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Empathy is the lesson as Moorhead students set up Spud Closets

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Jaimeson Dunlap (left) and Mohamed Hashim, both 6th graders at Horizon Middle School in Moorhead, help stock shelves at Spud Store, a place where students in need can find toiletries, clothing and more. Tracy Briggs/The Forum
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MOORHEAD — It's a common saying around the halls of Moorhead High School, especially when something great happens, like the hockey team makes it to state or the speech team wins nationals: "It's a Great Day to be a Spud." But the student bodies of both Moorhead High School and Horizon Middle School are helping even the most ordinary of days be great days for Spuds in need.

This year, both schools have opened student-run stores which provide bare essentials to students who might need them — things like toiletries, food, coats and school supplies.

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"I think every school has someone who is handing out toothpaste or deodorant, notebooks, paper and winter gear. Sadly, I think that's true, and there are kids that need all of this stuff," said Audrey Erickson, a history teacher and adviser for the National Honor Society, the organization which runs the Spud Closet at MHS.

Erickson was inspired to open the store at MHS because she saw a similar effort done at Fargo North where her own children attended. She says over the summer, the incoming seniors of the National Honor Society visited North High's "Open Door" program to learn how it's run. Since then, students have been putting in hours shopping for necessities, organizing donations and building shelves and racks to hold donated items.

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Moorhead High Seniors Amelia Bjorklund (left) and Brock Klimek put together a rack to hang donated clothes in Spud Closet. Tracy Briggs/The Forum

If a student needs something, all they need to do is ask a counselor and a request is put in. Then the student can anonymously go into the Spud Closet and pick up their item.

Sophomore Timothy Frye has stopped by the closet to pick up food to eat during the day at school and has sometimes taken food home for his family. He's also looking for a belt to go with pants he has that "keep falling down." He's says he's grateful that the Spud Closet is here.

"I think it's a really good program," Frye said. "I'm glad they started it. It just helps to have food we can eat."

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Senior Brock Klimek, who works at Hornbacher's grocery store, is experienced at stocking shelves and puts the skill to use in the Spud Closet, where he says it's worth the time he puts in.

"As Mrs. Erickson says, it's life-changing for some students. It helps them focus on their education and not have to work all the time...or be like, 'I can't afford this, I can't be hygienic or I can't afford to eat,'" Klimek said.

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Horizon Middle School sixth graders pose in front of Spud Store. Tracy Briggs/The Forum

The effort to help fellow students in need has also spread to the middle school, where Stacie Gregoire and other teachers help run The Spud Store. Gregoire says about 90 students have put in time helping organize donations, even taking turns washing donated clothes that come in. Like the high school program, Horizon's program simply requires the student in need ask a teacher or counselor for something, but unlike the high school, the middle schoolers package up the requested items and hand deliver them to the student in his or her classroom.

Gregoire says they were concerned at first about privacy issues or students receiving the items getting teased. But, she says, the absolute opposite has happened. She says the students who work on the project have come to understand being in need can happen to anyone at any time, and they actually become protective of those they're helping.

"It made my year, actually, to watch them become so empathetic, so concerned and determined to make sure that all the kids in this building are taken care of," Gregoire says.

She says one of the biggest hits over the holiday season was fleece blankets. The students took turns making them for others.

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Addison Hoefer (left) and Charlie Zimmerman, sixth graders at Horizon Middle School, help make fleece blankets for the Spud Store. Tracy Briggs/The Forum

Gregoire and Erickson says it's nice that some of the students volunteering to work in the closet are also those that sometimes need the items. And they say it's gratifying when students who come to pick up needed items also leave notes expressing their gratitude.

One note read, "Thank you for helping me keep my family warm and healthy." Another thanked the group for purchasing a swim suit the student needed for phy-ed.

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Students who receive items from Spud Closet and Spud Store will often write thank you notes showing their appreciation. Tracy Briggs/The Forum

Moorhead High National Honor Society President Talia Williams says the first year has gone well, and they hope the Spud Closet will continue in the coming years, long after her senior class has graduated. Erickson is already looking ahead to what happens with the construction of a new Moorhead High School building in the next year, with dedicated space for The Spud Closet.

"I'm thinking someday it would be nice to have a refrigerator in here to stock with fruits and vegetables for students to take," she says.

One of the students who might get to work in the new high school's Spud Closet is Carson Olschlager, a sixth grader who now helps at Horizon and seems to echo the thoughts of many of the students involved in the project.

"I just like to help out other people to make them comfortable and have the stuff they need," he said.

How can you help?

Erickson says right now they are most in need of toiletry items and laundry detergent in The Spud Closet. She says they would also accept donations of gift cards from places like Target and Walmart, where they can buy some of the items they most need.

(Moorhead High School student Laura Jensen contributed to this story).

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Tracy Briggs is a News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 30 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
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