This column originally appeared in the Morrison County Record
Day of Caring is Astonishing
By Joe Nathan
Wow! That’s perhaps my single strongest reaction to spending the morning of May 8 in Little Falls, watching more than 1,100 high school students and community members clean their community during the ninth annual “Day of Caring.”
The compassion and commitment these people demonstrated is staggering. Remarkable logistics that meant that more than 200 individual homes, parks and other local facilities were cleaned up. Students and adults did this not only in Little Falls, but also in the nearby towns of Flensburg, Randall and Sobieski.
Cathy Adamek, a Little Falls teacher for 39 years and now a school board member, told me, “Part of education is learning how to be a good person. Until you volunteer, you don’t realize how good it feels.” She also pointed out that “You never know when you are going to need help.”
Thousands of dollars of contributions supported the student/adult volunteers.
The day began with a brief assembly, held before students went into the community. Morrison County Sheriff Shawn Larsen told participating students: “You guys inspire me.”
Mayor Greg Zylka praised students and introduced them to two of the senior citizens they would be helping. A senior citizen named Lola told youngsters: “Your parents are so proud of you. What you’re doing means so much to our family, and many others.”
Principal Tim Bjorge talking with some of the more than 1100 students
& community members who participated
Later in the day, I met Bunny Tabatt, a former local physical therapist, who was one of the people that the students and community volunteers helped, raking leaves and doing other yard cleanup. She’s now blind.
Tabatt explained, “I’ve never gone through one of these caring days without having tears in my eyes. I’m so grateful.”
Students at Ms. Tabatt’s home
Students were learning those lessons. Jaden Marrow, 14, told me that the community people were “really kind.”
Sam Slettom, 18 and a senior, told me that the day “gives us a chance to give back for everything the community members do for us.”
Meghan Kathrein, another senior told me one of the benefits of the day is the ‘memories we make with our friends.” Some homeowners gave students cupcakes or cookies to say “thanks.”
Students walking to next assignment
Superintendent Stephen Jones praised all the participants, noting “We’re showing the community that this is their school.” He pointed out principal Tim Bjorge brought the idea to Little Falls. Gail Johnson, head of the food service at the high school, told me, “This is my favorite day of the year … people are so helpful and cooperative, including some restaurants that compete with each other.”
Randy Tabatt, a lifelong Little Falls resident who retired after 33 years of teaching, told me as he kindly drove me around to various sites, that “This day helps students learn that giving back is as important as what you do for a living.”
Principal Bjorge led a team of people to observe a somewhat similar event before Little Falls started doing this. He shared a list of almost 100 organizations that contributed in some way to the event. A few of many, many examples
- Palmer Bus company provided, at no cost, eight drivers and eight buses, to take the students to and from various community sites.
- The city of Little Falls picked up the hundreds of bags of trash that the volunteers filled.
- Lions Club members cooked the food donated by many local restaurants and stores. Special thanks to Coborn’s, which donated 1,000 hot dogs, hamburgers and buns and has been a sponsor each year.
One of the community teams involved National Guard members from Camp Ripley. Christa Filsmyer, a National Guard member from Royalton, was participating in the effort for the first time. Why? “I like to give back.”
Karli Athmann, another National Guard member recalled being involved when she was a senior at the high school. How did she feel about returning as an adult? “I love it.”
Bryan Flahave, another National Guard member and Little Falls graduate, enjoyed the volunteering. He also liked talking with some of his former teachers, adult to adult.
Melissa Prozinski was another Little Falls graduate who participated. She recalled that her high school volleyball team did some volunteering in the community. She now works for Horizon Health and has her own youngsters, ages 5, 2 and 8 weeks. She told me that she hopes her children will have a chance to participate when they attend the high school.
The Tri-Parish Catholic Church involves three churches working together. Linda Pilarski, who directs religious education, told me this was the first time they had sent a team, and “We’re delighted to be here.”
Pastor Keith Thompson and Youth Pastor Sam Muhlbauer from another church, Living Hope, were among the volunteers. Thompson described the day as “a tremendous blessing and incredible boost” for the community. Muhlbauer described it as an event “where everyone comes together.”
Brad Vold and Beth Hamlin were among the county employees who were volunteering. Hamlin explained that the partnership “helps people know their neighbors and is great role modeling for the students.”
Tarah Voltin, Walmart store manager told me that she was one of 11 adult volunteers from the store. She told me: “We look for opportunities to do things that are good for the community.” Nationally, Walmart has provided two, $3,000 grants to the district in recognition of the collaboration.
Coordinating more than 200 sites and more than 1,100 participants, plus more than 90 community sponsors, was an astonishing, complex job. I can’t say enough about Becky Abbott, the project coordinator, who also is a school social worker, and principal Bjorge.
I watched as they calmly, skillfully looked at maps prepared in collaboration with the city of Little Falls, and took calls all morning. A rake had broken here, and a new one was needed. A bus was needed there. And so on. The coordination was remarkable.
Everyone participating received a colorful T-shirt. Abby Borash, a 10th grade student, won the competition with her creative, colorful design featuring “Day of Caring” imposed over a picture of Minnesota.
Shirt designed by Abby Borash
The quotes and statistics along with pictures that the Morrison County Record is publishing, help describe an amazing day. I started with “wow.” I’ll end with this:
While I have watched, participated in, written about and admired somewhat similar efforts in other communities, I think Little Falls’ “Day of Caring” is the most remarkable, and inspirational, event I’ve ever seen. I’d urge other communities to consider sending a team to observe what happens in Little Falls on the first Wednesday in May 2020. Then do something like it.
Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at Joe@centerforschoolchange,org
Photos by Joe Nathan