Excerpts from a recent interview on the upcoming release of Las Palomitas (The Little Doves)

Las Palomitas book

Written in 1992 as the Salvadoran civil war drew to a close, Las Palomitas (The Little Doves), is a story of El Salvador that encompasses so many of the elements that make all civil wars of the modern era, so incredibly complicated. This kind of novel involves multiple levels of cultural clashes, politics, social and religious layers—many of which date back over decades, if not centuries. Most significantly, Las Palomitas grapples with the individual lives of living, breathing men, women and children as they struggle through their daily lives.

Set in late 1979 and early 1980, it is essentially the fictional account of a disillusioned American college student who inadvertently stumbles into the Salvadoran situation while looking for some relief from his own personal demons. He finds himself fishing and helping villagers, some of ‘the least of these’ as Jesus referred to these folks, in ways he could never have envisioned just a few weeks before. He falls in love and as a result, stays too long in a situation fraught with more dangers than he might ever have imagined.

Las Palomitas is available for $25 + $5 shipping

THE BACK STORY: Why did you decide to write this book? How long did it take to write?

This book is my Love Letter to my brothers and sisters of Latin America who have been so welcoming and kind to me my entire life. I wrote this novel 30 years ago in 1992, 12 years after returning from my own life of several years in El Salvador. America knows so little of the Third World. They SEE it and HEAR it on the Nightly News but it is a totally different experience to be there—to see, hear, SMELL and FEEL life there, than it is to watch it safely behind a glass screen from one’s own living room. Most importantly, when you are there—these very real, very much alive men, women and children can reach out and touch you, both physically and emotionally. I want people in the United States to feel that as I have all of my life.

My father took us to Mexico, starting when I was only seven years old. My personal story is a rather complicated one but as a child, I was accustomed to encountering Hispanic people from a wide variety of backgrounds—in their homes, in their shops, in the market place throughout Mexico, from grass shacks to mansions. I was on the street, learning Spanish, looking at life from their side of the street

By the time, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1970s, I could function in a way that many Americans could not. Many of my contemporaries were ‘freaked out’ by the poverty, by the stares of the locals who could not comprehend why rich white people from America would come to lend a hand, instead of only coming to exploit what few resources they had. As a result, many of those same Americans, after a few weeks, simply ran home to the safety of United States. We, on the other hand, signed on for 2 years, stayed working for 3 ½, had a baby while we were there and then turned around and adopted a Salvadoran baby boy two years after returning to the US. In other words, my life has been totally changed by all of this and I had to share that with others. We seriously considered staying longer but as foreigners with a new baby, we could see the civil war already on the horizon. We knew we could not stay safely. It was the right decision. One of the four church women murdered in December 1980 was a dear friend, Sister Dorothy Kazel with whom we had worked for years. I managed to mention her as one of those that tried to ‘rescue’ Rick toward the end of this story.

It probably took months to write but it was the marketing that always takes the longest. After sending the manuscript to various publishers and agents in the early 1990s, it came back, time after time, always with kind words that ultimately ended with ‘but it is too hot politically for the current market’. I put it in a box on a shelf in the spare bedroom as I got on with the business of living, i.e., raising 4 kids and working full-time for the local sheriff’s department. Meanwhile, I wrote seven smaller regional novels which have done well.

Thirty years later, God tapped me on the shoulder with the message, ‘you’re getting closer to the end than the beginning. If you are going to do anything with this, you better get busy.’ I got it down, re-worked it and sent it to my current publisher with a note. “You know I’m a big girl and have worked with a number of editors and publishers over the years. If you think this is junk, let me know and I’ll put it back on the shelf and my kids can deal with it in another decade! He wrote back….Laura, you’ve really got something here. And now that’s where we are now.

Doves are as perennial as the grass in El Salvador, just like they are here in the Ozarks where I’ve lived for the past 40 plus years. They are always there—harmless, numerous, a part of the natural landscape, a lovely, sweet echo, softly calling us back to all that is good. They are totally faithful, mating for life. Doves are love on the wing and a threat to no one. And the doves always survive…thunderstorms, hurricanes, civil wars. When the dark clouds clear and the hunters go back to their caves, the doves return.

This is a story of love… romance, of course, but more than that. There is love here for one’s community, love for one another and God’s love for all of his people. Tragically, though, it is also a story of civil war and greed—in other words, it is the story of the best and the worst of all of us as human beings. It is the story we have seen repeated many times in human history—the greed of a larger wealthier group that uses its power to suppress a weaker often more numerous group with no regards to the humanity of the lesser group. We still study it in church as the story of the first Christians 2000 years ago, as the Holocaust Story of the Jews in World War II, the Native Americans and the slaves of US history and frankly, we are watching it happen once again right here in America before our eyes, although we may not want to say so. We learned about the personal tragedy of Vietnam, watching the story of the Korean War as MASH on our televisions because watching about Vietnam in the 1980s was too soon and too painful. I’m thinking some of that comes through here, too.

Told as a novel all of this comes home to the heart in the individual stories of the characters portrayed here as opposed to the larger sweeping accounts represented in numbers and statistics. There are elements here that we have loved over the decades in everything from Gone With the Wind to The Thorn Birds, and even Dickens’ Great Expectations if you remember that, like I do from high school English class so many years ago. Even elements from movies like Dances With Wolves and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights are mixed in. Civil war and cross-cultural conflicts always ignite our imaginations and set our hearts afire. When cross-cultural romance is added in, the mix becomes irresistible. Like I said in the beginning, this is my Love Letter to all my Hispanic friends and family—the ones I’ve known for generations and the ones I hope to meet in the future

2019 – Laura Valenti wins awards from the Missouri Press Foundation

My very first MO Press Awards, a 1st place and 3rd place. First place for a religion story on one of my fav’s, Camp David of the Ozarks. Third place on story of (late) Jack & Beverly Miller & family hosting 2 generations of international students from same Italian family

Over the past 25 years, I’ve written more than 500 freelance articles for various local and regional newspapers and magazines throughout the Ozarks. Below are a few of my favorites:


by Laura L. Valenti

Article originally published in the LACLEDE COUNTY RECORD, April 5, 2018 and was awarded a 1st Place 2019 Missouri Press award for “Best story about religion”.

Fourteen years ago, Ben and Grace Smith hosted their first camp for the children of Missouri prisoners and 18 boys and girls came to the make shift camp, located just outside of Rolla that was operating out of as many tents as buildings.

The past three summers, Camp David of the Ozarks, Grace, Ben and their immediate and extended family members have welcomed more than 200 campers each year, with more signing up each season.

“Statistics clearly show that two out of every three children in the juvenile justice correctional system are children of prisoners,” Ben Smith explains on a regular basis to visitors to the camp, civic groups throughout central Missouri and St. Louis and anyone with a serious interest in fighting crime where it begins. “If we, the Christian community do not reach out to these children now when they are young, why should we be surprised if they end up following in their parents’ footsteps? Camp David of the Ozarks is one way we can help break the crime cycle.”

At Camp David, the Smiths and 100 other staff and volunteers come together each summer to teach, boys and girls, ages 8 to 16, two important lessons: how much they are loved by Jesus as well as all the people they meet at camp and that their lives are their own and they can choose how they spend them. And that means that just because their parents made mistakes does not mean they have to do the same. The end results are that after more than a decade of serving ‘the least of these’, Ben and Grace are seeing a number of former campers who have chosen to follow Christ, return to their camp as counselors and support staff.

Ben and Grace’s efforts to offer an opportunity to children to choose a different path doesn’t stop when summer fades to fall and the typical camping season ends. They spend the rest of the year fund raising and seeking sponsors to cover the $200 cost for each camper to attend camp and spend four days swimming, horse-back riding, studying the Bible, playing games, learning about nature, singing and praying at meals which they eat together family-style, enjoying a campfire evening complete with s’mores, listening to Bible stories read by Camp Grandmas and receiving personal handwritten letters each day, also written by those camp grannies. Boys enjoy an evening of fishing at a nearby lake and girls attend a Princess dinner, in which they are dressed for the occasion in promstyle dresses and shoes, complete with hair, nails and modest make-up and photographs designed to emphasize the beauty each young lady carries within. And for the majority of these youngsters, who come from seriously broken homes, many of these activities, even something as simple as being read to by a grandmother before bedtime, are a brand new first-time experience.

Daniel and Cindy Smith, Ben’s parents, donated the original 10 acres off their farm to establish Camp David and complete the vision and dream proposed by their son, Ben and his wife, years ago. They still live next door to the camp and visit often throughout the summer.

Two summers ago, Grace put their story on paper in her first book, “Shame is No Longer My Name,” detailing the first many years of Camp David’s growth as well as the incredible stories of survival and triumph of so many Camp David stars.

Camp David’s success is also the result of the handin-hand cooperation of the entire Christian community of the area. The cabins, dining lodge, shower houses and other amenities of the camp have been built and paid for by various denominational groups over the years. At the beginning and end of each camping week, vehicles from Methodist, Baptist, and Christian churches of all kinds can be seen lining up to bring in and carry home a new round of campers and staff who come from Rolla, St. Louis, and many neighboring communities, including Laclede County.

“This is what serving God is all about, sharing His love with these kids. They are not just crime statistics here. They are real children each with their own individual needs. We see their smiles and their tears and best of all, we see them come back, some year after year, all the way to becoming part of the volunteer staff. And passing the love of Jesus on to a new group of campers, looking for hope, despite a home life that is often a nightmare,” Ben concluded.

Ben and Grace are considered missionaries, serving in their own country, raising their own support each year as well as support for their camp and campers. Their five children, ages 19 through 7, are home-schooled as Ben and Grace were when they were growing up in Pennsylvania. Bethany, Esther, Daniel, Katy, and Jabari also live and help out at the camp year round. It is a lifestyle that has produced children and young adults who are wise beyond their years, with a Biblical knowledge they carry in their hearts as well as their heads. In the last year, Bethany, a new wife and mother, has been in mid-wife training, a skill she hopes to use in a future missionary position in South America, serving with her husband, Gus. Esther has spent the last several months serving as a nanny to Christian missionaries, serving in Africa. All of the Smith children share the true meaning of love God and love your neighbor, on a daily basis. But, then, they are simply following the example that has been set for them by their own parents over their years at Camp David of the Ozarks.

Grace and Ben spent a week last summer in Uganda, expanding their camp program internationally, caring for the children of prisoners and will do the same in the Dominican Republic this summer.

To visit or donate, contact Camp David of the Ozarks, P.O. Box 1607, Rolla, Missouri 65402, Tel. 573-364-2786 Website:

Jay Reynolds: Singer Sewing Machine Collector Extraordinaire

By Laura L. Valenti

Article published in Missouri Life Magazine October 2007

In 1998, while recovering from knee surgery, Jay Reynolds bought his first Singer sewing machine. At the time, he had no idea he was embarking on an odyssey that would include new friends across the US and around world. “I was looking for something to keep me busy,” he explained recently at his workshop located near southwest Missouri’s famous trout fishing mecca Bennett Spring. “I took that machine apart, cleaned and repaired it, put it all back together…and I was hooked!”

And within just a few short years, Jay Reynolds has become a major collector and a true expert on sewing machines of all sizes, types, makes, and models. His current sewing machine collection includes nearly 200 machines of all sizes and ages, electrics and treadles, most of them, Singers. His favorites include an eleven pound aluminum machine produced in the 1950’s, to one of the first Singer machines ever made, to a huge 1923 industrial machine.

“The Featherweight 221 is still much sought after by quilters,” Reynolds explained, “because it’s so light and portable. It also has a little table, designed just for this machine that’s made for apartments and other small spaces.” “Now this machine,” Reynolds continues, as he steps over to a black monster, the exact opposite of the diminutive Featherweight, “ the Singer Class 7-34 is a straight stitch machine that was designed to sew heavy layers of canvas, for making tents, harness and horse collars, as well as automotive roofs, mud flaps, whatever was needed on the new automobiles that were taking over the country at that time.” He laughs at the realization that much of what he works with now is caught in a historical time warp. Finding parts for his machines is an on-going challenge that keeps him on the Internet, with new contacts, all over the US as well as in England, Scotland, and Germany.

Jay and his wife of 47 years, Sharron moved to Bennett Spring from Paola Kansas in 2002, after his retirement from the Kansas City Power and Light Company. He also enjoys fly fishing and meets new friends on the stream at Bennett Spring on a regular basis. While Jay cannot quite explain his fascination with sewing machines, his passion for them is practically contagious as is his love for the beautiful items they produce, like the flannel quilts he also makes. Fortunately, his wife, Sharron is appreciative and has a real understanding of his interest in collecting the machines. Sharron is an avid collector of Fostoria heirloom Vaseline glass, a distinctive art form captured in glass that fluoresces when seen under the right lighting conditions. “I’m glad he has a hobby that he finds so interesting, especially now that he’s retired,” she smiles when asked about sharing her home with so many sewing machines. “It’s something he enjoys, that keeps him busy.” It is also a hobby that produces benefits that others can enjoy. “After I did my first quilt at my wife’s direction,” Jay Reynolds laughs, “I learned to listen to her about how to do certain things.”

At last count, he had completed twelve king-sized quilts, five single quilts, and thirty lap throws, all made from old flannel shirts, which he purchases from church clothing banks. “I kept track of my hours on those first quilts, and figured I was working for seventeen cents an hour. That’s when I realized, you make quilts just for the love of making them!” And that love can be easily detected as he talks about the oldest machine in his collection, because in addition to collecting, Jay Reynolds has become a true student of the history the machines represent. “Isaac Singer got his patent in 1851 but the company didn’t start keeping track of their serial numbers until 1871. This machine was built sometime between 1865, the year the Civil War ended and 1871. The cabinet unfolds to become the sewing table and all the panels are solid walnut. The machine itself was hand-trimmed with gold dust and has inlaid pieces of mother of pearl. I even have the original owner’s manual. Can you imagine the lady who had been sewing by hand all of her life, and is then presented with this beautiful little machine for the first time?

Learning the history of these machines is as fascinating as repairing and sewing on them.” Passing that love along is also part of the joy of this collector. “Sometimes, people call from this or that thrift store or resale shop to tell me they’ve received a machine that no longer works. Usually, like one I received not so long ago, it’s something simple, like a machine that takes a special needle. When you put a regular needle in that model, it breaks it off. As soon as I got the right-sized needle in it, it worked just fine.” Not so long ago, Jay Reynolds came home to find four sewing machines on his front porch with a note from a neighbor, “Hope you can use these for spare parts.”

Not every machine that crosses Jay Reynolds’ threshold, stays in his collection. He has repaired several machines that he has then passed on to area churches and schools that are teaching sewing. “Very few young people are learning how to sew these days, and that is so sad,” he laments. “If I can help the next generation to learn more about sewing, I’m ready!” Reynolds’ son, daughter, three grandsons and two granddaughters all sew and quilt. Last year, he donated two machines to the Dixon Middle School where they teach a special class in sewing for students who choose to participate. Business teacher Barbara Trump explains. “Our class is called 8th hour, and is a time for students who are struggling to receive extra tutoring. For those who are excelling, they can choose extra classes, including our sewing class.

Traditional home ec classes are no longer offered in many schools and so these donated machines make it possible for us to offer these classes, which also ran this past year in summer school. The kids learn to make simple items, like patchwork pillows, aprons, purses, even boxer shorts and pajamas, but we really appreciated Mr. Reynolds’ donations of the machines, which makes the classes possible.” It is the combination of Jay’s appreciation of both their design and their history which has fueled his sewing machine collection activities as well as his basic desire to “keep ‘em running” for many of his quilt-making friends. It is, after all, the many quilters who have provided Jay with a network that now has his interests in machines and quilting reaching far beyond the Ozarks. “We, my wife and I, have been making quilted lap throws for the cancer center at Blue Springs. We’ve made the connection there through the Twilight Quilters Guild out of Blue Springs, folks we met along the stream here at Bennett Spring.” In addition donated quilts, Jay has repaired machines that are being sent to Central America as part of the donations sponsored by Convoy of Hope. “Sewing machines are a hobby, something fun to do for us here in the United States,” Jay explained, “but they tell me for poor people in places like El Salvador and Nicaragua, a sewing machine can provide a way of living, a major source of income. Now that’s a whole different way of thinking about these machines!”

Don Wollard, a Christian mission volunteer from Bolivar, Missouri, who helps collect food, medical and school supplies, as well as sewing machines, had more to say. “I went down to Jay’s house and toured his place, and these machines are really his livelihood. Last year we sent four in one of our big containers to El Salvador, and this year, he has twelve ready and waiting. I hope to pick them up soon, and get them on their way to El Salvador. We’ve sent some to Nicaragua, too. We’ve gotten really good machines from him, all Singers, and it’s been a big help to us.” Passing on the legacy of sewing and its history, whether here at home and in underdeveloped countries, is just one more part of Jay Reynolds’ love of the creativity his many sewing machines have long inspired. For more information on Singer sewing machines, contact Jay Reynolds at

Just Little Pieces of Wood

by Laura L. Valenti

Published in Ozarks Magazine January 2008

Many a cure has been recommended for high blood pressure, but perhaps none has produced more beautiful results than the hobby Vic Eckmann took up at his doctor’s behest. “The stress of farming had my blood pressure up too high. My doctor told me I should find a relaxing hobby and that got me started in woodworking about fifteen years ago,” Vic stated while standing in his workshop, located near Bennett Spring outside Lebanon in southwest Missouri. Now a retired farmer, Vic creates intricate pictures in wood. All different types of wood pieces fit together to create the sometimes simple, sometimes truly exquisite pieces of art. “Each color in the design is a separate piece of wood. Finding the woods is the hard part,” Vic explained. “The walnut, maple, oak, and the cedars are not so hard to come by, but the butternut, aspen, and catalpa are often difficult to find. Still, I prefer to use the natural woods rather than do any staining of the wood.” While his workshop has a wood stove, Vic often works without the benefit of the heat. “Heating up the stove changes the wood,” he continued while wearing a double jacket in early spring, inside his workshop. “It makes it expand and when you’re sawing something that fine, even a little bit of a change means a lot.” Vic’s art in wood is starting to establish quite a reputation for him, as an artist whose works are traveling far from his home in southwest Missouri. As an active member of the National Wild Turkey Federation, wild turkeys are one of Vic’s favorite subjects. In 2006, he and his wife, Sue traveled to the organization’s national convention in Nashville where they took pieces depicting both a jake, which is a young male turkey, and the NWTF logo. Vic also makes trophies for Bennett Spring’s local Hillbilly Days competitions, held each year the third weekend in June. “I have a craft booth at Hillbilly Days but with time constraints, I don’t do other craft shows.” Vic works part-time at the nearby Bennett Spring Trout Hatchery, where he can be found most weekends caring for and stocking hundreds of trout in the park’s fishing stream. He may not have time to travel, but people are literally beating a path to his door to commission his works in advance or to buy something he has already made. Currently, his wooden pieces of art can be found in homes and offices in Texas, Tennessee, South Dakota, Virginia, and Illinois as well as his own state of Missouri. Of all his works, Vic’s favorite piece, “Hidden Forest”, hangs in his own living room. “That one has 900 pieces of wood in it and took more than five years to complete,” Vic concluded as he looked at the forest portrait that depicts tall trees and various forest animals, including a raccoon, tree frog, lizard, and deer. Whether it is the complicated pattern found in “Hidden Forest” or the simple beauty seen in one of his latest, “Mother With Child”, Vic Eckmann’s art in wood leaves a lasting impression with the viewer, and yes, his doctor was correct. Vic’s blood pressure is back down where it should be.


By Laura V. Valenti

The tantalizing aroma of Grandpa Joe’s chocolates, a blend of American and European chocolate-making traditions, greets a visitor upon entering Rosewood Farms Ozarks Country Gift Store.

While every corner at Rosewood Farms is piled high with delightful surprises from woven rugs, embroidered pillows, wooden signs, fragrant candles, and enameled pots, pans, and dishware, it is the chocolates that bring so many to this out-of-the-way shop, tucked along Highway 5, halfway between Grovespring and Hartville, Missouri.

Grandpa’s dream “My Grandpa Joe went to candy making school in California in the 1940’s.” John Boyster explains the history behind his family’s fascination with fine chocolates. “He always dreamed of opening his own candy store, but never got the chance. He died in 1966. When we found his recipes, we took about a year to develop them into something we could produce here on a regular basis. We have four generations of family involved and we use only the finest ingredients. Grandpa Joe’s chocolates are made the way chocolate used to be made.”

“What that means,” adds John’s wife, Melody, “is that we use only premium ingredients like real butter and real fruit in our recipes. We don’t add wax or a lot of other additives, like you find in some commercial chocolates. And the best part is that now research suggests that chocolate with its anti-oxidants may actually be good for you!”

Dark chocolate, which has a higher percentage of cocoa, is actually considered the healthier variety, says Melody. Milk chocolate is sweeter and, of course, has milk in the recipe and many people still prefer that familiar American taste.

While tastes vary, the fact remains that the Boysters are working hard to keep up with the ever-growing demand for their popular products.

35 options “We produce 35 different crèmes, truffles, caramels, toffees, and brittles. This year we’ve added coconut brittle and bar varieties. We also added another 2,000 feet to our candy-making kitchen,” John continues. “I think people appreciate the way we make our chocolates, and now we ship them world-wide. They’re made from secret family recipes that will always be part of our family.”

The demand for those recipes keeps five Boyster family members cooking chocolate as a full-time job, seven days a week. For their annual open house in early November (this year November 5 – 10) they also make fudge. Open house visitors are treated to free samples of fudge, toffee, and brittles as well as hot cider while they shop. Other store delights include cappuccinos, lattes, and other gourmet coffees, as well as the Boysters’ very own Farm Frappe, a frozen blended beverage that comes in 25 flavors.

“We do not strive to be the biggest,” Melody Boyster concludes, “but we definitely strive to be the best! Taste, quality, and treasured family recipes are what set us apart from our competition.”

History Originally from Arizona, the family began to produce wooden gift items as a secondary business to their dairy farming operation there nearly 20 years ago. John made the wooden items, and Melody painted roses on the finished products, and thus, a dream with its own name, Rosewood, was born.

“We opened here in Missouri in 2000 with a single room, which has grown to several.” John waves his arm to take in his surroundings in the 4,000-square foot-store. Today, John and Melody along with daughters Holly and Jessi, daughter Heather and her husband, Lyle, and son, Tod and his wife, Jennifer, operate Rosewood Farms.

“When we started in the gift business, we were on the road, delivering gift items, all around the Southwest, working 18 hour days,” says John. “We even hauled items back to Arizona the first few years we were here, but we don’t do that anymore. We wanted a better life for our family and a special place so people would come. We have been very blessed. The people keep coming and we’re thankful.”

Rosewood Farms, 7345 Highway 5, Hartville Missouri 65667, located eight miles north of Hartville and six miles south of Grovespring, Missouri. 417 741-6915. Monday – Friday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Laura Valenti is a freelance writer who lives at Bennett Spring near Lebanon, Missouri.