your head. They’re just words on a paper, but you get to make them alive and have fun picturing everything that is happening.”

Elena Reads has been featured by local news outlets, and numerous organizations have invited her to write and speak. Elena Reads particularly calls attention to a diversity of books that promote inclusion and sometimes don’t make most bookshelves.

But of course, Elena isn’t just a reader; she’s a writer too, which is why she loves to review books. In 2020, she was a national finalist and won first place in Michigan in a competition for middle school writers.

“I like to write because there is no limit to it,” she writes.

When not reading or writing, you’ll find Elena playing piano or violin. She also enjoys running cross country for her school.

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Photo Courtesy MVAA

Michigan Vet Wins Prestigious New Award

The last year saw the state launch a new award program that honors those who have deserved recognition for some time. The Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency put the spotlight on Dave Draper, winner of the first ever Veteran of the Year Award in the state.

As the pandemic descended on Michigan, Draper, commander of the American Legion post in Ann Arbor, called up every single member of the local legion post—more than 100 people in sum—for what he called a “buddy check” to see how they were doing. He also checked in on what they needed, from home repairs to grocery, and at one point delivered a recliner himself.

Draper’s work isn’t confined there either. He raised more than $10,000 this past year during the pandemic to help the less fortunate and coordinated donations with numerous charities in the region. Often working until dark or on weekends to make it happen, he collected donations and dropped them off at Toys for Tots, the local food bank, and the Hope Clinic.

“You will not read about Dave in the newspaper or see him featured on TV because he is one of those humble, dedicated and committed veterans that seldom will make himself the center of attention,” his nominator wrote. “He takes his leadership position as one of responsibility and selfless service.”

Draper was a staff sergeant in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. He’s married and has two sons who are retired Marines. His favorite hobbies are “doing anything” with his grandchildren and fishing.

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Photo Courtesy Carol Yancho/WKAR

Teen Inspires Young Girls to Go Into Science

High schooler Janellyn Woo is used to interviews, but she isn’t used to answering questions about herself. Instead, she’s used to asking them of others—particularly, to some of the state’s highest-achieving women.

“I’ve asked so many questions in my career and throughout my career interviewing people, it’s nice to know people might be interested in interviewing me,” said Woo, a junior in Macomb County.  

Woo hosts a mid-Michigan TV segment called “Curious About Careers,” which is part of the larger Emmy-winning show “Curious Crew” produced in East Lansing by WKAR. For her segment, which won an Emmy as well, she travels around the state as an interviewer who bakes pizza, boards planes, and explores the universe of scientific breakthroughs. She’s been doing it for the better part of five years now.

At 16, she’s charismatic and poised, probing questions from a perspective that kids around the state can relate to. Her hope is that it will inspire children younger than her to pursue careers in science.

Woo and Curious Crew are entering Season 8 of the show, but as the show goes on, Woo will soon bow offstage, as she enters college.

“It’s been quite the joy ride and it’s not something that everyone has the opportunity to experience, so I’m very grateful,” Woo said.

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Photo Courtesy Maggie Walsh

Local School Brings Life Lessons and Generosity to the Classroom

Maggie Walsh, an 18-year-old from Grand Haven, has made it a point to give back to her local community.

Many of those lessons she learned at Grand Haven High School, where she found a community of other do-gooders in the form of the InterAct Club and the Pay It Forward class, both school-based activities that emphasize the importance of service to high schoolers. 

Since graduating from high school and moving out of state, Walsh has taken those lessons of service with her to Saint Mary’s College.

“I have a passion for bringing positivity into other people’s lives,” Walsh said. “I strive to do this because God has blessed me with an amazing life and I think the world is a wonderful place with endless things to be happy about, but sometimes you have to make an effort to find the good in certain situations. I like giving back because I think everyone deserves to be happy and experience joy.”

As part of the Pay It Forward class, instructed by Grand Haven High School teacher Brian Williams, students choose a variety of service-based projects and activities. In the past, those have included putting on a Christmas party for local residents experiencing homelessness and drawing attention to sex trafficking. 

The class is a unique experience that stretches far beyond high school halls and far past students’ time there. It’s received attention from news outlets far and wide.

Walsh says she’s inspired by Mother Teresa. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with family and friends, as well as swimming and playing volleyball.

“I don’t think that a person has to end world hunger in order to make a difference, but by making a choice to choose kindness each day we can all make the world a better place,” she says. 

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