Fixing for a feast

For the past 37 years, UND’s Mortar Board has been providing thousands of Thanksgiving meals for local families in need

President Mark Kennedy with Mortar Board

UND President Mark Kennedy takes a moment to help members of UND’s Mortar Board prepare thousands of Thanksgiving dinner baskets for delivery to local families in need on Saturday, Nov. 19, at the UND Transportation Building. Left to right: Kayla Sendelbach, Monica Gamboa, President Kennedy, Holly Mitzel, Haylie Rants, Luke Shields, Walker Romens. Photo by Shawna Schill.

It’s not Thanksgiving without turkey and all the trimmings.

However, some families in Greater Grand Forks just aren’t able to afford the ingredients for the feast.

“It’s not easy to say you need help,” said Kristi Okerlund, UND’s coordinator of new student and parent programming and advisor to the Mortar Board Honor Society on campus.

That’s why, for 37 years, the student members of Mortar Board have raised money and then purchased turkeys and all the trimmings to give recipients the recipe for a Happy Thanksgiving.

This year, 40 UND students raised $20,000 to provide Thanksgiving turkey baskets to 1,200 local families.

“It feels good to serve the community we live in and to help people in need,” said Holly Mitzel, Mortar Board president. “We give families things they wouldn’t otherwise have for the holidays.”

Just 40 seniors are accepted into Mortar Board each year.

“The majority of students have no idea what they’re getting into,” said Okerlund. “Raising $20,000 for turkey baskets is a lot of work.”

Why do they do it?

“I wanted to be more involved,” said Mitzel, a senior pre-med and medical laboratory science major from Grand Forks. “I’m good at organizing and teamwork. And I’m passionate about serving Grand Forks. I feel like I’m giving back to a community that’s given me so much. The least I can do is help with an event like this.”

Year-round effort

The fundraising is a nearly year-round effort, and each student member must raise at least $300. They request assistance from businesses, work at the Alerus Center as ushers, clean the Ralph Engelstad Arena after events, and hold food drives.

“Cleaning The Ralph is quite a job,” Mitzel said.

UND Mortar Board

For the past 37 years, the student members of UND’s Mortar Board have raised money and then purchased turkeys and all the trimmings to give local families in need the recipe for a Happy Thanksgiving. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

Mitzel added that they also do profit-sharing with restaurants, use “go fund me” pages online, and use social media to raise money.

“Some students even went door-to-door,” said Okerlund.

The project also involves the campus, from use of the Transportation Building to distribute the baskets to a special Denim Day for charity that raises more money than any other Denim Day all year.

Building baskets

All that work pays off the weekend before Thanksgiving. This year, the students rented a large moving truck and loaded 5,000 pounds of potatoes. Then they bought stuffing mix, cranberries, pie filling and vegetables from a local grocery store, and delivered all the food to the Transportation Building on campus.

A 7 a.m. Saturday, they picked up the frozen turkeys and pie crusts and took them to the Transportation Building.

“The hardest part is finding someone to drive the truck,” said Okerlund. “It’s huge.”

UND Mortar Board

This year, Mortar Board members rented a large moving truck and loaded 5,000 pounds of potatoes. Then they bought stuffing mix, cranberries, pie filling and vegetables from a local grocery store, and delivered all the food to the Transportation Building on campus for deliver to local families. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

Then came the fun part: Starting at 10 a.m. Saturday, families drove into the Transportation Building, and students loaded their cars with all the fixings for a Thanksgiving feast.

“People are very grateful,” Mitzel said. “They get out of their cars and go down the line and thank us.”

“Sometimes we get hand-drawn ‘thank you’ cards from little kids,” said Okerlund. “Some people are embarrassed, some tell you their stories. And they all say ‘thank you.’”

Okerlund said that recipients sign up through school social workers, places of worship and government programs, and through agencies such as the Salvation Army, Lutheran Social Services and the Grand Forks Housing Authority.

Mortar Board

A national honor society, Mortar Board recognizes seniors for their scholarship, leadership, and service, and provides opportunities for more leadership and service. The national organization was founded in 1918, and there are more than 231 chapters at universities across the nation.

At UND, the top 35 percent of the senior class, around 1,000 students, receive a letter inviting them to apply to Mortar Board. Of those who apply, just 40 are selected.

Being part of Mortar Board is an amazing experience, said Okerlund, who has advised the group since 2005 and was a member when she was a senior at UND. “I want to give students the same experience I had.”

UND’s chapter just received a Gold Torch Award in September, recognizing them as one of the most outstanding chapters in the nation.

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