By Robb Murray
---- — MANKATO — As a very involved high school student, Tatum Schulz says she's had plenty of opportunities to engage with just about every facet of high school life.
But there's been one activity, she said, that rises above the rest.
Schulz, a senior, is a member of the Student Council's Executive Board. The board in the last two years has embarked on a mission to make a difference in the lives of fellow students in need.
They started a program called the Mankato East Sharing Tree, a program that helps provide for students in need during the holiday and winter months. Students raised more than $8,000 and used the money to shop for Christmas gifts — more than 700 total — and wrapped them all. Their efforts helped about 200 students at both East junior and senior high schools.
"This is the coolest thing I've ever been involved with in my entire high school career," Schulz said. "And I've been involved in a lot."
The Mankato East Sharing Tree program was impressive enough to get the Student Council's Executive Board recognized as the 2014 Young Pathfinder Award winner.
Pathfinder Awards, the winners of which were announced Thursday, are given annually to individuals and businesses whose deeds and work ethic fall within the spirit of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is the 30th year the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Board has recognized such work in the Mankato area.
Pathfinder Awards come in three forms: The Pathfinder, Young Pathfinder and Business Pathfinder.
Bev Mountain, program coordinator for Mankato Area Public Schools Adult Basic Education, is the Pathfinder Award winner. And while she was proud, she was clearly not used to all the attention.
"Did it show in my face?" she asked. "This is not where I like to be. I tell my students, 'We're all on the same page, we just have different jobs.'"
Mountain has worked in adult basic education for more than 20 years. In fact, before she worked there, she was a student. She took the GED she earned there and turned it into a college degree, and from there pursued her passion of helping others realize their potential.
"As I reached my goals and became employed, I wanted very much to pay it back," she said. "But I found the only way to pay it back was to pay it forward."
The Pathfinder Award is designed to recognize "initiators or action takers in the struggle for equal treatment and human rights."
During Mountain's tenure, her department has received several statewide awards for excellence and increased its overall community reach by 45 percent. In the 2012-2013 school year, they served 986 students who represented 44 countries. She instituted bilingual medical training and English Language Learner Adult Diploma courses for people ages 10-24.
Established in 2003, the business aims to recognize businesses that "strive for equal treatment, human rights and non-violence in the workplace."
In 2013 Sodexo, which is Minnesota State University's food service provider, placed No. 1 on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity List.
"Diversity is ingrained in our culture," said Sheryl Harrison, district manager for Sodexo, "and in how we attract and retain employees."
In his nomination for Sodexo, MSU's Michael Fagin wrote, "A major emphasis in the fabric of Sodexo's organization is the value of inclusion and diversity. The company has distinguished itself by hiring people with disabilities and ensuring equal opportunities for all people."
Added Harrison, "If our customers are more diverse, we need to be more diverse."
This award was created in 2002 to recognize the "hard work, commitment and courage displayed by area young people and organizations of young people as they strive."
At the announcement Thursday, student Jack Cunningham — the man with the idea for the project — spoke for the group, which also included Schulz, Alyson Enderle, Macy Anderson, Lauren Andrego and Mason Bultje.
"Through this program, we have been able to see, firsthand, the impact of our actions," he said. "What makes this so special is that we are helping kids in our own school, students that we see and walk with in the halls every day."
Melodee Hoffner, the guidance counselor who works with seniors, said the project was a unique one.
"I nominated Jack, Macy, Mason, Lauren, Alyson and Tatum because, as a counselor at Mankato East High School, I have directly witnessed the incredible impact this program has had on our students," she said. "It has inspired many of the recipients and our entire staff to increase our commitment to serving others both in our school and community."
If you go What Martin Luther King Jr. Community Celebration When 5:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 20 Where Minnesota State University's Centennial Student Union Ballroom Cost Tickets are $10 (ages 10 and younger are free). Tickets are available at the Greater Mankato Diversity Council (10 Civic Center Plaza), MSU's Office of Institutional Diversity in Morris Hall, the South Central College bookstore and The Coffee Hag.