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Hats for Mercedes

BEMIDJI -- Seven-year-old Kaleisha Preston sat in her classroom proudly wearing a camouflage military-style hat, even though caps are typically disallowed in local elementaries.

"When my grandpa died, I got it," the first-grader said of her special hat. "It's my favorite."

A fundraiser was held throughout the community's elementary schools Friday as families were encouraged to send their kids to school in hats along with donations to go toward a memorial to honor Mercedes Mayfield, the 6-year-old Bemidji girl who froze to death in late February.

Her former classmates in Kim Bolte's first-grade classroom at J.W. Smith Elementary -- the school Mercedes attended for a year and a half before moving and transferring to Horace May -- recalled her kindness as they generously donated toward the project.

"She was my very first friend," said Lily Tritle, wearing a blue hat made out of camel fur.

Lily brought $21 to school for the project.

"My mom gave me a $20 bill," Lily said, adding she herself contributed the next $1.

Twenty-five students are in Ms. Bolte's class. Nearly all of them showed up Friday morning wearing hats.

"Some forgot, so they started making themselves paper crowns," she said.

Ball caps, tiaras and self-made creations were all visible in the classroom Friday morning as the first-graders were joined by their third-grade reading buddies.

"I didn't know her, but I really care about her," said Reina Stone, a third-grader who was reading with Lily Tritle. Reina said it was incredibly sad what happened to Mercedes and she wanted to take part in the event. She wore a fuzzy bomber hat and donated money to the cause.

Mercedes was found by her mother on the front step outside her apartment complex at about 6:30 a.m. Feb. 27. She was apparently outside of her apartment all night in temperatures at about 19 below zero. Her 22-year-old cousin, Rachel Downer, has been charged with second-degree manslaughter in connection with her death.

J.W. Smith and Horace May both had crisis teams in place to help students and staff following the tragedy.

Mercedes' name was not officially released until March 14, once the investigation was complete, so the school could not volunteer that information to students. However, as the media reported her age and the schools she attended, several students were able to piece the facts together. Once they asked staff if it was in fact Mercedes who had died, the crisis team could confirm it and then work with each student to help him and her through their questions and grief.

"It was tough," Bolte said. "A lot of the girls took it hard."

Lisa Bollinger, a first-grade teacher at Northern Elementary whose students were pen pals with Bolte's students, came up with the idea of raising money toward a memorial for Mercedes at J.W. Smith.

Details are yet to be finalized, but the idea right now would be to plant a tree in her memory and include a bench with her name and photograph.

"We're very supportive" of the effort, said Jim Hess, district superintendent. "It's a great idea to create a lasting memorial for Mercedes."

He said the district is working with its building and grounds crew to identify the best approach to the project.

"We want to make sure it's fitting for the environment and the landscaping at J.W. Smith," he said.

Once plans are finalized, a bench would likely be engraved with Mercedes' name and also display her photo, if her family supports such a venture, Hess said.