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Willmar YES students to host webcast telethon for greenhouse project

Colter White, a member of the Youth Energy Summit team, tends to cabbage Tuesday in the greenhouse on the Minnesota West Technology campus. Many of the vegetables grown in the greenhouse now will be transplanted to a tilled garden outside and raised for sale at Becker Market. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

Classrooms are OK, but there's really no better place for learning than a greenhouse.

Just ask the Youth Energy Summit students at the Willmar Senior High School, who are about to host a 12-hour webcast telethon on Friday to raise funds for what has become their favorite classroom.

"It's a lot of fun,'' said Allicia Allred, a junior at the Willmar High School as she tended to newly emerged vegetables in the greenhouse located on the Minnesota West Technology Campus. "And I'm getting credit in class for it,'' she added.

She will be among the students paying for that opportunity by hosting the telethon. The students have put together a full day's script for the telethon including singing, dancing, telling jokes, interviewing guests and most of all, showing video clips explaining the importance of the greenhouse project, according to Allred's fellow junior, Shea Johnson.

The telethon is part of a campaign to raise $10,000 to benefit the greenhouse project, in good part because so many have discovered what a great place for learning it is.

The greenhouse project was launched more than two years ago by YES students looking to reduce our carbon footprint.

The Minnesota West Technology Center offered students the use of a 20s-era greenhouse that was once part of the state hospital campus.

The students' goal is to replace vegetables transported long distances by trucks with fresh greens raised right at home. They're proving it can be done, even during the bitter cold of a Minnesota winter. Alex Benson is only too happy to show how: He insulated a 180-gallon tank inside the greenhouse that holds water heated by 252-square feet of solar panels.

When the sun can't do it on its own, Benson said a biomass burner donated by Aquatherm of Brooten kicks in and takes over. It uses Sunrise Agri-fuel pellets made of local crop residues as its fuel, he explained.

The nearly carbon-neutral heating system keeps roughly 1,500 square feet of glass enclosed area warm enough to produce all kinds of tasty greens through the winter. They've become a popular and regular part of the lunch fare at the Willmar schools.

Now that it's spring, the beds of soil hold a greater assortment of vegetables -- from spicy peppers and tomatoes to parsnip -- that will be transplanted on tilled soil outside and raised for sale at the Becker Market.

Lessons in everything from horticulture to business are offered in the process, but that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the kind of learning that really takes place here.

Kenny Turck is a graduate intern completing his master's in social work at St. Cloud State University. He is assisting YES advisor and WHS science teacher Robert Palmer with the greenhouse project. He said the 30 plus students involved in the greenhouse project through YES are not the only young students able to take advantage of the learning environment it offers.

He has found that the "hands on'' learning it makes possible is a tremendous motivator for all students. He's introduced students from the Prairie Lakes Youth Program and the Alternative Learning Center to educational opportunities in the greenhouse.

Turck is convinced that gardening also grows young minds. Hands on work and the ability to see the fruits of your labor are important, said Turck, adding that he has yet to meet a student who has not enjoyed working with garden plants.

The YES students have found that there are many others in the community who appreciate the value of what the greenhouse offers. They've benefited from lots of community support, as stores and other businesses have donated everything from seeds to the labor of skilled trades people to the project.

The Minnesota West Technology Center- which has provided both greenhouse and solar panels to the project- continues its support by turning over its Fireside Lounge area as the set for Friday's webcast. The students hope that people will tune in and offer support, whether as cash, donated goods or pledged labor.

Turck said the funds will help assure that more students can use the greenhouse, while also helping with desired improvements to it.