For family band, life is a Great Adventure

Sam Garms taps time on his leg as he listens
to a recording of his sister singing. Almost involuntarily, the
nine-year-old begins to sway. Sam’s siblings, Caleb and Jayme, lean
over the edge of the bunk above Sam, transfixed as their oldest
brother, Ben, pulls up another track on the computer program he uses to
edit his family’s songs.

Luke Reiter
[email protected]

Sam Garms taps time on his leg as he listens to a recording of his sister singing. Almost involuntarily, the nine-year-old begins to sway. Sam’s siblings, Caleb and Jayme, lean over the edge of the bunk above Sam, transfixed as their oldest brother, Ben, pulls up another track on the computer program he uses to edit his family’s songs.

The Garms family, clockwise from left: Leesha, 16, Sam, 11, Jayme, 9, Kris, David, Caleb, 7, Taylor, 18 and Ben, 20.

Ben, 19, is assembling and refining the music for the first CD that the Garms family will put out under their official group name, the Great Adventure Gospel Band, which is composed of Ben (who plays banjo, guitar and bass), his sister Taylor, 18, (mandolin, fiddle and piano and soprano vocals), Leesha, 16 (steel guitar and lead vocals), Sam, 11, (harmonica, drums and alto vocals), Jayme, 9, (fiddle, mandolin and alto vocals) and Caleb, 7, (ukulele, harmonica and tenor vocals). The group is completed by their dad, David, on guitar, accordion and baritone vocals, and mom, Kris, on upright bass, piano and alto vocals.

The Garms became interested in Southern Gospel music about five years ago, and shortly thereafter they started attending musical events at North Isanti Baptist Church.

“During those times people would tap us on the shoulder and say, ‘Do you sing? Do you sing?’” David said.

The family would politely tell people they were simply there to enjoy the show like everyone else, but in November, 2007 when they had the opportunity to buy a variety of instruments at a reasonable rate, David and Kris decided to make it an early Christmas.

It began as a hobby. The Garms practiced in the living room of their Braham home when they could get everyone together, and eventually played in front of an audience at their church, St. Stevens Lutheran, in a performance that David describes as “OK.”

“When we started, it wasn’t really a conscious thing,” Leesha explains.

However it started, it has become more than a hobby now. While they still practice in the living room, the Great Adventure Gospel Band put on 45 performances in 2010. The touring range now extends to Nebraska and Wisconsin and all over Minnesota.

The “Great Adventure” of the band name is the term that all members of the Garms family use when referring to a period that began nearly a decade ago when the family found themselves facing an uncertain future.

In April, 2002, David was laid off from his job as a small aircraft mechanic in the rippling downturn the industry experienced after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. With the house payments growing difficult and prospects of finding another job in David’s trade slim, David and Kris decided to try something radical.

The Garms sold their house and disposed of most of their possessions through garage sales and donations. They bought a van and a 33-foot travel trailer, gathered up their six children, and headed west. David had found a role with the organization Laborers for Christ, which provides churches looking to build or remodel with skilled workers from all over the country. The idea was that the family could live on the church grounds rent-free, and while David worked on construction during the day, Kris would homeschool the kids. On paper it seemed the perfect way for David and Kris to model the value of service and ministry  for their children.

The Garms pulled onto the site in Brentwood, Calif., late on the evening of Dec. 15, still optimistic despite the dark and rainy weather. But those high spirits deflated the next morning when the project manager pulled David and Kris aside and told them although the recruiters who had reviewed David’s applications said it was OK to bring kids, the permit stipulations for the Brentwood project prohibited minors from entering the construction site.

Feeling forlorn, the family piled back into the van and pulled out of town without a home or a destination in mind. They looked into a few similar projects in the region, but the bad weather and arduous permit applications had delayed most opportunities until spring.

One morning after filling up with gas in Blythe, the family paused to discuss which direction they should take on the freeway.  Seeing a rainbow to the north, they decided to rely on the Biblical characterization of a rainbow as a sign of promise, and headed that way.

They eventually decided to stay at a campground in Parker, Ariz., and wait for a construction project in Utah to begin. However after four months of camping, a combination of ongoing health problems for the Garms’ oldest daughter, Whitney, then 16, and the discovery of Kris’s seventh pregnancy prompted the family to give up on the Utah prospect and head back to Minnesota.

While they were able to get health care for Whitney, the return did not bring immediate stability. Arriving in April, they spent the summer in a campground in Ham Lake. David eventually found another job working with small aircraft in Lino Lakes in October, but the family’s first bid to buy a house fell through. The Garms spent that winter with nine people, including the newborn Caleb, in the one-bathroom travel trailer in Lino Lakes.

“We’d wake up, our sleeping bags would be stuck to the side of the travel trailer because it was so cold,” Taylor recalled.

Finally in February, 2004 the Garms purchased and moved into their current home in Braham, drawing a close to the Great Adventure, if not to the lessons that it brought.

“The cohesiveness that that was developing for our family just has stuck with us,” David explained. “So that’s normal to us: just being a unit, a family, and working together.”

Sitting around their dining room table now and talking about those times over cookies and pink lemonade, the Garms certainly do appear cohesive. Having been older at the time, Ben, Taylor and Leesha, remember the travels better than their younger siblings (Whitney, now 24, lives in Wisconsin) and they resent the criticisms people occasionally make.

“Some people, when we’ve told this story, look upon it very negatively. They say to Mom and Dad, ‘How could you have done that to your kids?’ Ben says. “And we as kids look back on that as one of the brightest times in our lives.”

However being only a child at the time, Ben readily admits he wasn’t aware of the financial details or exactly how stressful that period was for his parents.

“Oh, look at Dad’s gray hair,” Kris replies with a laugh as she pat’s David’s head.

In addition to the solidarity the family feels from their trip, they’ve also gained a great appreciation for having a roof over their heads, so much so that they’re willing to share it. In 2007 the Garms built an addition onto their house to accommodate Mal, an 86-year-old man they met during their time at the campground in Arizona. Mal, a lifelong bachelor with no close relatives, requires some assistance to manage day-to-day life, assistance which the Garms are happy to provide.

There’s also Uliana, the Garms’ foster daughter who lived with them for two years and plays mandolin and translates songs to sign language when she takes part in the band.

“If we had a bigger house, we’d fill it,” Kris says.

Uncertainty is not something the family has completely escaped.

David was laid off again last September and although he’s managed some independent work since then, the family is now relying on the band. David says they get booked more steadily in the warmer months, pointing to one stretch in which they played seven shows in a week and a half.

“That gets really busy when that happens. Other times…” David pauses. “We have nothing planned for March at this point.”

Despite challenges, or perhaps because of them, the family says they take heart by depending on their faith and on each other rather than circumstances.

“There are issues, there are conflicts, there are things we have to work through––that’s normal,” David says. “But people see us and they say, ‘Oh, just seeing your family  working together—I don’t see that anyplace else.’”

To find out more about the Garms and the Great Adventure Gospel band, visit