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Darwin couple home safe after two weeks stranded in South China Sea

When Steve and Pam Ahlgren of Darwin began planning a 30-day Asian cruise last winter, they hoped to visit some of the places Pam’s father and mother had worked as missionaries many years ago.

They never imagined a viral outbreak of global proportions might disrupt their plans, but that’s exactly what happened. The Ahlgrens were passengers aboard the Holland America Westerdam cruise ship that in February was stuck at sea for two weeks as they were denied entry by multiple ports for fear of COVID-19 contamination, or novel coronavirus.

This was the second year the Ahlgrens, who are crop farmers and have time off in winter, planned a cruise with family members.

“Some of our friends like to go to Arizona, some like to go to Florida, some like to go to Texas,” Pam said. “We just like to take a month and see the world.”

When the Ahlgrens boarded the Westerdam from Singapore Jan. 16, there was little concern about the coronavirus, which was still being studied by the Chinese National Health Commission.

The cruise went as scheduled for the first few weeks, making stops in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. During this time, however, more information about coronavirus was coming out as it became a worldwide concern.

It was during their fourth planned stop that the Ahlgrens first started having concerns.

“Everything was absolutely smooth and we didn’t hear any word of the virus until we got close to Hong Kong,” Pam said.

Ahlgren said she and her family had planned to explore Hong Kong during their stay, but they decided to stay on the ship when they heard news that the outbreak had caused many areas of the city to be closed.

“They did let some people off, and we had some people get on, which was a little concerning to us,” Pam said, “but they had to go through health screening.”


The next planned stop was Manila, but that’s when the trouble started. The Philippines denied the ship from making a scheduled port call. They were subsequently denied entry by Japan, South Korea, Guam, Vietnam and Thailand.

“They even sent a military ship out to make sure we didn’t dock,” Pam said about Thailand’s response to the cruise ship. “That was really disconcerting. As you’re looking out you see this military ship circling your ship.”

For 13 days, the Ahlgrens were stranded in the South China Sea along with the other 2,257 people onboard the Westerdam. Fortunately, the passengers were assured that there were ample supplies to withstand a long departure from land.

“The captain said we had plenty of food and fuel,” Pam said. “Somebody did say they ran out of ketchup, but that’s not an emergency.”

While passengers suffered minor inconveniences such as depleted condiments, Pam described the two-week voyage as an inconvenience rather than a major concern. The ship’s medical team twice required passengers to have their temperatures taken to monitor signs of the virus, but otherwise people were free to roam the ship.

“My dad went through seven books. I read a lot, I think I was on my fourth book,” Pam said. “The weather was super nice, but it was like my husband said, ‘What side of the ship should we see today?’ You just get a little stir crazy because you want to get on land. You’re just kind of cooped up.”


Finally, on Feb. 13, Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen granted the Westerdam permission to disembark.

“Everybody cheered,” Pam recalled, “because we were wondering where we would go. It was just a feeling of, ‘Now we can actually go home.’”

The prime minister even visited the ship himself via helicopter and gifted each of the passengers a Cambodian scarf known as a krama.

Although the passengers were now on land, their trials were not complete. When they arrived at the airport in Phnom Penh, they learned they would not be able to fly home. Connecting airports such as South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia would not allow the passengers into the country.

The Ahlgrens and others were put up in a hotel along with ambassadors from multiple countries representing those stranded in Cambodia. Holland America’s president also visited the passengers to assure them everything was being done to get them home, and the Ahlgrens credited the cruise line and its workers for taking care of the passengers’ needs throughout the ordeal.

Submitted photo  

Pam and Steve Ahlgren of Darwin stand near the bow of the Holland America Westerdam cruise ship, on which they were stranded for 13 days in the South China Sea over concerns of coronavirus contamination.


The passengers received one final scare when an 83-year-old woman tested positive for coronavirus. While that ultimately turned out to be a false-positive — nobody aboard the Ahlgrens’ ship was ever found to have contracted coronavirus — the passengers were subjected to a battery of medical tests from workers in hazmat suits.

“The nose swab,” Pam said, “I swear they were trying to get brain matter because it was very uncomfortable.”

When the tests all came back negative, Holland America resumed trying to find flights home for its passengers. People were told to stay in the hotel and be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.

“Within an hour you had to be ready to go, because they didn’t know which country would let us fly to transfer,” Pam said.

After three days in Cambodia, the Ahlgrens were told Feb. 18 they would be heading home. Their flight connected through Tokyo and San Fransisco, and finally arrived in Minnesota. As soon as they landed in the U.S., Pam said, they received a phone call from the Minnesota Department of Health, which was tracking their passports.

“I said we were feeling fine and they said, ‘Yes, we got your report from the Cambodia Health Department and they said you’re all healthy,” Pam said. ‘“There’s no reason to be quarantined.’ … And I thought, ‘Wow, they’re watching all this stuff.’”

While the coronavirus outbreak changed their plans, ultimately the Ahlgrens said they didn’t let it ruin their vacation. They were also happy with how it was handled by Holland America.

“Like my dad said, it was a great trip,” Pam said, “it was just a little unexpected toward the end.”

The couple have already begun making plans for a South American cruise next year.

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McLeod County takes control of Sentenced to Service

Someone has to set up the McLeod County Fair, clean up after Winstock, clean ditches and maintain parks and trails. Often, that work is done with the help of the Sentenced to Service Program.

The work hours are often assigned as part of a sentence for breaking the law. Those serving jail time also use the program to get outside, learn skills and shave time off their prison sentence. Usually STS is run by the state, but  McLeod County is taking over locally.

"We want to get more accountability for the money the program costs," said Will Feltmann, jail administrator.

He said local control will give the county more opportunities to manage the program's costs, but it will also benefit the county and residents in other ways. He wants to see the program shift to more county and local projects, to assist more nonprofits and help cities with the cleanup of festivals and events.

"I am looking forward to merging it with the re-entry stuff," Feltmann said.

The jail is currently developing a program to help inmates develop the skills and connections they need to contribute to society and avoid a return visit to county jail. Read more in the March 11 Leader.

"We'll take them out on STS, teach them to use tools, teach them skills, how to be accountable," Feltmann said. "We're not just doing inmates. It's also out-of-custody people sentenced to complete an STS program."

Duane Radtke, who managed the state program in McLeod County for 24 years starting in 1990, has been brought on to assist with the transition. He is helping the county determine what equipment it needs and creating a system to collect referrals for the program from probation and from the jail. Each day an inmate works in STS, they are able to leave jail a day sooner.

"It can save the county a lot of money if they use it correctly," he said.

For example, the STS program was called on to gut an old nursing home so that it could be turned into a county building in Glencoe several years ago. As a result, $60,000 was saved. The county also saves money by using STS for painting work and to split wood to sell in county parks.

"Some are good cost savings, some jobs are just a good thing to do," Radtke said. "It's supposed to teach people what it's like to have a job. You teach them they have to show up in the morning to get to work. And when they are on the crew, we show them how to do a job. We teach them if they don't know how to use a tape measure. We show them how to use saws. It's showing them, 'This is what a job is all about.' A lot of them think they have accomplished something (when they finish).  ... Instead of wasting their time in jail, it gives them something else to do."

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Class and fellowship connect Mohs to his career choice

A few years ago, Hutchinson High School junior Toby Mohs realized he enjoyed mechanical work. His father bought a diesel truck, his friend drove a diesel, and at the dairy farm he works at there were diesel engines.

"I was surrounded by diesels," he said. "So I started to like them even more specifically."

That's how he discovered he wanted to go to school for diesel mechanics. And he's already started gaining the practical experience he'll need thanks to a program the school's TigerPath coordinator, Andrea Moore, brought to his attention. Her job was created to help connect students to career education opportunities.

Several months ago, Charlie Plant of Big Picture Learning and Doug Thomas, who knew Moore through his time working with charter schools, visited HHS to look for grant applicants for the Harbor Freight Fellows Initiative. The program encourages students interested in the trades and offers a $1,000 scholarship for 120 hours of apprenticing with a trade mentor. It also offers a $500 stipend to the mentor and a $500 stipend to the school staff member who helps arrange the fellowship. In Moore's case, providing such opportunities is her job, so the stipend went to the school.

Moore went to the school's agriculture internship class to see if anyone was interested in the opportunity.

"Toby, being the organized go-getter that he is, came to my office and said he would apply," Moore said. "He organized it and got accepted."

The fit was natural for Mohs, who had already started working at DC Diesel Tek in Litchfield for his agriculture internship class. Through the fellowship, he'll be able to continue his work there.

"This kind of developed along the way," Mohs said. "I went as part of a class and (the fellowship) fit into it."

At DC Diesel Tek, Mohs does whatever is needed, including dealing with garbage, replacing wheel bearings on trailers, replacing brakes on trucks and more. The business offers diesel repair, industrial repair, commercial repair, agriculture repair, welding and fabrication, inspections, trucking and more. Because he is not certified, there are tasks Mohs cannot do, but he is able to watch, listen and learn.

The fellowship uses an application that Mohs will download to record his apprenticing hours. He'll also periodically fill out surveys as the application tracks his attitude toward the trade before, during and after his apprenticeship. For Mohs, the outlook is positive.

"The way I see it, before this class and this fellowship, I didn't have much of a way to get into anything mechanical," Mohs said. "I was more fixing my own vehicle or learning on lawnmowers. But now I get to go and watch and learn and help do these jobs. It's more general knowledge. And I can say I've done it. I at least have a basis of how to do it if I had to do it again."

Moore said she's glad the school decided to create a position such as hers that can be the point person to bring such opportunities to students. In addition to the scholarship and stipend, the fellowship provides one other perk for recipients: $250 for tools of the trade.

"And you get to keep them," Moore said.

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$30,000 grant helps Hutchinson plant new trees

A $30,000 grant from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will help Hutchinson plant new trees in its efforts to mitigate an emerald ash borer infestation.

Back in 2010, the city started setting aside funds annually for EAB prevention efforts, and in 2014 it began to cut down ash trees and replace them with different varieties. At that time, approximately 20 percent of the city’s 28,000 trees were ash.

“If we would lose all of these (trees) at once, that's a significant portion of our crown canopy,” said Donovan Schuette, Hutchinson’s arborist. “What we're trying to do ... is extend this period of removal/loss ... over 20 years. In an uncontrolled environment, all your ash trees are gone in five to seven years once the bug arrives. So it's trying to extend that, get new trees going that you don't lose so much of your canopy all at once.”

The city has been cutting down approximately 50 ash trees annually, but with this new grant it hopes to speed the process up significantly. With the grant dollars and a $7,500 match from the city, the goal is to replace 300 trees over the next two years.

Schuette is aiming to have about 75 percent of the new trees planted by the end of this year. Some of those species include river birch, catalpa, Redmond linden and tamarack. The other 25 percent he plans to plant in 2021 as they can’t be ordered until later in the year. Those species include trees such as blue beech and seedless coffeetree.

“The focus is going to be in parks and public spaces, and then probably 25 or 30 percent of the trees will go to boulevards,” he said.

Schuette specifically mentioned areas around city-owned buildings such as the rec center, police station and city center as locations where the work may be done. He also mentioned boulevards in the neighborhoods of First Avenue Southeast to Fair Avenue Southeast, and First Avenue Southeast to Sixth Avenue Southeast.

EAB in recent years has spread west from the Twin Cities area and was found in Wright County back in 2018, leading the city to declare the beetle a nuisance and step up its prevention efforts.

Saving Hutchinson’s tree canopy is not only a matter of aesthetics, it also helps residents in ways such as managing air pollution, property value and energy savings, according to Schuette.

“In the winter time, when you have less wind movement you have less heat loss on the houses,” Schuette said. “In the summer time, when they're shaded, you can actually see a 10 degree temperature difference on a shaded lot compared to a sunny lot.”