BEMIDJI -- Two years ago, Kari Ekhoff could barely speak, much less sing. Suffering from asthma without knowing it, the young mother lost her voice -- the voice that put her through college and helped others learn how to sing.
A lot has changed since then. After going through dozens of tests and working with doctors, specialists, even a speech therapist, Kari got her voice back by taking a pill called Singulair.
Kari and her husband, Paul, along with their three children moved from the Twin Cities to Bemidji last summer. And next month, the 37-year-old will compete in the SHINE Conference, a twice-a-year talent convention put on by Actors, Models and Talent for Christ. She will be one of about 800 actors, models, singers and dancers from all over the world and all ages to take part in the six-day event in Kissimmee, Fla.
Bemidji area residents can hear Ekhoff perform at 1:30 p.m. today at Lake Bemidji State Park. Hers is the second of 15 Sunday afternoon concerts at the park presented by the Headwaters School of Music and the Arts. Her hour-long performance will include a variety of songs -- jazz, blues, rock, pop, country and Christian.
"People are going to hear a very pleasing, professional presentation," said Janet Brademan, executive director of the Headwaters School. "Kari is such a warm, open and inviting person. The first time I met her it was like I had known this person forever."
Singing for education
Ekhoff grew up in Robbinsdale and attended West Lutheran High School in Plymouth. She earned a vocal music scholarship to attend Bethany College in Mankato. Early on in college, she wasn't sure she had chosen the right path.
"I actually went to my voice teacher and said, 'You know, this voice thing isn't working out for me,'" she recalled. "This is how dumb I was. And she said, 'Dear, honey, you need to take lessons in what you received your scholarship in.' She asked me what I liked to listen to. I said, 'Alison Krauss.' She told me to bring that in and we'd learn it. That's the only way my voice teacher got me to sing."
Kari and Paul met in elementary school. "We hated each other in grade school, couldn't stand each other," she said with a smile. "Then in high school we were buddies, and then we ended up being high school sweethearts."
They married and had three children in 2½ years. "And none of them are twins," Kari said. "I've been juggling them from the beginning and I've been juggling them ever since."
She home schools the children: Kjerstin, 9; Will, 8; and Evamae, 6½. The Ekhoffs had been coming to the Bemidji area for a few years and fell in love with the area. Paul took a job as a manager at the Bemidji Menards store and Kari is a part-time voice teacher at Headwaters School of Music and the Arts.
A leap of faith
It was a billboard advertising "free auditions" that caught Kari's eye last September. Since her voice had returned, she decided to check it out. The sponsoring organization, Actors, Models and Talent for Christ, appealed to her because of its mission. It started in 1982 as Actors, Models and Talent Competition, but in 2010 the "C" was changed to "Christ".
AMTC's mission changed to "trying to infiltrate Hollywood with Christian people and trying to change the flavor and the downward spiral of movies and media," Ekhoff said. "Just trying to up the culture a little bit."
Kari was impressive in her audition in Minneapolis, and she received a call back inviting her to enter the program. Those who enter must pay about $4,000 and cover their own travel and lodging expenses.
She decided to give it a go. Her first stop was Chicago, where she received training and performed for up to 100 scouts who are associated with firms like Warner Bros., Icon Records and Juilliard. That prepared her for the ultimate trip to the SHINE event in Florida to be held July 1-6.
"There are people in every community who have talents and skills," Kari said. "You have a couple of choices. You can either refine that skill and say, 'I have a knack for this.' And then there's that huge leap of faith that says 'I'm going to gamble with what it would be like if I would actually put it out there.' So I'm to the point now where I'm gambling. Let's see what happens."
Finding her way
Kari grew up in a Lutheran family, but she had an epiphany after she had three children in about 30 months. "That when God told me 'you need me now,'" she said. "My husband was working two jobs, and when the kids were younger he went back to school and got his management degree. That put a lot of burden on me and I'm sure God was preparing me."
Then came the voice issues that kept her from doing what she loved.
"That really brought me to my knees," Kari said. "I finally said, 'Lord, you've got to do something about this. It's messing with me. You can't take a singer and take their voice away.'
"Because I still needed to teach. Even if I didn't use my voice (for singing) I still needed to talk to my children, read to them. You can't teach music and not sing at all."
She's singing again, all the way to Florida. The future is uncertain, but it's full of possibilities.
"My goal is to do the best I can," Ekhoff said. "Just do the best I can and have fun. Because I have no idea what the outcome will be. At the very least it will make me a better teacher. I'll have a little more understanding of how the industry works."
Come July 6, others in the industry will have a better understanding of how Kari Ekhoff works, too.