A group of parents and the larger community in Esko has responded to an effort to recognize those who work in education as "HEROES" in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every month supporters raise funds for small gifts and gather personalized letters of gratitude to distribute to staff who work in the Esko School District.

"This has been such a challenging time for everyone," said organizer Emily Waldo. "For the teachers, parents, students and administration; it's just challenging for everyone. So I feel like whatever we can do to support and encourage each other and make everyone feel valued and appreciated, it's worthwhile."

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Waldo began Esko School HEROES — an acronym for Hardworking, Excellent, Reliable, Overachieving Esko Staff — this fall after a conversation with Pastor Brian Cornell of Northwood United Methodist Church. Waldo is a member of Partners In Education, a parent group that supports the educational environment of Winterquist Elementary School.

"They're a group that I've noticed is good at not just prescribing some solution, but listening to what teachers and staff truly need and meeting those needs," Cornell said. "So I thought maybe they'd be willing to step up and do something nice to support our teachers."

Waldo and a few other parent volunteers started talking about what they could reasonably do. They started with the initial goal of providing a small gift to all the teachers at Winterquist Elementary.

"We were able to find a local company to sponsor a lunch for the teachers and support staff. After that, the word started to get out and we wondered if we could expand this," Waldo said.

Esko parents Katherine and Brian Cornell deliver movie gift boxes filled with candy, popcorn and other treats to Esko teachers Friday, Dec. 18. (Photo courtesy of Katie Siats)
Esko parents Katherine and Brian Cornell deliver movie gift boxes filled with candy, popcorn and other treats to Esko teachers Friday, Dec. 18. (Photo courtesy of Katie Siats)

By October, the group was able to provide another meal voucher for teachers and support staff. By November, they started planning gift deliveries. Magnolia Cafe in Carlton pitched in cookies and the group was able to raise funds to purchase gift certificates for the entire staff.

"This month we made up movie night gift baskets with Redbox tickets, candy, popcorn, and root beer all in a large popcorn tub," Waldo said.

Word of the project has spread through social media and word of mouth. Every month the group has managed to raise the approximately $1,200 for each gift giveaway.

"We get between 50-120 people donating. Even if it's just $5 a month, that's perfect," Waldo said. "People are doing what they can."

The donations pleasantly surprised Winterquist principal Brian Harker.

Esko kindergarten teacher Brittany Lindmeyer shows off the move gift box delivered by the Esko HEROES program Friday, Dec. 18. (Photo courtesy of Katie Siats)
Esko kindergarten teacher Brittany Lindmeyer shows off the move gift box delivered by the Esko HEROES program Friday, Dec. 18. (Photo courtesy of Katie Siats)

"When I first heard that there was a group of parents that were organizing a monthly donation to provide gifts of appreciation to our staff, I thought 'no way,'" Harker said. "Given all the hardships that families are facing, there is a group of parents that want to thank us by doing this. That is awesome and pretty much sums up the Esko community and the support they provide."

He said he's heard nothing but appreciation from the teachers.

"They're just amazed by the support," Harker said. "Over the last year, we have had to change our learning models and put a lot of the burden on our families and parents. They have stepped up and done a wonderful job navigating all that is coming at them. They are our heroes, as well."

Waldo said the group plans to keep the gifts and cards of appreciation going into 2021. The January gift is already 40% funded as of the Pine Journal's publishing deadline. More help is needed both financially and for volunteers to create the baskets and write personal gratitude letters.

Donations can be made via Venmo @WinterquistHeroes, via Paypal by sending donations to winterquistheroes@gmail.com or by check made out to "Esko Pie" mailed to Katie Siats, 12 Keanu Lane, Esko, MN, 55733.