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No. 4

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by Andrea Longbottom
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Homeschoolers Show Their Stuff

What comes to mind when you think of the teen years? Parties, shopping, first dates, lots of free time spent hanging around the mall? What about the abundant energy, fresh ideas, unique skills, and strong drive that teens bring to life?

Here’s a snapshot of three homeschooled young people who vibrantly illustrate how homeschooling can give teens great freedom to cultivate creativity, responsibility, and initiative.

Stepping onto the stage

“It would be fun to be in a play,” said high school freshman Ciara Knudson, wishing that her town of Fargo, North Dakota, offered community theater.

“Well, you should just do one then!” replied her mother.

Courtesy of the Family
Ciara’s children’s theater performs Toad of Toad Hall, a dramatization of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.

That was the start of 13-year-old Ciara’s theater company. Though she had never been in a play herself, Ciara had “always loved the arts” and possessed a deep appreciation for classic literature, a gift from her mother, who loves literature and who homeschooled Ciara from 5th through 12th grade.

Ciara started small—she wrote a short play based on L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, enlisted the dramatic skills of a few homeschooled friends, and performed Anne as part of her local homeschool group’s annual talent show.

“As Anne, I was taller than Gilbert and Marilla!” she says. “I like directing, and I like planning and producing, a lot more than I like acting.” Over the next four years, Ciara directed an annual play for the homeschool talent show, performing for parents and friends, and in other venues, such as a state homeschool convention. Her performances brought classic children’s stories to life, such as Anne of Avonlea and Sarah, Plain and Tall (with scripts handwritten by Ciara).

Ciara Stockeland

“The theater group just kept getting bigger and bigger,” says Ciara. More and more homeschooling parents asked if their kids could be involved. “By the end of high school, I thought it would be a really good opportunity to make it into more of a business where I’d be teaching younger kids drama and then also putting on a professional, 2-hour production,” she says. Ciara put an ad in the homeschool group newsletter, saying she would be teaching drama camps during the summer. She had a good response—the camps met in a local park and a library, where they worked on Shakespeare and classic literature.

To finance the year’s production, Ciara and her friends raised all the funds needed to rent a high school auditorium, and pay for a professional set and costumes. For $1 tickets, parents and friends gathered for the company’s first professional play, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (1997) featuring a cast of 20 homeschoolers. “All of our staff were students. We had no adult involvement,” says Ciara.

After high school graduation, Ciara lived at home while attending a local college. She decided to expand her business, opening it up to children from private and public schools. In 2001, Ciara opened up a studio in a rented building in downtown Fargo and dubbed her brainchild, Third Street Acting Company. “Then it just took off,” she says.

A children’s theater took shape, as well as the professional theater for high school and college-age kids. Together, the groups performed two plays per semester. The weekly summer drama camps were also well-attended. “I think the homeschool community is used to things like that, students leading projects,” says Ciara. “By the time it turned into more of a professional acting company, I had just gotten married—I was older. . . . The public was just really excited about something that was so professionally done.”

As her theater group grew, Ciara sought to improve its quality by drawing more on the expertise and resources of those in her community. For example, several students from local colleges acted in her older kids’ productions, and homeschoolers and other students who played musical instruments signed up to provide background music for Ciara’s shows—even a professional organist pitched in.

“I’m always really open to talking to people,” says Ciara, “playing it by ear, and learning as I go.” She also went to shows whenever she could to get ideas. As Ciara’s company attracted more publicity, she also attracted the notice of local college theater professors, who offered her advice and even training.

Over the next few years she started drama camps in rural towns all around the Fargo area and took part in teaching a community summer arts program in a nearby town.

In 2005, as a wife with one small child and another on the way, Ciara realized she would no longer be able to keep up the time commitment Third Street Acting Company called for. Moreover, “Acting Company always paid for itself, but it didn’t really pay me a whole lot,” admits Ciara with a laugh.

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Fulfilling a longtime wish of Ciara’s, the company did a grand finale production of The Phantom of the Opera. More than 900 people attended the cast’s two performances. “When I decided to quit, a lot of people were really sad, and that made me feel good,” says Ciara. “I really loved running the company.” By 2005, her cast members were split evenly between homeschoolers and public or private school students—over 100 children were involved.

“I learned that if you have an idea, you can make it happen. People are afraid of failing, and so they don’t try things. If, when I had told my mom, ‘I’d love to be in a play,’ she had just said, ‘Well, we don’t have anything, so you can’t,’ that would have changed everything. But she said, ‘Well, then, just do it yourself.’ That was a huge thing for me.”

“There were times when I was really tired of running the company,” says Ciara. “But then I would do the production, and I would remember why I was doing it. Sometimes we’d offer classes, and we wouldn’t get enough kids, and we’d have to cancel. And there were discouraging times, like when we didn’t have as big an audience as I had expected.”

“I really like the challenge of drawing kids out and making them confident,” she continues. “Some of the kids would be so shy, and by the end, it was neat to see them go up on the stage.”

Ciara credits her parents and homeschooling with instilling in her a “philosophy of excellence.”

“I told my kids that they should always try to be the best, and we should be doing the best literature, have the best costumes. I’m always of the opinion that you should give kids really difficult material, and they’ll rise to it.”

The flexible schedule of homeschooling also gave Ciara the time to devote to her theater company while she was still in high school. “Time was a huge thing! I could spend the afternoon rehearsing or going around talking to businesses,” she says.

After graduation, Ciara spent 40 to 60 hours a week running Third Street Acting Company. She would do paperwork in the mornings, and teach or run rehearsals in the afternoons and sometimes into the evenings. She and her younger sister sewed all the costumes. “I hate sewing, but my sister loves it,” she says. “Our costumes looked authentic—we were known all over Fargo for them.”

What is the retired thespian doing now? Besides being a wife and mother, Ciara (now Ciara Stockeland) runs two successful clothing stores in downtown Fargo. “Ever since I was in junior high, I thought it would be great to have a store. I felt like it was something that was needed in our community.” She says the “confidence she gained in talking to people” in order to run Third Street Acting Company and attract business sponsors helped her when she started out in retail. “And the artistic things, like making the performance programs, helped me. Now, I do a lot of the graphic work for the stores.”

Ciara says she plans to involve her two children in theater as they grow older. Right now, she makes sure her 4-year-old son, Harrison, gets plenty of opportunities to watch plays. “One huge challenge for me in doing plays was finding boys. Guys are so often pushed towards sports. I want my son to appreciate the arts, although I won’t push him to act if he doesn’t like it!”

Not chicken when it comes to business

Many of 21-year-old Jason Heki’s high school credit hours were spent, not at the kitchen table or schoolroom desk, but in the chicken house and vegetable patch.

Courtesy of the Family
At 14, Jason Heki started a business selling farm-fresh eggs, chickens and vegetables.

An animal lover with a penchant for chickens, Jason’s interest in the fowls escalated after he built a homemade chicken egg incubator with his dad at age 10. “Three weeks later,” he says, “my family joked that I became a ‘mother’ on Father’s Day”—in other words, the two chicks that hatched from his incubator followed him around like a mother hen.

When Jason’s family moved to a home with over seven acres, he ordered more chickens and expanded his hobby. But as fellow church members began asking to purchase his farm-fresh eggs, he considered turning his pastime into a business.

Jason enrolled in a class at Iowa’s Drake University, where he learned to write a business plan. His plan focused on selling eggs and garden produce. “My parents looked at it as a way to develop my interests in this niche,” Jason explains. “They gave me guidance when I needed it, and also let me learn as I did it.”

“I was excited about doing my own business, rather than society’s normal box where you go to college, and then you get a 9-to-5 job, and that’s it. I was excited about doing something different where I could essentially make a living at something I enjoyed,” he says.

With a flock of 25 (which quickly grew to 70), Jason, then 14, spent most of the summer months tending the chickens and gathering eggs. He also cultivated a half-acre of vegetables. When eggs and produce were ready for sale, Jason carted them to farmer’s markets in Des Moines and surrounding towns. He also marketed his produce at specialty stores. “It was a lot of work at that age for me,” he says, adding that early Saturday mornings preparing for the Des Moines market were a big time commitment. “My whole family was very involved. My siblings often helped me.” He ran his own booths in the smaller markets, and shared a friend and mentor’s booth at the Des Moines market, which boasted approximately 30,000 customers and was a short drive from his hometown of Johnston, Iowa.

But Jason’s business, Green Acres Family Farm, was only beginning to take off. The following year, he expanded and began raising “broiler” chickens to sell as meat. This was a much more profitable business than the eggs and vegetables, although Jason continued to do all three. Following a 7-week cycle from start to finish, the broiler chickens were more consistent and reliable than laying hens, which became less productive with age and changing seasons. Jason’s business flourished—at his busiest, he was directly supplying broiler chickens to 30 customers. And most of his business, Jason says, originated by word of mouth.

What did people think of the young entrepreneur? “The reactions were very positive most of the time, but people were usually surprised” says Jason. “I don’t remember anyone my age doing the kind of work I was doing. It’s the perfect opportunity for young people who want to get involved in business to start out at that age. . . . When you’re young, people are encouraged by that [initiative] and want to support you. It’s a good time to network and get to know people.”

Raising chickens and vegetables also required a lot of plain old hard work as well. “Sometimes it became very stressful with the hours and workload, but I liked it, so that kept me going. It was also encouraging to see other people doing the same type of thing,” says Jason. During the busy season, mainly the summer months, Jason poured about 10 hours a day into his business. “A lot of the learning took place by doing,” says Jason. He also received guidance and advice from friends and mentors.

Because he was homeschooled, Jason had the flexibility to combine his business and his education. “I think that a lot of my business ideas grew naturally out of my homeschooling lifestyle,” he says. “Being an entrepreneur allows you to find a niche and be creative, expanding your ideas, developing your interests.” Through his business, Jason gained many academic and professional skills in areas such as marketing, management, research, horticulture, and animal science.

Jason’s business plan earned him two awards, one from the National Coalition for Empowering Youth Entrepreneurs in 2002, and the other in 2003, when he was voted a Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship. This recognition and his entrepreneurial experiences have given him the opportunity to mentor others. He has spoken twice to middle schoolers at the University of Iowa-sponsored summer business camp, which he attended himself a few years earlier. He also mentored a young boy who was interested in agriculture.

Jason is currently working on a book that will give “young people interested in starting a business the nuts and bolts of writing a business plan,” he says. Right now, The Egg Came First (“a title which has nothing to do with my theory of origins,” he adds with a chuckle) is still in progress, but Jason hopes to publish it in fall 2007. “A lot of people don’t even think about starting their own business just because there’s not anyone around them doing it. I’ve come to realize over the years that a lot of learning really happens one-on-one with people, so I look for opportunities to share one-on-one.”

However, Jason hasn’t confined his dreams to simply chicken farming and vegetable growing. In 2004, he followed an interest in real estate and now owns two houses, one of which he spent much time renovating. Funding from his farm business furnished him with capital for this new venture, and the hard work and perseverance he practiced in agriculture now aid him in managing his property.

Set to enter Patrick Henry College in fall 2007 as a sophomore, Jason has yet another goal: to major in public policy and run for state office. His interest in politics grew out of his work for the Republican National Committee during the 2004 elections and volunteering in several political campaigns. “Ideally I want to have a real estate business that allows me to be involved in politics without having to rely on it completely for income,” he says. In the meantime, what will happen to the chickens and vegetables? Jason says he plans to pass on the business to his twin younger brothers.

Shining the light

As a child and young teenager, Stacie Ruth Stoelting loved singing, acting, writing, and talking with others. But her real passion was spreading the gospel of Christ. At 17, Stacie Ruth carried her passions into the public by founding Bright Light Ministry, with the goal of “beaming the bright light of Jesus Christ to the world” through professional singing and speaking, drama, and writing.

Stacie Ruth Stoetling

The now-22-year-old ministers to victims of Alzheimer’s and their families, caregivers of all kinds, teens, and others. “All ages are hurting,” says Stacie Ruth. She speaks and sings by invitation everywhere from homeschool conventions to churches to radio and TV to singing for President Bush before thousands at a special event. A recent opportunity was recording in Nashville at bluegrass singer Ricky Skaggs’ personal studio for a new Christian/patriotic worship CD.

“Each day is different,” says Stacie Ruth. “I’ve learned to treasure small moments and big moments.” She sings “mostly her grandparents’ favorites, which are hymns.”

Her sister, Carrie Beth Stoelting, also a singer with a love of acting and speaking, accompanies Stacie Ruth as often as possible. (Carrie Beth heads up her own organization, United for Movie Action, through which she petitions Hollywood to produce moral, family-friendly films.)

Growing up close to both sets of her grandparents in Midwestern Iowa, Stacie Ruth witnessed firsthand the deteriorating effects of Alzheimer’s on her own grandfather and the effects of dementia on her grandmother. “I was deeply hurt by seeing my grandparents struggle,” she says. “It was the desire of my heart to help others. I also recognized an urgent need to spread the gospel.” As a teenager visiting her grandparents, Stacie Ruth says, “I sensed that I needed to write down my grandparents’ story on paper.” At age 15, Stacie Ruth turned her writings into a book called Still Holding Hands, a novel-like testimony of her grandparents’ romance and commitment as well as a collection of tips for caregivers. “I view it as an evangelism tool,” says Stacie Ruth.

News of the book spread largely by word of mouth. Secular media were interested because of the topic and the young author. Stacie Ruth also wrote letters to friends and Christian leaders, describing her hope that the book would reach many people—Randy Travis and Pat Robertson are among her endorsers. All of Stacie Ruth’s proceeds support Bright Light Ministry.

Stacie Ruth encourages other teens who want to do something out of the ordinary to be willing to follow God’s will and be teachable. “I think a lot of people get discouraged, [and they think], ‘do I really have anything new to say?’ Initiative can be dampened by fear and inadequacy. Instead, we need to focus on what God has given us and what He wants us to do,” she says. “I’ve had the same fears . . . but I know it’s all about my strength in Christ. It’s a big responsibility to honor God with our gifts and not hide our light.”

Homeschooled since 4th grade, Stacie Ruth says that home education allowed her to grow spiritually and creatively. “It allowed me to expand my horizons and look at things from different perspectives.”

Aside from traveling and ministering through Bright Light, Stacie Ruth writes monthly columns for the Christian Broadcasting Network website, is writing two Christian novels, and studies business management through the University of Minnesota’s distance education program. Her newest book, Whatever Happened to My Faith? (in the process of being published), is a nonfiction work answering tough questions and addressing different facets of culture that can steal a person’s faith and cultivate hypocrisy.

For more information about Bright Light Ministry, visit www.brightlightministry.com.


As these three snapshots illustrate, when given the freedom and flexibility of homeschooling, young people flourish—in their personal development and their impact on their communities.

Maybe your teenager won’t start a business or travel across the country, but he may decide to enter college early, devote his mornings to training for the baseball diamond or golf course, give music lessons, or volunteer at an animal shelter or library. Given the chance to explore their interests and pursue them in real ways, teens can gain valuable experience, fulfillment, and purpose as they become adults. As you guide your teen toward adulthood, you just might be surprised at how capable your teen is, and how rewarding the teen years can be.