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More than 45 students and their family members have utilized the Jefferson High School food shelf, including (left to right) Lydia Grommish, Danielle Determan and Elias Hanson. (Photo by Caroline Roers)

A spark bursts into a steady flame

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In the winter of 2011, the Hanson residence looked just as it had for the past decade, but inside was a different story.

Unpaid gas and electricity bills caused the pipes to freeze, spraying a freezing mist over the inside of the house.

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In the corner, Elias Hanson sat shivering, huddled beneath five blankets. As his stomach rumbled, his mind raced through images of how different his life was.

Unlike his friends, Elias never knew for certain that dinner would be on the table or if he would be able to take a hot shower that night. He was not able to take driver's training because he couldn't afford it and was rarely able to go out.

During his senior year in high school, while everyone in his class was worried about where they were going to college, Elias had something much simpler on his mind - food.

Food is such a basic need, and yet it was something that Elias worried about every day.

It wasn't until the Jefferson High School (JHS) food shelf was created that he was finally able to worry about his future instead of his stomach.

"If I didn't have those bags of food each week, I probably wouldn't have been eating more than a meal or two a day that last half of my senior year," he said, thankfulness swimming in every word.

Hanson was one of 10 students that the JHS food shelf provided for last year.

Because of the generosity of the community though, the food shelf has been able to expand to be a support fund to help the variety of needs financially struggling students have.

A DRIVE TO HELP

The JHS food shelf was started by students from Chris Kragenbring's On Track combination course at JHS. The course is for students struggling for a variety of reasons.

As part of the class, the students did service projects throughout the year, like helping at the United Way food drive. And though they had exceeded fundraising expectations, the students were still energized to help as the year was winding down.

So they began brainstorming ideas and they came across a need that was not being addressed in high school: food.

"There are some programs for students, but most are elementary school based," Kragenbring said. "Just because a kid transferred out of elementary school and middle school doesn't mean their family just got food all of a sudden."

So with only a few months remaining before the end of the school year, the On Track students vigorously wrote grant requests and talked to service organizations.

Because of their hard work and dedication, the JHS food shelf was opened in May of 2012.

The original idea was that financially struggling students would come into the food shelf every Friday and receive a pre-packed bag of food that had enough meals in it for a few days. Due to transportation issues and the inconsistent need, the system changed to an as-needed basis, where students fill their own bag with what they need.

"When these students started the food shelf last year, it was when most of their classmates were going through senioritis, but they just kept on working because they had the drive to help," Kragenbring said in admiration. "That is what is so cool about these kids. They have all these struggles and so many difficult things in their life, but they still want to give back. They may not be giving back in dollars, but they give their time on a regular basis, and that speaks volumes."

A BUD BLOSSOMING

A month after creating the food shelf, those students graduated.

Danielle Determan, one of the seniors who created the food shelf, recalled how they were "scared and skeptical to leave the food shelf" because they had worked so hard on it and they didn't know what was going to happen.

But instead of fizzling out like many of the students thought it might, it did something quite different - it blossomed.

"The generosity of the community has truly kept the food shelf going," Kragenbring said. "When I go out and talk to the community about the struggle students go through, people aren't happy. I think it is this awareness and emotion that rallied the community together. They truly have been more welcoming then I ever thought possible. I don't know what would have happened without their support."

Because of the donations of 14 churches, six businesses, five service organizations and 20 individuals, as of January of 2013, the food shelf was able to expand to a support resource that helps fund the variety of needs financially struggling students have. This includes handing out Rainbow Rider passes and bikes for students whose families don't have transportation and paying for a family's garbage service.

The funds also are used to help students who are in emergency situations.

Recently, Kragenbring became aware of a JHS student that had been living out of her car for three days because of family circumstances. Because of the Student Support Fund, Kragenbring was able to get her a hotel room, a $50 grocery card and put gas in her car.

"Without this money to go to I would have cried and said I'm sorry, I don't know how to help you. But we don't have to shrug our shoulders or put our hands up and feel sad. We can say 'we have a fund for that' - I think that that is my favorite line now-a-days," Kragenbring laughed.

MORE THAN JUST FOOD

While the food shelf provides food and vital resources to students, it has helped them with much more than just that - it has given them stability and hope for the future.

"Before moving to Alexandria I didn't have big hopes for my future," said JHS senior, Lydia Grommish. "I was planning on going to Job Core and then I didn't know. I was mostly just worried about what I was going to eat and my mom - I wasn't thinking about after high school at all."

Without much else than the clothes on their backs, Lydia and her mom moved to Alexandria about a year ago to escape domestic violence. In the past year, the food shelf and resource fund have become important resources for Lydia.

"Alexandria has been freeing. Not just because they have provided us with the resources I need but because I simply don't have to worry," Lydia said, a sigh of relief escaping her lips.

Because the student support fund helped take away some basic worries, Lydia was able to focus on school and her future. Because of her hard work and dedication she will be attending the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth in the fall on a full scholarship.

"I don't think the community or the students realize how much they help these students by providing them food and taking away some of the basic worries that they have," Kragenbring said.

Without the food shelf, Lydia and the other 44 students, parents and siblings would not have the opportunities they have today.

Though it was the students that sparked the idea for the JHS food shelf, it has been the generosity of the community that has kept the flame going and provided it the fuel to grow.

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