Luther Alumni Magazine

Alumnae decades apart share a cause

“I really got going with Habitat for Humanity at Luther,” Kristin Skaar ’09 says. For three years in college, she went on Habitat trips to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, to work on repair projects after Hurricane Katrina, and she was president of Luther’s Habitat Campus Chapter her senior year. “Lots of my lasting friendships at Luther came from people I spent time with on those trips,” she says. As a Luther student, Skaar also served as an AmeriCorps VISTA with Habitat in her hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa.

Lilah Aas ’67 (left) and Kristin Skaar ’09 met through their involvement with the Habitat 500 Bike Ride. About this photo, Skaar says, “We were unloading bags from the truck on our last day and were feeling really powerful, so we decided to flex a bit!”
Lilah Aas ’67 (left) and Kristin Skaar ’09 met through their involvement with the Habitat 500 Bike Ride. About this photo, Skaar says, “We were unloading bags from the truck on our last day and were feeling really powerful, so we decided to flex a bit!”

A management and Spanish major at Luther, Skaar was drawn to working with nonprofits. She says, “I started out as a management major because it felt applicable to a lot of things. But in any project that I had, I would try to do things related to nonprofits. I remember taking a social entrepreneurship class that was really great. I was trying to find that sort of thing as much as I could. When I got involved in Habitat on campus and in my hometown, I realized I could really make something out of this. Days when I was doing hard, and sometimes physically challenging things, I was still excited about it, because it was part of this great mission. Something clicked as I was looking for the direction I wanted to take.”

After graduating, she was accepted into the Lutheran Volunteer Corps to work with Twin Cities Habitat as a marketing and events assistant. Later, after a few years working at The ALS Association, she returned to her Habitat roots, this time in a development and communications role at Habitat for Humanity of Minnesota. “This office is unique,” she says. “We’re called a state support organization because we exist to help all 28 Habitat organizations across the state. We help make mortgages more affordable and help affiliates finance so they can build at faster rates.”

An aspect of her role that Skaar really enjoys is her involvement with Habitat 500, a 500-mile bike ride that raises money and awareness for the organization. “It really is a unique event. It’s a week long in July, and we travel to different parts of the state each year. We set up camps at high schools or middle schools or community centers along the way. I’ve probably slept in more than 20 high school gymnasiums in Minnesota by now,” Skaar laughs. “It’s basically a moving camp that goes from town to town.”

Aas did not even own a bicycle when she signed up for her first Habitat 500 ride, but she was in fine form during the ride in 2015. Photo by Renee Cosgrove.
Aas did not even own a bicycle when she signed up for her first Habitat 500 ride, but she was in fine form during the ride in 2015. Photo by Renee Cosgrove.

Skaar describes the energy during a Habitat 500 ride as “a mix of a family reunion and summer camp. You know that excitement when you get back and see all your friends and family? Over the years, people have seen their Habitat 500 friends have kids or lose spouses, and they’ve spent a lot of time out on the road together, having conversations and becoming close. I really like getting to lead all those people. I was never a camp counselor, but I feel like I missed my calling a little bit,” she jokes. “We’re getting up early and eating meals together, and we have a common goal. A lot of people on the ride weren’t really cyclists before, but they loved Habitat and were looking for a way to dig deeper.”

Lilah (Estrem) Aas ’67 is one of those people. This summer, she participated in her 23rd Habitat 500 ride. Over her years of biking, she has raised nearly $200,000 for the organization. But when she decided more than 23 years ago to participate, she didn’t even own a bicycle.

“One summer my late husband and I were at a grocery store in Vergas, Minnesota, a few miles from our cabin, and people were going through on a bike ride,” Aas recalls. “We overhead one woman say that she was doing it to celebrate her 40th birthday. I was not a bike rider, I did not own a bike, and this was before the term ‘bucket list’ existed, but I still thought, I should try to do this before I’m 50.”

Years passed, and Aas, then director of National Honor Society at Albert Lea High School, was helping students make plans for their service projects. Providentially, she received a mailer about the ride during this time, and she and several students agreed to do it. Come May, all six students had dropped out, but Aas went through with it. She sent in her $100 registration, and the following week she bought a bike. “It was ridiculous,” she says. “I had no idea what I’d gotten into.”

Tragically, Aas’s nephew died in a climbing accident in Colorado shortly before her first ride. His funeral was on a Friday, and the ride kicked off on Sunday. “I started the ride with an incredibly heavy heart. I was so exhausted, but I did the whole week. And actually, it was so therapeutic to be riding while grieving my dear nephew. I rode every mile of every day and made so many friends who helped me learn how—I had never ridden a bike with gears before. By the end of the week, someone said, ‘So, Lilah, are you going to be back next year?’ And I said, ‘God willing!’”

“There’s so much need,” Aas says. “If I’m going to put this butt on a bike, it’s going to be for a cause.” Photo by Renee Cosgrove.
“There’s so much need,” Aas says. “If I’m going to put this butt on a bike, it’s going to be for a cause.” Photo by Renee Cosgrove.

Not only did Aas return, but she quickly became one of the ride’s strongest fundraisers. Skaar says, “Sometimes if she hasn’t gotten her fundraising letter out, she’ll hear from friends at church who start to bug her. It’s an expectation that she always does it.”

Ironically, fundraising didn’t come naturally to Aas. “That first year, we had to raise $1,000 minimum, and that was more intimidating to me than learning to ride a bike!” she says. “When you’re raised in a Scandinavian household, you just don’t talk about money, let alone go out and ask people for it. That first year, I had 46 donors and something like $1,300.” She’s gone up from there. Some years she’s had more than 200 donors, and she’s hit or exceeded the $10,000 mark every year since her fifth or sixth ride. Some years, family members John Estrem ’59 and LeAllan Estrem ’81 fundraised and rode with her, notably to build a house to honor her late nephew (John’s son and LeAllan’s brother).

By this point, Aas is a deft fundraiser, but she approaches the task with gratitude. Skaar says, “Lilah was one of the people I remember from my first year coordinating the ride. She would be sitting up with a couple other longtime riders writing thank you notes. She brings a big stack, so in the evening she’s always sitting in the cafeteria writing thank you notes to all her donors.”

Aas embraces Habitat’s mission. “I thought I would do that ride once, check it off the list,” she says. “But the Habitat philosophy meshes so much with mine. I like the idea that we’re not giving homes away; we’re helping people buy them. And that it’s Christian-based.” Aas also likes that Habitat 500 riders can choose where to funnel the money they raise, and she always funnels hers back into the Albert Lea region. As a teacher, she saw the tough circumstances in some of her students’ lives. “There’s so much need,” she says. “If I’m going to put this butt on a bike, it’s going to be for a cause.”

Last summer, during her 23rd Habitat 500 ride, Aas took on a slightly different role, biking half the time and volunteering as ride support the other half—for example, as a route marker, spray-painting arrows ahead of the riders so they knew where to go. Skaar points out what seems undeniably true when she says, “There’s probably a metaphor somewhere in there.”