Paying It Forward on Highway 8

 By the roadside on Highway 8 coming into Chisago City a green giant of a chair entices passers-by to come over, sit down and be swallowed up.  

It’s a people magnet—a perfect prop for a hammy photo to post on Facebook, which hundreds of people have done.  On the back of the chair is the slogan: “Life Is Great on Highway 8”–the theme of a program born from necessity and nurtured by an unbounded community spirit that keeps pulling people together in an ongoing saga of paying good deeds forward.

The Big Chair has roots extending throughout the community.  One place is about a half mile away, at Ecumen Parmly LifePointes in Chisago City.  There, in the Vitalize! Centre, is a fully outfitted woodshop, where every tool has been donated.  Often people moving out of their homes into Ecumen Parmly will donate those no-longer-needed power tools and band saws and drill presses.  And from these donations an exceptionally well-equipped woodshop has evolved.

A regular group from all around the area comes to the woodshop and uses these donated tools to make all sorts of wooden wonders, which they in turn donate, never seeming to have trouble finding a good cause.

During the summer of 2012 the entire Chisago Lakes area was having a bad time. Road construction was so disruptive that it scared off the vital tourist traffic to the local businesses all along the Highway 8 Corridor, including Chisago City, Lindstrom, Center City, Shafer and Taylors Falls.  Some businesses were so hard-hit they had to close.

The Chisago Lakes Area Community Foundation didn’t want 2013 to be a replay of that awful summer of 2012.  So they imported a clever idea from out East designed to draw tourists back.  The idea was to have local businesses sponsor the construction of Adirondack-like chairs, have the chairs beautifully painted by local artists and sold at a silent auction, with proceeds going to the Foundation, which would in turn use the money for further community building.  The businesses would pay $200 to put a sponsored chair in their store, which would cover the cost of materials.  The catch was that you had to come into the store to place a bid on its chair. 

There was general agreement that the idea had legs, but who would make the chairs? The Foundation committee was having this discussion when Roger Trivette, who kind of looks (and acts) like Santa Claus, raised his hand.  How about this: he would design the chairs and get his buddies over at the Ecumen Parmly woodshop to help make and assemble them. 

So the woodshop volunteers made most of the chairs, the local artists painted them in ways that charmed and captivated, people came into the stores to see all the chairs and make their bids, and by the time this was all over, the Foundation raised more than $20,000 on 37 chairs.  The oversized chair by the road in Chisago City is a monument to this program, and the other cities along the corridor each have a “Big Chair” too. Facebook is full of pictures of happy kids climbing on the giant chairs–giving their testimony to life being great on Highway 8.

Of course, the program was never really about the money.  It was about attracting people back to local stores.  So the Foundation invested the money and is using the interest to make ongoing grants back to the community to continue the good work.

And the story keeps going….

Remember the folks over at Ecumen Parmly’s Vitalize! Centre who made most of the chairs?  They applied for a $500 grant from the Foundation.  And got it.  With the grant money, the woodshop crew went back to work on community projects.

The chairs project was just part of the woodshop group’s routine of giving their time and talents to the community.  Two years ago, they made birdhouses for the Birdhouse Ball, an event held to raise money for the material to make bunk beds at Camp Ojiketa.  With the proceeds from the Birdhouse Ball, the woodshop went back to work making bunk beds for the camp.  Then somebody had this idea to take ugly old chairs that nobody wanted, and refurbish them, and sell them.  So the woodshop went back to work again.   They’ve worked on projects for tenants of Parmly LifePointes, repaired furniture for the nursing home, worked on projects for Camp Triumph, and coach one another on each project they have built.  And come Monday, they will gather in the woodshop at the Vitalize! Centre, and get back to work, yet again.

And a similar story keeps going all over the community, with people pitching in to pay more good deeds forward—making sure life stays great on Highway 8. 

[To see more chairs go here to the Foundation’s Highway 8 website.  And if you would like to become involved in community programs, donate, or just learn more, go to or call the Parmly Vitalize! Center at 651-257-7957.]