Essential workers across Owatonna have been receiving surprise pieces of art this week from students at McKinley Elementary.

Art teacher Amanda Gislason tasked her classes with creating art to thank health care professionals, grocery store workers, first responders and others working through the pandemic. After collecting photos and hard copies of completed work, Gislason compiled a video of students’ drawings and sent it to the Police Station, Fire Department, hospital and other essential organizations around town. Students also had the option to deliver their pieces to family members or friends who are essential workers.

Fourth-grader Carter Hadt was able to surprise his mother, a nurse at Mayo Clinic, with his drawing after her shift. Apart from health care workers, he drew store employees, military personnel and teachers. Above all four professions, he wrote, “Dear workers, you are the same at being the best.”

“I didn’t know that he had to do it, I just came home to this awesome drawing,” said Stacy Hadt, Carter’s mother. “I’ve been working, and my husband stays home with the kids.”

In addition to a parent in health care, Carter added that his grandparents work at a store and his cousin is in the military — making the entire project hit close to home. In the past, he said he hasn’t done anything quite like this, instead focusing on styles and works by major artists.

“I think it was really amazing,” he added, “because I know a lot of people that do all this stuff.”

Fellow fourth-grader Blair Kath was also able to give her drawing to a health care worker in her life. For her piece, she drew a nurse taking up the whole page, surrounded by words that she said described the profession. With arrows pointing to her nurse, she wrote “smart,” “loving,” “helpful” and “brave.”

“She got the assignment and she went and started coloring right away,” said Angie Goodnature, Blair’s mother. “Then she said she wanted to give it to our family friend, Candy Roush.”

Roush was able to stop by Tuesday night and pick up the drawing. While Blair had mentioned there was a surprise waiting, she hadn’t let on exactly what it was. “She didn’t know what I was giving her, but she knew I was giving her something,” said Blair. “It felt nice, because I know that she’ll cherish it for a while.”

Gislason hoped the project was also enjoyable for students as a way to express gratitude and feel good about themselves. She added that art has a healing power, and that she felt giving back through drawing could potentially help children cope in one way with the pandemic.

“Some of our students are having a harder time than others,” she added. “I wanted to give them an opportunity to not only make art, but to be able to show gratitude. Being grateful for things is also a great way for us to heal, and being able to share that with other people can help us get through things, as well.”

To introduce the project, Gislason made a video explaining what essential workers are. Beyond expressing thanks to these employees, she said the parameters of the project were pretty open. Some students made posters, some made pop-up cards, and some created chalk drawings and sent photos in for Gislason’s slideshow.

Leah Leckner was one of the students who made a pop-up card, an idea she helped brainstorm with her mom, Emily.

“I had the idea of a pop-up card, and then Leah had the idea that it would be a heart that popped up when you opened it and she wrote a message on the inside,” said Emily. “My spot for working is on the dining room table and Leah’s workspace is right here nearby so we share a lot of ideas.”

Gislason’s slideshow helped Leah learn more about what being an essential worker meant and which professions fit the bill, supplemented by the family’s contact with first responders. Emily said they’ve been in touch with her best friend, a nurse, and that when it came time to thank someone in the field, Leah immediately thought of Community Service Officer Brian Shaw.

“[The presentation] had some ideas of what some essential workers were, like nurses or mailmen — because they still deliver your mail,” Leah added. “I thought of how Brian sometimes comes and stops to say, ‘Hi.’”

Emily added that he’ll wave when going past their house on his rounds, and sometimes even give them a heads-up if there’s a package on the front steps. Seconds after finishing the card, complete with a police badge and an American flag on the front, Emily said Leah asked to text Shaw and have him come by to pick it up.

“She made multiple tries at it, and she was definitely trying to do her best,” Emily added, of the project.

For students who didn’t know an essential worker or wanted to submit their drawings in a different way, Gislason gave them the option of dropping their work off at McKinley or submitting a photo to be included in a project slideshow. She said she plans to send any hard copies she’s received to essential workers in the next couple of days, and has already shared the video out with front line organizations around town.

As a nurse herself, Stacy said she’s hanging on to Carter’s drawing for now — impressed and surprised by his portrayal of her and the rest of their family.

“I’ve kept it out because he did such a nice job on it,” she said. “When I came home to that, I was very impressed — just that he had done such a good job of portraying what we’re out there doing for everybody.”

Reporter Bridget Kranz can be reached at 507-444-2376. Follow her on Twitter @OPPBridget. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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