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A group of 10 high-school-age young people traveled to Fargo, N.D., March 24-25 to help the residents there fortify their city against the rising Red River. Left to right: Mack Ballard, Bobby Stolp, Corey Rohl, Heath Westberg, Trevor Ross, Luke Johnson, David Kujak, Birgitte Nielsen, Ryan Sylla and Luke Jensen. Another photo of the group can be seen in this week's Journal. Debbie Griffin photo

Saving Fargo

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The idea began with a local family watching the news together, but a group of young friends took it and ran -- all the way to Fargo March 24-25 to help fortify that North Dakota city against flooding.

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The 10 teens' three chaperones, Barb Kujak, Pam Ballard and Chris Rohl, said the young people made River Falls proud.

High school Principal Elaine Baumann agrees, adding that another group of students traveled to Fargo last weekend also to help residents.

Kujak said her aunt and cousins live in Fargo. She and her son David wished they could help.

"They're getting hit again, and I feel bad," she told David, asking him if he wanted to go.

David was all for the idea but thought it might be hard gathering people on short notice. Kujak said her husband suggested asking students. She called Baumann the next morning.

Kujak called friend Chris Rohl. Soon his son, Corey, volunteered to help. Sending a series of text messages got the job done. The group arrived in Fargo around 6 p.m., dropped their belongings at a church and got to the FargoDome by 7 p.m.

The teens said it was crowded, even chaotic. It was hard finding an open spot at the sand pile. As soon as a truck would dump another load onto the FargoDome floor, people swarmed to it.

The teens said the FargoDome operation slowed after about 9:30 p.m. and gave them more room to work. They say baggers that night filled a record-setting 500,000 sandbags.

The local group stopped working around midnight then slept on a church-basement floor in sleeping bags. They awoke early to temperatures that had dropped from the 40s to the teens; four inches of snow had fallen, and a cold wind blew hard.

Locals advised them to help build a dike in an endangered neighborhood near the river. The River Falls group heard that the water was rising about six inches an hour.

During idle times when workers waited on sand, they felt cold. During times when they were filling, passing or stacking sandbags, they felt warm.

The teens acknowledged how nice everyone had been and how food just seemed to appear everywhere people were working. The teens fondly recall the "pizza lady" and another house near the dike that cranked out edibles for hungry, hardworking crews.

The River Falls group didn't know if it would be able to leave as planned Wednesday. Rumor had it that roads would soon be closed.

The group made it back home safely, hearing that just after they'd left, Fargo officials called for mandatory evacuation. Some teens said they sympathized with people there who couldn't just leave and go back home to dry, unthreatened terrain.

They'd heard lots of stories about the "big one of 1997" when the flood waters came too fast.

Perspective

The Journal asked the teen volunteers about their favorite and least favorite parts of the trip:

Luke Johnson said it wasn't "all about the food," but he appreciated the donated meals just being there without them having to think about it. He said waking up early after a late night of filling sandbags was the toughest part.

Trevor Ross said people's good hospitality made an impression on him. He felt badly that things were so chaotic for them.

Bobby Stolp said everyone was "so nice" and appreciative of the teens' effort. He says the ride home in nasty weather seemed to take forever.

Birgitte Nielsen said she was touched by everyone's gratitude. The only thing she didn't enjoy was being cold while they waited outside for sand to be delivered.

Mack Ballard said he liked getting a lot of good work done and the people's appreciation of their work. He hated getting sick Tuesday night and not working Wednesday.

David Kujak said he enjoyed watching the dike grow by a few feet while they worked on that but didn't enjoy the long travel times to and from Fargo.

Heath Westberg said he got a kick out of people's reaction when they asked "Where are you from?" Most were surprised the group had traveled so far. Westberg said he could have done without the cold weather the day they worked outside.

Corey Rohl said he had fun talking to people and seeing their appreciation. He groaned upon realizing the weather had turned cold and that they'd be working outside.

Ryan Sylla said it impressed him how the flood took precedence -- everything stopped and it was the No. 1 priority. His least favorite part of the trip was getting up early.

Luke Jensen said he enjoyed the sense of accomplishment that came from filling sandbags and building up the dike; the teens could see their efforts paying off. He agrees that the cold was probably the group's biggest adversity.

They said they'd all been a part of charitable efforts before, but nothing this big. A curious Principal Baumann asked them if they'd do it again, receiving nods and yeses from all.

Chaperones give credit

Kujak said of the 10, "They did a really good job in Fargo."

She said late last week that everything was OK so far with her aunt and cousins who live there, though they hadn't been so lucky in 1997.

Kujak said having relatives there who could help find out where to stay, eat and help was instrumental in getting the group there.

She praises Rohl for helping gather teens and coordinate the flow of "chaos" at the FargoDome. She says he also managed to keep the young people busy during the times they waited for sand.

Kujak and Ballard confirm hearing more than a few positive comments about the teenaged volunteers, testaments to their energy, respectfulness and responsible manner. A local radio station came to get a snippet of their story.

"Instead of 10 kids, it's like having 30," said one stranger about their work ethic.

The two said it amazed them to think about the locals who had been doing the hard work day after day. Even in the face of great adversity, they were friendly and hospitable.

While none of the teens admitted to having sore muscles from the work, Kujak said she did. Fellow chaperone Pam Ballard echoes Kujak's sentiments about the teens' well-done job.

Kujak said, "They were just so polite and respectful and hardworking."

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