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Faribault’s Rylie Starkson tries to skate past Northfield’s Cambria Monson in a game last season at Northfield Ice Arena. The two could become teammates this coming season if a cooperative agreement is reached. (Michael Hughes/Northfield News)

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Neighborhood girls raising money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital

Kids setting up stands on the side of the road – whether it be to sell lemonade, cookies, or crafts – is a quintessential part of the American experience.

For Owatonna’s Gollhofer sisters, 8-year-old Heather and 6-year-old Sammy, they were able to take the iconic roadside stand and combine it with their love of crafts and desire to help other children.

After receiving a bracelet-making kit for Christmas, Heather said that she went a little crazy with making bracelets after one of her aunts showed the girls how. One day when their grandparents were over, Sammy said they suggested the sisters consider selling them to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital.

“St. Jude is a hospital for kids with cancer,” Heather said, explaining all she knows about the research hospital located in the Twin Cities. “I also know that they only will accept donations.”

The mission of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, founded in 1962, is to advance cures and means of prevention for pediatric catastrophic diseases through research and treatment. Consistent with the vision of the hospitals founder Danny Thomas, no child is denied treatment based on race, religion, or the family’s ability to pay. A large majority of the Memphis, Tennessee, hospital’s funding comes from individual contributions. Families treated at St. Jude never receive a bill.

“It’s a good place,” Sammy said.

On Tuesday, the sisters set up a little table in their yard on the corner of 14th Street SE and Hayes Avenue and started selling the gobs of bracelets they had created, ranging from $1 to $3. The girls, along with their neighborhood friends Jillian and Sam who came over to help, agreed that 25% of all their sales would go to the children’s hospital.

“We already have over $50,” Heather said, admitting that the mailman gave them $20 for just one bracelet. “We are going to do this all summer long.”

The parents of both sets of sisters agreed that they are happy to see the girls finding an outlet for their creativity and spare time, saying that they have been together nonstop since they conceived of the project. They added that their kids are brave to put themselves out there as Owatonna’s newest (and youngest) entrepreneurs.

“Business is booming,” said Heather with a laugh.

Virtual 50K to raise money for business recovery program

The Owatonna Parks and Recreation Department is encouraging residents to get off our couch and move – and help out the community along the way.

The Stronger Together 50K virtual competition is aimed at helping people go the distance as we head into the summer months. The event is a collaboration between Parks and Rec, Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism and the Owatonna Business Partnership.

“We had just offered a virtual 5K and thought it would be nice to have something that goes a little bit longer,” said Jessica Abrahams with Parks and Rec, adding that most of their spring and summer programs have been canceled due to COVID-19. “We’ve been seeing other communities hosting virtual color runs, and the chamber has been promoting the ‘stronger together’ theme, so we thought this would be kind of something different that we could offer to get people out and being active.”

From now until June 30, participants can count their daily activities toward their 50K goal — approximately 31 miles — with registration proceeds going toward a new business recovery program. Jumpstart Owatonna, run through the Chamber Foundation, will provide grant dollars and other in-kind services to small businesses as they move through the COVID-19 pandemic and begin to reopen.

Chamber President Brad Meier said that it will serve as a “resource hub” for business owners to find what they need in terms of protective personal equipment, marketing help, and preparing their facilities to provide safe environments for the public.

“We thought that is we’re going to make any proceeds on this, that Jumpstart would be a great organization to give to,” Abrahams said. Most of the virtual programs provided by Parks and Rec since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders in Minnesota have been free for the public, but the Stronger Together 50K will have a $15 registration fee.

“At the end of the 50K — once you’ve completed the goal — you’ll get a commemorative ‘Stronger Together’ medal,” Abrahams said.

People of any age and living in any location can compete in the virtual 50K, with a $5 shipping fee for those living outside of Owatonna who earn their medal. Abrahams said that any workout or daily activity — from running to lifting weights to cleaning the house — counts towars the goal using the online conversion tool provided by Parks and Rec on its website. The tool with convert any activity into kilometers to help measure the 50K progress.

While any activity will count toward the 50K, Abrahams is hopeful that it will encourage more residents to take advantage of Owatonna’s extensive parks and trails system — a trend she has personally noticed in the last two months.

“We are definitely seeing a lot more people using our parks and on our trails,” Abrahams said. “Just myself, when I’m going for a walk on the trails, I notice a lot more people than usual.”

Newspaper adviser, beloved English teacher surprised with district accolade

English teacher Jessica Wagner was finishing up a video conference when a handful of colleagues showed up on her front lawn bearing balloons, roses and a homemade banner that read, “Honk for Owatonna’s Teacher of the Year.”

As one of a handful of nominees for the title, Wagner said she knew staff were going to announce the winner around noon on Wednesday — but that she had no idea it would be her doorstep they showed up on.

“Oh, yeah — there was no leak at all,” she laughed. “In fact, I was on a Google Meet call with our assistant principal at the time, so there was even a little bit of a delay.”

Although teachers voted earlier this spring, Wagner said the award hadn’t really been a topic of discussion, especially among the daily adaptations of distance learning.

“We talk so much about work, voting isn’t really a conversation that we have. We’re all so focused on the kids,” she added. “It’s always a ‘wow’ moment, because I respect everyone so much. I know whoever I nominate is someone I always have a lot of admiration for.”

In her nearly 20 years with the Owatonna Public Schools, Wagner has inspired that same admiration in many of her peers — including fellow language arts teacher, Lauren Gendron. Both women grew up in the district and returned to teach after college, sharing this same experience 10 years apart.

“We’ve worked together since I started in 2010, but she started teaching right when I started high school,” recalled Gendron, adding that Wagner coached her husband on the Speech team.

When Gendron arrived as a teacher, her room was right next to Wagner’s and — although she already had a designated staff mentor in a different part of the building — Wagner immediately took Gendron under her wing.

“I remember her saying, ‘I’m going to be another mentor to you,’ and she just took on that role without me ever asking,” said Gendron. “That’s just Jess … she goes out of her way to make sure new teachers feel comfortable with the course material, but more so to make sure they feel connected to Owatonna and connected to the high school.”

‘That’s my job’

As a teacher, Wagner has taught English, journalism and public speaking — in addition to advising the Speech team and the Magnet student newspaper. She calls herself a “communication person,” true not only in her outreach to colleagues but also in her drive to help students become better speakers and better writers. After stepping down from her longtime role coaching Speech, Wagner said her public speaking class is now one of her favorite parts of the day.

“No one loves public speaking, everyone’s nervous,” she added. “But, that’s my job — to help them build their confidence … I believe in them enough for both of us, and I just reassure them that they will get through this.”

That same reassurance helped senior Emily Maine get her footing when joining the Magnet last fall. Although she praises Wagner as someone who lets students experiment and take the lead on the paper, Maine added that Wagner pays attention and backs writers up when needed.

“Last year when the football team went to state, that was the first big assignment that she gave me, and she could tell that I hesitated,” recalled Maine. “It was a lot of freedom and I was going to be on the floor at U.S. Bank Stadium. She could see that I was hesitant, and she just told me that she had confidence in me.”

Maine added that this subtle support has helped in letting students feel confident taking the lead on the Magnet and pursuing stories that they’re interested in, including taking risks in the things that they cover. Another attribute of Wagner’s, Maine added, is an open mind and an open-door policy for any questions that arise.

Taking the time for relationships

Both Maine and Gendron also emphasized Wagner’s ability to build one-on-one relationships with students, which Gendron said comes down in large part to the amount of time and intentionality Wagner puts into everything she does.

“She takes her kids to football games or sporting events, because she knows that so-and-so is playing and wants to watch them,” Gendron added. “She takes time inside of class to get to know people, and also outside of school to connect and build that community … it’s just part of her life, and I always admire the amount of time she takes for her family, students and staff.”

It was this ability to build lasting relationships with students that brought Wagner back to Owatonna in the first place. After a number of post-graduation interviews and no available positions turning up at the high school level, she said she was thankful just to have a job working with teens after getting the hometown gig.

“Due to my clinical experiences and time in classrooms, I really liked the relationships I could build with high school students. I’m so sarcastic, my humor would not translate,” she laughed. “Over the years, I’ve also become very direct. I’ve found that works better than trying to maneuver conversations. For the most part, you can speak your truth and they can speak theirs back.”

Although she typically teaches older students, Wagner said she’s also been working with her own younger children during distance learning. The fact that everyone was home the morning of her surprise also helped make it more of an intimate, family moment — as opposed to the large, in-person banquets where the award is typically presented.

“What I keep thinking back to is how cool it was that, even though we didn’t have the banquet, her kids and her family got to experience this with her,” said Gendron. “We’re all really proud of her, she does great things and it’s so nice to see this honor.”

A shopper in a car is assisted at a curbside pickup spot at the Mall of America where shoppers can pick up their orders after buying online or by phone from some mall stores Tuesday, May 5, 2020, in Bloomington, Minn. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)