Spreading a little bit of kindness

Hannah Burlingame photos/Review • A gym at Somerset Elementary School in Mendota Heights was turned into an assembly line Feb. 14 as students filled sack lunches for a pop-up homeless shelter that will be in West St. Paul.

Hannah Burlingame photos/Review • Students made sandwiches with the help of parent volunteers that went into sack lunches, filling the bags with other goodies like fruit and chips.

Somerset Elementary students participate in Kindness Day.

In a loud, packed gym, students at Somerset Elementary School in Mendota Heights had a different kind of Valentine’s Day. 

Rather than a school-wide celebration on Feb. 14, the students participated in Kindness Day where they packed sack lunches for a pop-up homeless shelter that will be at St. Stephen’s Church in West St. Paul.

“We wanted to make something that was accessible for all and didn’t exclude any of our students who maybe didn’t have access to valentines, or our kids with food allergies who may not be able to enjoy any of the treats that came in,” said Principal Libby Huettl. “We wanted to focus on the true meaning of the holiday, instead of focusing on candy.”

Huettl said school staffers were trying to think of different service projects. It started with each grade level having their own project, like making cards for transitional care facilities. 

The thoughts turned to what the school could do collectively, and that’s when the idea of packing meals came into play. Physical education teacher Tracy Westman, who attends St. Stephen’s, mentioned the pop-up homeless shelter.

Westman said that on Feb. 4, someone from Matrix Housing Services spoke to her congregation about the upcoming pop-up overnight emergency shelter. This will be the second time the church has hosted such a shelter, which stays up for about two weeks and moves to different churches in Dakota County. 

“On Sunday, she mentioned something about lunches and it was like God said ‘I know what we can do,’” Westman said.

The next day she brought it up to school leadership and they ran with it. The shelter will see about 60 to 70 guests a night, so the anticipated 350 lunches will be enough to cover three days.

Matrix put together a video for the kids explaining what the pop-up shelters are. The shelter gives people a matt, pillow, sheets and a blanket to sleep on in a gym. Towels and supplies are provided for showers. The shelter, which is open overnight, serves dinner and breakfast. The sack lunches will help provide a meal for people when they leave the shelter in the morning. 

Westman said she loves that this year the school wanted to step away from the traditional Valentine’s Day and find a way to give back.

“This is just great. It’s really cool to see students, to see my kids here giving back to people in the community,” Westman said.

All the food that went into the lunches was donated by Somerset families. Huettl said all donation needs were filled within 24 hours of the request going out.

“This Somerset community really is looking for opportunities to give back to the greater community, and what can we do to instill those values in our kids,” Huettl said. “By providing that opportunity through the school, it was something parents were really in support of.”

Every 30 minutes, six parent volunteers helped a group of students fill sack lunches that contained two sandwiches, two fruit items, a bag of chips and cookies. Once students finished filling a sack lunch, they created cards to be put in the bags.

Jennifer Kellogg, parent of a third-grader at Somerset, said she was super excited when she got the email from Huettl looking for volunteers and donations.

“I thought it was a great idea because I think it gives the kids outward focus,” she said.

Kellogg said while her child was a little disappointed by the non-traditional Valentine’s Day, she thinks he will be super excited once he goes through the process. 

The Kindness Day will have lasting impacts for the kids and the community, Kellogg said.

Dani and Gavin, both fourth-graders, said they thought it was good to give back to the community. Dani said it was nice giving those who will be at the shelter food and an opportunity to smile.

Said Gavin, “It’s fun to pack the stuff because you know you’re giving to the right people.”


– Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com

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