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TrekNorth students volunteer in Bemidji and beyond

From left, TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School seniors Axel Ross, Alex Larsen, Sonja Clemenson, Hillaree Hampson and Lindsay Anderson prepare a meal at the Damiano Center in Duluth where they served last fall. Submitted Photo

Offering a helping hand, or at times even just a friendly smile, TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School students are reaching out to people in need.

Through the school's Service Learning Program, students have the opportunity to volunteer across town, across the state and across the Midwest.

This week as part of National Volunteer Week, the school is recognizing more than 100 of its 160 students who have volunteered approximately 2,775 hours since October.

"I think a lot of people don't know just how easy it is," said sophomore Anna-Lena Zillig, a foreign exchange student from Germany, about volunteering.

At TrekNorth, students must earn three service learning credits before they graduate.

TrekNorth has emphasized community service since the school opened in 2003, said Erica Harmsen, an English teacher who coordinates the Service Learning Program.

Every year, for example, students travel to Itasca State Park to help with bud capping.

"It's just one little way to help protect the trees in our area," eighth-grader Hannah Marty said.

This school year, students have volunteered weekly at agencies in Bemidji, including Headstart, Bemidji Housing and Redevelopment Authority, Neilson Place and Paul Bunyan Senior Activity Center. In May, students also will volunteer at the Bemidji Soup Kitchen.

In the fall, TrekNorth offered service learning trips monthly to Minneapolis, and since October, the school has offered monthly service learning trips to Duluth. Also, TrekNorth takes 12-14 students to Chicago each year on an urban immersion service trip.

On the trips, activities include packaging food for children in developing countries, playing games with the elderly and children, cleaning shelters and preparing and serving meals to people who are homeless.

Harmsen said students' perceptions of people who are homeless and other people have crumbled as they talk with people on the trips.

While in Chicago, senior Ashlee Jallen met people who had a college education, but were homeless because of the current economic situation.

"And that was kind of an eye-opener to us," she said.

Jallen said the number of people who are homeless in Chicago also was an eye-opener. That number, she said, is 22,000 people per night.

"That's everyone in Bemidji doubled," Jallen said.

Marty said it's the little things the students do - just saying "Hi" or offering a friendly smile - that brightens the day of the people they serve.

The students said the people they serve have been grateful for their help.

"If I was put in their position, I would want someone to help me, too," freshman Brenda Cecena said.

Zillig said her best experience in the United States is TrekNorth and its Service Learning Program. She said community service is not common in Germany, "especially in school."

Harmsen said the ultimate goal of the Service Learning Program is to create caring and concerned citizens who desire to help their communities and work toward change.

During the next school year, the program will be more locally based, Harmsen said.

She said students will be out in their own community serving the needs of the community.