EAGLE GROVE - Sixth-grader Yenci Calles looked a little nervous as she fed cloth under the bobbing needle. She'd never used a sewing machine before.
In fact, most of the middle school students in the room had never done any sewing. But they came together Monday to create pillowcases, continuing a project started by one very unusual Boy Scout.
Monday was the annual Aaron Eilerts Day of Service at Eagle Grove's Robert Blue Middle School, and students spent the day doing a variety of service projects in his honor.
Fifth-graders Shawn Mrazek, Megan Sampson and Maddie Anderson tie the fringes on a dog blanket, while Clover watches. Clover is a puppy in the Leader Dogs program in the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, and is being sponsored by Eagle Grove high schoolers. The blankets made will be sent to the Leader Dog program. For more photos, visit cu.messengernews.net.
Eilerts was a scout from Eagle Grove who died in June 2008 from injuries sustained in a tornado that hit Little Sioux Boy Scout Camp. He had just finished eighth grade.
Then-Gov. Chet Culver proclaimed Feb. 24 - Eilerts' birthday - as a statewide day of service.
"I think he was honored by the state because he was such a unique kid," said middle school Principal Scott Jeske. "He was different than any kid I've ever been around in my 26 years of education. He was so giving, and was just always looking for ways to help people. You see some kids like that, but nobody to the extent that he did it."
Jeske wore a customized tie with the school's initials on it, given to him by Eilerts.
"On my first day of being principal, when I walked in this was on my desk," he said. "Aaron made it for me. I never even had him in class. He was in sixth grade, and I had taught seventh and eighth grade. He wanted to make my first day better."
Mary Ann Smith, one of the teachers in charge of the pillowcases, said Eilerts would use his own money to make them.
"He would give them to firefighters and teachers, but mostly to kids," Smith said. "He gave them to the hospital at Clarion. He would use his birthday money, he would have garage sales with his old toys. Sometimes people would donate to him. Fabric is not cheap."
Students painted murals, made crafts and collected food for pantries throughout the day. Some high school students returned to help the middle schoolers out.
Freshman Sarah Wilson made doll patterns out of cloth, cut them out by hand and sewed them together. On Monday she helped students stuff them with cotton and add yarn for the hair. The dolls would later be sent to an orphanage in Haiti.
"When I was young I had a doll myself," she said. She used to cut out the patterns for fun, out of scrap fabric.
"I go to these different church things, and they talk about these kids who don't have much. So I was thinking, why not just make dolls, just to make them happy? Just to make them smile," she said.
"This is why we're doing this," Jeske said. "Kids like her, where we're giving the inspiration of doing something good, and they want to continue to do it. That's really what we're trying to teach kids, that doing nice things for other people - it's very rewarding for yourself. It helps you feel good about yourself."
Sixth-grader Malachi Montesdeoca seemed to have gotten the message.
How would he describe the reason for the service day? "It's because you have to do things for people, without getting made to do it or getting paid. Just doing it for fun," he said.
Several sophomores also came back to help create care packages to be sent to safehouses in Cambodia, for young women rescued from sex trafficking.
"Our sophomore group was the first to do this project, when we were in eighth grade, so we're excited to come back and help out," said Mallory Hammitt. "We helped plan it out, so we thought it was important that we come do it again."
Hammitt helped the younger kids hot-glue flowers together. Kids also made bracelets out of rubber bands.
In addition to serving people, students also made dogs' lives a little softer, in honor of Eilerts.
"Pet blankets was one of his original ideas," said teacher Amanda Johnston, who oversaw the students making pet blankets. "He made small ones for the humane society."
Monday, the students made blankets to send to the Leader Dog project in the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility. This went along with a project by some older students, who raised a puppy through 4-H last year to send to the program.
"We'll probably get about 40 blankets done," Johnston said.
She had been one of Eilerts' teachers.
"I have a pillowcase he made, and a scarf he made," she said. "Everything you heard today about him, I would second that."