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Coming back home to the hive: Yellowjacket alumni find compelling reasons to nest in Perham

Sam Salathe had a job as an Athletic Trainer waiting for her as soon as she graduated from college this past May. She said it was always her plan to come back and someday raise a family in Perham. (Marie Johnson / Perham Focus)1 / 4
Brandon Nelson and his wife, Tara, are both Perham grads who moved back to develop their careers and raise a family together. Their four kids are, left to right: Dawson, Sophie, Dallas and Skylar. (Submitted Photo)2 / 4
Annalise Shippe and her husband, Aaron, are both Perham grads who "never really left," she says. It was always their intention to move back to town and put down roots. They're pictured here with their kids, Sadie, Lilliana and Carter. 3 / 4
2005 Perham High School grad Randin Olson has found success in his hometown as the owner of a fishing guide service. He's also started a family, and can't envision himself living anywhere else. (Submitted Photo)4 / 4

Perham is pretty good at taking care of its own.

Whether it’s Perham grads looking for work right out of high school, or alumni coming back after college to put down roots, the community embraces its Yellowjackets with open arms.

A quick survey of a few major employers in town reveals that Perham grads make up a large percentage of the local workforce. At KLN, for example, it’s estimated that more than half of all salaried positions belong to former Yellowjackets. At Kitmasters, a roughly estimated three-fourths of the workers are from within a 10-mile radius of town. And at the public schools, more than one-third of the employees are from Perham, not counting support staff.

Everywhere you look in Perham, there are Perham grads to be found. Former Yellowjackets buzz around every grocery store, church, neighborhood and restaurant in town. Every major community event has at least one Perham grad behind it, and, as local government officials and prominent city leaders, alumni are constantly making influential decisions that affect the population as a whole. While Perham natives are not the only contributors to the community’s success, they play a strong hand in it.

According to the latest demographic estimates (from the 2017 American Community Survey), 25- to 34-year-olds make up the largest percentage of the Perham population as an age group, at 17.2 percent; coming in second are 45- to 54-year-olds, at 11.2 percent. All other age groups make up 7.8 percent of the population or less.

Those large numbers of younger adults are a testament to studies showing that grads from small towns tend to return home when they’re ready to start families of their own. The commonly talked-about phenomenon of “brain drain” — the loss of young adults ages 18-25 that many rural communities experience — goes hand-in-hand with “brain gain,” an in-migration of adults ages 30-49.

One study, by Ben Winchester, a researcher with the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality, showed that nearly every rural county in Minnesota experienced growth in the 35- to 44-year-old age group in the decade from 1990-2000. That same study showed that, of all newcomers to a community, 36 percent have lived their previously, and the majority of those folks bring their spouses and children back with them, contributing significantly to a town’s culture and economy.

Rick Schara, the coordinator of Live Wide Open, a campaign that invites people to return, move to, and stay in west central Minnesota, said there are many reasons why people choose to move back to the small towns they grew up in: slower pace of life, lower-cost housing, greater safety and security, a support system of family and friends nearby, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and other benefits.

Live Wide Open, along with the 549 Family Foundation and Perham Public Schools, will soon be hosting an event to welcome former Perham community members back to town to tour the new high school and learn about everything Perham has to offer. They’re hoping that, by casting a line, they’ll lure more Yellowjackets back home to the hive.

Those who do return will find plenty of company. Countless Perham grads are currently growing successful careers and putting down family roots in their hometown. A few of them have agreed to share their stories.

Sam Salathe: ‘Everything just kind of happened’

Sam Salathe had a job lined up in Perham before she was even done with college.

The 2012 Perham High School graduate always saw herself returning to her hometown someday to put down roots, but she had no idea just how soon after school that would actually happen.

She chalks it up to perfect timing.

Salathe was just months away from wrapping up a master’s degree in athletic training at South Dakota State University when her parents and a few friends back home started messaging her about a job in town that they thought would be perfect for her.

The new high school was set to open up with the new school year, Salathe learned, and with it, a new position as an Athletic Trainer. She would be an employee of Perham Health, and would spend the majority of her time working with student athletes. It was right up her alley.

She was hesitant to apply at first, since she was still in school and thought she might be jumping the gun. But she gave it a shot anyway, and ended up hitting the target. She was offered the job, effective right after her graduation in May.

She moved back to Perham that spring and got right to work.

“Everything just kind of happened,” she says. “Rather nicely, actually.”

She’s been loving her role as an Athletic Trainer. She calls it “a jack of all trades profession,” with a lot of variety. She’s on the sidelines at games, evaluating players’ injuries and helping with emergency care when necessary. She’s CPR and AED certified. She helps recognize and respond to concussions.

At the school, she’s in charge of student athlete injury management and rehabilitation efforts. One-on-one and in groups, Salathe works with kids on their physical skills and abilities as an athlete. She’s also there to help provide emotional support when a student has trouble accepting their limitations during rehab.

“There can be a lot of tears, but also happy moments when they get back to it,” she says.

The kids are Salathe’s favorite thing about the job.

“I know they appreciate me, and I appreciate the hard work that they do for me and the honesty that they give me,” she says. “They’re motivated to get back in the game, so they’ll do what they need to do to get there.”

Salathe would like to have kids of her own one day, and she says she can see herself raising them here in Perham. Her parents, brother and friends are all in town or nearby, she enjoys her work, and she likes the friendly, comfortable atmosphere that the community offers.

“My plan was always to eventually come back here and start a family, and have my kids go to school here,” she says. “My family would all be close together, and the school and community are great… I love my job a lot, so there’s no reason to leave because of that, so I might be here awhile — or forever!”

Brandon Nelson: ‘I had no problem finding a job’

Brandon Nelson has built a good life for himself in Perham.

The owner of Nelson Construction started his business here in 2010, and has been making people’s new home and remodeling dreams a reality ever since. Along the way, his own dreams have been coming true.

The 2001 Perham High School graduate attended technical school in Alexandria for a couple of years to study machining, before moving back to his hometown to raise a family. He and his wife, Tara, who is also a Perham grad, were about to have their first child when they decided to come back home.

The move wasn’t necessarily premeditated, but it felt right, Nelson says. They had an opportunity to live in the Twin Cities, where he would have had a job waiting, but they preferred the slower pace of life that Perham offered. They liked the schools here, and also had a family support system in place.

Tara was offered a position at Perham Health as soon as she finished school; she still works there today as an imaging coordinator. Brandon realized early on that machining wasn’t really for him, and worked for several businesses in town — “I had no problem finding a job,” he says — before becoming an entrepreneur and starting Nelson Construction.

Things took off for his company, Nelson says, and before long he had a steady stream of construction projects coming his way. Today, he has a small team of builders working for him, and he says that lately, “We’ve been pretty busy just building new houses. It seems like they come one after another. I enjoy it.”

Along with his business, Nelson has also been building up his family over the years. He and Tara now have four kids, ages 15, 13, 8 and 6.

“They keep us busy,” he laughs.

He says he’s “grounded now” in Perham, and has no desire to leave: “I like the small-town atmosphere. I know a lot of people, but yet I don’t know everyone, and I kind of like that.”

Annalise Shippee: ‘I’m glad to be home’

For Annalise Shippee, there was never any doubt that she’d return to Perham one day to settle down and raise her family.

The 2000 Perham High School graduate spent several years living in the Twin Cities while she attended school at Augsburg University, earning her master’s degree to become a Physician Assistant.

But that whole time, she kept coming back to Perham for regular visits. She liked to be with her family, and she still attended church here, at Calvary Lutheran. She preferred Perham’s small-town atmosphere and the area’s natural beauty over the concrete jungle and congested highways of the Cities.

After college, Shippee hoped to find a job in Perham, but at the time there were no open positions that suited her. So, she says, “I got as close as I could and I went to Staples.”

She and her husband, Aaron Shippee, a fellow 2000 Perham grad, lived in Staples for eight years, but still, Perham was always their home, in their hearts.

“We never put down roots in Staples,” she says. “His parents were here, and mine were here — we never really left Perham.”

Eventually, Shippee was offered a position at Perham Health. She’s been working there as a certified Physician Assistant in family medicine since 2015, and she says, “I love my job.”

As a PA, Shippee sees patients for physicals, conducts well child checks, does fracture care, performs biopsies… just about all the same things that a doctor does, she says, but without the long hours and late-night phone calls.

“I’ve been a PA for 11 years already, and I haven’t regretted my decision once,” she says. “I get time with my family, and I get to do what I love in medicine.”

She and Aaron’s three kids, ages 13, 11 and 8, are involved in multiple sports and activities through their schools and church. The family does some volunteering, and also spends a lot of time outside. They live on Dead Lake, so water sports like swimming, boating, tubing, fishing and ice fishing are all favorite pastimes, but they also like to go skiing, sledding, watch local sporting events, and just spend time with each other and their extended families.

Those opportunities to spend quality time together were a big reason Shippee wanted to raise her kids in Perham. The “amazing” schools and extracurricular opportunities were also major factors, she says, as was the city’s growth and progressive outlook: “It’s a thriving community.”

“I wanted for my kids what I had as a youth — to be able to live a life and explore the world without fear,” Shippee explains. “It’s a different world than when we grew up, but it’s still small-town America here… My kids can walk down the street and go to my parents’ house without fear.”

Shippee says she and Aaron have built their “forever home” here in Perham and she can’t see herself ever living anywhere else again.

“We’re not going anywhere,” she says. “I love it. I’m glad to be home.”

Randin Olson: ‘It’s a destination place’

Randin Olson is an outdoorsy kind of guy.

After moving away to Brainerd for two years to attend Central Lakes College, the 2005 Perham High School graduate came right back to his hometown, where the area’s abundant lakes, rivers, fields and forests meant he could spend his life doing what he loves to do best — hunt and fish.

“The lakes, the area and the scenery” made the return home a no-brainer, Olson says. Plus, he’s got family here, so “I always thought I’d come back.”

Olson does a lot of hunting in the fall, but fishing is his specialty and passion. His father, an expert walleye angler, taught him how to fish at a very early age: “I’ve been fishing since before I could walk,” Olson says. And he never stopped.

Far from it, in fact. Today, after decades of fishing on Otter Tail County area lakes, Olson now shares his knowledge of the sport with other anglers as the owner of Lock Jaw Guide Service. He spends his weekends teaching greener anglers all the tips and tricks behind chasing musky, walleye, bass, northern, panfish and other northwestern Minnesota species.

A locally recognized fishing expert, he has written for MidWest Outdoors Magazine and Keye’s Outdoors online magazine, and he hosts his own television show, “Fishin’ with Randin” on Lakes TV3.

He loves showing people the ropes of fishing, he says, especially kids. Last year, he started coaching the new Perham High School fishing team, and that’s a role he’s really enjoying, with a program he has a lot of appreciation for.

With Otter Tail County’s record 1,048 lakes, Olson says, the fishing opportunities are never in short supply here, and he never has to travel far for a great fishing experience.

“It’s a destination place,” he says of the area. “It’s getting bigger and bigger. My sponsors say it’s a ‘diamond in the rough.’ Anything you want to catch is right here. It’s just kind of undiscovered.”

His guide service started out casually, with Olson taking a few people here and there out onto the lakes with him. That was in 2011, and things grew pretty quickly. By 2014, he says, “I got serious with it, really started advertising and pushing it. There’s a demand for it here.”

It’s mainly a weekend business for now, but Lock Jaw just keeps getting busier, and Olson hopes to make it a full-time gig in the coming years. In the meantime, he spends his weekdays as a heating and air conditioning installer at All Seasons Plumbing and Heating, another skilled field that he says there’s a big demand for in the area, so he’s never hurting for work.

When he’s not at work, on the water or in the woods, Olson is most likely at home, spending time with his wife and their 2-year-old son. The small-town feel and friendly people of the Perham area make it an ideal place to raise a family, he says, in addition to being good for his business and outdoorsy lifestyle. He can’t see himself living anywhere else.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 3-year-old son and baby daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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