[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, and allowing a second chance for those who missed them the first time, I reprint them here, with permission a week after they print. The following ran in The Forum newspaper on March 14, 2015.]
Faith Conversations: Teen volunteer earns national honor
By Roxane B. Salonen
FARGO – From her youngest years, Lauren Knoll has been helping stir pots at soup kitchens, serve sloppy Joes to the homeless and run lemonade stands to collect money for charity.
“It’s become part of this family’s DNA,” says Jane Alexander, executive director for Churches United for the Homeless, Moorhead, where the Knoll family has been filling hungry bellies monthly for nearly 12 years.”They’ve grown up doing this, volunteering. It’s just how they do their life,” Alexander says about Lauren, 13, and her brothers, Cameron, 15, and Evan, 10.
The only hoped-for expectation has been a smile or hearing someone’s story, says their mother, Laura “Lori” Knoll, the maternal fuel behind many of these efforts. “We get back more than what we give.”
Recently, the family’s giving ways have produced a chance to highlight the blessing of service.
At her school counselor’s encouragement, Lauren applied for the Prudential Spirit of Community Award, and was selected as the middle school honoree for North Dakota.
In May, Lauren will fly to Washington, D.C., with her parents, Ron and Lori, to be recognized with the 101 other national recipients – two from each state – and receive $1,000, which she’ll use for college.
The young participants also will tour the area, meet congressional leaders, and deliver donated books and read to children at D.C.-area elementary schools.
Lauren’s extensive service hours also qualified her for the President’s Volunteer Service Award, which she learned of through a letter from President Barack Obama.
Just this week, her big brother Cameron, who started the ball rolling in preschool after his teacher encouraged the class to do a service project with their families, learned he’d also received the President’s award for his service hours.
Though shy of the spotlight, the Knolls agree that if the honor helps inspire others, they’ll happily share pieces of their story.
The giving started in Lori’s childhood, through her parents, Basil and Jeanne Walker.
Jeanne recalls her own father volunteering a lot, so giving came naturally – one of the reasons she now gladly helps Lori prepare barbecues at the shelter each month.
When Lori and her sister, René, were little, Basil used to wrangle them up to help serve at the Salvation Army. He also dressed as Santa each Christmas to cheer hospitalized children, and sometimes even invited the homeless home.
“You could see his heart,” Lori says, noting that her father’s passion – which sometimes cost his own family in time – came from a genuine place. “He was in an orphanage as a child, so because he suffered, he didn’t want others to suffer.”
When her own kids were young, Lori admits she’d sometimes bribe them with ice cream after a hard day’s work at the charitable lemonade stand. But a few years ago, internal rewards overcame the external.
The transition happened in 2010 when they participated in the “Homeless and Hungry” initiative, sleeping in a cardboard box over a weekend without food, and soliciting funds for the homeless while tired and famished.
“They knew then what it was like to be hungry,” Lori says, “to not be able to brush your teeth or hair, and then to go door to door fundraising with dragon breath and matted hair.”
Cameron, a freshman at Park Christian School, says it’s been eye-opening to “break out of the bubble” of private-school life to experience the real world, yet with safety nets in place.
“You start to realize, that could be us someday,” he says. “Even those of us who are raised in a Christian home – you can’t know what’s going to happen in your life.”
Along with the wider community outreach, the Knolls drive an hour each Sunday to Lake Area Vineyard Church in Detroit Lakes, Minn., where Ron plays electric guitar in a worship band, and Lori and the kids help lead other ministries.
The Rev. Janice Orquist, senior pastor, says Lauren’s “unassuming, very quiet but faithful, steady willingness to serve” has been a gift to their congregation.
“I noticed several years ago a sense of purpose in her, of wanting to be a part of what God is wanting,” Orquist says. “She’s especially great with kids and has a heart for that – just being welcoming and kind to other children. She definitely has a servant heart.”
In the essay Lauren submitted for the award application, she wrote that when she sees the faces of people she’s helping “light up after receiving a warm meal or a big hug,” it makes her heart soar. “I love volunteering because I love planting that seed of hope in hearts that seem to be running low.”
‘How you made them feel’
Little brother Evan has caught the fire of giving, too, and looks forward to the daily “random acts of kindness” reports his mom requests each evening at home.
“It doesn’t have to be anything big, but even just holding the door open for someone,” Evan says.
“Or carrying someone’s books,” Cameron offers.
“Lauren has helped tutor and correct papers,” Lori adds. “Not just on a monthly basis, but every day you can be God’s hands and feet in action, even on a small scale, can make a difference.”
Michael Almquist, operations director for Churches United, says some people talk about their faith, but the Knoll family lives it through caring for those in need.
“It’s amazing what they’ve done with their children,” he says. “The wisdom and insight they’ll bring into life through these experiences of serving will be more than most have.”
Alexander adds that Lori’s genuineness has been a beautiful model for her children. “She looks at people like she sees them, because she does see them, and you can feel that immediately.”
Lori says it comes back to the adage that people won’t remember so much what you’ve said to them, but how you made them feel. “If you help them feel heard or special in some way, just listening to them or sharing a cup of coffee or a hug, that’s the critical thing.”