Rhonda Lageson: Offering more than just a ‘Helping Hand’
As the holiday season approaches it isn’t uncommon for people to find their mood changing a little bit.
The leaves are gone and the weather is cold. The days are getting shorter and the thought of snow is getting old.
Every year many are awarded the annual reminder that it’s a time of year to be thankful for what they have, and to extend a hand to those who may not be as fortunate.
After taking the message to heart while seeing poverty in the eyes of young students at Century elementary and middle schools, five years ago a local Park Rapids resident decided this winter would be different.
She knew a change was necessary within the community she loved and calls home.
That’s when former Parent Teacher Association (PTA) president of 10 years Rhonda Lageson founded a charitable, school-driven program called “Helping Hands.”
As a completely volunteer-run and donation funded program, Helping Hands helps furnish students (and sometimes their family) with the essentials necessary to better facilitate successful learning.
It all started with an idea, good intent and one simple email – forwarded many times.
“I just thought that I have been so blessed; I felt the call to help. It was about a week before Christmas that I sent out an email to my Bible study, my friends list and to my book club basically saying we need to help these kids in any way possible. My only plea was how much we all have and how blessed we all are. Overnight, I raised about $3,000,” Lageson said.
“People just started sending me checks. I would meet random people at the grocery store or gas station that would give me gift cards or other donations. Since I started getting all this money – and I wanted to let people know I was an honest person – I asked the PTA if Helping Hands could help with some the work the PTA did.”
Lageson quickly went to work on creating a separate division of the PTA, designed specifically for Helping Hands and the PTA to cohesively work together in order to accomplish mutual goals.
“Helping Hands works as its own designated fund. When I get money, I turn it in to our treasurer – I don’t keep any of it. She deposits it, we are audited and I have to hand in my receipts,” she said. “We also have a Helping Hands lunch account for students who don’t have an adequate balance or have run up too far of a deficit.”
The program began to gain steam when Lageson saw the number of young students thrown into desolate situations at no fault of their own.
“I see a lot of poverty among the children of our district. It is a real poor county,” she said.
Sixty percent of all students grades K-4 qualify for free and reduced price lunch. There is also a large percentage of students that are right on the border. Those families still pay for their school lunches but they don’t have enough to buy anything extra.
“We have a huge percentage of grandparents raising grandchildren on a fixed income who are really struggling to do their best,” Lageson said.
“I would see kids with shoes that didn’t fit or were duct-taped. I see kids not being able to go outside because they didn’t have hats or mittens. I see some children not being fed because they can’t afford snacks or milk. I heard stories of multiple boys all sharing one winter coat; they’re not coming to school with the proper supplies. I would see all of this poverty and I had to do something.”
In the beginning Lageson provided in-house offerings such as milk tickets and snacks.
Milk tickets cost 35 cents and snacks range anywhere from $4 to $8 for a large box of animal crackers, graham crackers or saltines.
“Just today I got an email from a teacher saying that every day she has 5 to 6 students that don’t get milk because they can’t afford it. So in just one month, I am giving a single teacher about 120 milk tickets,” Lageson said.
Eventually the reserves began to grow. Built solely through unsolicited donations, Lageson and Helping Hands created a supply closet in the PTA room at the Century Middle School packed full of various supplies – entirely for freewill distribution to teachers as the needs arise.
“Teachers will send a student down to the Helping Hands room where I have all of the supplies that everyone has donated up until the last three weeks (which I haven’t even had time to go through yet). They can try on shoes and if we don’t have their size we can probably buy it for them,” she said. “Often times if a student is taken out of a home by Social Services they are not allowed to even grab their backpacks or anything so often times we will help with any supplies they need. When a teacher takes something, they just write it down. If they want something that we don’t have, they’ll write it down and we will try our best to get it for them. If any donated clothing is clean and not ripped I will keep that too.”
“But I don’t want to be a secondhand clothing store, so often I will save only a few select clothes and give the rest to Bearly Used on Main street which serves nearly the same purpose.”
Despite even her best efforts, Lageson knows Helping Hands is only made possible through the various churches, charitable groups and private donations received.
“Park Avenue School of Cosmetology provides coupons for kids to get free haircuts and a church donated some quilts not long ago. The Lions Club, the Legion Auxiliary, the Eagles Auxiliary and a bunch of different churches have all been wonderful,” Lageson said.
As realistic as she was excited, Lageson had no idea she would receive the overwhelming response she did.
“The outpouring of help has been wonderful. This year alone Helping Hands gave out over $12,000 in grants and supplies under a designated fund through the PTA. In the past we would often budget a small amount of money to help students directly through the PTA, but when the money was gone – it was gone,” Lageson said.
“Now I can write a grant every year. I am also realizing that a lot of retired people in the community don’t realize how poor the community is because they don’t have as much interaction with the school and the kids in it. But I have found that if people only know how to help, they are more than willing to.”
Lageson also isn’t looking to stop when the school year ends either.
“I run Helping Hands year ‘round. The school has been wonderful for letting me do it here. In the summer there isn’t as much need because there isn’t as much interaction with the kids, but I would love to be able to have kids at the school over the summer for free breakfast and lunch if needed,” Lageson said.
“We can also help families with food, rent, groceries and clothing. We get all sorts of different requests and referrals mainly from teachers, pastors, Social Services and sometimes friends of families who need help. Since I have been doing it for five years I also know a lot of the families personally.”
However, Lageson does stress that she is not a government aid program. Her help is not mandatory, and at times, there is only so much Helping Hands can do.
“I can think of two families that I helped that I got to know quite well and would call weekly for assistance. Eventually, I had to tell them no a few times because I felt that they were either taking advantage of the program or I was giving them more money that I wanted to help some other families with,” Lageson said.
Lageson isn’t driven by vanity, often humbling her accomplishments by the modest approach of only doing good because it is the right thing to do. She doesn’t seek credit, but rather sees the overwhelming merit in what she does through the eyes of those helped.
“So many kids come from dysfunctional families and a lot of them come from families that are really, genuinely trying to survive. I want kids to be able to come to school not hungry, with clothes that fit and a good self-esteem that is excited about learning. Anything that I can think of to help – I am all in,” Lageson said.
“I should probably try and narrow down my efforts but I just get sucked in to trying to help in as many ways as possible,” Lageson said.