Holmen students attending the Academy on the Prairie gave residents staying at the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester a warm Christmas. Under the guidance of alternative education teacher Keri Grokowsky and with school district and community support, students made blankets and prepared and served a community dinner to those staying at the house.
The Ronald McDonald House provides a home-like place to stay at low or no cost to families that have a hospitalized child. Eliminating housing concerns for the family allows parents to focus on their child’s treatment and health.
The idea to bring some holiday cheer to those families is something Growkowsky has wanted to do for almost 12 years. The Grokowsky family experienced the house’s hospitality when her infant son had heart surgery at 10 days old and again as a one year old.
“I have looked for ways to give back to the place that took care of us in our time of need,” said Grokowsky. “The Ronald McDonald House isn’t just a place to stay; it’s known as, ‘the house that love built’ and it’s true.”
During her years as alternative education teacher with Holmen, Grokowsky’s students have taught her that simply telling them they matter is less effective than engaging them in service activities.
“If you want them to believe it and internalize it, you have to give them opportunities to matter,” said Grokowsky. “I am always seeking ways to get my students involved in the community and opportunities for them to serve others. This particular group really enjoys our volunteer projects, and these opportunities bring out the best in them. When we are volunteering, they know that they are making a difference. The ongoing goal of all of these projects is to build leadership skills, confidence and self-esteem.”
The service project started with the idea of serving a meal at the house, and Grokowsky believed her students “could pull it off.”
“It’s something I always think about doing with my students, but to drive to Rochester and prepare a meal for up to 42 families is a huge undertaking,” said Grokowsky. “When I first posed the idea back in early October, there was no hesitation; every student was onboard 100 percent and their excitement has never wavered.”
And then, the students were willing to go beyond serving a community meal. They decided to add making fleece blankets to take to the house when they visited on Dec. 20 to the project.
“One of the more literal ways the Ronald McDonald House wraps its occupants in love is by providing a fleece tie blanket as a comfort and keepsake for every child who stays there,” said Grokowsky. “My students and I decided that we wanted to make some tie blankets to help the house continue this tradition.”
In taking on the project, the students set about to raise funds. To let potential supporters know about the project, the students created a video that was shown to Holmen High School staff.
“Once we had decided to add the blanket component of the project, we knew we could provide the manpower, but we did not have the funds to purchase the fleece,” said Grokowsky. “We had originally hoped to raise enough money to make 15 to 20 blankets. However, we were completely overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. In just a little over a week, high school staff and students helped us raise enough money to make almost 40 blankets. At that point, we decided it would be extra special if we could make a total of 42 blankets. There are 42 rooms in the Rochester house, so we wanted to be able to donate a blanket for every room.
“A few friends outside of the school district eagerly donated the remaining funds we needed, and we completed all 42 blankets to take with us on the 20th.”
With the support of the school district and community, the students set to work on the blankets.
“Their excitement, perseverance, and hard work have been nothing short of amazing,” said Grokowsky. “In just one week, the students put in over 10 hours making blankets. We spent about six hours of class time working on them, but students also volunteered to come in on a Saturday for four hours to make sure we completed them all. They took the job seriously, were focused and efficient, and were able to complete the blankets at a great pace. I never imagined we would be able to complete this many in such a short amount of time.”
Through her and her family’s stay at the RMH, Grokowsky found the home-away-from-home housing provides more than just a place to stay. Along with groups coming in to provide the community dinners twice a week, the staff works to ensure the residents receive support in other ways.
“Everything about the house is designed to take care of family’s physical needs as well as to provide emotional support, encouragement and love for all who stay there,” said Grokowsky. “In the front entry of the house, there are mailboxes for each room. Staff place some sort of ‘day brightener’ in the boxes each day to provide a bit of hope or cheer for the families as they come and go from the hospital. I know how much those small bits of happiness meant to our family when we were there.”
When they were given the option of putting their blankets in the house’s storage area or into the mailboxes, the class decided to put the blankets in the entryway, matching a blanket to a child in the room from a list the students received.
The meal’s menu consisted of three homemade soups, a salad and fresh baked bread. The dessert was “frost your own” cut-out sugar cookies purchased from Linda’s Bakery in West Salem. Funds for the supplies for the community meal were received through a grant from Thrivent Financial.
Along with the shopping, cooking and serving the meal, the students had to wash dishes and do other cleanup. The group returned to Holmen around 9:30 p.m. after having left Holmen at 9:30 a.m.
“It was a long day for the students, but none of them complained,” said Grokowsky. “They were truly excited and engaged in every part of the day. In fact, every single student is determined that we go back and do this again in the spring.”
Feedback about the project from the students indicates they gained a bit of insight through the experience. After visiting with several patients and their families, junior Nikki Tolvstad says she learned, “You don’t know how strong you are until being strong is your only option.”
Sophomore Tyler Luhman said the experience was, “the opportunity of a life-time,” and other students agreed that not many people get the chance to do what they did. Senior Payton Liebig says that the experience taught her that helping others actually helped her too.
Grokowsky’s program has seven students, sophomores through seniors, who attend classes in the Oak Grove School building on Brice Prairie. During the visit to Rochester, the group wore matching Academy on the Prairie shirts with the quote “None of us is as strong as all of us” printed on the back, and Grokowsky believes her class realized the true meaning of the statement.
“While this may have been my dream, it is not something I could have accomplished on my own,” said Grokowsky, “but working together, we surpassed our own expectations and accomplished something truly remarkable. It was a wonderful way to head into the holidays with a clear reminder of what really matters and a stronger belief in our collective ability to make a difference.”