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Faith can move mountains

Since Faith Christian School first opened its doors in 1997, Gary and Karen Stenberg have been a driving force in getting the interdenominational, faith-based school off the ground.

Karen had just six kindergartners in her classroom when she started teaching that year. One year later, Gary had come on board as her classroom aide and school administrator. By then, enrollment had soared to 16 students in kindergarten, first and second grade (all in one classroom).

Located inside Faith Lutheran Church in rural Detroit Lakes, the school has grown from those humble beginnings, with just a half dozen students, to a current enrollment of 54 in preschool (4 year olds) through eighth grade.

"The reason this school exists is because of them (the Stenbergs) -- I feel that very strongly," says Paul Larson, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church. "I don't know where we would be without them."

But come this Wednesday, May 24, Gary and Karen will be moving on. Though they will continue to make Detroit Lakes their home base, the Stenbergs have decided to retire from teaching -- for a second and, perhaps, final time.

"We want to try something different," Gary says. "We love to travel... we may even get involved in some mission work."

Both Gary and Karen have some field mission experience, and they are looking into the possibility of going to Kenya sometime next year.

"It will probably be next spring sometime," Gary says.

Gary and Karen already had 22 and 17 years, respectively, of teaching in Alaska's public school system behind them when they moved to their home on Island Lake in 1997. In fact, they had officially retired from teaching when Karen saw an advertisement about the need for an instructor at a new, faith-based school that was opening in DL.

"The whole community had been praying for a Christian school," Larson says. Though there are some churches in the community that operate their own schools, what makes Faith Christian School different is that while its curriculum is faith-based, it does not focus on a particular church doctrine.

"There are currently about 10 different churches represented in our student body," Gary Stenberg notes. "We don't teach doctrine at all -- we stick to the basic Biblical truths... things accepted by all Bible-believing churches regardless of denomination."

Karen says that part of the attraction of teaching at Faith Christian School was the opportunity to incorporate her own faith into the curriculum.

"Working in a Christian school gave us the opportunity to blend our personal faith with our profession," she says.

"I have grown as much spiritually as the kids have," Gary adds. "God's word has a way of molding and shaping them -- it's been a real blessing to be a part of that."

The Stenbergs, though both native Minnesotans -- in fact, Karen is a Detroit Lakes High School graduate, while Gary grew up in Rochester -- actually met in Alaska, where Gary had gone to explore new educational opportunities after failing to find a teaching job in his home state.

"When I graduated from Bemidji State University with a degree in social studies, there weren't a lot of openings (for teachers) out there," he says. "I had worked as a wholesale grocery salesman for a year or two, then headed to Alaska."

It wasn't long before he found a job teaching grades K-8 in a small, one-room schoolhouse at Takotna, Alaska -- a community located about halfway between Anchorage and Nome, in the middle part of the state.

"It was only accessible by air," Gary says. "We had mail twice a week."

After about a year there, he decided he wanted to get back into teaching high school-age students, and to teach what he had been trained for -- social studies.

"So I got a job as a high school English teacher," he says with a laugh. That job was in Fort Yukon, another remote community.

As it happened, the third time did prove to be the charm for Gary, as he finally landed a social studies teaching position at a school in Glennallen, Alaska.

That move proved fortuitous in other ways as well -- two years later, Karen got a job teaching sixth grade at the same school.

A graduate of Concordia College in Moorhead, with a degree in elementary education and physical education, Karen had also moved to Alaska because of limited teaching opportunities in her home state.

Being two of just three single teachers at the school, it wasn't all that surprising that Gary and Karen ended up together. Seventeen years and two children later, the couple finally picked up stakes and moved south again.

"We spent a year traveling around the United States in a motorhome," Gary says, adding that their daughters, Beret and Linnea (now 21 and 19, respectively), traveled with them, getting a unique opportunity to experience "hands-on" education by visiting many of their country's historic landmarks.

"They had fun," Gary says. But eventually, the Stenbergs decided to put down roots once again, and moved back to their home on Island Lake, which had been in the family for many years.

Both Beret and Linnea graduated from Detroit Lakes High School. Beret went on to graduate this year from Northwestern in St. Paul, and is currently working as a management trainee for Hollister's, a Twin Cities clothing company. Linnea will be starting her sophomore year at Northwestern this fall, majoring in graphic design.

Now that their daughters are grown and living independently, the Stenbergs feel the timing is right for them to explore new opportunities.

But that doesn't mean they won't miss the families and students they have gotten to know so well over the years.

"Some of the kindergartners I taught in my first class are graduating from eighth grade into high school this year," Karen says. "It's been fun watching them develop through the years. We can only pray they'll continue to be active in their churches and maybe even work in the mission field someday."

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454