FULTON – One of the first things visitors to Paula's Archiving will notice isn't the age of the owner – although not every 17-year-old is helping preserve customers' memories.
Instead, beyond the Christmas lights near the entrance to Paula Israel's workspace, where she takes videotapes and other media to archive, is a large poster that reads "Fulton Illinois' Rising Star and Candidate for Mayor."
While Paula can't circulate a ballot petition to run for the April election, her guardians, James and Rebecca Jackson, can. Paula turns 18 on Jan. 12, as she joked when reminding the man she calls Dad.
“I felt like the most recent election went in the direction it did because people aren't involved in elections," said the focused, brown-haired Fulton High School student, sitting at a table among editing equipment and shelves. "That sparked the topic of me asking my mom and dad how it does work.”
"I found out what it takes and what it entails," she said. "So, what better way to figure out what’s involved in politics than to be a politician?"
Larry Russell picked up the petition packet for Paula. He recently resigned as Fulton mayor after winning election to the Whiteside County Board. Former Fulton mayor and current Third Ward Alderman Howard Van Zuiden was named acting mayor at Monday's Fulton City Council meeting. He'll fill the role until the April 2017 election. He hasn't said yet whether he intends to run.
The mayoral race, against Fulton real estate agent Barb Suehl-Janis, is just one topic on Paula's checklist. She's also preparing to go on a road trip soon with her guardians to visit four colleges with optometry schools.
A comeback kid
When Paula moved in with the Jacksons in 2014, politics were not exactly on her radar.
James and Rebecca Jackson are both retired from the Army. They both joined right out of high school, and carry themselves with a quiet competence.
Rebecca is a pharmacist at Walmart in Clinton, Iowa, and James opened a coffee and ice cream shop in Fulton called Michelle's.
Paula started working at Michelle’s the summer she was 15 and threw herself into the work.
"By the time December of that year came around, they said, 'You’re the manager of it,'" Paula recalled.
The Jacksons provided Paula with more than just a job. A ward of the court since birth, she had been handed from her grandmother to an aunt to a half-sister, and faced abuse. Instead of going back to that situation, the court asked the Jacksons if they would be Paula's guardians.
James said he and Rebecca told Paula that they were very strict, and some of her lifestyle had to change.
"Within 60 days, not even that, a completely different person emerged," James said.
Paula said she left behind a lot of "toxic people" in her life.
"I used that to get new groups of friends," she said. "I used that for motivation to become more than I was. I didn’t want to be defined by my past actions. I’m just coming back from bad influences."
She didn't stop with changes to her circle of friends. She also looked at changes in her professional life, too. The Jacksons told her there had to be some business in the space below where they live.
Paula quickly demonstrated a talent for converting old slides, videotapes, and other materials to various formats for archiving.
"One of the the biggest things is that Rebecca and James are retired from the military," Paula said. "They have tapes and records of their service. If this house burns, all their memories and videos are just gone."
The cost to archive those records would have been, in Paula's words, "insane." Instead, the Jacksons asked her to do the work, and told her they'd pay her for her time.
"That, combined with how expensive it was to save it, unless you wanted to buy the commercial-grade supplies, is a big chunk of change," Paula said. "This is an older community, mostly a retirement community. [The Jacksons] paid for the equipment. I told them I'll take the money you just paid me, and purchase the items you bought to do this. They helped me with contracts and all of it."
That was about 18 months ago. Paula built the dividing wall between the front door and the space for the business, and Michelle's closed for Christmas break 2014 to 2015. In January 2015, when the business was scheduled to reopen, the Jacksons and Paula announced they wouldn’t reopen until June.
Paula's Archiving has proven to be a popular business, drawing customers from Peoria, the middle of Wisconsin, and elsewhere.
"People can ship stuff, but they’re wary," Paula said. "There are people who leave to Florida for the winter, take boxes to organize them, then send them to us."
Other than paying herself, Paula puts all of her profits into the Robert Fulton Community Center and Transit Facility down the street.
She's been able to archive 150-year-old slides, glass slides from the Civil War, and tin slides. She had been doing photo restoration, but stopped when it started taking up too much time and cut into her college work.
Yes, her college work. Between taking on a mayoral race and helping preserve people's memories, Paula also is taking courses at Sauk Valley Community as well as attending Fulton High. She's been taking Advanced Placement chemistry and pre-calculus, and is on the National Honors Society.
Oh, and there's getting up at 4 a.m. to compete with her fellow speech team members.
"There's nothing better than being in a group of hundreds of other people," Paula said, with a flash of youthful energy. She's also busy with Spanish and science clubs.
Politics is no joking matter
Paula took a moment to address the question of just how seriously she's taking the mayoral race.
"I've heard that a couple people have heard I'm doing this as a joke. I'm not," she said in a polite but firm voice.
She's planning to go to a few public events, such as meals at the senior center and even a Christmas party being put on by her potential opponent.
Already, Paula has focused on at least one issue.
"One of the major issues that I don't think is getting enough attention is the sewer problem on the south side of Fulton," she said. "People have been having their sewers backing up, and I think it needs more attention."
The independent candidate is heeding James' advice.
"I tell her, ‘don’t argue,’" he said. "Note what they say, but don’t take sides. Take it back to the City Council."
If elected, Paula doesn't want to represent just one part of the population.
"A mayor is a voice for the people, not 50 percent of the people,” she said.
No matter how she does in April, Paula has a 10-year plan: to graduate by age 25 with a doctorate of optometry, and be debt-free by 27.
She might even preserve some of her own memories along the way.