Some children lugged sandbags that weighed more than they did. Determined teens showed up just after dawn with groups of friends, ready and willing to shovel. New groups of kids arrived by the busloads, all ready to join the race to protect their city from the rising Red River.
Thousands of volunteers are lending a hand this week to fill and stack sandbags to place along the river and near endangered homes as Fargo faces the threat of a severe flood after the river's expected crest Sunday. But the heart of that volunteer corps are the city's youngest citizens.
It's a job that elsewhere might be reserved for emergency workers or at least, their parents. But here, students can be excused from class with their parents' permission and join the hundreds of adults who are taking on the task of filling 1 million sandbags to hold back the impending floodwaters.
"They pretty much have saved our community," said David Stark, 62, who worked beside hundreds of student volunteers Tuesday. One of the few seniors to join the effort, he had to take a break after hurting his hand and was in awe of the students' dedication.
Many of the volunteers know that what they're doing may help save a neighbor or friend. Michael Russell, 14, didn't mind missing a day of school to get dirty filling sandbags. He guessed many would end up near his own home or his friends' homes.
"I think I'm helping the city and my friends," he said.
Emilee Stevens normally can't wait more than a few minutes without itching to send a text message to a friend. This week, she didn't think about touching her cell phone as she shoveled, stacked and filled sandbags to help save her town.
"Texting would be hard to do sandbagging but it doesn't matter because all my friends are here anyway," said the 14-year-old Stevens.
The students are providing critical manpower when their community needs it most. Since March 1, volunteers have been bused in to Fargo's "Sandbag Central," an arena-size utility building normally used to house a fleet of 25 garbage trucks, said Terry Ludlum, the city's solid waste utility manager. There, with the help of machines and volunteers, up to 100,000 sandbags can be filled in a 12-hour shift. Fifty volunteers can fill about 1,000 sandbags an hour.
The volunteers are expected to meet their goal Wednesday afternoon, three days ahead of schedule and largely because of the help of the young students, Ludlum said. More than 1,000 children and teens have participated in the effort.
"We certainly would not be this far along without the help of these kids," Ludlum said.
Student volunteers are a critical part of Fargo's flood response plan, and without them, the city would be sunk. College students helped with the sandbagging effort last year when the region lived through record flooding, but this year, they are on spring break. To fill the gap, hundreds of middle school and high school students have been enlisted to work three- to four-hour shifts for 12 hours each day.
Some children are in grade school, or not even old enough to enroll.
Tina Gianakos brought her three sons to help out. Three-year-old Carsen Gianakos brought his own plastic shovel, and kept pace with brothers Bradley, 8, and Adam, 11.
"We're helping save people's houses so the little kids don't drown," Bradley said.
Carsen was lugging a 35-pound sandbag to a pallet for loading, something that impressed Tom Kempel, a city employee who was overseeing the effort.
"That sandbag is as big as he is, probably bigger," Kempel said. "He feels like he's part of the effort, and he is."
Carsen put down his toy shovel only long enough to take an occasional slide down a sand pile, or to watch heavy machinery that hauled the sandbags away.
"Wow!" he said, pointing to a bucket-loader that chewed into 10-foot-high piles of sand.
Ciera Watkin, a 17-year-old high school senior, said the sandbagging was hard work. Watkin and her friend, 17-year-old Alysa Lerud, were exhausted after pulling a nearly five-hour shift on Tuesday.
"This is hard and my back hurts from shoveling and everything," Watkin said. "But I'll come back."
Gov. John Hoeven said the sandbagging effort couldn't have been done without the student volunteers.
"They're moving those bags like crazy," said Hoeven, who filled a few sandbags and patted the backs of many young workers. "They are taking pride in helping their community and we are grateful."
(This version CORRECTS time element in graf 4 to Tuesday.)
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