Weather Forecast


Willow River students help--Helping Paws

Dave and Marie Heikkila and Major listen as Willow River Elementary School third-grade student Johnathan Tostrud shares information about their fundraising project.1 / 5
Willow River third-grade students Aiden Bergmann, Salina Carlson, Johnathan Tostrud, and Lucas Holter presented Major with a check for 500 Milk-Bones.2 / 5
Lucas Holter presented Major with his 500 Milkbone Biscuits.3 / 5
Third-grade students standing by their fundraising thermometer and posters are Ashley Dorr, Esme Mergendahl, Kacia Johnson and Jenna McCorkel.4 / 5
Alyssa Krohn pets Major, a dog in training for Helping Paws. Major patiently allow all of the third-grade students a chance to pet him on Dec. 11.5 / 5

On Dec. 11, Willow River Elementary School had an all school assembly. It was the culmination of an accelerated effort by the third-grade students in three classrooms.

All three teachers -- Jessica Maalis, Annette Burns and Linda Wagner -- were amazed at the students' enthusiasm for the project. Wagner spearheaded the effort which, in place of a book exchange among themselves, the students opted to raise money for Helping Paws of Minnesota. Helping Paws was founded in 1988 and its mission is to further the independence of individuals with physical disabilities through the use of service dogs.

Dave Heikkila, who is the custodian at Willow River, and his wife Marie have been involved with training service dogs for Helping Paws for a number of years. When third-grade students read the book "Dogs at Work," Dave shared information about Helping Paws with Wagner.

Soon after, it was decided that for the Christmas season, the students would take on a service project raising money for Helping Paws.

Their goal was to raise $250. They made posters, a thermometer to mark their progress and a bucket to collect their donations. It soon became a school-wide effort. The bucket stayed in the school office.

Heikkila's service dog in training, Major came for two visits, demonstrating some of his skills, such as turning on and off a light switch. Students made bracelets, key chains and became sweepers of any spare change they found at home, on the sidewalk or streets.

"It started small and just grew," said Wagner.

In almost no time they reached their goal and decided to continue to the $500 level. Students were not shy, asking their bus drivers, relatives and friends of the parents to contribute.

Esme Mergandahl made key chains and sold them for 50 cents each raising $60 for the effort. Jenna McCorkel received donations from family in the amount of $5 each and Ashley Dorr found her quarters added up quickly as well. All of the efforts resulted in the students raising $500 for Helping Paws.

The Heikkilas, Marie and Dave, wrote letters to the students from Major outlining his progress in training. The whole project was interactive and the students decided that Major should benefit directly so they presented him with 500 Milk-Bones.

"It is the perfect time of year for this type of project," said Wagner. For more information about Helping Paws or to donate, go to