Wednesday night, nearly 50 students from across the region were honored by the National Joint Powers Alliance for their ability to persevere when faced with adversity.
The 25th annual Student Recognition Banquet Wednesday night at Madden's on Gull Lake saw 48 high school students receive Region 5 Rising Star awards for their hard work and dedication.
NJPA does a lot of different things throughout Cass, Wadena, Crow Wing, Todd and Morrison counties, serving government, education and nonprofit entities. But following the event, Chad Coauette, NJPA executive director/CEO, said recognizing nearly 50 students every year is one of the highlights of his job.
"It really starts to put meaning to the work that we do," Coauette said.
Mikayla Horgan, a senior at Pequot Lakes High School, said she was shocked when she heard NJPA was going to recognize her at the banquet, because she didn't think people were noticing the things she was going through.
"I didn't really think of myself as a student of excellence, I felt like a failure at one point," Horgan said. "But now I see that I've gone through a lot and I'm actually fighting through it."
Oftentimes, the work NJPA employees do doesn't bring them in direct contact with students, Coauette said, and they also don't always see the impact of their work. For that reason, the Student Recognition Banquet "ranks very high in my book," he said.
"We get to be part of, and listen to and celebrate the success stories and the perseverance of 48 students that otherwise would not necessarily be recognized," Coauette said.
Many of the students recognized have full schedules, Coauette said, filled with school, part-time work, family responsibilities and volunteer commitments, to say nothing of some of the medical, emotional or physical roadblocks they've encountered. Hearing so many of their stories helps Coauette "realize that I've been very blessed."
"There are a lot of folks that may be struggling silently that we just don't know about," Coauette said. "So to hear those stories, it makes the work that we do at NJPA all that much more important."
The past two years, students have been recognized for living independently from a young age, Coauette said. These students have completed high school while developing a support network and persevering, he said.
"To hear the student this year who is living on her own, working a part-time job, if not more full-time than part-time," Coauette said. "And going to successfully graduate with her class, in spite of all the odds stacked in front of her, is especially motivating."
In addition to receiving an award, each student received a scholarship and a $25 Visa gift card. Thirty-eight students received a $250 scholarship from NJPA, while 10 received a larger scholarship from an NJPA partner. HealthPartners presented a $350 scholarship, the Central Lakes College Foundation presented two $1,000 scholarships and Minnesota State Community and Technical College presented seven $500 scholarships. There was also a door prize drawing near the end of the presentation, which allowed many students to take home a gift, ranging from T-shirts, sweatshirts and blankets to iPads, computers and a desk lamp.
Horgan took home one of the two $1,000 CLC scholarships. She was nominated by Principal Chip Rankin, who wrote she "is one of our most resilient students at Pequot Lakes High School."
When Horgan completed basic training with the Minnesota Army National Guard, she wasn't living with her mother, she said. During her senior year, she lived with her aunt and uncle, a best friend and now she lives on her own.
"So I've been trying to balance all that, so I actually feel the loss of my family on top of going to school, paying my bills, working every day," Horgan said. "So it's been hard, but I've been working through it."
Horgan had always wanted to join the military, she said, and "I know that I grew up poor, so that pays for college."
"But I've always had a sense of service, I've always wanted to serve my country," Horgan said.
Horgan is planning on attending CLC in the fall to earn a certificate in welding, partly because she loves it, partly for another reason.
"I love welding and doing things that people tell me I can't do," Horgan said. "That's why I enlisted also."
Allie Dischinger, also a senior at Pequot Lakes High School, took home a $500 scholarship to Minnesota State Community and Technical College. She was also nominated by Rankin, who called her "perhaps our best success story in the class of 2016 at PLHS."
Dischinger's home was often filled to the brim during high school, she said, with herself, her mother and father and brothers, along with her sister and her two children. Her sister's children lived with them for a while, Dischinger said, in order to help out her sister.
"We would all have to balance our school schedules and our work schedules to help take care of them," Dischinger said. "Because my parents were always working."
Her two nieces lived with them for about a year and a half, she said, so everyone chipped in to help take care of them. For a while, there were eight to nine people living in the same house. Her sister has since moved to the Twin Cities with her two children.
"It was really hard to have everyone kind of be and take care of two children," Dischinger said. "Even being 16, 17 years old, even 15 trying to do it, it was really a struggle for us."
Because of the hectic schedule, sometimes Dischinger's schoolwork didn't get done, she said, which impacted her the most. Being recognized for her hard work took her by surprise, she said, "because throughout my first three years of high school, I just thought nobody really noticed what I was going through or what I was doing."
Dischinger will attend the University of Minnesota-Duluth in the fall, where she will pursue her teaching degree.
The event started in 1992, when a group of educators, board members and parents came together at the request of ECSU-5, now called NJPA, according to a release. Their goal was to help member schools recognize deserving students who might not otherwise receive any recognition for their hard work and dedicated service to their community, to their school and to their fellow students.
This advisory group decided to incorporate a Student Recognition Banquet into the Annual Meeting of the Representative Assembly. Each school district within Region Five is invited to select one or two students in grades 11-12 to be recognized.
NJPA is a public service agency committed to providing cooperative solutions that assist government, education, and nonprofit entities as they strive for efficient public service. NJPA serves Cass, Wadena, Crow Wing, Todd and Morrison counties.
Those recognized this year were:
• Aitkin High School: Katie Teal.
• Bertha-Hewitt High School: CJ Baumgartner and Vanessa Eisenbraun.
• Brainerd High School: Jessica Mickelson and Nicole Brown.
• Browerville High School: Paige Callahan and Rakel Bryniarski,
• Cass Lake-Bena High School: Corvette Northbird-Raish and Nicole Fairbanks.
• Crosby-Ironton High School: Jeremiah Doerfler and Madeline Kertzmann.
• Eagle Valley High School: Mackenzi Riedel and Zackary Blumer.
• Freshwater Education District: Crystal Simmons and Nycole Iverson.
• Little Falls High School: Ben Hegna and Travis Stoner.
• Long Prairie-Grey Eagle High School: Cassandra Smith and Kierra Chavez-Ramirez.
• Menahga High School: Andrew Rockensock and Cara Ballantine.
• Northland Community High School: Bridgett Heinle and Michael Johnson.
• Pequot Lakes High School: Allie Dischinger and Mikayla Horgan.
• Pierz High School: Darian Fakhri and Jonathan Kasper.
• Pillager Area Charter School: Jordan Ausland.
• Pillager High School: Benjamin Dumbeck and Summer Alexander.
• Pine River-Backus High School: Jennifer Holm and Angela Pederson.
• Royalton High School: Monty Sieben and Ryan Klosowski.
• Sebeka High School: Austin Horton and Eva Nolte.
• Staples-Motley High School: Emilee Etzler and Obed Lozano.
• Swanville High School: Ethan Och and Kaleb Kjeldergaard.
• Upsala High School: Brandon Wolbeck and Noah Pundsack.
• Verndale High School: Kaitlyn Vertina and Molly Holman.
• Wadena-Deer Creek High School: Brianna Taggart and Madison Gedde.
• Walker-Hackensack-Akeley High School: Mara MacFarlane and Mckenzie MacFarlane.