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Teens' plan evolves from movie theme

High school teacher Deb Ottman's (kneeling, far right) life skills class planned, organized and implemented a "Pay It Forward" garage sale project that raised $830 for the St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice Program. RJP Director Kris Miner holds the big check the class presented Oct. 29. Debbie Griffin photos

Juniors and seniors in high school teacher Deb Ottman's life skills class figured out a way to make a difference.

Planning started after students watched "Pay It Forward," a movie released in 2000, starring Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey and based on a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde.

Ottman challenges each of her classes to plan and organize a helpful project.

Her students watched the movie about five weeks ago, deriving inspiration from the 11-year-old main character, who proposes a simple way to change the world: When someone does something nice for you, pay it forward. Do something nice or helpful for somebody else.

The River Falls High School class brainstormed about how to do that. For a grade, students were responsible for hatching an idea, developing a plan and completing the project.

They recorded lots of ideas, but the one for a garage sale stuck.

Ottman's students said St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice Program Director Kris Miner visited their class and demonstrated the circle technique by involving students in one.

That experience helped them decide that garage sale proceeds should go to the local non-profit center that focuses on "building a culture of peace and belonging."

On with sale

The students said they worked on the project for about a month, planning, advertising and collecting items then finally, setting up and conducting the sale.

Ottman said she has about 21 students in life skills, but by the time they finished the project, at least 100 if not 150 people had jumped in to help.

The students said they, too, were amazed at people's generosity and willingness to help.

They created a duty sign-up sheet that allowed everyone to work when they were available.

The kids asked people to drop off items at the school. They said even with a last-minute change of drop-off location and only a three-day window in which to bring items, people delivered sale items by the boxful.

Students got a jump on sale day by pricing everything as it arrived, sorting items by type, and making table markers ahead of time so shoppers would know what each one held.

They said the "stuff" didn't look like as much when it was all compacted into a storage space. When displayed, the collected merchandise filled 40 round tables and several long buffet tables.

"I thought maybe we'd need 15 (tables)," Ottman said, impressed that the kids set the whole thing up in a few hours' time.

The "Pay It Forward" garage sale, which also included home-baked treats for a free-will donation, ended up filling the entire high school commons area.

The classmates decided together how the pricing structure would work. Items at the sale ranged from 10 cents to $5, with most under $3. Their strategy was: "Mark it low so everything goes."

They said one shopper paid $20 for an exercise bike marked at $15, making that the highest-grossing item of the sale.

Though they sold most items, Ottman said they transported about three carloads of donated merchandise over the weekend. Some went to Second Chances in downtown River Falls, some to Goodwill and some to the Salvation Army.

Shoppers found during the Friday-Saturday sale tables heaped high with clothes, electronics, toys and stuffed animals, household goods and glassware, fabrics, tools, sporting equipment, holiday items, blankets, shoes, books and more.

The students say without doubt that clothes were the most plentiful item. They say people seemed to have a lot of fun shopping for them and trying on different garments. They say kids had a lot of fun playing with the toys, especially a toy kitchen set.

One lady bought a lighted, reindeer yard ornament she said are now hard to find. Later the lady's daughter came in to shop, telling the staff how delighted her mother is with the reindeer.

The students said they learned how true it is that one man's junk is another's treasure.

Sale organizers asked people not to bring TVs and computers but ended up getting some and selling them. They had planned to return any electronic leftovers to their original owners.

The young people said they received a few odd items, among them used underwear and pantyhose. They tossed those and put other oddities in a "free" box, which shoppers emptied.

Students said it surprised them the number of people who gave generously, expecting nothing in return. They enjoyed chatting with the shoppers and learned how good it feels to give.

They said they liked proving wrong the negative stereotype many people have of teens. The students showed that teens can work hard and make a difference.

Ottman said, "We had a good time. We really did."

The students may make the "Pay It Forward" garage sale an annual event, perhaps changing the time of year to spring. They'll write a composition telling Ottman what grade they think they deserve for this year's project and why.

Miner said the garage sale elicited more than funds. It raised awareness about RJP, too.

She said a man who's been sober since 1978 learned about the Restorative Justice Program from the garage sale, then approached her about volunteering for it.

Ottman said, "Well, I can just say we're very, very proud of them (students)."

See this week's print edition of the River Falls Journal for more photos.