Kingsland elementary students flank a special bulletin board created to measure donations collected for former classmates Daphnie and Joshua Crews, who lost both parents in separate accidents this fall. From left are fifth graders, Ben Christie, Kale Hinners and Ben McKee along with first graders Shelby Larimer, Connor Schiebsted and Brianna Musel.
Photo by Carol Thouin
When it came time for Kingsland Elementary School to select their annual Christmas Service project, it didn’t take staff or students long to come up with a cause.
On October 24, first grade student Daphnie Crews and her brother, fifth grader Joshua learned that their father, Brian, had died suddenly and unexpectedly. In a tragic twist of fate, just 12 days later, their mother, Robin, was killed in a semi-trailer accident where she was a passenger. As this family struggled to comprehend their catastrophic loss, students and faculty at the Spring Valley Elementary School gathered together to figure out a way they could help.
"When we learned what had happened to the Crews family, we just knew that helping them would be our project – there was no discussion," said Arlene Johnson, a reading teacher and coordinator for the school’s service projects.
School principal, Jim Hecimovich and first and fifth grade teachers, Karlene Hatleli and Bev Gronvold had the difficult task of helping students understand what had just happened to their classmates.
"First graders wanted to relate this to a death in their own family," said Hatleli "They were concerned about where Daphnie was going to live.”
Fifth graders were open to talking about what had happened, according to Gronvold. "They wanted reassurance that Josh was okay," she said. In the meantime, a note was being composed that would be sent home to families in students' folders, relaying the story and the special service project that was being planned at school.
For nearly 15 years, students and faculty have forgone individual gift exchanges in lieu of something more meaningful – to help a local family in need. In past years, the school would adopt a family from Fillmore County and match the age groups of the children with a particular class.
"We typically raise anywhere from $600 to $1,000," Johnson said. When a Spring Valley area family is in need, that takes precedent for project consideration, according to Johnson. "We’ve helped a family who had a fire in their home, as well as several students who were undergoing treatment for cancer, just to name a few," Johnson recalled.
Rebecca Toews, now 21 and a student at Southwest State University instigated the school’s first community service project, when she was in first grade. "Rebecca was in the hospital getting her tonsils out and shared a room with a young girl with bone cancer," said Rebecca’s mom, Jeanne Toews. After surgery to amputate her leg, the young girl, Cassie Stratford, continued with chemotherapy treatments at the Mayo Clinic. Due to all the expenses associated with her extended stay in Rochester, Cassie and her mother weren’t going to be able to make it home to North Dakota for Christmas. Thanks to Rebecca’s idea and the heartfelt support of Kingsland Elementary School, Cassie and her mother were able to fly home for the holidays. With additional donations from the Spring Valley VFW and FFA organizations, Cassie received a bike and music box, along with her plane tickets.
Toews, who is a teacher at Kingsland Elementary, says the project has just taken off since that time. "I’ve never once heard a student complain about not having a gift exchange," she said. Cassie has kept in touch with her Spring Valley "family" and is currently in her sophomore year in college, according to Toews.
"This community deserves kudos," said Principal Hecimovich, who described the overwhelming support pouring in for the Crews family. In addition to individual and classroom donations, the Kingsland Elementary School Parents (ESP) group also took free-will donations at both Christmas concerts conducted recently. A special bulletin board design, created by Johnson, gives anyone passing the hall by the school’s office a quick contribution update. Red hearts, each depicting a $10 dollar donation, plaster the board with overflow hearts hung from the ceiling. To date, nearly $2,000 has been donated to this year's project. While the amount makes students and faculty proud, they feel a sense of loss, as Josh and Daphnie had to relocate to a new school in Stewartville to be close to their grandparents, who now have the job of looking after their grandchildren, full time.
"This has been devastating to us," said Harold Rud, father of Robin and grandfather to Josh and Daphnie. "It’s been a real change for us, real quick, but we’re doing fine," he said. Grandmother, Pat Rud, relayed that the family is coping thanks to the wonderful support of family, friends and those at the Kingsland School. "There’s no words to express it," said Rud. "I can’t get over how supportive a school can be," she said. "I’d like to say thanks and give them all a big hug."
While the Crews children are getting acclimated to their new surroundings, they miss their friends back at Kingsland, according to their grandparents. And students at Kingsland miss their classmates. "I want to make her very happy," said first grader Brianna Musel who thought some new Barbie dolls might do the trick for friend, Daphnie. Classmate Conner Schiebsted added, "I’m going to miss her." Shelby Larimer nodded in agreement.
Fifth graders, Ben McKee, Kale Hinners and Ben Christie had some practical ideas for the donations that they helped collect. "Maybe we should give money to their grandparents for food – or we could let them decide," said Ben McKee.
"I’m sad Josh can’t come back to our school," said Ben Christie.
"Yea…he is our best friend," added Ben McKee. The fifth grade students orchestrated their own fund drive for their classmate. According to Kale Hinners, all the money spent at the school’s local book fair was donated to the Crews family project.
As Christmas day approaches, students, parents, faculty and anyone who donated to Kingsland’s special holiday project can feel good about participating in the true meaning of the season.
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