FARGO, N.D. (AP) - It was 12 years ago when several high school students in eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota had the idea of trying to fill the floor of the Fargodome football stadium with food donated for the needy at holiday time. The effort has since become an annual rite of passage.
Fargo Davies High School seniors McKenzie Burian and Sophie Frappier remember students working on collections for the event when they were in elementary school. At an early age, they set their sights on becoming ambassadors for the program they view as important as making the honor roll.
"A lot of people don't understand how big of an issue it is," Burian said Tuesday while packing up canned goods. "It can be anyone. It can be your neighbor. It can be your best friend. We have to take care of our community."
The annual Fill The Dome project is a competitive event of sorts, with each team of schools working to see who can collect the most food. They then turn the floor of the dome into canned food artwork. Fargo South High School won best design this year by arranging the foodstuffs to show the video game character Pacman eating the word "Hunger."
Davies won the trophy for gathering the most goods among the individual school food drives.
"It is always nice to say you collected the most food among the schools," Frappier said. "But more importantly all of this goes back to the greater good."
Students sold a record 17.1 tons of food bags at sponsoring grocery stores in the area. Combined with the school food drives, collections from citizens and financial donations, a total of about 300,000 meals will be available for needy families, said the head of North Dakota's only food bank.
"As we head into the holiday season I can't think of any gift more precious or meaningful than food for a family facing hunger," said Steve Sellent, CEO of Great Plains Food Bank, which provides nearly 12 million meals across North Dakota each year.
One of the program's organizers is 29-year-old Alex Windjue, who now works for a global consulting company in the Twin Cities. But when he was student council president at West Fargo High School, he and other students were motivated by a couple of studies: One showed that students in the area didn't feel valued or represented, while the other revealed the growing number of needy people in North Dakota and a shortage of donations to the Great Plains Food Bank.
"I guess when we started this we never expected the longevity of the program and the impact it would have on a future leaders," Windjue said. "What excites me most about it is that one, we are still helping the community, and two, we are still seeing students getting together from across the community."
The adviser for the first three years of the program was Greg Tehven, who is now the executive director of Emerging Prairie, a Fargo nonprofit that provides assistance to young entrepreneurs. He said Fill the Dome continues to grow because students have figured out how to collaborate and use competition to their advantage.
"Another thing they've done is that they've led and then they've gotten out of the way," Tehven said. "Every year you've got a brand new group of students and you get a different twist and flavor."