2000 miles, eight states, nine days, three National Honor Society students, and one teacher; that’s what it takes to be a part of the PRAK-RT (Planned Random Acts of Kindness Road Trip). Seniors Charlie French, Lizz Foutz, and Sam Rickerd along with their NHS sponsor Brandy Smith, followed the compass west during Spring Break for what they called PRAK-RT 2019 with three specific goals: stepping outside their comfort zone, trying new things, and finding personal growth along the way.
The trip’s itinerary, planned entirely by the students, meant more responsibility and as Charlie French shared, “The trip wouldn’t have felt as personal if we hadn’t planned it.” Each student researched and provided a PRAK (Planned Random Act of Kindness), as well as lodging for the evening. Some lodging was provided by the venue where the students chose to stop and help, while at other times, plans required working within the constraints of the group budget to find affordable and safe lodging.
Day one included a visit to the Governor’s Mansion in Madison, WI, then on the second day, students traveled on to Rochester, MN. Sam Rickerd, the Whitko Jr/Sr High School valedictorian, led the team to a Nature Preserve and a former immigration hospital’s cemetery. According to the students, the cemetery was filled with unmarked graves that laid to rest some of the first immigrants of the midwest. Each grave represented someone who died while in the care of the state’s hospital. It also provided time for the students to compare and contrast America’s past with the current viewpoints expressed in today’s politics regarding immigration. The students all admitted their eyes had been opened to what they called the “disparities among different classes of people.”
As a result, Rickerd chose the grave site as an area for the group to leave better than they found it. “We picked up a lot of trash, a lot of trash,” he shared. Throughout the trip the students made it a point to help clean up National Parks, PRAK destinations, and even around their hotels. While in the 1800’s these graves specifically remained unnamed, today much work has been done by way of research to help connect the coffee-can-sized tombstones (literal coffee and bean cans were filled with cement to mark each headstone), to the names of immigrants laid to rest in the cemetery.
Then it was on to the Ronald McDonald House at the Mayo Clinic. The group donated inspirational pillowcases they decorated together, volunteered packaging meals at a local food bank, and they discovered actions they could take to assist non profits like Ronald McDonald House upon their return home. Next the team headed toward Sioux Falls, SD.
Lizz Foutz was in charge of the activities surrounding Sioux Falls, where she was able to secure free housing at a local YMCA that the students also spent their time cleaning. Foutz arranged for the team to clean the YMCA’s foam pit into which children often jump, and to assist with flooding clean up efforts for the YMCA summer camp. “They had just been devastated with a flood and it was really nice to know that we could help them out in a big way. They were so grateful to have us there, and they didn’t even have a planned volunteer activity for us until the flood,” said Foutz. The flood had occurred just one week before their arrival.
“We helped move debris and untangle picnic tables that floated hundreds of feet away from their original location,” Smith commented. The clean up efforts by Whitko’s students will prepare the way for 3500 YMCA campers this summer.
The PRAK-RT had left on a Saturday at 7am from South Whitley, IN and by Wednesday they had earned some fun after their hard work. French is no stranger to the Rapid City area, having travelled several times in his past on family vacations, he easily guided the group to see some of America’s greatest locations for adventure in the west. Wednesday they visited Mount Rushmore during a snowfall. Mount Rushmore attracts roughly three million people annually. Thursday they visited the Badlands, a National Park located east of the Rapid City area. Then on Friday it was on to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, a site made famous by Richard Dryfus’ mashed potato diorama in Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
It would be two days more on the road back home to Indiana by way of I-80, but the memories would not be soon forgotten. Charles French recalled that he “learned how to cooperate with other people who have different personalities. I feel that this helped me grow as a person.”
Meanwhile, the sentiment was similar with Rickerd and Foutz who speaking about the flooded YMCA Camp, both agreed, and in Rickerd’s own words, “It was very impactful to see the horrible damage caused by a flood of that magnitude, but also to see the smiles on the faces of the camp directors as we gradually improved the conditions of the camp.”
All told, for $180 each, the PRAK-RT carved a path into the west where they spent their spring break lending a helping hand with random acts of kindness planned all along the way. Free breakfasts and packed lunches, games at night and the license plate game during the day, not to mention souvenirs created bonds and memories that are sure to inspire travel again for these Wildcats in the future. Whether with a family of their own some day they will return to the west, or whether the next spring this trip becomes a time honored tradition by Whitko’s National Honor Society leadership, time will only tell. But leaving a place better than they found it will forever be a mark they have left on the spring break of 2019.