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'She was always bigger than life'

This weekend, Carla Morat of New Era will be remembered at a Celebration of Life that promises to be just that—a full blown toast to life, the kind of all-out party that the honoree would have reveled in.

The memorial will be held on Saturday, Sept. 14, from 4 to 7 p.m., at the Playhouse of White Lake in Whitehall, a venue that was dear to Carla’s heart. Formerly the Howmet Theatre, it was her old stomping ground, where she starred in many plays in her student days and proudly saw her kids exhibit the same love for music and theater that she’d had since she was a child. There’ll be continuous live music, performed by old high school friends. Another friend, Sue Pekadill of Pekadill’s restaurant, will provide the light appetizers. There’ll be a slide show, and probably enough reminiscences to fill three days instead of three hours. Most importantly, there’ll be a lot of laughter, because joy and an infectious sense of humor are an integral part of Carla’s legacy. As her daughter Maggie notes, they want people to celebrate her mother’s life, not mourn her death.

“We ask that people attending not wear black, because my mother didn’t want this to be a sad event. On her deathbed, she specifically asked for it to be at the playhouse, a place she loved dearly, and to have it be happy and almost concert-like. People will also have the option to donate to a cause that was important to her: research for graft versus host disease, which was one of the illnesses Mom had in later years; the Playhouse at White Lake; and the Pink and Green Bowl.”

In the communities of New Era and Shelby, there was perhaps no one more beloved than Carla Morat. This beautiful, sparkling woman with the ever-present sense of humor and drive to help others was well-known for her support of various programs and causes, in particular the Pink and Green Bowl.

“I saw on the news that Rockford High School was doing a Pink Arrow Bowl for breast cancer awareness,” she explained in an interview two years ago. “They raised money for Gilda’s House, named after Gilda Radner, in Grand Rapids. And I got the idea to do a Pink and Green Bowl, pink for breast cancer and green, the color for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.“

Carla suggested the idea, and the superintendents of Shelby and Hart schools enthusiastically supported it. The schools’ football teams raised money, and the first Pink and Green Bowl was held in 2008 in Shelby. Eventually all the sports teams from both schools would participate, selling jerseys, obtaining sponsors, and wearing the name of someone who had either lost their battle with cancer or was still in the fight.

In partnership with the Oceana County Community Foundation, the Pink and Green Bowl sponsors scholarships to students planning careers in some area of the health sciences. Over 25 graduates of Shelby and Hart high schools have been awarded the $500 stipends.

The “green” of the Pink and Green Bowl held a special significance for Carla. She herself was battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a disease that attacks the lymph system, along with another cancer and attendant illnesses. To her delight, she lived to see the 10th anniversary of the Pink and Green Bowl, in 2018. Then, in December of that year, the remarkable woman everyone expected to beat the odds passed away. She was only 50, but in her grueling 12-year fight with the immune system’s most formidable adversary, she made sure she packed in a whole lifetime—primarily because of her children.

“She held on as long as she could for her kids,” Jane Morat, Carla’s mother, recalls. “She survived so many crises. But she said that she heard a voice, telling her she would pull through because she had to be there for her children. And she did. They were her babies.”

Today, her “babies” are grown, and remarkable in their own right. Frank, her eldest, was an honor student at Shelby High and recently graduated from Harvard, where he was awarded a full scholarship. Although Carla wasn’t alive to see him receive his diploma, she was undoubtedly there in spirit, because when he was accepted to that hallowed institution, there wasn’t a prouder mom on earth.

“It’s so wonderful,” a friend remembers her exclaiming, when she received the news. “He’s a pretty remarkable kid. And to think he got into Harvard!”

As the oldest, Frank is the only one of the children who remembers his mother before she became ill.

“Because Gia was only six, and Maggie three when my mom was diagnosed, they never knew her when she was healthy,” the tall, thoughtful 22-year-old says. “But I remember her when she was well and full of life, and I watched her decline. So when she died, it wasn’t the beginning of my grief, because I’d really been grieving my mom for years.”

For Gia, now 18, and Maggie, 15, Carla’s passing has been more difficult to deal with. For most of their lives, they had been their mother’s chief support. The three shared a unique bond, the girls taking care of Carla, who in turn inspired them with her optimism and courage, qualities that would sustain them through her illness and death.

“For the last few years, Gia and I were spending a lot of physical and emotional time taking care of Mom,” Maggie recalls. “We cooked all the meals, and took her to all of her doctors and hospital appointments. In the process, we had the chance to get so close to her, and learn everything she had to give to us. She was a fantastic mother.”

“It’s a big struggle, the grief,” Gia admits. “My mother had a heart, a soul and a drive like no one I’ve ever seen. She put her cancer into remission when it had only a 10 percent survival rate. She was battling two cancers when she put on the Pink and Green Bowl, the biggest fundraiser Shelby ever had.

“She was dealt the shortest straw anyone’s ever had. But she managed to raise three children while dealing with so many problems, financial and otherwise. And she was always giving to others.”

It follows that others happily gave to her. “We’re very blessed by the community and I am very grateful for the support they’ve given us over the years,” says Frank. “All of these people who came out of the woodwork to help us. People would just come over and mow our lawn. We wouldn’t even know who they were.”

“Before she died, this church paid for and put up a new garage door,” Jane recalls. “And friends came and put up a deck for Frankie’s graduation.”

And then there were the Ya-Ya Girls—a group of Carla’s oldest buddies from her school days. They were on hand every moment, providing physical and emotional support, especially when it came to caring for the kids when Carla was in the hospital for long periods, a job grandparents Jane and Dan Morat, had taken over.

“Mom had these best friends from high school, and they got together to give my grandparents a break,” says Maggie. “And they took care of us. We were great friends with their kids, who were our age.”

The Ya-Yas were literally there to the end, standing faithfully at Carla’s bedside when she took her last breath. And they have been instrumental in helping with their beloved friend’s Celebration of Life.

“It’s a big thing, how much the community has been affected,” Gia observes. “How many people were at a standstill after Mom died. I know she’d be proud of what we’re doing with her Celebration of Life, and how it will help others. When we were putting it together, we thought, ‘Here’s a woman who loved to fundraise. So why not make it a memorial and a fundraiser?’ It’s kind of nice to be filling her big shoes.”

Among the causes people can donate to at Saturday’s event, graft versus host disease is perhaps the most important. While battling both non-Hodgkins and an even more deadly cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Carla underwent a series of bone marrow transplants that caused her to develop GVHD, a life-threatening condition in which donor immune cells mistakenly attack the normal cells.

“So little was, and still is, known about GVHD that had there been more research available, my mother might still be alive,” says Frank. “So at her memorial, we’ll be raising money for the Lemon Holton Clinic at Spectrum in Grand Rapids, where she was treated.”

“GVHD is very, very under-researched, “ concurs Maggie. “So we want to do something to help this clinic. My mother was always a guinea pig, which is why we want to fight for more research there.”

Meanwhile, Carla’s memory lives on in all sorts of places, expected and unexpected. Like this year’s Oceana County Fair, for instance, where a golf cart for disabled transportation bore a sign reading, “In Memory of Carla Morat.”

“They asked me if it was OK to dedicate the cart to her,” Jane laughs. “I said, ‘Are you kidding? If you had a banner in her honor over the whole fair, she’d be thrilled! Carla loved the spotlight. She never missed a chance to be on stage. At the Howmet, her picture was everywhere. She was always bigger than life.”

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Shelby’s Media Technologies helps improve education one desk at a time
 John Cavanagh  / 

As students go back to school this month, many are busy catching up with classmates, adjusting to their new schedule or simply looking forward to the next big sporting event. The furniture in their classrooms or the media center is probably the least of their concerns and probably isn’t given a passing glance. However thanks to Media Technologies in Shelby, many schools, universities and libraries across the state, nation and even the world, learn and work using furniture created right in Shelby.

Media Technologies, in Shelby’s Industrial Park along the rail trail, has been unassumingly hard at work producing quality furniture for over 20 years. The business began as Silver Street, the former guitar manufacturer, owned by Craig Hardy. In 1983, Silver Street transitioned to creating only high-quality library furniture for such names as Herman Miller, American Seating and Brunswick. Then in 2000, Randy Seaver bought a share in the company from Craig. By 2015, Randy and his son, Jake, had purchased the remaining shares and renamed the business “Media Technologies.” They have been instrumental in creating beautiful, functional and long lasting furniture and helping people “take a seat” ever since. Randy and Jake, both residents of Montague, both easygoing and friendly, desire to do only their best, for the company and their customers.

A tour of the operation ensures that one will never look at school or library furniture the same again. In every corner of the original 128,000 square foot operation, sit stacks of base product awaiting the next step of transformation; from a non-descript piece of wood or laminate, to a beautiful and usable piece of furniture. During two daily shifts, approximately 96 employees keep busy cutting, banding, planing, molding, sanding, painting and assembling — most with the use of highly specialized, computer-operated machinery; getting orders ready to go to a number of locations across the country. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Randy greets every employee by name and asks how their day is going. All of the employees return the greeting with a genuine smile and continue to work as if this was any other day on the job. It is obvious they are part of a team and really enjoy what they are doing. Randy points to a pallet of finished table legs and very nonchalantly says, “This order is going to Haiti.” Haiti? One might ask, “Who in Haiti has money for new furniture?”

Manufacturing and production is really the second part of the production process. Tucked in small offices throughout the plant, research and development, sales and marketing employees are busy creating, promoting and selling the company’s many furniture lines. The finished product shows the careful attention to detail the company and its expertise has become known for. The popularity of their products has created a need for more storage. Therefore, the company began an expansion project this summer. An additional 24,000 square feet was added to the west side of Plant 2 with 11,000 square feet added to the east side.

After a tour of the facility and checking out the company website, one can begin to get a feel for the unique way Media Technologies markets its business. It’s more about getting to know customers and their needs first, then working with them to find the solution for their space and not the other way around. While the business clearly produces some of the finest furniture around, staff members don’t seem to take themselves too seriously. People, whether an employee, customer or visitor, seem to matter more than any chair, desk or bookshelf.

“In the past, school and university libraries were places where thousands of books were housed and where students went to do research in relative quiet. Within the past 20 years, “libraries” have become known as “media centers.” The new buzzword these days seems to be “information centers” where the space is less about books and being quiet, and more about a collaborative space. Where once sat tables, chairs, study carrels and computer desks, now sits tables and chairs of varying heights, stools, ottomans, reading nooks and even furniture that someone can climb into,” said Jake.

“We try to watch trends. People know we’re ‘out of the box’ and that we are capable of doing special modifications and tweaking designs to meet a specific need,” said Jake. “We like to say we’re a local company with national appeal. We have customers across the US, Canada, Puerto Rico and even Kuwait. We’ve experienced 40 percent overall growth within the last year alone.”

As if manufacturing fine furniture for libraries and schools weren’t enough, last fall the company launched “MT Contract” with the purchase of five izzy+ products from JSJ Corporation of Spring Lake. “The MT Contract brand is focused on selling through different distribution channels and into different markets such as Higher Ed, Commercial and Healthcare,” said Jake. “These markets are much bigger than K-12 Education and Public Library markets that our current Media Technologies brand supplies.”

What the community may not know about Randy and Jake is their commitment to making the world a better place.

“We believe we were put on this earth to use our gifts and talents to help bring about permanent change,” said Randy. “With that in mind, we felt drawn to Haiti and the many needs there. After consulting with Mark and Becky Sterken, missionaries with Global Access Partnership in Latin American countries, the two decided to help build a vocational education school in Haiti.

“We wanted to do a project and Mark provided us with two options. One was the Voc Ed school for orphans. That hit close to home for us as we are already in the business of supplying schools and already had a heart for orphans. We weren’t sure if we would be able to take on a project of this size, but we had faith that God would provide, and He has!” said Jake. “The school, which includes 14 rooms between two stories, opened last September. During the morning hours over 100 neighborhood elementary age children attend classes there. In the afternoons over 300 older children attend vocational education classes. Many of the children who attend live in local orphanages. Soon the facility will be used for adult education classes in the evenings. The hope is that many Haitians will be able to get off the streets, learn a trade and begin to change their country for the better. In June we sent another shipment of furniture along with clothing, toiletries and toys. Many of our employees personally contributed funds or items toward the shipment. It’s been very gratifying to work together on this.”

This community-mindedness, along with their years of experience and expertise, place them in a unique position in the market. As their website says, “From classroom to commons, office to boardroom, and every space in-between, we offer a broad range of quality furniture possibilities for all of your spaces. From dream to design to delivery and installation, we can be with our customers every step of the way.”

Media Technologies is truly one of the many hidden gems in Oceana County. With the recent expansion, many good jobs in production are available and the company welcomes individuals interested in applying. More information can be found at www.mediatechnologies.com/company/job-postings