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Published December 31, 2008, 12:00 AM

Area youths draw Forum’s Person of the Year honor

They drew little attention to themselves when they met regularly in coffee shops to discuss strategy and logistics. To a casual observer, they must have appeared like a bunch of kids out for a group date or meeting to plan some big social event.

By: Lloyd Omdahl, The Forum

They drew little attention to themselves when they met regularly in coffee shops to discuss strategy and logistics.

To a casual observer, they must have appeared like a bunch of kids out for a group date or meeting to plan some big social event.

But the fruits of those Sunday evening coffee meetings became familiar to many in Fargo-Moorhead: the 71 tons of donated food and $58,000 in contributions to feed the hungry, just in time for Thanksgiving.

The recent Fill the Dome drive involving more than 2,000 volunteers is merely one of the biggest and most obvious of countless youth projects that have taken root and blossomed in the area.

In fact, youth civic engagement, always humming along in Fargo-Moorhead, seemed to reach a whole new level this year. For that reason, The Forum has designated local youths as its Area Person of the Year for 2008.

Examples of kids rolling up their sleeves for the common good abound.

A short list includes Project Linus, where Woodrow Wilson Community High School students made 105 blankets for hospitals and people in need; the Library Project, in which local college students played an active part in raising money for a library in Sudan; and Hungry and Homeless, in which kids played a key role in raising more than $195,000 and collecting 27,000 pounds of food.

Well, you get the idea.

But Fill the Dome, which began last year and exploded in its second outing this year, stands as maybe the most emblematic example of youth activism.

The project is spearheaded by a group of student leaders from Fargo-Moorhead high schools, a group that eventually became known as the Metro Student Council Ambassadors. At a youth summit, the consensus for a big project was to feed the hungry.

The idea of using the Fargodome as the venue for collecting donations came from its iconic stature – filling the dome with food would make a really big statement, and a great visual for news reports.

After all, these kids, who use text messages and Facebook posts as organizational tools, are media savvy.

In fact, a national television appearance last year on ABC’s “Good Morning America” helped spur this year’s Fill the Dome to vastly exceed the original, which collected 40 tons of food and no financial donations.

Somehow along the way it became fashionable – dare we say cool? – to get involved.

“It just gets spread out,” says Joe Burgum, a sophomore at Fargo Oak Grove High School and one of the leaders in this year’s Fill the Dome. “People get the word out. They care about things like this.”

Burgum’s involvement in Fill the Dome stems from his earlier participation in Pay It Forward tours, bus trips with an itinerary of helping out at churches, food pantries, youth clubs and the like.

“Kids go on these and come back changed,” Burgum says. “What these tours do is amazing.”

The tours are the brainchild of Students Today Leaders Tomorrow, headed by Greg Tehven, who serves as an adult adviser to Fill the Dome.

Why was this year’s drive so successful?

“From my perspective, the community started to listen to the youth,” Tehven says. “The community started to follow the youth.”

Big sponsors, including Hornbacher’s and Dakota Medical Foundation, were inspired by what the kids accomplished and wanted to help them do even more.

Mariah Rud, a senior at Fargo South High School and another leader of Fill the Dome, tallied more than 600 hours of time contributed by kids during the two days of collecting food – the tip of an iceberg that included many hours of advance preparation.

There’s a large overlap of students who are involved in Fill the Dome, Homeless and Hungry, the Youth Summit and other projects.

The result is both a network and a sense of shared mission that helps to fuel other projects, as activism begets new forms of activism, Rud says.

“I think it’s this huge deal of one event after another,” she says. “They all just kind of time in together and they’re all youth-oriented.”

A sort of social infrastructure – a blending of countless church groups, school groups and civic organizations –undergirds the youth activism that has become so prevalent, says Barry Nelson, director of the Metro Youth Partnership.

“I think there is a culture of activism that has been evolving for the past few years,” he says. Because the culture now is so engrained and dispersed, he’s confident youth activism will continue at a high level.

In Nelson’s early dealings with the Fill the Dome leaders, he restrained his impulse to remind them of the daunting challenge they were taking on. The students showed the grown-ups what could be done.

“I’ve dropped the term future leaders when talking about younger people today,” he adds. “They’re leading now.”

Missy Sobolik of the Great Plains Food Bank, the beneficiary of the food and money collected by Fill the Dome, says the project has spawned untold smaller spinoffs.

As an example, she mentioned Cassie Rich, a Fargo South High school student, who was inspired by that effort to follow up with a solo act. She worked to raise money to buy Christmas gifts for 17 homeless children.

Just how many Cassie Riches are there in the area?

“There’s a lot of them,” Sobolik says. She’s already heard excited talk from students eager to make next year’s Fill the Dome bigger and better.

“I hope that continues,” she says. “I think the interest is out there. The challenge is how to do it.”

Previous winners

2007: Tracy Briggs, lead organizer of the Honor Flights and WDAY radio personality

2006: Joseph Chapman, North Dakota State University president

Person of the Year someone who influenced F-M area

The Forum Area Person of The Year recognizes someone who sparked changes and discussion that most influenced our area this past year.

Much like Time magazine’s Person of the Year, The Forum’s selection was made by editors after receiving readers’ suggestions.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522