Good Vibes Only: Eau Claire’s Rowekamp Family Spreads Positivity, One Sled at a Time
Little Free Sled Library latest effort to boost neighborhood’s spirits
If there’s one local family that knows a thing or two about spreading positivity amid dark times, it’s the Rowekamps.
Chad, Michelle, and their two children Owen, 9, and Molly, (almost) 7, believe it takes more energy to be negative than it does to be positive, and their work in the community shows how easy it is to spread that joy.
Recently, Chad and Owen Rowekamp pulled out their power drill, table saw, and chop saw and (with a dash of Michelle’s sign-making skills) created Eau Claire’s first Little Free Sled Library at Seven Bumps Hill. The sled library encourages neighborhood kids to get outside and enjoy winter. And, it’s garnered national attention, as the Rowekamps were recently interviewed by The New York Times and NPR, in addition to a slew of local newspapers and TV stations.
The family started with their six donated sleds, “and now there are like 58,” Owen estimates, though Chad and Michelle quickly jumped in with a more realistic assessment. “Now it’s bursting,” Michelle said. “And we cannot see the sign, there’s sleds all over. So it’s getting used, which is cool.”
“And more sleds equals happier people,” Owen added.
The family started with their six donated sleds, “and now there are like 58,” Owen estimates, though Chad and Michelle quickly jumped in with a more realistic assessment.
The sled library isn’t the first way this family has spread positivity amid the pandemic. Chad – who is president of the Eastside Hill Neighborhood Association – is an experienced woodworker, and has created many of the Little Free Libraries spotted throughout the neighborhood. “Secretly, I have this little competition going on in my head against every other neighborhood,” Chad said.
So far, the Eastside Hill has taken the lead, nabbing first place in Volume One’s Best of the Chippewa Valley Reader Poll for Best Neighborhood for five consecutive years (“ ’Cuz it’s the best neighborhood in the universe,” Owen explained). In addition to the Little Free Sled Library and Little Free Libraries, the neighborhood also has a garden stand where neighbors leave extra produce and plants to share. The neighborhood’s “sharing-is-caring” mentality helps create a close-knit sense of community, the family said.
“We can’t go for a walk, any time, without running into at least one family to talk to,” Michelle said. “It takes us a very long time to walk around the neighborhood because we just talk to everyone.”
When COVID-19 first hit Eau Claire, the family knew they needed to spread a little cheer, so in May they created a stuffed animal zoo for neighborhood families to enjoy.
“We have a million stuffed animals in our house,” Michelle said, “maybe a little less than a million,” “5 million,” Owen chimed in. “So Chad had the idea,” Michelle continued, “somehow, to put them outside and make little habitats for people to enjoy.”
Molly organized each stuffed animal, and Owen conducted research to find one cool fact about each animal. The family placed a donation jar outside their zoo and raised more than $100 for the Eau Claire County Humane Association. The story went national, garnering attention from news outlets based in Boston, Charleston, and Eau Claire’s own WEAU 13 News.
The wholesomeness didn’t stop there. This past summer, the Rowekamps added kid-friendly mailboxes for neighborhood kids to exchange letters and goodies through a system Chad created called “The Rainbow Connection.” Chad bought about a dozen mailboxes from Menards, painted rainbows on one side and personalized artwork on the other side of each mailbox for each neighborhood kiddo, as a way for their kids to practice writing, keep their spirits high, and – most importantly – keep in touch with friends from a safe distance.
“We go around to our friends’ houses and we go to the ones with kid mailboxes and we put (in) stuff that we made,” Molly said. “One time, I made this octopus, and I put it in one of the mailboxes.”
The family is involved in a social media challenge called 1,000 Hours Outside, which encourages kids to spend 1,000 hours (the average amount of time kids are on their screens) outside annually. “It sounds pretty overwhelming,” Chad said, “and it is pretty challenging, but it comes out to about three hours a day.”
“I feel bad when I shovel ours and then I stop at the neighbor’s line. I feel like kind of a jerk. So I just kept going.”
ON SHOVELING NEIGHBORS' SIDEWALKS
Last winter, Chad encouraged his kids to help him shovel more than 200 driveways. “I shoveled my whole street, one after the other, one Saturday,” he said. “I don’t know if I was like, snow-shaming people, but by the end of the winter, I noticed a lot more people were shoveling other peoples’ sidewalks. It felt like it was a growing thing.”
“I feel bad when I shovel ours and then I stop at the neighbor’s line,” Michelle added. “I feel like kind of a jerk. So I just kept going.”
The Rowekamps make it seem easy to spread positivity, but truthfully, they get most of their ideas from social media. The most important thing, they say, is to have a positive outlook, and the rest will fall into place.
“I hope for everybody to be happy and everybody never cries,” Molly said.
“And be nice to each other,” Michelle added. “Do good deeds. Stop all the negativity. It takes more energy to be grumpy and negative than it does to be happy and kind.”