What does a pink-haired, tattooed, ear-pierced, outspoken, former hairstylist, current college student, 20-something single mother of twins from the central peninsula have in common with a soft-spoken, married, former nurse, current Homer author with sometimes evident strands of gray hair that hint at her age have in common?
Not much unless you’re talking about Maggie Winston of Kenai and Marianne Schlegelmilch of Homer. When it comes to these two women, you don’t have to look too far beneath the surface to discover a strong connection.
Schlegelmilch, with several published books to her credit, has donated the text for a children’s book, “Slugs Forever,” as a fundraiser for the Kenai Peninsula Independent Living Center, a peninsula-wide organization assisting individuals with impairments to live as independently as possible in their own homes and in the communities they choose.
Winston, an ILC board member who contracted transverse myelitis in 2005 and, as a result, is paralyzed from the neck down, is doing the illustrations. The writer-artist duo is shooting for an early summer publication date.
The idea to use a book as an ILC fundraiser came after the doctor for Schlegelmilch’s husband, Bill, referred the couple to the ILC for some medically necessary home modifications. Through that contact, Schlegelmilch observed the ILC staff’s dedication.
During a follow-up visit, Schlegelmilch and Joyanna Geisler, ILC executive director, “were having coffee, just chatting and (Schlegelmilch) asked how our fundraising efforts were going,” said Geisler.
When she told Schlegelmilch fundraising was going “pretty good” and referred to a recent event that had raised $2,500, Schlegelmilch said, “Joyanna, you’re thinking too small.”
Having used one of her books as a fundraiser for Blood Bank of Alaska in Anchorage, Schlegelmilch suggested a similar event for the ILC.
“I left Marianne’s and my head was kind of spinning,” said Geisler of the unusual idea.
Nowhere in that conversation did Schlegelmilch suggest the text come from her, but “then at some point I said, ‘Well, I can do it.’ So I did,” she said.
Wanting a storyline that would capture the ILC’s mission without mentioning it specifically, Schlegelmilch “created a scenario of characters whose story would reflect the values I’d witnessed from my interaction with everyone at the ILC: a spirit of giving, a spirit of love and compassion, giving back, working together, respectful and interactive support.”
The resulting text was inspired by an unlikely event.
“One day I was throwing the Frisbee to Chauncey (my dog) in the yard and there was a slug on it,” said Schlegelmilch. “I went, ‘Oh yuck,’ and threw it on the ground.”
From that incident, “Slugs Forever” was born, the tale of life in an Alaska yard.
In it Geisler found themes important to the ILC: “We’re all kind of in it together and if we each pitch in, we might have a good ending. None of us is too insignificant to make a contribution.”
Schlegelmilch presented it to the ILC’s board of directors and peninsula staff and “everyone said how I’d captured the mission of ILC. I was really touched by that,” she said.
Winston was touched by the story. So touched, in fact, that when she heard an illustrator was needed, she volunteered. The book is Winston’s break-out as an artist, an interest she began developing by herself about five years ago.
“I enjoy art, I paint and have done a few little drawings here and there, but it’s just a hobby,” said Winston, who works by holding a pencil or paintbrush in her teeth.
Although she lives in Kenai, Winston felt it important to find inspiration for the illustrations near where Schlegelmilch was inspired to write the story. That began by making an extensive visit to Schlegelmilch’s ice-covered yard.
“She operates her wheelchair with her mouth and there I was with ice cleats, slipping and sliding. I said, ‘Maggie, what if you fall?’ And she said, ‘Oh, don’t tell me I can’t do that,’” said Schlegelmilch.
Taking on new challenges with a can-do attitude has been part and parcel of Winston’s life since she was struck with transverse myelitis on the first birthday of her twin sons, Dylan and Daemon.
“It couldn’t have happened on a better day,” she said. “The happiest day in my life was when my sons were born. And that day we were surrounded by all the people that loved them.”
When Winston woke up that morning, she had pain between her shoulders and thought she might need to see a chiropractor. Four hours later, she couldn’t move anything below her arms and was flown to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage where she was diagnosed with the neurological disorder. A week later, she could no longer move her arms. A tube was inserted to help her breathe and she was flown by Lear jet to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Two months after she first felt the pain in her back, she was transferred to the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle for six weeks of rehab before finally being released to return to Alaska.
Asked about the difference her paralysis has made in her life, Winston’s positive attitude shines through. Saying she had little direction in her life before being paralyzed, the former hairdresser is now a full-time college junior studying psychology at the Kenai River Campus of the Kenai Peninsula College-University of Alaska Anchorage. She’s been skiing at Alyeska, an experience she described as “terrifying,” has photos to prove she actually did it and won’t rule out a repeat performance. Other interests? She wants to parachute.
Although concerned that Schlegelmilch like her ideas for the illustrations, Winston isn’t reluctant to offer her suggestions.
“She wants me to put my own spin on it and be creative,” said Winston. “As long as she’s pleased, I’m pleased.”
The differences between the two women are clear, but so is the respect they have for one another. Equally clear is their dedication to an organization they are committed to support.
“I am proud to be a member of the ILC family and very excited to have the opportunity to be able to give back in any little way, especially when it involves artistic expression,” Winston said in a recent ILC newsletter.
Schlegelmilch refers to “Slugs Forever” to describe her support of the organization.
“I’d never heard of them before Bill and I needed them in our lives,” said Schlegelmilch. “There’s a little line from the book, something about ‘taking is giving and giving is taking’ and that love is all that matters. I was struck with the sense that (the ILC) is a good group of people and I wanted to give them a boost.”