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A celebration of local heroes

Will Cymbaluk shows off his Everyday Hero Award he received at the United Way’s Celebration of Heroes Thursday night at the Holiday Inn. Cymbaluk helped raise more than $16,000 for his kindergarten teacher who was going through cancer treatment. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham1 / 3
Mark Hagen received the Bob and Michelle Harris Memorial Award from Heather Harris Bridgeman. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham2 / 3
The Detroit Lakes 2013-14 girls basketball team received a Community Spirit Award Thursday night. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham3 / 3

Compassion and caring for those less fortunate was a recurring theme at Thursday night’s United Way Celebration of Heroes.

From the kindergartner  who was honored for organizing a lemonade stand to raise funds for his cancer-stricken teacher, to the basketball team members who showed their community spirit by giving a dying fan a gift of immeasurable value, those honored  by the United Way on Thursday each demonstrated their worthiness to be named heroes in different ways.

Six-year-old Will Cymbaluk didn’t let being “super shy” (his mother’s description) prevent him from setting up a lemonade stand during parent-teacher conferences at his school, Rossman Elementary — because he wasn’t doing it for himself.

Will had learned that his beloved teacher, Colleen Knoop, was suffering from cancer, and wanted to do something to help. Because Mrs. Knoop was receiving treatment in Rochester, he wasn’t able to bring her dinner and flowers like he wanted, so he came up with the lemonade stand as an alternative.

With just a couple weeks’ notice, he and his parents, Mandy and Chris, and sister, Elle, organized and set up Will’s Lemonade Stand at Rossman school, and for the two days that Rossman’s parent-teacher conferences took place back in March, he patiently sat at that lemonade stand and took donations.

Silent auction items were also donated for the fundraiser — 125 in all — and Elle organized a bake sale to be held in conjunction with the event.

Mandy and Will even went to Thrivent Financial to ask if they might consider matching the amount raised, Chris Cymbaluk said Thursday. When Thrivent asked how much they thought might be raised, Mandy had come up with the figure of $3,000, thinking that was a decidedly optimistic figure, Chris said.

As was noted when Will Cymbaluk was called forward to receive his Everyday Hero Youth Award, when all the checks and cash were added up, a total of $16,241.11 had been raised.

“We never expected that much,” Chris said.

Will, of course, was too shy to be interviewed, tucking his head under his dad’s arm when asked how it felt to be named as an “Everyday Hero.”

While Chris noted that Will had seemed to overcome a lot of his shyness during the fundraising process, the attention he received Thursday proved a bit overwhelming for the six-year-old.

Also appearing to be a bit overcome by the attention they received Thursday were the Detroit Lakes girls’ basketball team, as they were honored with the United Way’s Community Spirit Award.

United Way 2013-14 President Bonnie Mohs explained that the team was honored for the compassionate attention that they showered upon one of their biggest fans, the late Shane Nelson, who succumbed to the devastating effects of pancreatic cancer in December.

“The day following the announcement of Shane’s diagnosis, aware of what a big Laker fan Shane was, and feeling awful for his situation, the team decided to pay Shane a visit,” Mohs said. “That evening after practice, they all signed a team photo and brought it to Shane to brighten his day. Shane was thrilled! The staff at Emmanuel and Shane’s family were overwhelmed.

“Imagine being on your deathbed and having a room full of beautiful caring young women! They made his day and possibly his life! Shane was in his glory!”

Even though he passed away a short time later, the team’s compassion for their stricken fan didn’t end. The girls all asked for time off from school to attend Nelson’s funeral, and even offered to help clean up after the meal that was held following the service.

“I was working in the kitchen following the funeral,” Mohs said. “As the girls came through the line, each and every one thanked us for their plate of food. Many of the workers commented on how that was so appreciated! After they ate instead of just leaving their plates at the tables, they picked up their plates as well as others they saw on their way back to the kitchen and brought them back to dishwashing.

“They did it naturally because to them it was just ‘what you do.’ To those of us working, it was noticed and appreciated. Their presence and behavior was noticed by many! We all may wish or even expect our own children would behave in such a way. However, to have an entire team represent themselves in this positive manner is cause to make parents, coaches, school and community very proud.”

Their fellow Community Spirit Award recipient, Abby Pettit, talked about how she became moved to volunteer with the United Way’s Food For Thought Backpack Program, which supplies backpacks of food to elementary school children in the area every Friday during the school year, so they won’t go hungry.

“Being a parent, it’s hard to think of all the kids who don’t have food to go home to  — which is probably why we’re a little harder on our own kids not to waste food,” she said.

Besides the backpack program, which gave away over 6,400 backpacks this past year to kids throughout Becker County, Pettit has also volunteered in the classroom and lunch room at Holy Rosary School, with the Detroit Lakes Imagination Library, serves as the Detroit Lakes Youth Hockey parent coordinator, and even did the Polar Fest Plunge to raise money for the Boys and Girls Club.

Adult Everyday Hero Award recipient Diane Midthune added a little humor to the emotion-packed proceedings, noting that she “only volunteers for the things I like to do,” and therefore it “didn’t feel right” to accept an award for doing so.

Nevertheless, Mid-thune’s volunteering resumé, read out prior to the award presentation, was quite impressive.

From serving as co-chair of Lake Park’s annual Pumpkin Fest celebration, to serving with the Lake Park-Audubon Legacy Committee, Lake Park Historical Society, United Way Day of Caring and delivering Meals on Wheels, she is a tireless supporter and advocate for the community.

“She and her husband support the Becker County Food Pantry by supplying fresh produce from their garden,” said the United Way’s president-elect, Cara Frank, during the award presentation. “Her service to others is firmly rooted in her faith.  She is the co-founder of a Wednesday afternoon program for school aged children at Eksjo Church called FBI, or Faith Builders Incorporated.  She helps provide food to shut-ins through the Eksjo Angel Food Project.  She has served on the church council, sings in the choir, helps with quilting and is a part of the Kindred Sister Bible Study Group. She and her husband are sponsors of Compassion International.

“She is an avid supporter of the TeachHaiti Project. She helps by selling jewelry that is made by Haitian people, as well sponsoring a student at the (TeacHaiti) School of Hope. She speaks at schools, churches and community programs encouraging others to support the students so they can attend the School of Hope. She has gone on a mission trip to Haiti where she helped with many different tasks and upon her return has been a constant advocate for the people of Haiti.

“After retiring from a 36 year teaching career she continues to serve the youth of her community,” Frank continued. “She volunteers at the high school giving extra help to those who need it. She volunteers to write and direct several plays for the elementary students. She is currently subbing as a parent educator for an Early Childhood Family Education class… Those nominating her state, ‘She is definitely an Everyday Hero. She is an inspiration to us all every day of her life.’”

As has been the case for several years now, the final award presented at the celebration was the Bob & Michelle Harris Memorial Award, presented by the Harris’s daughter, Heather Harris Bridgeman.

The Harrises were tireless supporters of the United Way, and as Bridgeman put it, “Commitment to community, compassion and service combined with extraordinary leadership are what Bob and Michelle Harris were all about.”

“This year’s recipient is a living example of those traits,” she added, becoming quite emotional as she described the accomplishments of this year’s award recipient, Mark Hagen.

“This person has been a tremendous advocate for the city of Detroit Lakes, committing both time and money elevating awareness of what this area has to offer… Community involvement is a very important aspect of his life.”

Hagen has served on committees and boards of directors for the United Way of Becker County, Detroit Lakes Hockey Association, Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center, was a founding member of the St. Mary’s Regional Health Center Foundation and the Detroit Lakes Athletic Foundation and Dollars for Scholars, and is a past Jaycee member and Water Carnival Admiral.

He was also a volunteer firefighter for 13 years in Detroit Lakes.

“Service above self defines him,” Bridgeman said in noting that he has been an active Rotarian member for 35 years, serving both as local president and as a member of the International Fellowship of Flying Rotarians.

She became quite tearful as she neared the end of her presentation, noting, “Vince Lombardi once said, ‘Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.’ His skills and ability to lead by example are what make him an extraordinary leader.”

The reason for Bridgeman’s emotion became apparent when Hagen accepted the award, noting, “Bob Harris was one of my closest friends. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of him.”

He later elaborated on that statement, noting that he and Harris had been golfing partners for many years, and “he gave me a lot of good advice in my business — he was a big part of my life.”

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

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