Feb. 12, 2007

Lester Prairie task force encourages healthy values in area youth

By Linda Scherer
Staff Writer

The Lester Prairie Community Task Force on Children and Adolescents is a group made up of civic and religious leaders. It meets the third Tuesday of the month to discover ways to encourage healthy growth and development in its area youth.

The task force grew out of concern for Lester Prairie children encountering problems at school, at home, and life in general. It wants to keep the lines of communication open with the area youth, letting them know there are responsible adults who can share their worries and concerns, before they become insurmountable.

“Our kids have a tougher time these days because they have so many pressures put on them,” Rev. Sherri L. Sandoz of Bethel Lutheran Church said. “They have pressure to achieve academically, there is pressure from their parents and there is peer pressure greater than there has ever been through the media.”

The group began in the spring of 2005 and started with four pastors meeting in Lester Prairie: Sandoz, currently the head of the task force, Pastor Bill Baldwin of Prairie Community Church, Rev. Eric Nelson of St. Paul Lutheran Church, and Rev. Gerald Schwanke of St. Peter Lutheran Church.

From there, school officials and various members of the community who work with the Lester Prairie youth became involved. Mayor Eric Angvall was one of the first to join the task force and is a strong supporter.

The very first meeting was a brainstorming session, where many ideas resulted in a number of new programs and activities that have been successful. The frequency of the different events provide youth access to adults and make conversation a normal and easy component while participating in fun and different activities with children their own age.

“We try to stay closely tuned in to what is going on in school. We are concerned about bullying and truancy. Harassment is huge. The school keeps us apprised of what the concerns are to the extent that we can address it,” Sandoz said.

One of the bigger programs, and the one Sandoz is the most proud of, is the four churches in Lester Prairie and Harvest Community Church of Winsted providing free noon meals to students one day a month.

“We take turns going from church to church providing lunch for whoever wants to come,” Sandoz said. “We have been averaging about 85 kids. We have had good cooperation at the school. The school cafeteria people are under notice when this happens.”

The students are bussed to the church in two groups, the junior high and then the senior high, because they have staggered lunch hours.

The primary purpose of the get-together is to let the kids know they are valued and there is someone available that they can talk to.

With the same idea as the noon meals, the different churches invite students to be part of retreats offered at school, but that take place in Lester Prairie churches, with professional groups that come and work with students on self-esteem issues.

Since the task force began, they have seen a mentorship program emerge, and a parent network letting parents know what their kids are doing.

A peace building group is made up of children in the first grade through the ninth grade who meet after school one afternoon a week and work to build peace within the school. Bullying is an example of an issue that the children have worked to resolve.

Another popular program that evolved from the task force is providing someplace for the students in seventh through 12th grade to go, and something for them to do in the evening. There have been concerts, dances, and movie night, where the older students host events for the younger ones.

Speakers have been invited to the school who share real-life experiences. One woman speaker had attended school at Columbine High School at the time of the Columbine shooting. Another was a recovering drug addict who told his story.

Another positive idea that came from the task force was writing news articles published in the area newspaper with suggestions for healthy family activities, and raising a healthy family.

An open forum was planned four times a year, but only one actually took place. It was on underage drinking. Of all of the cities around Lester Prairie that have held open forums, this one was the most successful having the most people in attendance.

Financially, the task force has received donations from a number of supporters. The Lions Club has taken an interest in the program and has donated funds to the task force. Through McLeod County, a 3M grant to be used for the purpose of helping children was also obtained.

“We are discovering that it does take a village to raise a child,” Sandoz said. “We need all of the generations involved, including our elderly. In fact, that is where some of our neatest connections occur. We just need to nurture and foster those relationships as much as we can.”

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