If you finally answered that incessant voice that begs you to be more than you are—to do whatever you can for others with your short life—you may find yourself sleeping in a car and washing your armpits in rest stops along Route 66.
Stephanie Kinnunen found her time being snatched away by teaching Finns the art of small talk. And so a little more than two years ago, she quit her job as an English teacher in Finland, sold nearly everything she and her husband, Kelly, had in their European apartment, and began a trek across the U.S. visiting humanitarian groups in a sedan they'd bought online.
"I wanted to ask these organizations, 'In a perfect world, using a media platform, what can we do to help?'" recalls Stephanie, a bespectacled fortysomething with long Judy Collins hair and manicured nails. She visited large, corporate-style benefactors like the Red Cross and Global Visions, and tiny nonprofits. She wasn't sure of her purpose or final destination until she was somewhere on Interstate 10 down South, talking to her husband, who, at the time, was serving out the end of his contract teaching media production in Finland.
Stephanie continues, "After hearing so many stories of hope and seeing them with our own eyes, we thought, How can we tell these stories? And that's when Kelly said, 'A magazine. And we can call it Need.' And we basically hatched out the first issue in that conversation."
Two years later, Stephanie and Kelly, both Minneapolis natives, sit in an office in southeast Minneapolis overlooking the downtown skyline. Eight employees, many of them volunteers, mill about the pristine, white-walled space. They're making phone calls, brewing coffee, tendering opinions on which photos to use for an upcoming story about Wings of Hope, an air-transport program that transfers the poor, sick, and injured from remote areas to clinics around the world.
The premiere issue of Need, perfect-bound like a book and printed on thick and beautiful paper stock, is tacked to the wall. It reflects painstaking decisions about how to present disturbing before-and-after pictures of reconstructive facial surgery, alongside stories about fishing villages in Thailand after the tsunami. The imagery, even at its most gut-wrenching, is profound and not a little exotic—a National Geographic story targeted to prospective Peace Corps members. (The magazine can be found at newsstands, art bookstores, and Barnes & Noble and Borders nationwide.)
Kelly tries to recall the celebs at a Film Aid event who received one of the 22,000 copies of the premiere issue. "Matt Dillon got one," he says, his eyes widening. "And Ed Burns." (It's worth noting that the closest the magazine has come so far to humanitarian chic is a story on Jimmy Carter.)
Kelly is a shaggy-haired, earthy Santa Claus in a baseball cap and Dr. Martens shoes, and he has an endearing, throaty giggle. Everything is "cool" with him. The magazine. Quitting his job to start a nonprofit business. The fact that he has at least 38 to-do tasks written on his dry-erase board. Today, hanging out at a conference table, he tells his wife to call up Bono and ask for his support. He's only half-joking.
While Stephanie has been working full-time on the project for almost a year, Kelly recently lost his local graphic design job, which was helping to fund the magazine. Now they're both full-time at Need, putting in fourteen-hour days, seven days a week. Kelly previously volunteered in Mexico, working with people who built homes from garbage heaps. His mother studied to be a missionary. And so the notion to sell everything and start a magazine focused on humanitarian efforts was an epiphany he couldn't shoo away. The magazine's mission statement, emblazoned on the front page of its website (www.needmagazine.com), rings with the clarity of a bell: We are not out to save the world, but to tell the stories of, and assist, those who are.
"It wasn't scary at all," Kelly says of uprooting his life. "It made perfect sense."
It is sometimes a mercy killing when a dubious stroke of 3:00 a.m. inspiration falls away in the clear light of day. The Kinnunens, however, remained committed to their fledgling magazine while they crashed in a weekly-rate room at the Live Inn Suites in Burnsville. They ended up staying there for nearly 10 months. Stephanie, whose background is in business management, performed temp jobs to help fund the magazine's media kit, which later surrounded their bed in the single rented room.
"Our families couldn't believe it," Stephanie says. "They were like, 'You are doing what? You are coming back with no place to live and starting a magazine? Are you crazy?'"
That may not have been the most charitable word for the couple's humanitarian impulse. But there is something unusual about a couple who one evening saw a European television report about young women rescued from the sex trade in Russia, and only days later acquired visas to visit the crumbling girls' home. They arrived one gloomy Saturday in St. Petersburg, entered the craft room where they saw the girls drawing and making necklaces, and asked what they could do to help.
Today, Kelly plays editorial director as 24-year-old Liz Werner, a writer and editor, scrolls through colored pictures of Cambodian landmine removers on her Flatron computer screen. Last year, Werner was working as a server at the Minneapolis Golf Club when she heard about the magazine through two co-workers, who were also volunteering in sales and editing.
Werner clicks on a picture of a woman in a protective helmet. She's smiling for the camera with giant piano-key teeth. The photographer, like nearly everyone the group has worked with so far, agreed to donate the photos to the magazine.
"Cool," Kelly says. "It's so cool, man. It's so cool to see all these photos."
The de-miners work in 104-degree heat and are up at 4:30 a.m. to clear the fields. Werner explains this as she sorts through her notes, most of which she acquired through an organization called the Mines Advisory Group.
"We need to express to readers [that] this isn't one place," Kelly says, crossing his legs. "What can we say in words that these images can't say? What does it mean to be a de-miner?"
As Werner scrolls through more photos, Kelly becomes more visibly enthusiastic. "Wow," he says, starting to dance a little in his rolling chair. "These are just so cool."
It's nearly 6:00 p.m., and the Need team still has a few hours to work before Stephanie heads off to Seattle to solicit potential advertisers. While it's been a struggle to round up enough funds to put together the second issue, Stephanie says she has no doubts that she's in the right place.
"It's already working," she says. "We know that someone called up the orphanage in Kenya we featured in the [first] issue and that it's getting built. It's working. And that's the goal—to help those people in need." She slides a media card across the conference table. On it is the Microsoft logo with the words, "Microsoft, you're invited...because your actions speak louder than words." She taps on it with her finger and smiles as if she knows a secret, and concludes, "People think we're nuts? Well, we're all nuts here. So we're in this together."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.