Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed. —Kahlil Gibran
Eight years after twenty-three-year-old Bjorn Norgaard ’10 was killed in a hit-and-run vehicle accident, Bjorn’s parents Brett and Karin continue to work at living their best lives, connecting and communicating with a large network of people who have become their friends, and even finding joy.
“In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran talks about how grief carves you out and increases your capacity for joy,” Brett Norgaard said. “I would not have believed it [after Bjorn died], but I do now.”
Brett remembers the first time he and Karin visited their son on campus. It was Parent’s Weekend which also happened to be Bjorn’s birthday, September 15. Bjorn had played a campus-wide capture-the-flag the day before, so even though it was only two weeks into his first semester of college, students shouted out his name and wished him happy birthday as he walked on the mall. Brett and Karin stood at the fire ring and listened to Bjorn’s recounting of his orientation-week trip to the Boundary Waters.
Karin commented, “He’s found his people.”
Bjorn thrived at Northland College, so much so that his instructors referred to him as Mr. Northland. He was smart, social, altruistic, outdoorsy, and fun. He traveled to India, interned at Faith in Action, skied the Birkebeiner ski race, and fished and hung out at the family cabin in Cable, Wisconsin, forty miles south of campus.
After Bjorn died, Brett and Karin stayed connected to Northland through Bjorn’s friends still in school. “But we knew that in three years we wouldn’t know any Northland students unless we did something,” Brett said.
They explored setting up their own foundation, but the Birkie, the family cabin in Cable, and Northland College pulled them here.
They established the Brother Bear Fund as a way to merge Bjorn’s passions and interests. (Bjorn means “bear” in Norwegian, and his sisters Sonja and Ingrid affectionately called him Brother Bear.)
Now five years old, the Brother Bear Fund has provided stipends to ten students to intern with Faith in Action, for eight international travel grants, paid for fifteen students to ski the Birkie, for dozens of free cross-country ski rentals at the Outpost and day-passes to local ski trails, and this past May, it paid for two students to intern at Lily Springs, a regenerative farm in Osceola, Wisconsin.
“Bjorn was the first Faith in Action intern—not just a volunteer—and he did this as an unpaid intern,” said Stacy Craig, coordinator of applied learning. “The stipend to support both students and the organization has been significant.”
The internship teaches nonprofit organizing and provides opportunities to assist elderly community members to stay independent and living at home.
Beyond funding, the Norgaards participate in some experiences in their own unique way. For the Birkie races, they host the skiers at their Cable cabin, dig out a two-hundred-yard luge run—Bjorn was always instrumental in building the luge, Brett says—build an ice bar, and light the night with ice lanterns and tiki torches. Their niece Anna created Bjorndanas, given to the skiers, and sold to friends to support the Brother Bear Fund.
Their neighbors, the Olsens, whose kids are beekeepers, decided to donate their honey sales—$250-to-$300—to the Brother Bear skiers, giving them a stipend to cover their expenses. For this next year, four skiers applied—two are covered by the Brother Bear Fund, and Northland College staff and faculty chipped in to cover the other two.
Lily Springs Farm internships are the latest addition. Brett met Nina Utne at her Lily Springs Farm because of an expanding family gathering. He and his family camped at Interstate Park each summer and couldn’t find big enough campsites, so he looked into camping at her one-hundred-acre farm, devoted to social design plants.
He saw a kindred spirit in Nina and knew Bjorn would have been intrigued as well.
With a focus on sustainability and social justice, the farm uses goats to promote an oak savannah landscape, and they grow restorative perennials like hazelnuts, elderberries, black currants, stone fruits, and raspberries for restaurants. They work with educational institutions and have an avian ecologist on board.
This past May, Northland students Jaclynn Findlay and Anna Marhefke interned at the farm for a month.
In a note to the Norgaards, Findlay reflected:
My time at Northland has been profoundly enriched by practicing what I’ve been learning. Being able to work on a regenerative farm while learning about sustainable agriculture in the classroom worked in total synergy. I am so inspired by how full of life and love your family is. I hope I can embody the creative and adventurous spirit of Bjorn during my time at Northland College and beyond.