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MSU Staff Leadership: Serving unrecognized needs in our community

What began as 10 participants in a professional development class has grown into a lifelong bond, fused by a common mission of helping kids they most likely will never meet.

In late October, the College of Business invited MSU staff members to participate in a leadership development initiative. Participation was limited, and class requirements included developing a community service project. The group tossed around several ideas, when Cheryl Merck shared that a student in a local elementary school told a classmate that he didn't like long weekends because there was not enough food to eat at home.

With that, the group's focus became laser sharp, and the Minot Backpack Buddies Program was born.

The backpack program will provide nonperishable food items for students in grades k-5, who are at risk of missing meals on weekends. Fifty Sunnyside Elementary students will receive a backpack each Friday from Sept. to May that will provide six weekend meals. Sunnyside's selection was based on the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced meals.

The weekly cost of each backpack is $4.45 per child, or $165 per year. Throughout next year, over 11,000 meals will be provided to students. The class investigated grant possibilities for first-year funding and during her research, Lynda Bertsch was encouraged to contact the Souris Valley United Way. Vicki Troftgruben was invited to attend a meeting for The Welcome Table, a local nonprofit affiliated with The Lord's Cupboard Food Pantry.

"Vicki and I went to The Welcome Table meeting and to explain what we wanted to do," said Merck. "They were onboard from the beginning, and it kind of exploded from there."

The Welcome Table agreed to provide food items for the backpack program, and in April, SVUW presented $10,000 to jump-start fundraising. Backpacks will be assembled weekly by Minot State University clubs and organizations, as well as community volunteers.

"Initially we figured a group a month would be needed to stuff the backpacks. But interest is so high that we are filling our calendar with new volunteers every two weeks," Bertsch said.

Although class ends in May, the commitment will continue.

"This became more than just a class project," Chad Fenner said. "We are friends for life."

MSU Staff Leadership members are Lynda Bertsch, Dianne Bossert, Chad Fenner, Sammi Gilbert, Cheryl Merck, Beth Odahlen, Aubrey Stevens, Vicki Troftgruben, Laurie Weber and Kristin Wood. The group adviser is Deanna Klein, MSU professor.

Throughout the summer, members will fundraise to sustain and grow the program to serve more children in need. Donations of any amount can be mailed to Backpack Buddies, c/o The Welcome Table, P.O. Box 716, Minot, N.D. 58702. Interested persons can also access more information online at www.thewelcometableminot.org.