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Community letters inspire students

Sierra Rutledge received a letter from Jean Needham, a mother of three, who offered words of support to the eighth-grader. Rutledge said she was surprised by how personal the letter was.

In an effort to let local youth know they matter, a local group of leaders have started a letter-writing campaign.

The campaign, organized by Gina Knutson, Carol Jones, Patty Schachtner, Gail Buell and Randy Calleja, was an outreach project the group completed as part of the Leadership Trust Initiative, a course sponsored by the New Richmond Area Community Foundation that's designed to teach participants about leadership and help them recognize how they can contribute to the community in a meaningful and fulfilling way.

The idea for the "We Care About Our Incredible Kids Mentoring Project" began after chatting about the ever increasing youth suicide rate. Schachtner is one of the founding members of the St. Croix County Suicide Prevention Task Force.

"If we could just catch one kid who is having bad thoughts..." she said.

Jones said that during their discussions, the story of a young boy who was headed home with a heavy backpack really caught her attention.

"Someone noticed that his backpack was really full and stopped him to ask about it," she said.

It turns out the boy had cleared out his desk so that, after committing suicide, his mom wouldn't need to do it. After being stopped and asked about it, the boy realized people cared about him and he didn't follow through with his plans.

"It just goes to show that one small person can make a big difference," Jones said.

Schachtner said that in a world of technology it's not often that students receive personal letter written specifically to them, so that's how they decided on the letter writing campaign.

"We really wanted to close that gap between the community and the community's youth," Calleja said.

Each eighth-grader in New Richmond, including those at St. Mary's School, received a letter from a community member. That's about 400 total letters, the group said.

Eighth-graders seemed like the logical choice because they're getting ready to transition into high school, which can bring on anxiety, the group said.

"Seniors are the obvious choice, but they have so much going on and more support than the eighth-graders," Jones said.

At the beginning of the project, students were asked to fill out a survey that identified their interests and career goals. That information was used to match the students to a letter writer.

"There were some real fun ones," Schachtner said. "I really enjoyed the handwritten notes from the senior citizens. They totally have faith in the kids. It's so inspiring."

Knutson agreed.

"One of my favorites said something like, 'Back in 1939 when I graduated things were a little different...'" she said with a laugh.

The group said they were impressed with the community and how much effort everyone put into their letters.

"You can really tell people put a lot of thought into their letters," Knutson said.

Schachtner said the messages were some of the same the kids have been hearing from their parents and teachers -- that they do matter and that they are cared for.

"This was another voice telling the kids about the world and about life," Calleja said.

Doug Hatch, middle school principal, told the students that, while many community members are terrified of middle schools students, this group of people was not.

"They understand that you're the future of New Richmond, you're the future of this country," he said. "Use this as the positive that it is to finish the school year on a good note. Think about what kind of legacy you want to leave here."

The letters were distributed to students on Friday, May 3, during their homeroom period.

Students in Kate Geissler's homeroom were surprised to receive the letters.

"That was actually really cool," said Kasee Meyer. "I thought we were in trouble."

For Sierra Rutledge, the letter was really touching.

"Middle school is usually not that important in the eyes of people," she said.

After the homeroom class, many students could be seen comparing letters and discussing their contents. It was clear that many were impressed and touched.

The students will also be given the opportunity to write a return letter to their mentors, Jones said. Most students said they planned to respond. Those letters will be distributed back to the adult letter-writers through the campaign organizers.

"It's just amazing to me that these people, with no ties to the students, took the time -- hours -- to write these letters," Schachtner said.

Jackie Grumish
Jackie Grumish has been a reporter with the New Richmond News since 2008. She holds degrees in journalism and fine art from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill. Before coming to New Richmond, Jackie worked as the city government reporter at a daily newspaper in Aberdeen, S.D. 
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