A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

NKY’s Everett McMillen Cislo charts course to make a difference; involved in movement to revitalize Detroit

McMillen Cislo captures a photo of Jonsson as they canoe the Ohio River

McMillen Cislo captures a photo of Jonsson as they canoe the Ohio River

By Vicki Prichard
NKyTribune Reporter

In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain wrote, The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book — a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if uttered them with a voice.

Everett McMillen Cislo has taken to ‘reading’ rivers, and the communities along them. Last summer, the Beechwood High School graduate navigated his way along the 2,552 miles of the Mississippi River. This year he launched his boat from the banks of the Ohio River, just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Life along the river seems to suit him just fine.

Photo credit Everett McMillen Cislo http://www.everettmcislo.com

Along the Mississippi River. (Photo by Everett McMillen Cislo)

“It’s a slower pace,” says McMillen Cislo. “Sleeping under the stars, making coffee a handful at a time over a fire, and your biggest concern being to paddle the days away. Most people have car keys, a laptop and their cellphone in their everyday life. I have a hammock, pocket knife and a canoe.”

McMillen Cislo also carries the tools of a storyteller — a camera, a notebook and a pen.

Paddling for a purpose

After graduating from Western Kentucky University in 2015, McMillen Cislo – already an award-winning photojournalist, having won first place in the 2015 National William Randolph Hearst Foundation’s Journalism Awards Program – set out on his first river journey. But he didn’t go it alone. Joining him was his best friend, Will Jonsson, a native of Stockholm, Sweden and a graduate of the Royal Institute of Technology. The two met seven years ago while working as staff at Camp Michigania on Walloon Lake in Petoskey, Michigan.

“We were talking once and I threw out the idea to him, “So I’ve always wanted to canoe the Mississippi River. I might do it this summer. Care to join?”” says McMillen Cislo. “I think his exact response was a long pause, then, “Why the hell not?” He wanted to really explore the Midwest and South of the United States. This was the perfect opportunity to do so. The rest is history.”

Photo credit Everett McMillen Cislo www.everettmcislo.com

Photo by Everett McMillen Cislo

It was also the beginning of a philanthropic effort to support two groups they became aware of during their time at Camp Michigania.

Kids Kicking Cancer and the Mott’s Children’s Hospital Families work with children who confront long-term, life-threatening illnesses. The organizations bring the children and their families to Camp Michigania. McMillen Cislo and Jonsson decided that their excursions could bring awareness and support to those efforts.

Through their website, Paddling for Camp, the Kentuckian & the Swede, visitors can support either or both of the organizations through donations that help children and their families attend Camp Michigan.

A writer on the waters

Paddling along as storyteller, photographer and philanthropist, McMillen Cislo’s goals are to tell the stories of the rivers, the journey, and the people he meets along the way.

“River cities are a being all on their own,” says McMillen Cislo. “They have such unique personalities. I really enjoy meeting people in these towns, hearing the history of the people and places.”

And coming to shore in a canoe, he says, is an immediate conversation starter.

“They want to talk to us and see just what the hell we’re doing,” he says. “As a journalist, it’s the perfect type of icebreaker. My goals are to tell the story of what the river is like, what the people are like and what our journey is like.”

In July, they put their canoe in the waters of the Ohio River at Pittsburgh, PA, ending at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in Cairo, IL.

Due to timing constraints, the Kentuckian and the Swede paused their trip after making their way along 50 percent of the river, but plan to resume when the opportunity permits.

Photo credit Everett McMillen Cislo www.everettmcislo.com

Photo by Everett McMillen Cislo

Setting a new course for familiar land

In the meantime, McMillen Cislo is embarking on an altogether different journey, but one that will call upon his passion and ability to seek stories and make a difference.

Selected from more than 400 applicants, McMillen Cislo is among 43 fellows selected to participate in Challenge Detroit, a one-year leadership and professional development program focused on attracting and retaining talent in Detroit in an effort to spur revitalization.

“It’s a chance for me to play a small role in an incredible time of positive transition and revitalization that is taking place within Detroit,” says McMillen Cislo. “The culture, history and drive for change within the city is remarkable. I’m very grateful for the opportunity.”

McMillen Cislo’s ties to the city are familial. His father, Tom, was born and raised in Detroit, as was his grandfather, Casimer L. Cislo, a senior styling designer with General Motors for 42 years. And while the third generation Cislo is, admittedly, not “the automotive designing magician” that his grandfather was, he explains in his video submission to Challenge Detroit that he still brings something to the table.

“For 42 years he was a senior styling designer for General Motors Corporation. He had a hand in every vehicle produced,” says McMillen Cislo. “While not the automotive designing magician my grandfather was, I want to bring my skills and my enthusiasm as a journalist to the city of Detroit,” he says in his video submission.

Grandfather, Casimer L. Cislo McMillen, capturing a selfie on Detroit's history Woodward Ave. (Courtesy Everett McMillen Cislo)

Grandfather, Casimer L. Cislo, capturing a selfie on Detroit’s history Woodward Ave. (Courtesy Everett McMillen Cislo)

The selection process for Challenge Detroit was a lengthy and multi-faceted one, involving nearly five months of reviewing applicant essays, videos, and in-person interviews.

“It’s a fun and meaningful way to get to know our applicants, their passions and why they want to stay in or come to Detroit,” says Deirdre Greene Groves, executive director of Challenge Detroit. “I specifically remember our team being captured by Everett’s video – the story and photographs of his historical connection to the city were moving. His creativity was obvious, and that is what our program and company partners are looking for.”

Challenge Detroit fellows work at top regional companies, while spending one day a week collaborating with area nonprofits to address regional challenges and opportunities, including multi-modal transportation, homelessness and community development. McMillen Cislo will work with partnering host company, Sachse Construction.

“Challenge Detroit provides talent from across the country the opportunity to work with great companies, as well as the opportunity to give back to Detroit,” says Groves. “Many Fellows have continued to stay in the city well past the end of their program year and still work to make a positive impact on the
city.”

Throughout his year in Detroit, McMillen Cislo will share his stories through blogging, video logging and social media updates.

Home base for McMillen Cislo is Covington’s Wallace Woods neighborhood where his parents – his father, Tom, and mother, Marcia McMillen – reside. The two applaud their son’s spirit of adventure.

“Everett has a rare combination of notable traits: an enduring sense of adventure, a determination to stay the course and, most importantly, the social maturity that allows him to interact with a diverse universe of people,” says McMillen.

As for paddling the mighty rivers, he’ll stay that course too.

“The long-term goal is to accomplish something called ‘the big three’ — the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri rivers,” says McMillen Cislo.

Photo credit Everett McMillen Cislo http://www.everettmcislo.com

McMillen Cislo and his friend Will Jonsson. Photo courtesy Everett McMillen Cislo

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