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Twin sisters launching a business to counter winter blues in Duluth

Sisters Sue (left) and Katherine York stand in the doorway of their SunSpot bus Wednesday morning. The bus, a 16-passenger "rescue unit", is outfitted with bright lights to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder. The sisters hope to park the bus at various venues in town and offer 30-minute light-therapy sessions for $5. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 3
The inside of the SunSpot bus is brightly illuminated with banks of 10,000 lumen LED panels (top) and additional full-spectrum lights along the sides. Small tables hold healthy food treats. The seating was salvaged from a Bridgeman’s restaurant remodeling project. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Among the healthy foods offered on the SunSpot bus is this dish featuring rye crackers, capers and a salmon dip. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 3

Duluth already has food buses and school buses and DTA buses.

Now, it's going to have a light-therapy bus.

Twin sisters Katherine and Sue York, 54, have a 1998, 16-passenger bus brightly painted red on the outside and lit with 10,000 lumens of light on the inside. Dubbed The SunSpot and equipped with reconfigured booth seats and tables salvaged from a Bridgeman's restaurant remodeling project, it may soon be seen outside of a workplace or gathering place near you. It will offer 30 minutes of friendly conversation, nutritious snacks — and light, that ingredient so often absent during a Duluth winter.

The sisters cite studies that say 71 percent of Northlanders are vitamin D deficient, 20 percent have "winter blues" and about 6 percent have the more serious form, known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Sue York, who moved to Duluth with her family 15 years ago from Chicago, knows how it feels from her own experience.

"You want to eat a lot of (high) carbohydrate foods," she said. "You don't want to exercise, you want to just sleep, you're lethargic, you're tired, you don't socialize. You close yourself off."

She has to have light to combat the symptoms, Sue said.

The sisters, who grew up in Chicago and Florida, reunited a little more than a year ago when Katherine moved here from San Francisco, where she had worked as a music historian and concert promoter. She wanted to be closer to Sue, whose husband had died, and Sue's now-teenage children.

Even before Katherine's move, the sisters envisioned a place to provide light therapy in Duluth. They'd like eventually to offer services both in a bus and a building, but the bus — they refer to it as a mobile rescue unit — proved to be the more affordable place to start. They've invested $50,000 from their savings, including $5,000 for the bus itself and an immediate $5,000 more to bring it back into working condition.

The bus won't carry passengers. Their concept is to set up a schedule to park at the same places and the same time Monday through Friday — places such as college campuses or the hospitals or near corporate buildings. They hope to have regular customers who come to the bus for 30 minutes of light each weekday. They'll charge $5, plus another $5 if the customer chooses to indulge in their vitamin-rich snacks, such as sardines and salmon mousse.

They're ready to start "tomorrow," the sisters said during an interview aboard the bus on Wednesday, although they're still in the process of working out a schedule.

Once started, it will be unique in the literal sense of the word, they said.

"Nowhere in the world is anybody doing this," Katherine said. "It's not being done in Norway, it's not being done in Portland. There's nobody doing a full-spectrum approach to help people beat this (SAD)."

The bus was brightly lit with the 10,000-lumen lights, the standard recommendation for battling SAD. (A 60-watt light bulb produces about 800 lumens, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.) It also was comfortably warm, heated by a propane system run by a generator — the bus itself wasn't running. Equally passionate and high-spirited, the sisters fed off of each other's comments as they talked about their plans. They punctuated the conversation with frequent laughter.

They weren't disconcerted, the women said, about starting a business to counteract lack of light during the time of the year when days quickly are getting longer.

"The truth of the matter is we can get our name out there right now, (and) the season is still going to continue into May," Sue said. "And then next year, come November when it is the time of the descent of the light, we will be ready and hopefully people will be getting a subscription for the season."

They'll offer weekly and monthly rates for those want it. They'll operate in the summer, turning off the lights but continuing to offer nutritious snacks. The snacks might not be available immediately — they're still working to fulfill licensing requirements for that part of it, the women said.

They still hope to also operate out of a building, eventually. That way, they could offer a fourth key element — exercise — in addition to light, nutritious food and community.

They even envision possibly expanding to the Twin Cities and other places down the road.

Along the way, they've encountered a few skeptics.

"This is the one that drives me crazy: 'Is anyone else that you know doing this?'" Katherine related. "And it's like: Well why are you? Well, my goodness, then why not? Are we supposed to open up the thousandth coffee shop? We're trying to do something that helps community. We're trying to do something that's entrepreneurial."

By next winter, they hope to be making eight stops per day with 16 customers each time, the women said.

They've studied the science extensively, they said, and are confident they'll be meeting a real need.

"I would not have left my house of 30 years (in San Francisco) on a pipedream," Katherine said.

People have other aids, such as light boxes at home, Sue said. But she believes those are often used for a while and then ignored. The difference with The SunSpot, she said, is the element of community.

"We need a bus," she said. "We need to get to people. We need to bring this concept to the people."

Although women of childbearing age are the most likely people to be diagnosed with SAD, everyone is susceptible to vitamin D deficiency, Katherine said, and their bus is intended for all: "This is a happy place for everyone."

For more about The SunSpot, call Sue and Katherine York at (218) 728-1067, email them at thesunspotduluth@gmail.com or visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thesunspotduluth

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