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Mound Westonka DECA students re-routed stuffed animals, usually non-biodegradeable, to keep them out of landfills and in loving hands. Pictured, from left, are Laura Sunnarborg, Kathryn Collins and Anna Reier. (Submitted photo)

A Mound Westonka High School DECA project got the attention of the community in a big way in February when a stuffed animal drive resulted in more than 3,400 stuffed animals looking for a new home, far surpassing the goal of 1,000. The successful collection drive even caught the attention of KARE-11 television, who ran a story about the project on Feb. 15.

While very successful, the drive was just one phase of a larger community giving project called Net Zero, which is all about the environmental aspects of climate change. Juniors Kathryn Collins and Anna Reier, along with sophomore Laura Sunnarborg, said they came up with their DECA Chapter Project this year because climate change is one of the largest issues facing their generation.

“The purpose of this project overall was to make our school and community more environmentally friendly and give back at the same time,” said Reier.

The students designed four parts to their original plan. A clothing drive in September collected more than 5,000 clothing items for Sharing and Caring Hands. In October, the group planted 60 trees at Hilltop and Shirley Hills primary schools. An education plan in November and December offered ways for students to be more environmentally friendly in their own lives. And a variety of initiatives were developed to help reduce waste right at their own school, such as raising awareness about using reusable masks, using both sides of paper, correctly disposing of waste and more.

Following the successful completion of all four parts of their plan, the students realized that they still had time to do more. After talking about all of the stuffed animals they had at home, the group did some research and discovered that the vast majority of stuffed animals are made with non-biodegradable and non-sustainable materials that take many years to degrade in landfills. Many of the once beloved animals end up in a landfill due to age or lack of interest, often undamaged and in great shape.

What started as an environmental effort became a humanitarian one as students found outlets for the stuffed animals. A donation to the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department means officers can provide a warm fuzzy animal to a child who is in a traumatic situation. Mary’s Place, a women’s shelter, welcomed the animals to provide to women and children who need something to hold on to. And animals donated to Goodwill will find a new home with families who might not have been able to buy good quality stuffed animals at full price.

“The purpose of the stuffed animal drive specifically was to prevent stuffed animals from going into a landfill and instead find ways to get them into the hands of a child in need,” said Sunnarborg.

Collins said they were overwhelmed by the community support for their project. “These animals held memories for their previous owners, who were willing to give them up, and now they’ll be able to create new memories for another child,” she said.

Support for the project came in the form of donations from as far away as Apple Valley. According to MWHS assistant principal Marty Fischer, a local contributor shopped for animals at the local Walgreen’s store and when a manager inquired about her purchase proceeded to give her a substantial discount.

“Through the Net Zero Project, DECA was able to combine several important things toward the service to others - giving a great home to stuffed animals so they don’t end up in the trash, providing an avenue for families from around the area and the metro to donate items that can get overloaded in homes and working with local agencies to ensure the stuffed animals get into the hands of those who don’t have one, many of whom are struggling with medical or mental health issues, or just need something to put a smile on a child’s face,” said Fischer. “This project was a huge success and the ‘stuff’ that giving is made of!”

The Net Zero Project will be presented as a Community Giving Project at the state DECA competition, which will be held virtually in March. That competition determines who will participate at DECA International in April.

“I am so proud of how this group of students took a project that had so many dead ends because of COVID and brainstormed some incredible activities and pulled them off in a safe distance manner,” said advisor Sue Siimonson.

ABOUT DECA

Open to students in grades 9-12, DECA prepares emerging leaders for careers in marketing, finance, hospitality and management in high schools and colleges around the globe. Students participating in Mound Westonka DECA compete at the district, state and national level. Competition categories include over 50 different role play and paper presentations.

DECA’s activities assist in the development of academically-prepared, community-oriented, professionally-responsible and experienced leaders. In addition, students connect with the Westonka community by volunteering at several different community events.

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