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Students offered a ‘Helping Hand’

Rhonda Lageson helps a Century School student with winter gear. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

BY JEAN RUZICKA Closets and drawers in a Century School storage room resemble that of a mini department store. Boots and mittens and coats and hats, underwear and socks and sweatshirts and pants – each organized by size, most still with store tags – await an owner. Move down the aisle to find toiletries and mini Teddy bears, blankets and bedding lining the shelves. Helping Hands founder Rhonda Lageson is the impetus behind this unique “mercantile establishment,” working behind the scenes in the educational institution to assure each child has shoes that fit, a jacket to wear when he or she heads out at recess and a toothbrush. She relies on a broad network of area churches, civic organizations and friends who share talents and funds. Three years ago, Lageson was working with the PTA’s Christmas shopping outreach. Kids purchase gifts for family members at minimal cost. For many, it’s their only holiday shopping excursion. Making conversation with a little girl, Lageson asked if the family’s Christmas tree was up, the holiday just five days away. “We’re being evicted,” the child told Lageson. “What do you say?” she asks, rhetorically. For Lageson, it was a turning point. “I kept hearing stories,” she said. A child’s shoes were duct taped to hold them together. Three brothers were sharing a single coat, trading it when it was time for recess. Kids were skipping milk because the family couldn’t afford the 25-cent cost. “My heart goes out to these innocent children. I knew the need… But I hadn’t focused on it.” She came to the realization – “I’m going to help these families.” And the outreach would expand beyond the holiday season. An avenue of giving The stories, she has come to learn, are “heartbreaking.” A student caught stealing milk to bring home to sisters. A mom who couldn’t afford toilet paper. “How do we expect kids to be ready to learn when they are hungry, have no money for milk, wearing clothing that’s embarrassing, and they can’t go out for recess because they have no coats?” she asks. Sixty percent of the students in grades K-4 qualify for free and reduced lunch, Lageson said. “This is a poor community. And there’s a huge group that doesn’t qualify for free or reduced lunch,” she said of the working poor. “More than one single mom has told me she went backward after getting a job,” Lageson said of losing benefits. Many families don’t have cars, she’d learn. Lageson asked teachers to contact families to see if they would accept assistance during the holidays. Referrals also came from social services and pastors and families referring families. Families benefiting from Helping Hands, she explained, do not receive money but the item itself – snow boots, for example, or a gift card, to buy groceries in many instances. When she put out “the call” for donations Lageson found the response amazing. “People I didn’t know, from out of state sending checks.” The first Christmas, she did all the shopping for 12 referred families – four days’ worth – buying healthy foods and clothes, with each child receiving a toy. “I wanted to keep helping,” she said of the evolution of the project. She began speaking to civic and church groups. As people became aware of Helping Hands, more decided to lend that helping hand. Forty people arrived the third year of the holiday event to wrap the presents. Many Lageson had not met. She learned she was providing an outlet for giving. “I want to help, but I didn’t know how,” was an oft heard comment. A man gave her $100, telling her, “I was that boy you’re buying tennis shoes for.” This past Christmas, she stepped back a bit, asking organizations to choose families and wrap presents for the families referred by staff. Huge change in kids’ lives Meanwhile, she continues her role as the diva of distribution. Last year, more than $10,000 worth of goods was given to children and families in need. “All donations,” Lageson said of the funding sources, which include grants and gifts from churches, civic groups and businesses. Within an hour’s time last week, she had met with six kids at Century, handing out boots, socks and winter gear. St. Joseph’s held a school supply drive with “wonderful” results, she said of the “tons of socks and underwear” arriving. She recalled a middle school girl’s heels bleeding because her shoes were too small, remedied by Helping Hands, which has distributed over 200 pairs of shoes in the past three years. “Seeing those kids at recess makes me smile.” The Lions have assisted with purchasing glasses for children. Park Avenue School of Cosmetology provides free gift cards for students in need of a haircut. A recent plea for bikes and beds was met with the donations. The bikes are not simply for recreation, but as a means of transportation to school this summer for the free breakfasts and lunches served, she explained. Lageson recently met a mother at a store to purchase treatment for head lice. Because many don’t have cars, Helping Hands provides bus passes. And she recently transported someone to a doctor’s appointment. A log is kept of students’ names, teachers and articles distributed. “We’ve helped 150 kids this year, not counting milk tickets.” Helping Hands, she explained, is an initiative separate from the PTA. It is, however, a designated fund under the auspices of PTA, “a subsection” of the organization whose role is helping children and families. “The school has been wonderful,” said Lageson, who previously taught high school business classes and keyboarding for elementary age students. And Lageson’s church, Calvary, held a block party this summer as an outreach to residents of the middle school apartment dwellers. “But I’d love to do so much more,” Lageson said. One of her goals is a backpack program, filling bags with nutritious food for kids to take home for the weekend. “So kids don’t spend weekends hungry.” “I want kids to be happy. To enjoy school. To have shoes that fit. Socks that are clean. A toothbrush. A blanket. Books for students who don’t have them at home. “And self-esteem,” she said, noting this can prevent bullying. She’d like to establish a Helping Hands lunch account for kids who cannot get lunch because their account’s not paid. “Park Rapids is making a huge change in kids’ lives,” she said of the outreach. “Kids know people in this town care about them.” Lageson will speak to groups on opportunities to assist. Donations can be sent to Century PTA with a memo “Helping Hands” on the check and mailed Century PTA, 501 Helten Ave., Park Rapids, MN 56470. To be notified via e-mail of needs and how to donate, contact Lageson at “This is my passion,” she said, inspired by a Bible verse. “To whom much is given, much is expected.”