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A St. Albans-Based Web Magazine Offers All Good News

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From left: Lynda Ulrich, Liesl Ulrich-Verderber, Samantha Burns and Abi Fugere - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • From left: Lynda Ulrich, Liesl Ulrich-Verderber, Samantha Burns and Abi Fugere

On a Tuesday in late July, the top stories on Ever Widening Circles, a St. Albans-based online publication, included one about an organization that is saving orphaned baby elephants in Kenya. Another story reported on an environmentalist who repurposes old cellphones to stop illegal logging in the rain forests. Yet another profiled an afterschool program near Phoenix that is boosting school attendance and grades by giving students free skateboards and riding lessons.

On a day when most news outlets were covering a deadly shooting at a California garlic festival, growing trade tensions between the U.S. and China, and racially inflammatory tweets by President Donald Trump, Ever Widening Circles reported none of those stories. Nor did it publish divisive opinion pieces, political campaign coverage or annoying pop-up ads.

Lynda Ulrich, cofounder and CEO of Ever Widening Circles, had no prior journalism experience before launching the self-funded website in 2014. But her strict avoidance of controversial, gloomy and stress-inducing news isn't because she wears rose-colored glasses or is naïve about national politics and world affairs. In fact, Ulrich and her husband, Chuck Verderber, are avid news consumers, hold dual U.S.-Irish citizenship and, with their three kids, are seasoned world travelers.

As Ulrich, 59, explained in a recent Seven Days interview, her family's international adventures have shown them a world that isn't nearly as frightening, dangerous or depressing as mainstream media often portray it.

"We were dragging our young kids through some dark places in the world, and we never saw anything but generosity and ingenuity," Ulrich said. "I knew that ordinary people weren't getting the rest of the story."

So Ulrich and Verderber, both dentists at Fiddlehead Dental in St. Albans, set out to fill that cavity with positive news that often goes unreported. They founded Ever Widening Circles, whose name they took from the 1905 poem "Widening Circles" by Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Its mission is to publish uplifting and optimistic stories that shine a light on people, organizations, inventions and discoveries that make the world a better place — and to inspire others to do the same. Their motto: "It's still an amazing world."

In five years, Ever Widening Circles has produced more than 1,000 stories and garnered 170,000 Facebook followers. The site now claims nearly 2 million visitors worldwide and a growth rate of about 100,000 new visits per month.

In May 2018, Ever Widening Circles was featured on the front page of the social media site Reddit, sending it viral and garnering 1.7 million clicks in one day. Though the website's sudden fame crashed its servers, the experience proved to Ulrich and her paid staff of five, all of whom are based in Vermont, that there's a real hunger for the inspirational stories they produce.

"The world is moving towards progress, but it happens at a pace that is not [considered] newsworthy," said Liesl Ulrich-Verderber, the couple's 26-year-old daughter and the company's cofounder and chief operating officer. "'Newsworthy' is: something's on fire, something exploded, someone died. But 10,000 people moving out of poverty today, just like yesterday, is not news."

Early on, some people compared Ever Widening Circles to the Huffington Post's "Good News" section, which features such saccharine stories as one about a litter of kittens rescued from a dumpster and another about a pig that escaped a pork farm and found its forever home.

"Uh, no, we're doing something more meaningful than that," said Ulrich-Verderber, a 2015 Harvard University graduate. Their goal, she explained, isn't to deliver people sweet, empty-calorie stories but a healthier, well-rounded news diet.

"By giving people a broader understanding of the world, whether it's science or philosophy or art or music, we give people the opportunity to see all these good things that are happening," she added. "Ours is not a Pollyanna view of the world. We just let people see things in a larger context and make more informed decisions."

Ever Widening Circles produces original content and curates stories found elsewhere. Nearly all include embedded videos, such as interviews and TED Talks. As Ulrich explained, the videos are there not just because people tend to read less today than they once did. It's also because many site visitors are non-native English speakers.

One recent story featured an interview with Drew Dudley, a Toronto-based speaker, leadership consultant and author of the best-selling book This Is Day One: A Practical Guide to Leadership That Matters. Dudley's 2010 TedX Toronto talk, "Everyday Leadership (The Lollipop Moment)," has garnered more than 4 million views and was voted one of the 15 most inspirational TED Talks of all time.

In a phone interview last week, Dudley said that he visits Ever Widening Circles often, especially when he's traveling.

"The great thing about Ever Widening Circles is, we all need to look on the bright side and want to be optimistic, but life gets in the way," he said. "It's a good reminder that there's a lot more good than bad in the world. It's just that the bad has a much better PR person."

How "Dr. Lynda" and "Dr. Chuck," as Ulrich and Verderber are known to their patients, discovered Vermont and launched Ever Widening Circles is itself an inspirational tale.

The two grew up in the small rural town of Lincoln, Ill., met at age 14 and became high school sweethearts. Ulrich was the daughter of the town's physician who delivered everyone's babies; Verderber was an all-American high school basketball star.

Ulrich's optimistic worldview was forged in a tragedy that occurred when she was a teenager. During high school, her best friend's entire family was murdered, the details of which Ulrich doesn't discuss publicly. The following morning, Ulrich's parents woke her with the grim news and told her that she needed to support her friend, the family's sole survivor.

Neither Ulrich nor her friend received the kind of posttraumatic counseling that might occur today. So Ulrich's emotional and intellectual response was to seek glimmers of hope that would help her friend through her darkest hour. As Ulrich put it, "I've spent the rest of my life looking for goodness."

After high school, Verderber went on to play for the top-ranked University of Kentucky Wildcats, where he was team captain in the early 1980s. There, he competed against future NBA legends Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and James Worthy. In 1982, the six-foot, six-inch Verderber was a seventh-round draft pick by the Chicago Bulls and could have played on one of the most fabled teams in sports history.

It wasn't to be. As Ulrich explained, the couple, who married in 1981, never even opened the letter and contract that Verderber received from the Bulls. Turned off by the intensity and drama of "big-time basketball," they decided instead to pursue their wanderlust and explore the world. Verderber went on to play professional basketball in Spain for several years before a devastating injury ended his hoops career.

Disappointed but determined to make the best of their situation, the couple returned to the University of Kentucky and earned their dentistry degrees, and then moved to Italy to open a practice.

In 1988, Ulrich and Verderber returned to the U.S. to find a new home where they could hang their shingle. After more than a month of exploring the Northeast, Ulrich said, they drove into St. Albans one day after a 22-inch snowstorm.

"It looked like a Norman Rockwell calendar," Ulrich remembered. "That day in St. Albans ... everything fell into place, and we never left."

Fast-forward to 2013. With three children and a thriving family dentistry practice, the two were fixtures in their community. They volunteered as local wildlife rehabilitators and made metal sculptures, such as the life-size stegosaurus that Ulrich created, which sits in front of their office.

But Ulrich also sensed a growing unease among her patients, with whom she often found herself having "the-world-is-going-to-hell-in-a-hand-basket" conversations.

"This notion that people were feeling overwhelmed by the negative news cycle was really preying on my mind," she said. So Ulrich began emailing patients her favorite TED Talks and other inspirational news stories, ranking them in order of preference.

Then, one morning in 2014, Ulrich was awakened at 6:30 a.m. by a grisly news story on NPR about the first beheading perpetrated by the Islamic State. Ulrich said that after she dove to turn off the clock radio, she thought, "For God's sake! There's got to be someplace to get word of the good things that are happening in this world."

So she began searching the web for news sites that were free of stories about war, violence, politics and hatred. "When I found nothing on the internet, I decided I'd write an article a day to prove that it's still an amazing world," she explained. When her daily blog posts became too unwieldy for Ulrich to manage on her own, she found someone to create a website, and Ever Widening Circles was born.

Today, Ulrich believes their work is moving beyond journalism and becoming a global social movement, which she calls the "conspiracy of goodness." That phrase, as she explains on the website, was borrowed from a story she read about residents of the town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France, who hid 3,500 Jews during World War II to save them from Nazi death camps.

Decades later, in 1987, one of the rescuers explained how they succeeded: "Do you think I could have hidden Jewish families in my home without the active cooperation of the mailman, milkman and the neighbors? For every one person saved, there were seven who rescued. There was a conspiracy of goodness."

After hearing that story, Ulrich felt it was their job, at Ever Widening Circles, to highlight the conspiracy of goodness under way today, which is also hidden but just as life affirming.

"There is such a wave of goodness happening every single day, it's unbelievable," she added. "But no one knows about it."

Like ripples in a pond, Ever Widening Circles continues to expand. In September 2018, Ulrich-Verderber launched EWCed, a web platform designed for educators and students that curates innovative and inspiring educational videos and pairs them with curricula and other school activities. Targeted to students in grades four through 12, EWCed offers teachers ways to introduce new topics and generate discussion questions about science, history, technology, art and culture.

During the 2018-19 school year, Ulrich-Verderber said, EWCed had users in nearly every state; one teacher reported that she uses it as a reward for her students.

"Fourth graders, instead of talking about [the online game] Fortnite, they're talking about amoebas at snack time," she added.

Ever Widening Circles will soon launch a media company, too. Working with independent video producers, it will license short, inspirational documentaries that can be shown in hospitals, eldercare facilities, and other businesses and institutions that have television screens in their waiting rooms.

As Ulrich explained, when hospitals tune their TVs to Fox News, the MSNBC fans get mad, and vice versa. If they choose a daytime soap opera, someone might get upset because it shows unmarried couples in bed. As a consequence, health care facilities often default to the least offensive content: a weather channel. But, as Ulrich pointed out, even that seemingly innocuous choice is problematic, as it feeds viewers a steady diet of natural disasters.

"Weather is one of the main things that stresses people out," she said. "No wonder everyone's going into their hospital visits with high blood pressure."

Since cofounding Ever Widening Circles, Ulrich said, she's forged relationships with "thought leaders" worldwide whom she long admired. They include international best-selling author Richard Bach, who once called her out of the blue while she was shoe shopping to compliment her on her efforts.

Another is Daniel Kish, president of World Access for the Blind, who is himself blind and autistic. As he explained in a 2015 TED Talk, Kish taught himself echolocation to navigate the world independently.

"Lynda is a dentist and innately seems to be able to bring the big picture into a practical space for execution," Kish wrote via email. "I was there at the beginning when she first called me with the idea ... after seeing my TED Talk, and invited my support/counsel/story, and it has already come so far in such a short time."

With the growing demands of Ever Widening Circles, Ulrich now works just two days a week as a dentist. Verderber still practices full time, managing their dental staff of 13 while also serving as Ever Widening Circles' chief financial officer. As Ulrich put it, "Chuck works his butt off to pay for it all."

As with nearly everything else she does, Ulrich puts no limits on their growth potential and views her relative inexperience in journalism and online publishing as an asset, not a handicap.

"We didn't have any boundaries. We just did what made sense in what seemed like the kindest and most productive way," she explained. "That's our gig: to change the negative dialogue about our time."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Spreading Smiles | A family of St. Albans dentists aims to publish the internet's most inspiring news"