SMALL TOWNS: “Beatrice the Little Camper” and the Kiel author she inspired
Jeff Alexander is back on the anchor desk, but it will still be a few weeks until he can get out in the field and start reporting again as he recovers from ankle surgery. In the meantime, we’re looking back at some of our favorite Small Towns reports from its first year.
KIEL, Wis. (WBAY) - Losing a job after 30 years can be incredibly painful and stressful, but a Manitowoc County woman truly turned her lemons into lemonade and discovered a second career thanks in part to a tiny vintage camper.
This week in Small Towns, we travel to Kiel to meet Beatrice and the author she inspired.
“It is home. It’s my sanctuary, and it’s got all of me, it’s all my stuff,” says Lori Helke inside her prized possession.
To say Lori is a happy camper these days would be quite the understatement. And it’s quite the contrast from that day in 2016 she’ll never forget.
“The Tuesday after Memorial Day we came in and we had jobs, or what we thought we had jobs that morning and by noon I was home and out of a job,” recalls Lori.
Learning that Foster Needle Company, where she had worked for 32 years was closing its doors for good, left Lori in shock and uncertain about her future.
“I didn’t know you know, it’s like what everybody things, now what, and I was 53 at the time so it’s kind of an odd age to start over again,” says Lori.
After taking a few weeks to digest her unexpected situation, Lori decided to pursue her passion, writing.
She had been a travel blogger since 2011, and wanting a quiet place to write, she pitched an idea to her husband Rick.
“I said I see all these people are buying these old, old campers and fixing them up and I said what do you think of that idea, and well he’s quite the handy guy and always up for a challenge,” says Lori.
Lori and Rick searched Craigslist and came upon this little 1969 Camp-Mor in really rough shape.
“Barely got it home, we were only a mile down the road and the driver’s side wall started peeling off, insulation flew everywhere, it was raining at the exit, I pulled off there, brought my screw gun along, screwed it together, put more straps on and we took the back roads all the way from Kenosha,” says Rick.
Over the next 10 months, Rick worked his magic, transforming what some would consider a piece of junk, into Beatrice, who instantly provided Lori with inspiration.
“It kind of all fell into place actually once we got her and she was finished. I just pictured this children’s book character,” says Lori.
It only took Lori two hours to write a manuscript, but learning how to self-publish required months.
“I went to our library here in town and I checked out a stack of children’s books to try to get an idea of what I wanted and I just went for it, I hired an editor, I hired an illustrator,” explains Lori.
Lori the author was now a reality.
“The first book was “Beatrice the Little Camper that Gets Rescued. Four months later I had 2,000 copies of that book. The joy of opening that one box and those first few books was just amazing, I cried and went through all the emotions and I was so proud of myself for doing something like that after all these years,” says Lori.
After selling around 500 copies through her website and at vendor shows and farmers markets, Lori sent a letter and copy of her book to the CEO of Camping World, the country’s largest RV dealer.
A few months later-a phone call.
“That was like this famous person is calling you and he told me he loved the story, he loved the idea of Beatrice as the character of the book and of course the camping theme. So he bought all my inventory and they went out to Camping World’s across the United States, so I was like oh my gosh,” says Lori.
Lori was now off and running.
“You know it gave me the validation to write the second book, Beatrice The Little Camper’s Brave New Friend,” says Lori.
This time, the theme of Lori’s book tackled a common social issue.
“It’s about Beatrice looking different and getting bullied and kindness, she has a friend that comes in and sticks up for her and says just because we look different or different on the outside, it doesn’t mean, it just means we’re the same basically on the inside and we want the same things, because I thought that was an important message,” explains Lori.
Another book, more rave reviews.
“The reviews and the remarks she gets, it’s incredible, it’s just beautiful, I’m very proud of her,” says Rick.
This summer Lori plans to branch out and travel across the state to write a travel guide of Wisconsin’s 19 harbor towns.
“You know they call Wisconsin, the whole Midwest the flyover states and I’m part of a big network of bloggers that want to change that idea because there’s so much to do here,” says Lori.
From suddenly unemployed to a second career that has Lori feeling extremely blessed.
“People think oh my gosh, it was the worst thing that happened to me, well in my case, it was actually the best thing that happened to me,” says Lori.
Which led to Beatrice, Lori’s little priceless treasure.
“My husband says, oh everything has a price and I’m like, uh no,” says Lori with a smile.
Lori hopes to have her harbor towns book completed around this time next year, then it’s back with Beatrice for inspiration on a third children’s book.
CLICK HERE to learn more about the Beatrice books and how to purchase them.
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