Sonja Hedlund was first a city girl, born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents. The Norwegian and Swedish heritage of her parents was a major influence throughout her life. Scandinavian traditions of hospitality, church participation and openness to neighbors saturated the household. The Brooklyn Heights brownstone where they lived was also a sort of rooming/apartment house attracting students from Taiwan, business people from the Netherlands and academics from Israel. Then the Heights was far from upscale. It took the construction of the promenade and the move to return to city life that changed the neighborhood.
After seven years of elementary school at P.S. 8, Sonja was provided a full scholarship to the Packer Collegiate Institute which lasted through the first 2 years of college. she went on to the University of Michigan, majored in history and made close friends with Japanese students. One thing led to another and Sonja became a J3, a short term missionary for the United Methodist Church. She was shocked by the segregation of Nashville as the civil rights movement started. After a semester of preparation at Scarritt College in Nashville, she traveled by train across the US to San Francisco and a winter crossing to Yokohama. She had the good fortune of meeting another Japan bound young woman, Julie Plummer. Together they studied Japanese for about 6 months. Their friendship grew while in Japan and is still strong today. The work at the Hiroshima Jogakuin School was challenging but lots of fun! Teaching English conversation to 7th graders, older students and young adults meant thorough preparation – and mastering the names of her students. She was only a few years older than her students. Harder still were weekly private lessons in Japanese language and taking her turn with all teachers to lead daily chapel gatherings ….in Japanese. To her good fortune a Japanese couple living in the suburbs of Hiroshima invited her to live them. Her job was to teach them English. That was a total failure. But Sonja’s Japanese language skills improved as did her manners and appreciation for Japanese customs and traditions.
After three years as a teacher, Sonja and her close friend Julie set off for 6 months of travel before returning to the USA. Those were the days when Americans were welcomed and travel costs were relatively cheap. The itinerary started in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, India, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Palestine and Israel (with two separate passports). A ship from Alexandria took them to Greece and then on to Europe. Sonja had a cousin who was attending one of the Vatican Councils – and the two managed to attend a special event in St. Peter’s with the Pope presiding. On to Florence, Rome, Berlin (when it was still divided between east/west), Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Christmas celebrations in Norway with family. It was travel from mid July to mid January. Along with years living in Hiroshima, the trip molded Sonja’s character, her work view and understanding of the USA as just one of many fine nations – all with problems and injustice.
Now in her mid twenties, Sonja worked for the United Methodist
church, ‘itinerating’ in the southern states, talking about her
experience in Japan and the changing role of Christianity in the
world. She continued as a non governmental representative at
the United Nations for the University Christian Movement and
worked planning seminars on international affairs at the Church
Center for the United Nations. When a Brooklyn brownstone
became available for rent, she and Dick Riseling (now her partner)
helped organize a commune, 8 adults living in a four story house,
sharing chores, meals and friendship. Along with commune mates,
she became active in anti Vietnam War activities and in the
Women’s Liberation Movement.
In the mid 1970s Sonja and Dick made a connection with country life in Sullivan County. On weekends, they raised horses and sheep, remodeled a run down house and gradually started a business came to be known as APPLE POND FARM and RENEWABLE ENERGY EDUCATION CENTER. A Masters in Community Health at Hunter moved Sonja to work in public health. Her career started with the NYC Health Department and ended with the NYS Health Department in Albany as director of the NYS Health Heart Program until her retirement in 2002. It was time to live full time on the farm.
Sonja is now a full time Sullivan County resident, a goat and sheep breeder, a cheese maker, a radio host (WJFF public radio in Jeffersonville) and a writer (The Towne Crier, weekly tales of day to day live on a working farm). She delights in the work of the farm, the connections she makes with animals,
especially dogs and the people who visit the farm. In a small community opportunities to make a difference abound – as President of the Board of Trustees of WJFF Radio, trustee of the Sullivan County Cornell Cooperative Extension and the County’s Visitors’ Association. But there is still time to travel – to Greece, Turkey, Tbilisi and in 2016 to Kenya.