EAGLE GROVE - It was a bittersweet day in Eagle Grove Tuesday as hundreds of students, teachers and volunteers teamed up around town to do everything from making fleece blankets for animal shelters to washing car windows at local gas stations.
All were taking part in projects that would do their community proud, but more significantly, each were paying tribute to the memory of their fellow student, classmate, friend, scout and Eagle Grove resident, Aaron Eilerts.
"This is both a day of great joy and of sadness," said Scott Jeske, principal at Robert Blue Middle School. "We are very proud to be the epicenter of this event."
Messenger photo by Emilie Nelson
Gov. Chet Culver speaks to students at Robert Blue Middle School in Eagle Grove during an appearance to declare Feb. 24 Aaron Eilerts Day of Service and Giving. Eilerts was killed June 11, 2008, when a tornado struck the Little Sioux Scout Ranch. Feb. 24 was Eilert’s birthday.
"It's been more than I could have ever imagined," said Beth Stephas, guidance counselor at Robert Blue Middle School. "I wish it was a day that didn't have to happen. We all wish Aaron could be right here, leading us in his own service project."
Known for having a "big heart" and strong dedication to community service, Eilerts was killed when a tornado struck the Little Sioux Scout Ranch near Little Sioux on June 11, 2008. He was just 14 years old at the time of his death. Tuesday would have been Eilerts' 15th birthday, a day that Gov. Chet Culver proclaimed statewide as the Aaron Eilerts Day of Sevice and Giving. More than 60 schools across the state participated in various service projects in observance of the day.
Culver was on hand at the school Tuesday afternoon to make a public proclamation of Aaron Eilerts Day.
"Today, Feb. 24, 2009, is the first of many Feb. 24s that will be celebrated as Aaron Eilerts Day," said Culver. "We are here to celebrate because that is what he would want you to do. I want to encourage fellow governors in the other 49 states to recognize this day as well. I want to see it grow so you can be joined by students across the nation."
Throughout the halls of Robert Blue Middle School, students could be found participating in a number of projects that Eilerts was passionate about. Seventh-graders Ashley Brekke and Kandace Sorenson spent the afternoon creating Fourth of July decorations to be given to local nursing homes and senior citizen centers.
"It's been fun," said Sorenson. "I knew Aaron. He was cool, one of the nicest kids I've ever met."
"Aaron was known for making decorations for each holiday to be given out at nursing homes and congregate meal sites," said Stephas. "Today we have the kids making decorations for every holiday so those who used to receive them will continue to receive decorations."
Deb Jeske, a seventh- and eighth-grade special education teacher helped students package and decorate shoeboxes to be filled with food. The 107 boxes of food were presented to representatives from the Upper Des Moines Opportunity Outreach Center and will be distributed to families in need. The boxes included such items as canned ravioli, granola bars, fruit and bottled water.
"Almost all of these items in the boxes were donated by our teachers," said Jeske.
Other students spent time tying 60 small, fleece blankets to be given to local animal shelters. Eagle Grove High School senior Katie Locke remembered Eilerts as she helped middle school students carry the blankets down the hallway.
"He was a nice kid," said Locke. "He lived down the street from my family, and was always doing something to help someone."
Eric Hanson, a reporter for a Des Moines television station, told those in attendance of his encounter with Eilerts and how he was touched by the teen's selflessness.
"Aaron had heard about a coach in Madrid who had been diagnosed with cancer, and in an e-mail told me that he had sent him one of his famous pillowcases," Hanson said. "I had wanted to do a story on him, but our schedules didn't allow for us to meet right away."
Before they could meet, Hanson fell and broke his hip and was hospitalized. When Eilerts found out, he custom made a Nebraska Cornhuskers pillowcase for Hanson.
"Aaron knew I was an Iowa State fan," Hanson laughed. "He was quite the joker."
Others emphasized to the students that by doing simple deeds, Eilerts' legacy will live on for years to come.
"You can all do good deeds," said Matt Bentz, one of Eilerts' fellow Boy Scouts, and a Little Sioux tornado survivor. "It can be as simple as standing up for a friend or shoveling your neighbor's snow."
"I never had the opportunity to meet Aaron, but I have been touched by his story," said Culver. "He was among the finest young men that this state has to offer."
Contact Emilie Nelson at 573-2141 or email@example.com