Making a difference

EAGLE GROVE – Tenth-grade students at Eagle Grove High School used a class project to make a difference in the lives of a mother and her daughter.

Five-year-old Peyton Nicholson, of Goldfield, has a rare brain disease known as cerebellum atrophy, a degenerative disorder that affects muscle movements.

“She didn’t learn to walk until she was almost 3 years old,” said Tara Bjorklund, Nicholson’s mother. “She walked on her knees everywhere. Talking was a struggle for her. Up until six months ago, she couldn’t hold a pencil.”

Her daughter was diagnosed in 2014 and has been in and out of hospitals since, the hope being to improve her condition.

Bjorklund has been battling the odds since her daughter’s birth. Medical personnel at three separate hospitals told Bjorklund her daughter only had a 3 percent chance of surviving then.

“The toughest part is accepting that she is not going to have a normal childhood as much as we try,” Bjorklund said. “Watching stuff that she could do that she struggles with is the hardest. Watching her struggle and knowing there’s nothing I can do to help her.”

On Wednesday, students in Sherry Leksell’s English class did what they could to help. They presented a $322 check to Bjorklund and her daughter.

The check was a result of the class project that turned into a fundraiser. Students raised more than $100 in a pie-in-the-face contest. Seven teachers agreed to have a pie in the face for every $20 raised. After the fundraiser, an anonymous donor doubled the amount raised.

Bjorklund had no idea she was going to be presented with the money when she showed up at the school.

“It was overwhelming,” she said. “I wasn’t quite sure how to accept it because I am not used to that. All this has been very surreal and how generous people are. We could never thank them enough for what they’ve done.”

When the students began their class research project, they had no idea they would end up making an impact in the real world. They were asked to research diseases, illnesses and disorders and present their findings to the rest of the class.

After the presentations, they voted on which project they would support as a class.

Sadie Stuhr’s project about cancer won the most votes.

But the project took an unexpected turn when the class found out about a young girl in their community with a rare disease.

“We chose cancer, but when we heard there was a child in our district with a rare disease, we decided to shift gears,” said Leksell.

Wednesday provided an opportunity for students to meet Bjorklund and her daughter.

“It made me feel good to know we could make a difference,” said student Austin Hill. “People know what these diseases can do to families and how difficult it can be to deal with and the cost of it.”

As Nicholson entered the room with her mother she was asked to take a seat, but refused. She wanted to remain standing in front of the class.

The result was an emotional experience for everyone.

“Today was one of the most moving teaching moments of my career,” said Leksell. “I was so proud of our students for taking a simple research assignment and lifting it to something that meant so much.”

Bjorklund lives with two daughters. Her other child, Kyleigh, is 8.

“Eagle Grove has been very supportive and caring,” said Bjorklund. ‘It’s not like that everywhere.”

Leksell said she was proud of the maturity of her students and admired the ownership they took over the whole project, even when the goals changed.

“When our goals changed, they weren’t discouraged,” she said. “In fact they rallied around the idea that they would be able to meet the person they were helping.”