The old house was tucked away in plain sight. How had I missed it before? I’d driven on this hill many times. Either way, there it was: abandoned and shuttered. It had the sort of patina that catches the eye of a photographer. One like Alicia, anyway.
I first met Alicia a number of years ago after she and one of her sons began taking piano lessons with me. As it turns out, The Worthy People Project struck a chord (pun intended) with her and she has been a supporter of this project from the get-go. So, even though it was out of the blue, it was no surprise when she contacted me wondering if The Worthy People Project could use a photographer.
Yes! In fact, one of my goals for this blog was to find just the right photographer before year’s end. There’s only so much my iPhone and I can do in the portrait department. It had to be Providence.
At that old house tucked away in plain sight, we met to take some new photos for the blog and talked while she got setup. I asked those basic questions a person has to ask like ‘where’re you from’ and ‘how’d you end up here?’
Back in Iowa
Her parents raised her in Northern Iowa and when she wanted to head west (like, California west) for college they objected citing their desire to keep her close. As a result, she settled on Bethel University in Minnesota, but it wasn’t for her. After a year, she returned to Northern Iowa and did temp work for the summer.
She ended up working the front end of a local State Farm agent’s office where she was surrounded by older men who talked of going to “the ballet.” She may have been naive, but even she knew they weren’t talking about classical dance. It made her extremely uncomfortable.
One afternoon, a handsome older man walked in. Well, he was just shy of 30, but to her 19-year-old self he was older. A recent hail storm had brought him to Iowa from California so he could do insurance assessments for State Farm Corporate. He heard the other men talking boorishly in front of the young woman and he called them out on it.
She was struck by his willingness to stand up for what was good. And, he was struck by her. He asked her if she knew any good places to eat and she gave him a few suggestions. She assumed he was going to ask her to join him, but when he didn’t, she ran after him and asked if he wanted company.
A year later, they were married. She was too young to drink at her own wedding, and he was still 10 years older. Both of their parents had objected to the relationship, but it seemed to have worked out as they are still struck by each another 20 years later.
And, as much as her parents tried to get her to stay in the Midwest, she moved to California with her new husband where she finished her degree in exercise physiology.
The children came next. Alicia made the decision to focus on raising them rather than continue her education or pursue a career. For her, it wasn’t a difficult decision. Since Matt was 10 years older his biological clock was ticking and she concluded she would have time later to pursue her passions.
“What’s the most surprising thing about motherhood?” I asked her.
“All encompassing in every way,” she said as she setup her tripod. “I was so young when I had my first so it was probably a little suffocating. I mean honestly - motherhood is 24/7. It’s a good thing they’re cute when they’re little.” She laughed.
so, what is Exercise Physiology?
We maneuvered our way around the old, abandoned house taking photos and stopping to talk along the way. It wasn’t long; however, before we were back in her minivan heading to lunch to continue the conversation. I was curious about her background in exercise physiology. Frankly, I’d never heard of such a program.
“Do you use any aspect of your degree in everyday life?” I asked as we turned left to head down the infamous Pill Hill.
“I did for a long time training for marathons and triathlons. I ran the Chicago Marathon and then I trained for it again, but I never finished the second marathon because I got sick during the race. Like really sick; to the point where I was begging and crying to climb in front of people in the line of the bathroom. In my mind I assumed they just thought I was trying to get ahead. Long story short that’s when I figured out I had celiac.”
Symptoms have not been lifelong, but rather something triggered her gluten allergy - perhaps a combination of stress from raising and homeschooling four kids, training for the marathon and carb loading pre-marathon.
“I continued having issues well after the marathon. We’d have pizza as a family and I’d have a couple pieces and I’d be sitting on the couch in tears with my arms up because my stomach hurt so bad. I couldn’t figure it out. I’d eliminate dairy and other things and after a four months of trying to eliminate, I finally figured it out.”
“Have you run recently?” I asked.
“I’m sure I’ll start running again at some point, but not right now. I also did the bodybuilding around the time I was training for the marathons. With my background in exercise physiology I knew the two don’t go together as the training is completely different. Eating is different,” she said as we turned right onto 16th St. SW.
Okay, I have to admit I was shocked last year when Alicia first told me she had been a bodybuilder.
“So, why bodybuilding? Why do it?” She knew the question was coming.
“Well, if you were to go back to my room when I was in high school,” she explained, “I had pictures of bodybuilders. Women bodybuilders. They intrigued me because I didn’t just want to be thin; I wanted to be strong. I even did a project in high school about body building. It’s always intrigued me.
She continued, “Then I had four babies and I was like, well, I’m just gonna try something different. I think I came in last place, but that wasn’t the point. The point was, ‘Do I have the guts to put on whatever outfit I need to put on and get up on stage and learn how to walk and where do I go to buy a bedazzled swimsuit?’ I mean where do you do that stuff?” She laughed and I joined her.
“Yeah. Where do you do that?” I asked.
“Right! Well that was the learning process.”
“No, that was an actual question,” I said. “Where do you buy a bedazzled swimsuit?”
“Oh,” she laughed as she continued, “I randomly met somebody in the Cities. I can’t even remember where I met her, but she made swimsuits. So you go there and she measures you, then she makes the suit and when you try it on she assures you it’ll fit by the time you’re ready to go on stage. But, I had a hard time believing that because I was poofing out all the sides.”
“Did you fit into it by the time you went on stage?” I had to know.
“Yeah. I did.” She replied before continuing, “My husband was never happy with competitive bodybuilding. He’s pretty fit himself, but he felt pretty strongly that bodies weren’t meant to be displayed on a stage in a swimsuit. I did my whole stubborn ‘You’re not going to tell me what to do - this is something I want to do.’ But after I tried it once I took Matt’s feelings into account and decided not to pursue competitive bodybuilding again.”
We had arrived at our lunch spot and as we walked inside Alicia described the spray tans and the taping of the swimsuit, the hair, the makeup and all that goes in to prepping for a competition. It’s a whole other world.
It Comes Down to Demographics
“So, how did you guys end up in Rochester?” I asked changing the subjects as we sat down at our table.
“After Matt worked for my dad we opened our own State Farm Agency in Waterloo, IA. Then, we decided to go back to State Farm corporate in Illinois.”
It was during their time in Illinois when Matt was out to eat with Alicia’s dad at a HuHot Restaurant that the pair decided, “Hey we can do this!” So, they spent the next year talking with the HuHot franchise.
After a lot of research, they decided Rochester’s demographics fit what they thought would result in a profitable venture.
“So HuHot is what brought you here to Rochester?”
“Oh yeah,” Alicia replied.
“When did HuHot open?” Gosh, I couldn’t remember when it was, but I remember it opening.
“Over 10 years,” she said.
“Yeah. It’s been a while. When we got into it we didn’t know if we’d be able to support our family or if we’d both have to find work somewhere else full time. It was pretty scary. We’d never owned or managed a restaurant before and I’m glad it worked, but it could have very easily gone the other way.”
Within five years they opened a second location in LaCrosse, WI.
Photography and Blessing
We continued talking over our lunch about matters of faith, difficult family dynamics, shopping for shoes, tattoos, and the craziness of day-to-day life with four kids.
Finally I asked, “What is a small way you intentionally try to make the world a better place?”
“I think right now that small way is through the photography. I love photography so if I can give back doing something I actually love - great - then I’m not only volunteering, but doing something that truly matters to me and someone else.
As part of her photography business, Alicia invites people who would otherwise be unable to afford professional photographer, to send her a quick note via her website about their need.
“There was one gal that I took photos of and she made the off the cuff remark ‘Well, I’m always excited to see what these photos look like because I feel like I look so beautiful in them.’ You know when you think about our society, and for young women especially, there is a big standard to measure up to. So when you can give a young woman her senior photos and she says ‘Wow! I’m beautiful’ - that right there is a blessing to be able to give them.
“That feels great,” tears welled in her eyes. “You want them to know that they are beautiful. And they are. It’s not my photos that do it, but at least they are able to look at it and go ‘Oh, I’m beautiful.’ Everybody should be able to feel that way.”
That’s exactly the sort of photographer The Worthy People Project needs and I’m so excited about all the beautiful people Alicia will inspire with her lens.
We parted ways and I left feeling grateful for all we had talked about and the wonderful gift Alicia is to this blog. It amazes me what can happen when people come together: when people use their gifts to make a difference. We desperately need more of that in our world.