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Image: Image for Article: Lea Friesen: an Itasca area brain-gainer

Lea Friesen: an Itasca area brain-gainer

Reconnecting with community

An interview with Lea Friesen, who has returned to Itasca County


Quality of life – and other factors – drew Grand Rapids High School graduate Lea Friesen back to the area, with her husband, Tony Gutoski, and their two children. Now an art instructor at Itasca Community College, Friesen sees the community with fresh eyes, and has discovered benefits beyond her childhood recollections.


You are a Grand Rapids High School graduate, and have returned. How long were you gone, how long have you been back, and what drew you back?

My family moved back to Grand Rapids about three years ago. It had been ten years away; my husband and I were living in Chicago when we had our first child. Living in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment on a busy corne rwas not working with our new infant, and we were given an opportunity to come up north.

What opportunities do you and your family have to participate in community activities? What makes these opportunities the same or different from opportunities you’ve had elsewhere?

We loved living in Chicago because of the variety of food and entertainment constantly available, also the anonymity was a plus. However, there was almost no sense of community and travel was always complicated. We initially moved back here because my family offered support while our children were babies. I discovered a network of young mothers who had also come from other places and settled here. Through Early Childhood Family Education classes I met a few other families and then became involved at the YMCA. I have found an incredible professional support system through the MacRostie Art Center. The arts organization gave me my first taste of working again after having children. I was pleasantly surprised at the enthusiasm here for the arts. I love that in the dead of winter there still is a lively First Friday following. I am concerned about the lack of art classes in the elementary school system, but we’ll just have to work on that.

University of Minnesota Extension Service researcher Ben Winchester has called the return of residents like you part of rural Minnesota’s “brain gain.” Does this phenomenon ring true for you?

I never thought I would consider living in Grand Rapids after I graduated from high school, but if it had been everything I thought I knew as young person, we never would have stayed and committed to the area. There are many positive aspects of living here tha twere unpredictable from afar. I would say that Ben’s ideas are right on, based on my experience.

What has surprised you about living here again?

The thing that has most surprised me about coming here has been the variety of ideas I have encountered. I had pictured a community of a certain type of people with certain beliefs. I did not realize that what I experienced in middle and high school was a very limited view of the variety of people who exist here.

What would you tell others considering moving to, or returning to, rural?

It is possible to have a sort of ownership over a small community that is not possible in large cities. Logistically it is easier to find ways to get involved and learn about the area. I feel like I could predict most of the negatives about living here, but there have been many pleasant surprises as well. Due to technological development, living here does not necessarily isolate people like it used to.

In your eyes, is Grand Rapids a vibrant community?

I see Grand Rapids as a community with fantastic potential. It has citizens who are interested in what is happening in the rest of the world. I think the best thing that can happen for Grand Rapids is that its population keeps an eye on the positive and diverse ideas that are gaining steam in community development elsewhere. I hope the community continues to look for more ways to expose all youth of this area to the diversity of the world. I think Grand Rapids also needs to be careful of something I hear about many small towns; that they can be too internally networked and cold to outsiders.

Through its “Commitment to Home” strategic priority area, Blandin Foundation partners with residents in their work to build vibrant, resilient rural communities in the Itasca area. This includes leadership training, grants, and work on topics of importance to communities, such as student success and broadband (Grand Rapids was recently named a Blandin Broadband Community). For more on the kinds of Foundation resources specifically available to Itasca area communities, visit

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