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There’s a group of young volunteers who have exceeded expectation and smashed stereotypes for more than a decade in La Crosse — all while keeping others safe and keeping a low profile.They’ve also worked collaboratively and taken leadership — all the while standing in some frigid weather.

That may not fit what you think of college-age students these days, and that’s both unfortunate and unfair.

Regardless, that’s why it’s important to point out the success story of Operation: River Watch in La Crosse.

The program was started in 2006 after a series of drownings in the Mississippi River off Riverside Park.

Each death was linked to excessive alcohol use, often walking from downtown before ending up in the river.

It was an unsettling time for our community — and it certainly didn’t help our reputation.

But what if someone were standing in the park who could keep watch? What if someone could turn an inebriated person back from the river and headed toward safety?

That’s how Operation: River Watch got started.

Students from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Viterbo University and Western Technical College helped organize and recruit volunteers to keep watch along the river on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

Of course, after a series of river drownings, it was easy to recruit student volunteers — many of whom knew victims.

But 2006 was a long time ago — and, thankfully, our community has healed a great deal from those awful deaths.

But that’s not merely by accident.

Each year, at least 700 students from the three campuses volunteer in three-hour shifts to patrol the riverfront. There could be as few as two students on patrol or, during Oktoberfest, there could be up to 75.

It’s interesting to note students turned around 1,200 people the first year of operation. So far this school year, the number is 354, organizers report.

Most of the people who are confronted respectfully leave the park. In fact, organizers say they’ve only had to call police to intervene with a total of 50 people during the past 12 years.

Maybe the best part is that the initiative has been led, sustained and staffed by students from all three campuses.

It has taken a lot of hard work, organization and passion.

The duty is dark, chilly and hardly glamorous.

The group held a commemorative event last week, and their dedication is truly worth celebrating.

We’re a safer community because of these student volunteers.

They deserve our thanks.


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