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Celebs flock to Benson as thousands celebrate school’s effort in Target campaign

Country music star Luke Bryan takes the stage Tuesday in Benson. Bryan was among the celebrities to celebrate the Northside Elementary School’s “Give With Target” championship. Tribune photo by Tom Larson1 / 4
An estimated crowd of 3,500 was on hand at the Benson High School Football Field during the celebration. Tribune photo by Tom Larson2 / 4
Sophia Bush, an activist on environmental and social justice issues, shares a moment with students. She said she wanted to let students know they had a “voice,” and to use social media in a positive way to be hard. Tribune photo by Tom Larson3 / 4
Donald Driver, a former wideout and Super Bowl champion with the Green Bay Packers, addresses the crowd. Tribune photo by Tom Larson4 / 4

BENSON — Benson High School football players asked Donald Driver what was his greatest moment ever, and without hesitation the former Green Bay Packer star replied: “Winning the Super Bowl.”

All of Benson knew that feeling Tuesday, as a crowd estimated at topping 3,500 filled the Benson High School football field to celebrate the Northside Elementary School’s “Give With Target” championship. Celebrities including country music star Luke Bryan, actresses La La Anthony and Sophia Bush, U.S. gymnast and 2012 two-time Olympic gold medal winner Gabrielle Douglas, and Driver took a stage that stood 40 feet tall and 100 feet wide.

The stage was rivaled by the smile worn by Roger Ebnet, the second-grade instructor at Northside Elementary who quarterbacked the drive that allowed the school to be the first to collect 10,000 votes on Target’s Internet campaign and win cash to match.

“It’s awesome,” said Roger Ebnet, when speaking prior to the show about the victory and the campaign that led to it.

It was neck and neck on the last day, with only a 20-vote difference between Benson and its closest competitor, a school on Staten Island, New York. Ebnet, who had personally sent out 1,000 messages to win support, rallied supporters to distribute fliers around town urging people to vote and push Benson over the top.

“Everybody had a piece of this,” said Ebnet of the victory. He said the excitement that was evident throughout the community was all about winning as a community. “It was the fact that we got number one in the U.S.,” he said.

And there was no overstating the excitement at the Tuesday evening celebration. “This is probably like the most crazy thing I’ve ever seen,” said Taylor Laumeyer, a Benson High School junior preparing to perform at the event with the high school band.

Laumeyer said the day seemed “surreal,” with celebrities in town and in the school, where they met with students.

They emphasized the importance of education, and being involved.

Sophia Bush, an activist on environmental and social justice issues, said she wanted to let students know they had a “voice,” and to use social media in a positive way to be hard.

The star of the show was country music star Luke Bryan, who had dropped into town around noon. He worked out at Snap Fitness, checked out Mike’s Sports, and stopped at McKinney’s Southside to cook up his own burger. “To me it’s all fun,” he told the local radio station, KSCR, where he also stopped. “Being in Benson, Minnesota, is as fun as being in New York City.”

It did not surprise Laysha Ward, president of community relations for Target, that rural Benson could out-compete an urban school. Ward said Target’s campaign encourages communities to rally together, and that is exactly what Benson had done so well.

“What brings us together and not what divides us is what makes this country amazing,” Ward told the Tribune.

She told the crowd that Benson was a model for the nation in how it came together to win this award.

It was of course the “free money” of a possible $10,000 prize that initially motivated Ebnet to launch the campaign, he said. The Northside School made a run for it last year and made it to third place, giving Ebnet confidence that it could be done this year.

Yet there were many who had their doubts, Benson Mayor Paul Kittelson among them. The mayor said he had to admit that he did not imagine this would be possible when the campaign started, but he said it caught fire fast. “It had a ripple effect,” as people, businesses, neighboring communities and alumni from around the country joined to vote online.

“It’s good for the town,” said the mayor of what the whole affair meant to Benson.

As for the school, it actually has more than $12,000 in prize money, thanks to votes that also went to the high school. Ebnet said there are a variety of areas where the money could be used, such as purchasing more technological equipment. He said a committee of educators will be meeting to recommend how the funds are to be used.

As for Tuesday, it was all about celebrating. “It’s an honor to be here,” said Driver to the cheering crowd. “From one champion to another.”

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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