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BSU students 'pay it forward' during spring break

As spring break approached this year, a group of Bemidji State University students prepared for a big trip out West.

No, they didn't head to the coast for a week on the beach.

The group of 44 traveled hundreds of miles by bus to six cities in North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado where they engaged in service projects.

On the Pay It Forward Tour, organized by the BSU chapter of Students Today Leaders Forever, the students strove to make a difference in the lives of others. Yet, they also saw their own lives impacted.

"It made me realize a lot of things that I wouldn't normally," freshman Sam Johnson said.

STLF, founded in 2003 by four University of Minnesota freshmen, aims to reveal leadership through service, relationships and action. The BSU chapter is one of seven in Minnesota. STLF has a total of 13 chapters on campuses in Minnesota, North Dakota, Illinois, Iowa and Ohio.

The March 7-15 Pay It Forward Tour was the third tour the BSU chapter has offered BSU students in three years.

Junior Kayla Sinning said the students cleaned cemeteries, helped with a recycling program and set up for an Easter celebration in Dickinson, N.D., the tour's first stop.

As the bus traveled further southwest, the students continued making stops along the way to offer a helping hand.

Freshman Natalie Hursey said one project that really impacted students was working with the senior center in Riverton, Wyo., to help senior citizens in the community with raking, window washing and other projects at home.

"One woman wasn't able to clean her house for years," Hursey said. "I think she was just really grateful."

But the students' outreach went deeper than housework and yardwork as they visited with the senior citizens, said Hursey, recalling one woman she met who seemed lonely.

"I think, really, she just wanted someone to talk to," Hursey said.

Gathering in Denver

Before traveling back to Bemidji, the students stopped in Denver for two days.

"That was our celebration city," said sophomore Dan Oswald, a bus leader on the tour.

The BSU bus met up with two other buses of students on Pay It Forward tours. One bus was from Western Illinois University and the other was from Illinois State University.

In Denver, the 109 students from the three tours volunteered at SHARE Colorado, a large food bank that distributes food to people who are homeless and organizations throughout Colorado, senior Blake Bishop said. Although near the end of the trip, the students remained energized.

"The energy was unbelievable," said Bishop, a core leader of the BSU chapter of STLF and a bus leader on the tour.

"The enthusiasm in that room was just something else," Sinning added.

Observations shared

Oswald said it was amazing to see the relationships that began to develop among the students, many who didn't know each other before the tour, as the week progressed.

Johnson agreed.

"Going on the trip I was super, super shy," she said.

But, Johnson said, she got to know many students better.

"You form a relationship that you wouldn't normally," she said. "Meeting all those people, you learn about yourself, too."

Meanwhile, she said she realized on the tour that it really is possible for 44 people on a bus to make a difference.

"It just takes a person to get things started," Johnson said.