Irwin Mallin: Embracing the Joy of Teaching

Irwin Mallin is truly an unforgettable man. Throughout his time on campus, whether it was known as Indiana-Purdue University Fort Wayne, he has always had everyone call him Irwin. No matter what relationship he had to the person, he was always just Irwin. It would feel wrong to call him anything other than that. Being on a first name basis with everyone speaks to his character and overall personality very well. In spite of his doctorate in communication and law degrees, Irwin never felt that he was above anyone else and made sure that everyone felt like they belonged when they were around him or his beloved department of communication.

Now, 20 years after he first arrived, Irwin is set to leave the university. Irwin has been battling cancer for nearly two years now. His diagnosis is terminal and as of this writing, he has transitioned to hospice care.

Irwin was born June 20, 1962 in Syracuse, New York. According to Irwin, Syracuse was a good place to be a kid, but not so much fun as an adult. His father and uncle taught him his sarcastic and unapologetic sense of humor, and he described himself as a very ordinary high school student who enjoyed watching sports and goofing off.

Growing up in Syracuse was something special for Irwin. “Syracuse was designed as a place to be a kid.”

 

Irwin’s senior photo from Nottingham High School in 1980.

After high school, Irwin went to Syracuse University where he studied communication. He found communication to be very interesting. “Communication allows you to be a part of people’s lives in ways that you otherwise wouldn’t,” Irwin said. After graduating with a degree in communication, Irwin went back to Syracuse University to get a law degree.

Irwin has always loved being able to help people through difficult times. After getting his law degree, Irwin spent five years as a bankruptcy lawyer. During that time, he estimated that he assisted around 70 people. He enjoyed his time as a lawyer because he was able to spend some time helping people. Helping people was always Irwin’s strong suit.

In 1999, Irwin continued to find ways to help people during challenging and transitional periods – this time as a college professor and head advisor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. He no longer found joy from his career as a lawyer and wanted to do something more fun.

“I wanted to teach because it was easy and seemed fun,” Irwin said. For Irwin, the excitement and passion for teaching never faded.

For the better part of 20 years, Irwin has devoted himself to his students and his work. His level of expertise and ability to connect with anyone he met set him apart from every other professor on the Purdue Fort Wayne campus. He genuinely cared about each and every student he interacted with on campus and would do anything to make sure they would succeed.

Dr. Marcia Dixson, Professor of Communication and Associate Vice Chancellor for Teaching and Learning at PFW, was the chair of the Communication Department for nine years from 2006-2015. As Irwin’s former department head, Dixson experienced many years of Irwin’s sometimes-awkward social abilities, sarcastic humor and commitment to student success.

“For the most part [being Irwin’s boss] was easy. Unless he was really fired up, he just works hard and does what’s best for the students and the department. He was always doing what’s best for the students and he was always willing to put the effort in,” Dixson said. For Irwin it was never hard to go above and beyond at his job, because it was fun for him.

One of Dixson’s most unforgettable Irwin moments was back in the early 2000s, when checks were still printed and picked up in an office. Dixson recalled Irwin walking down the hallway holding his check high while loudly saying, “Can you believe we get paid for this?” This statement really showed Irwin’s character. His sarcasm, humor and genuine personality have always made him someone that was easy to connect with on campus, no matter who you were.

Irwin receives his Featured Faculty for Service Excellence award from Carl Drummond, Vice Chancellor of Purdue Fort Wayne.

 

In February, Irwin was recognized for his commitment to the campus and his service to its students with the Featured Faculty for Service Excellence award for the 2018-2019 school year. The award recognizes those who “demonstrate extraordinary and sustained dedication to engagement with the community,” according to the nomination form.

“He fought to have advising recognized as a part of student success. He changed the culture of the campus in terms of how much we value advising and its recognition of his importance to student success,” Dixson said.

Irwin addresses the audience at the 2014 Communication Symposium.

“This institution became part of his soul – the students, faculty and place. It’s what he wanted to do with his life and he did it,” said Dr. Michelle Kelsey Kearl, Chair of the Communication department.  “I admire that Irwin made this place part of who he is, and his commitment didn’t waver. He is enduringly optimistic. He has faith in this institution and people that is profoundly unique.”

“Irwin will be remembered on campus as a person with a strong commitment to students and advising with an odd sense of humor. He was passionate about his students and about teaching,” said Dixson. “Whatever he did, it was always going to be good for students. He does things that he thinks matter and matter to other people and he loves that.”

Irwin would update his office hours each week, sometimes daily, on his website so that students knew when he was around. He always welcomed students and would do anything he could to make their experiences better. At the beginning of a class, he asked his students how they felt and a student answered “hungry.” Irwin immediately left the room without saying a word and came back shortly after with a Snickers bar. Irwin did whatever he could to make his students enjoy their time, even if it was just a silly gag.

Whether it was in the classroom or in his office with a student, Irwin was extremely passionate about his job and made sure other people felt the magic that he did. He walked into every class with an excited “Stars!” and the class would chime back “Hi, Gene!” as a homage to an old cheesy game show. Each and every class felt special with Irwin. He made you feel like you were supposed to be there, no matter your age or how much expertise you had on the subject. As you walked out of the classroom or his office, he would simply say “peace.” Irwin said he appropriated this saying from a Lutheran girl he dated 30 years ago. He always made students and colleagues feel welcome.

“Here in this department, my experience of him is he wanted everyone here to feel like they belonged. Every time a student would become a communication student, he would introduce them to everyone in the office and would root for them down the hallway ‘you’re one of us,’” Kelsey Kearl said. “It gave the students a sense of belonging. It did good work for the students and was great morale for the faculty. His rooting made it clear what our value was to the students.”

For many current students, alumni and faculty, Irwin has made an extremely lasting legacy.

“He has been a champion of teaching. There is no way to articulate it in a quantitative way. His award for outstanding advising is a career’s worth of effort into changing the entire culture of this campus,” Kelsey Kearl said.

“This campus will lose his passion for advising and his high valuing of advising. We have to hope that the culture has changed and that he has made a lasting legacy,” Dixson said.

Described as a “gem of a professor,” by his students, a photoshopped image of Irwin greets visitors to a student-created Facebook fan page.

The communication department and PFW in general will lose a phenomenal faculty member and stellar advisor upon Irwin’s departure. Everyone that encountered Irwin learned something – even if they didn’t know it at the time. He is genuinely a wise and down to earth man that never stopped sharing his knowledge with students and colleagues.

“You can’t have a conversation with Irwin and not take something out of it that is helpful or purposeful. He was so focused on students, making their experience here productive and a meaningful part of their lives,” Kelsey Kearl said. “He always seemed persistently invested in helping people do better. You would have to try hard not to learn something from him or find some productive tool that he knew about.”

As Irwin’s time at PFW draws to a close, he will greatly miss the university and its students. Irwin’s wish for the university is that it will continue to thrive and take care of students. He left a lasting legacy on this campus and on anyone that has ever encountered him; one that will hopefully continue to impact PFW for many years to come.

When asked what advice he has for students he simply said, “Do well.” As an educator and as a person, Irwin’s lasting impact has set the example for what it truly means to “do well.”

Editor’s note: This article was submitted for publication several days prior to Irwin Mallin’s passing on May 6, 2019.

Eli Paulk On Overcoming Depression, And Helping Others Do The Same

Eli Paulk sat alone outside of Purdue University Fort Wayne’s International Ballroom. A handful of students filtered in and out of the banner event September’s Suicide Prevention Week: a resource fair with over a dozen different community organizations and groups hoping to engage students on the topic of mental health. Dressed in black shorts and a purple Louisiana State University hoodie, Paulk appeared to be unaware or uninterested in the event going on in front of him. A surprising observation to me because, as he would later share, although he has made it his goal to help others struggling with depression, Eli still battles with it himself.

“There was honestly, two years straight where every day, it just seemed like there was a cloud over me,” Paulk said, fighting back tears. “I couldn’t enjoy anything.”

Paulk did not share exactly what circumstances affected his life during these two years other than a short-lived break up with his girlfriend. But he said he credits her, as well the music of J-Cole and Mac Miller for helping him work through that time in his life. This is why he says Miller’s death last September affected him so deeply.

Paulk said although he didn’t meet him, talk to him, or even consider him his favorite rapper, Miller and his music were a big part of his life growing up. When Miller’s album, “Swimming,” released last September, he said he listened to the song “Wings” on repeat while crying for a half an hour.

“He was very transparent,” Paulk said, as he teared up. “Everybody knew his struggles. He didn’t hide from anything. And that’s why people connected so easy.”

And by sharing his own personal challenges on YouTube, Eli is trying to do the same.

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Eli Paulk, 22-year old YouTuber and Purdue Fort Wayne student, hopes his videos can help viewers struggling with depression.

Last July, Paulk announced a change in the direction of the content on his YouTube channel, “Eli Is Broke.” Once a mix of personal adventures, hip hop and rap album reviews, and a short film about self doubt, Paulk started to post videos focused on success and happiness. One of his longest uploads, a conversation about depression in millennials, runs 17-minutes long.

Paulk said he wanted to stop making clickbait and focus on producing more substantive content that could make a difference in people’s lives.

“I don’t wanna try to fix anybody,” Paulk said. “But I wanna be there in case anybody needs affirmation.”

Paulk said he has always had the urge to help people. Born and raised in Fort Wayne, one of his clearest memories as a kid was not being able to understand why there are homeless people in the city. He took notice of the juxtaposition of homeless people asking for money along Coliseum Boulevard, while high-end car dealerships existed nearby. This led him to pursue a career in social services, before becoming an English major and focusing on communication after encouragement from his professor, Dr. Kate White.

However, his mission of reaching out to and helping others is proving harder than he thought.

During the first week of the fall semester, Paulk passed out over 1,500 business cards on campus to promote his channel. Since then, he has not seen any increase in views or heard from a single person who may have found his card — until I contacted him.

Paulk took a four-month break from making videos to focus on himself.

Josué Loya, Paulk’s longtime neighbor and friend, said this is something Paulk doesn’t often do. Loya says Paulk is always doing what he can to help others.

“He’s a very caring person,” Loya said. Anytime he has needed a ride, run out of gas, or just needed help cleaning his yard, Paulk has always been there to help.

Paulk’s desire to reach out to those struggling with their own mental health is not without need.

Judy Tillapaugh, Coordinator of Fitness and Wellness at Purdue Fort Wayne, said suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students. Tillapaugh said one of the best things students could do for their own mental health is to reach out to others.

“You’re talking, you’re sharing, you’re laughing, you’re connecting,” Tillapaugh said. “That can make a difference in helping a person cope through something that they might be facing.”

At a time when it is easier for us to be closed off and pulled into our own little words through smartphones and social media, Paulk said he hopes his content can break through and make it easier for those of his own generation to connect and reach out to others. He aims to meet people where they are, rather than wait for them to come forward.

Paulk hopes to find the right balance between positivity and entertainment. He knows kids won’t want to watch videos of him solely lecturing about mental health. He wants it to be easier for audiences to digest, so he can make a meaningful connections and accomplish what he set out to do in the beginning.

“That’s the goal,” Paulk said. “Give people hope.”

The Immigrant Dream

Editor’s note: The names in this story have been altered to protect the subject’s identity.

“Imagine living the past 18 years in fear of whatever you do wrong you get kicked out of your own home,” he said.

For the many children who are not officially documented citizens in the United States, this is a very real fear. Despite not holding American citizenship, immigrant children often live like average Americans. They go to school, they spend time with their friends, and they eventually get jobs. Yet for these immigrant children, the persistent fear that anything they do wrong, no matter how inconsequential, could result in the deportation of them and their families, is an always looming concern. This is the reality that Esteban, 22, has lived with for more than 18 years.

On the surface, Esteban’s life seems to be that of a normal American.

“I really enjoy watching shows on Netflix like Daredevil, and playing NBA 2K games on my PS4 when I have some free time,” Esteban said. “I also try to keep a healthy fitness routine by going to the gym and doing some weight lifting several times a week.” Since 2015, Esteban has been pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science at Purdue University Fort Wayne. “I was immediately drawn to programming because I saw it as using digital Lego blocks. I was into Legos at a young age so it was very appealing to me,” Esteban said. Currently, Esteban is an intern at Lenovo Software, applying and expanding his programming education as a member of their build and install team. None of this however, is indicative of the daily burden he carries regarding his citizenship status.

Born in South America, Esteban has been living in the United States with his family since they immigrated to the U.S. in 2001. “I do have some memories of living in South America, but living here is the only life I have a real memory of,” Esteban stated. “I remember feeling confused at the time. I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on at first.”

Although it was only his second visit to the U.S., Esteban and his family would not return to South America. At that time Esteban would have fallen under the proposed DREAM Act, which according to the American Immigration Council meant that as a young immigrant he would have eventually been eligible for citizenship through a three-step process. This however is no longer relevant to Esteban’s circumstance since he now has a U visa.

Ever since moving to the United States, Esteban and his parents have been making efforts to become official citizens. However, in early 2013, Esteban’s journey to citizenship took a dramatic, although unfortunate turn. Esteban’s mother was victim to a robbery and stabbing. His mother’s injuries required her to undergo many extensive surgeries and the effects of the attack have stayed with her ever since. As a result of the attack, Esteban’s mother became eligible for a green card, per a section of U.S. immigration law. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. immigration law allows non-citizens who have been victims of certain crimes to get a Green Card. Esteban and his parents are now residing under a U visa which allows them to apply for residency.

During Esteban’s junior year of high school, his family met lawyers who offered their services at no cost to him and his family, eventually getting them official work visas. They are currently in the process of applying for residency; a process that requires many documents and much patience. For this process, the government needs proof of residency, passports, pay stubs, tax records, school records, medical certificates/ examinations and any other identifying documents the applicants may have. Presently, Esteban is in the process of getting his Documento Nacional de Identidad, or DNI, which is a national identity document for citizens from South America. After getting his DNI, Esteban then must go to Chicago to renew his passport. Once that is complete, Esteban and his parents present their documents to their lawyers, who then continue the process by presenting the documents to the immigration center.

“After that it’s pretty much just a waiting game,” Esteban said. His citizenship status is still working against him. “I was taught that life is always going to kick you in the butt, especially since you’re from another country, but you have to make the best of the worst situation.”

In spite of the difficult process, Esteban says he wouldn’t change anything since his efforts are worth the reward. “I’ll be one step closer to living a normal life.”

A normal life like that of his younger brother Theo, 17, who is an American citizen by birth. Theo thinks very highly of his older brother.

“Esteban is a great guy. He likes to help people a lot and lends a hand when it’s needed. He’s a happy guy in general with an overall positive outlook and a family first mentality,” Theo said.

Theo, currently in his junior year of high school, looks to Esteban for wisdom and guidance. “Esteban is my biggest role model in life. He is very relatable because he’s gone through the same things that I am going through. He would drop everything and help me out if I needed it.”

One of Esteban’s close friends, Scott, 22, related how Esteban inspires him. “He inspires me to do better in life because he has it harder in life and has lived in fear of being deported. I admire his willpower. He pushes through a lot to get to what he wants to do,” Scott said. “Esteban is also extremely reliable and I like that in a friend. I enjoy his humor, wit, athleticism and he is just an all-around good guy.”

Although Esteban and his parents are in the process of applying for residency, their non-legal status remains a lingering concern. Fortunately for Esteban, his U visa allows him to continue to legally work in the United States. Ultimately, Esteban is not someone who is defined by his citizenship status. His brother Theo certainly agrees.

“I don’t think it will slow him down in any way. Esteban is determined. He is a hard worker in general and since he isn’t a natural citizen it makes him more determined to succeed. I feel that it may be a driving force behind his success.”

Profile: Rob Chiarappa of The Stolen

As I enter the venue, the feeling of comfort, unity and a love of music fills the air. The sound of ‘80s rock synthesized with alternative/indie pop music vibrates through my veins. Rob Chiarappa, guitarist for The Stolen, is used to performing at venues like The House Café. On stage in his rolled up dark blue jeans and navy blue sweater, he grips his guitar pick between his thumb and index fingers and taps his foot in his heavily worn sneakers that were once white. As the song softly comes to an end, his fingers, nails painted black, briefly work on tuning his guitar. He says to the crowd with the utmost sincerity that we must look out for each other and live in the moment. The statement leads into an introduction of the band’s new single “Rooftop” that confronts the sensitive topic of suicide.

Over the years, Chiarappa’s songwriting has evolved and matured.

“I think that this is the most important record for us, because we want to write songs that are not just about personal experiences, but it’s about experiences that not only relate to me but can relate to other people,” Chiarappa says.

Playing in The East Room in Nashville, Tennessee.

 

He goes on to tell me that The Stolen originally started as a cover band. Rob and his brother Mike, drummer for The Stolen, were next door neighbors with Dominick Cuce, the lead singer of the band, while growing up.

“As kids do, we always hung out together, played kickball in the street, you know PS1, the whole bit,” Chiarappa says.

At a young age, Chiarappa was inspired to make music and learn how to play the guitar like his father. From there, his father started to teach him how to play the guitar left handed and he just couldn’t get it. It became so frustrating to the point that he told me he almost quit, but then he tried flipping the guitar around for it to be more comfortable.

“It was a total game changer and I fell in love with it,” Chiarappa says.

At the time, the band members were in middle school, performing classic rock covers and not writing their own music. It wasn’t until Chiarappa was 15 years old that he started writing original music for the band. Chiarappa said that he was inspired to write music because of a band called Like The Stars. He saw them play at a local showcase at The Stone Pony, a venue located near Chiarappa’s hometown of Old Bridge, New Jersey.

“They wrote their own music, and watching them I was like ‘Ah, this is so cool!’ I went home that night and tried writing a song and that was kind of what started the writing process for me,” Chiarappa says.

Being the oldest band member, Chiarappa was exposed to newer music before the other band members. From a previous interview in 2016, Cuce explained that Chiarappa was the one to show them music by All Time Low, a melodic emo-pop act. Cuce continued on to say that All Time Low sparked their interest in the alternative scene when they first started as a band. The alternative music scene is somewhat diverse, and typically includes styles such as grunge, indie pop and indie rock.

The Stolen has developed a unique sound that combines alternative rock with indie pop. According to the results of a 2017 Statista survey examining consumers’ favorite music genres, the highest consumers of alternative rock/indie music are between the ages of 16 and 24. The majority of The Stolen’s fan base are around these particular ages.

Once I developed a full understanding of the band’s background, I begin asking Chiarappa about touring in itself. He tells me that the band officially began touring more and more after all the band members graduated from high school.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a tour that I didn’t like,” Chiarappa says.

He reminisces about touring on a bus while opening for singer-songwriter Jake Miller during the fall of 2017. Chiarappa tells me how different it is touring on a bus compared to touring in a passenger van.

“Touring in a van, you’re seeing whole drives and everybody’s stopping in the middle of the desert in like New Mexico or wherever we were. That was so sick!”

Last spring, The Stolen did their first full U.S. tour in a passenger van. Four band members, one photographer, and all their equipment traveled from Old Bridge, New Jersey, across the country to California. Most individuals would do such a trip as a one-time thing but not Chiarappa. He enjoys everything tour has to offer; whether it be developing friendships with other artists, sightseeing, performing for fans or even just eating the local food in the area.

Most people would think touring with their brother would be a nightmare but the Chiarappa brothers say otherwise. For Mike, the opportunity to tour and make music with his brother is what he enjoys most.

“He’s the oldest, but doesn’t act like it,” Mike says.

Rob says to me that he and Mike are polar opposites but they make it work.

“It’s great, because we balance each other out.” Rob goes on to mention that he considers the whole band to be brothers.

On and off stage, I can see the amount of history there is for the band members of The Stolen. Cuce tells me how much he enjoys being in a band with Rob, because he’s known him since he was three years old.

“Growing up throughout the years, music has been like a part of our friendship and we’ve grown as people. It’s really amazing for me as a person to watch his progression and vice versa,” Cuce says.

He tells me that while performing onstage and while creating music, the energy between him and Rob bounces off one another in a different way than the other band members. Cuce explains that as a musician, Rob has always told him to not be afraid to take chances and to write what he feels.

“It’s more just how you perceive what is happening to you and the world around you.”

Rob Chiarappa (left) and Dominick Cuce performing in the Big Room Bar in Columbus, Ohio.

The Stolen are a band built from the ground up, that never take what they have for granted. They all have worked very hard to be in the position that they are in right now whether that be working in retail or recording other artists for money in order to tour. Their hard work and gratitude is evident during their performances. While looking at the facial expressions of the crowd as Chiarappa performs his guitar solo during “Rooftop,” something he said during his interview continues to replay in my head.

“I want us to make a record that’s going to change the world…making music that has such an impact on the world.”

His dedication and persistence to achieve this dream is well underway.

Rob Chiarappa performing at the Boathouse Waterway Bar & Grill in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

A Woman of Many Hats

It’s a nice house. Bright yellow. Well-kept yard. It’s on a busy road–so every time you drive by it you think how many wrecks might happen on it. Inside, the smell of cooking chicken fills the air. Even though you just ate, you find yourself growing hungry. You don’t necessarily notice how clean the house is, but rather how un-dirty it is.

Around the corner, in the dining room is a woman. She’s in her 50s. She’s Hispanic. She’s drinking coffee. Doing paperwork. On her screen she cycles through blueprints. A gas station. A hospital. A school. She’s bidding work.

Then it all comes together: the clean house, the blueprints, the bidding––she is the owner of Bixler Interiors, a final construction cleaning company. She calls out to her son to check the dinner in the oven before making her daily phone calls.

When a construction company like Weigand or LBC builds a high rise or a hospital or anything else, they make a mess. They are primarily concerned with constructing the building and moving on, so they leave their mess when they’re done. Someone has to clean that. Someone has to make sure the windows are spotless and that the bathrooms are shiny. That someone is Deb Bixler, owner of Bixler Interiors.

Bixler Interiors has been a steady company for the last ten years. Now, Bixler is working toward establishing herself as a minority woman in business. The Indiana Laborers Union Partnership is responsible for doling out these achievements by carefully selecting those that accurately fit the requirements. Bixler currently has her WBE, or Women’s Business Enterprise.

This year, she also won the 2018 Influential Women Owned Business Award for the State of Indiana, according to the Local 81 Laborer’s Union. Bixler said she is happy about winning the award, but it doesn’t change her outlook.

“I work hard and I’m honest with people. I feel work should just be that easy. Everything in between is just someone making it harder than it has to be,” she said when asked how she tries influence people in her field.

As Bixler further detailed her work life, it became very apparent that this positive attitude is a common theme.

The origin of Bixler interiors is an ever-evolving path of choices. Bixler’s first management position was at a Johnson Junction gas station in Decatur, IN. She then moved on to running an Angela Bridges Fitness center before eventually opening her own fitness center for six years. After closing the fitness center, she got a job at GMS construction as a “runner,” or “gofer,” as they called it.

“But I called it a go-for-it-girl,” Bixler said with a big laugh. She then moved on to start her own cleaning company, but there was another pit-stop before then.

Her mother opened a furniture company and had Deb manage it. Like most things Bixler is a part of, the furniture business evolved into something greater.

“We decided to start picking up our own furniture, so we decided to get out own semi. From there we ended up owning—within five years—a fleet of semis,” Bixler said.

Bixler’s mother then opened her own trucking company. Deb worked dispatch and accounted for payroll. Eventually, Bixler had something of a falling out with her mother, forcing her out of a job. She had nothing. She had no way to provide for her family. She was lost. Until she started Bixler Interiors. While she had dabbled in cleaning once or twice for side money in the past, her first big job was Vera Bradley. At 205,000 square feet, Bixler ambitiously bid the job and won. She said she didn’t have time to doubt herself.

“I was too excited. Cleaning big jobs is no different than the small ones, just more time consuming,” Bixler said. “You take it one room at a time and eventually, you’ll be done.”

Bixler didn’t do it alone, though. She enlisted the help of her family. Her children Jordan, James and Sayge worked for her. Since then, the business has always been a family owned company. While Vera Bradley was a big job to start with, that didn’t stop Bixler from chasing bigger and better things. She went on to win jobs like the Ash building downtown or the recently finished Parkview Cancer Center.

Bixler said working with her family is a great experience. Sayge, her daughter, said working with her mom is great because you don’t have a stranger yelling at you.

“We all appreciate and love each other,” Sayge said. “So it’s not stressful.”

Bixler said her life has been a busy one. She has met a lot of people and done a lot of things, but her biggest priority has always been being a mother and grandmother. She homeschooled her two youngest children and has worked with them at Bixler Interiors for the last ten years. Now that her two youngest children are starting their college careers, Deb is trying to let them go.

“I think it’s really sad,” said Sayge, “We’ve always worked a lot together. So it’s sad that we can’t be together all the time like we used to.”

Sayge started working with her mom at age 15. It’s work that she doesn’t mind, in fact she said it can be meditative.

“It’s nice to get out of the house and work hard sometimes,” she said.

While Bixler interiors will never truly end as her children have vowed to help whenever they can, it must begin its descent. But that’s okay with Deb Bixler.

“No matter where you’re at money-wise, you can choose to be good and happy with it or you can be miserable. I choose to be happy wherever I’m at.”

After a full day of school for her two youngest children and a hard day’s work for the oldest, Deb has finished the night’s dinner. With proper seasoning and another contagious laugh from Deb Bixler, the family sat down and enjoyed a meal together. There is no “switch” for Deb Bixler. She is always a mother. It doesn’t turn off when she’s working. It doesn’t turn off when she’s had a hard day.

“I enjoy being a mother,” Bixler said, with a confident smile.

Fighter in Recovery

Justin Garman’s kitchen smells like coffee. He’s brewing the coffee that his aunt brought back from Hawaii. Garman says he likes to serve his guests this coffee because it’s his personal favorite.

“It has a hearty and well-rounded taste, with a hint of sweetness.”

The living room is lit up by the many candles that Garman’s girlfriend, Andrea White, had picked up from T.J. Maxx. Garman says the place looked completely different until White moved in and changed things. One change he’s not a big fan of is the different scents from the candles – but he accepts it .

“It’s her place now,” Garman jokes.

White stands in the kitchen preparing their vegan dinner. Even though neither of them are vegan, Garman’s doctor suggested that he adopt a vegan diet after he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.

 

Growing up in a family where everyone likes sports helped Garman “learn many lessons in life.”

Growing up in Kimmel, Indiana, Garman lived with his mother, Staci, and stepfather, Andy. At the age of 16, Garman moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to attend high school and live with his father, Dan, and stepsister, Janelle. As a kid, Garman enjoyed playing all kinds of sports but his favorite was wrestling. Garman’s entire family shares a passion for the sport of wrestling and it was one of the reasons that he began training as a boxer during his senior year of high school.

“I was always into combative sports and happened to segue into the core of combat, which is boxing,” Garman said.

Garman had his first fight in Toledo, Ohio, at the Golden Gloves Tournament. It was a nerve racking moment for him.

“I ended up losing the fight by decision. It wasn’t even close,” Garman said. “I had all the confidence in the world but when the time came and the gym was full of people, I froze up and had more energy than I knew what to do with.”

It isn’t hard to believe that Garman’s first fight wasn’t his favorite. In fact, Garman’s favorite fights don’t really involve his opponents – they involve his sparring partners when training at the gym.

“You have beat yourself up for hours next to a guy and at the end the coach tells you to get in the ring and see who still has the most energy to come out on top.”

The training itself is a battle of endurance. A normal day of training for Garman starts with a three to five-mile warmup run before the more intensive work begins.

“There is stretching, jump rope and shadow boxing. And then you lace up and do bag work, working combinations and footwork for an hour or so. And if you are lucky you get to spar.” According to Garman, sparring is his favorite part of training because he can put what he has been working on to the test.

While the training is demanding, there are other challenges outside of the gym. For Garman, cutting weight and sticking to a strict diet all the time presents the biggest challenge. According to The National Collegiate Boxing Association, boxing is a challenging sport that requires dedication, focus and time management skills to achieve a peak level of physical and mental fitness. Garman knows that very well, so he has put in the effort needed to achieve many goals in his boxing career.

Even though Garman hasn’t won many big fights or awards in his seven-year boxing career, he has learned integrity and persistence. Duncan Hale, Garman’s coach from the Hurricane Boxing Club, appreciates Garman’s hard work as a boxer and as an individual.

“When he puts his mind to something he can always accomplish it. He has a strong passion for things he cares a lot about. I believe that helped him with his boxing career.”

Boxing experiences have helped Garman to develop a unique personality.

Garman has been waiting for an opportunity. However, when he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2017, it impacted his plans in boxing. According to Mayo Clinic, Crohn’s disease causes an inflammation of bowel tissue that can be both painful and potentially life-threatening. Garman is still upset about the disease since it has affected his life in many ways.

“My Crohn’s disease came unexpected, but I found out it is something that I have had for a very long time. I had to have surgery to have three and a half feet of my lower intestine removed.”

Garman had to miss several weeks of training, as well as work, to recover after the surgery was performed in October 2017. Despite the surgery being performed over a year ago, Garman hasn’t fully recovered yet and still cannot resume training. He has been going through different treatments and tests in the past year to find the best way to cope with the disease.

Having Crohn’s disease is not only affecting Garman’s life – it’s also affecting that of his girlfriend, Andrea, who has had to adjust to the changes as well.

“Crohn’s disease has affected Justin’s and my life tremendously. We had to change our lifestyle entirely. I have to become aware of what his new diet should be, which requires a lot more thoughts and efforts.” White said. “Justin’s exercise routine had to change and he can’t over work his stomach because it’s now more sensitive. When recovering from surgery he handles it as strong as he could, and I couldn’t be prouder of him.”

Even though Garman doesn’t know how much longer he has to wait until he can get back to boxing, he’s looking forward to going back to the gym to start training again.

“Boxing has helped me achieve many personal goals that have helped me mentally day to day. It lets you see confrontation in a different perspective.”

For now, Garman continues the vegan diet he’s been on for the last four months in the hopes that he can recover and get back to training sooner. Wishing he was eating his favorite food, fried chicken, he puts the last bite of his avocado salad in his mouth.

“Man…I hate avocados.”

Converting to Catholicism

Evan Thomas came right from work. The sun shone through the window, which gave his white shirt what almost looked like a glow.

He was excited. He loves any opportunity to talk about Catholicism.

The 20-year-old LaGrange, Ind. native is a student at Purdue University Fort Wayne and also works two jobs: one on campus, as a resident assistant; and the other off-campus, as an intern with Regal Beloit, an electric motor company.

“I like to work out,” he said, regarding how he spends his very limited spare time. “I like to practice faith, play sports, watch movies.”

Of these things, one has become much more important to Thomas than the rest.

“Evan is this very joyful person,” said Nicole Rudolph, an acquaintance of Thomas. “He’s really gotten into his faith on the Summit Awakening retreat last year and then he converted recently.”

Summit Awakening, according to Rudolph, is a retreat for college-aged students in Fort Wayne to learn more about the Catholic faith. It lasts for three days, many of the details are secret, though some things are still allowed to be discussed . Staff and participants alike are under instruction not to reveal what happens on the weekend.

“He’s participating in the retreat this year, but as a leader. And he’s giving a talk on the retreat about the Eucharist.”

The Eucharist, more commonly referred to as communion, is the most important part of Catholic worship and it is the final stage in a person’s being accepted as a full member of the church, according to flameoffaith.org, a website run by the Archdiocese of Brisbane in Australia.

“At my church, it was very liberal,” said Thomas, regarding a misunderstanding between he and his Catholic girlfriend prior to his conversion. “And their communion beliefs, it was not quite transubstantiation, Jesus was not completely present in communion when we took it.”

He said this church, which was non-denominational, did not require its members to take communion; however, they did offer it.

“I went up, and she refused to take communion at my church,” Thomas said. “I got pretty upset with her at the time, you know, thinking that she was stuck-up in her faith and, you know after my formal training, then I came to understand exactly why she would not want to take communion there.”

Thomas was raised in a Methodist home until he was 14 years old, when he stopped going to church altogether.

“I think there were a lot of members of my church who influenced me in a negative way,” Thomas said. “They were what I saw as negative influences of the church, people who claimed the faith and didn’t live it. And so, for me, I thought that was very detrimental to my faith life.” Thomas said many of these people were members of his own family. He said he was also told a lot of negative things about the Catholic church.

“That priests were people that held power above the layman, as you may call it. That they had an organization that was very corrupt; a very political and hierarchical society just integrated into what it meant to be a Catholic.”

He also said he viewed Catholics as more people who claimed the faith, but did not live it.

“I don’t think I really knew anything about it,” said Thomas about the Methodist theology. “I didn’t look deep enough into faith to distinguish between the different points of what each denomination believed compared to another so I didn’t learn a lot about that until maybe this previous year or two.”

Thomas said before that, he saw Christianity in terms of Catholics and Protestants, and the Protestants were the correct side.

Protestantism began in 1517 when a German monk named Martin Luther broke away from the Catholic Church over practices he deemed could not be found in the Bible; chief amongst them the buying and selling of indulgences, which promised the purchaser would go straight to Heaven when they died. Since then, a degree of enmity has existed between those who stayed with the Catholic Church and those who followed Luther and formed their own churches.

Thomas began dating his girlfriend who got him to look into Catholic theology.

“I think it wasn’t necessarily one point,” Thomas said. “It was several points building up. I would look into a question and I would find that the Catholic church had the — to me — correct answer. And this process would happen again, and again, and again and eventually I believed it without already knowing the Catholic answer.”

Thomas said once he realized this was the case, his decision became obvious. When he made the decision, his family had mixed attitudes.

“My mom is Catholic, she was very excited. My girlfriend is Catholic, she was also very excited. The rest of them didn’t quite understand. I think a lot of them thought I was doing it because of my girlfriend was Catholic.”

Thomas said they commonly responded by making jokes, but eventually learned to accept it.

Next for him came the Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults, or RCIA for short. RCIA is the process where one is accepted into full communion with the Catholic Church, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. To begin the process, the prospective convert must talk to a priest or an RCIA director. This comes after the Period of Evangelisation, in which the convert must partake in a period of deep personal reflection.

This process is difficult for many converts, including Thomas.

“I think it was because I was such a big opponent of the Catholic Church in my own mind. To owning up to that and accepting it proudly and then also dealing with the fact a lot of people thought I was converting because of my relationship.”

Thomas is a man who wants his peers to see him as someone deep in his faith and does not want that perception to change. At the end of this period, he began RCIA classes at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Fort Wayne.

These classes are just like any at a college campus. You have the instructor, usually a priest or a nun, running through the different points and aspects of Catholicism while the students take notes and ask questions. Students are generally also joined by their sponsors.

A sponsor, according to the USCCB, is a person chosen by the convert to help them through the process; one who exemplifies how to live the faith and answer questions the convert may have.

“I would say my sponsor Philip Litchfield was very helpful,” Thomas said. “It was nice to be able to turn to him and get an intellectual answer to faith.”

“People question things like the papacy and different things Catholics do,” said Ruth McMahon, a sponsor in another diocese in the 1980s.
According to McMahon, many Protestants question Catholic obedience to hierarchy, which she said is also present in Protestant churches to some degree.

The Hierarchy, which many Protestants are hesitant to get behind, is the Catholic Church’s leadership which is based in Vatican City, just outside of Rome.
It is headed by the Pope, who every Catholic around the world considers to be infallible and incapable of teaching anything wrong.

This explains why, even in the midst of accusations that the current Pope covered up a sex scandal, Thomas’s faith remains unshaken.

“I think that it motivates me to be a stronger Catholic,” said Thomas, matter-of-factly. His confidence justified his tone.

“Now more than ever, there needs to be good representatives of the faith and I think it’s important for people outside of the Catholic church to look at what we have and to see that we’re still proud, that we’re not shaken or hesitant at all, that I’m not reserved, that I’m still confident I made the right decision.”