She only may be 14, but Caitlin Cross has been a community volunteer since she was 4, when she helped make chili for the second annual United Way Chili Cook-Off.
On Thursday night as the Mississippi Horizons ninth-grader was honored as Outstanding Youth Volunteer of the Year at the 2004 Distinguished Service Awards Banquet at Madden's Resort Town Hall, Cross took the opportunity on stage to ask audience members to volunteer. Thank you notes could be found on the chairs of the 215 people who attended the event.
Cross, the youngest daughter of Mark and Nancy Cross of Baxter, asked that everyone take a moment to write a thank you note before they left the event that would be sent in care packages for Thanksgiving to soldiers serving in Iraq, one of her many volunteer projects.
During her emotional speech, Cross thanked her parents and her brother, Patrick, the 1999 Outstanding Youth Volunteer, and her sister, Rachel, the 2002 Youth Volunteer of the Year, for "inspiring me to start my projects."
Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
Cindy Peterson (left), 2004 Outstanding Child-Care Provider of the Year, spoke with Steve Esser, 2004 Outstanding Brainerd Citizen of the Year, before the Distinguished Service Awards Banquet at Madden's Resort Town Hall Thursday.
"When you help others, you help yourself," said Cross. "This is true in so many ways. The most important thing you can get out of this tonight is to make a difference. ... The honor of this award only inspires me more to start my own change reaction."
Cross was one of eight Brainerd area residents honored Thursday night for their volunteer service to the community. The sixth annual event was sponsored by Brainerd Jaycees, Brainerd Dispatch and Brainerd Community Action.
In 1994, Eryk Haapajoki was standing on stage toasting his father, the late Jon Haapajoki, when his father was honored as Brainerd Citizen of the Year.
On Thursday, exactly 10 years later to the day, it was Eryk's turn to be honored as the 2004 Outstanding Young Citizen of the Year. The 30-year-old said he was humbled by this award.
"If you would have told me then I would be up here for this award, I would have laughed," said Haapajoki. "If you would have told me this a month ago, I would have had the same response."
Haapajoki said his father always said, "We work hard so we can play hard," adding that he felt fortunate that he can do both by running the annual Brainerd Men's Softball Tournament, which raises money for the Jon C. Haapajoki Memorial Fund to benefit Camp Sertoma at Camp Confidence for hearing-impaired children.
"The older I get the more I realize how important it is to be involved in the community," said Haapajoki. "I think all the award winners tonight have a common bond. We don't look for recognition or awards. We do the things we do because we want to."
"Never in my life did I work to achieve this," said Betty Johnson, the 2004 Outstanding Senior Citizen. "This is not what I volunteered for. I needed to be busy. I enjoy people and I've met wonderful people in my volunteering. God gave me the ability and good health to do many different things. And I've never asked anyone in volunteering to do anything that I wouldn't do myself."
Charlie Dunemann, named Outstanding Firefighter of the Year, said the Brainerd Fire Department is like a football team; they must train together much like a football team.
"It's a privilege to accept this award on behalf of the Brainerd Fire Department, the team, and you," said Dunemann.
Brainerd Superintendent Jerry Walseth introduced Clare Sinner, the 2004 Outstanding Educator, who is a special education teacher at Garfield Elementary School in Brainerd.
"Clare is trusted by our parents, she is respected by her colleagues, she is loved by her students and for those of you, like Betty Johnson (a retired teacher in the district) who understand the skills that it takes in the learning process, if you understand that, she has our admiration," Walseth said of Sinner.
"Oh my goodness, this is so nice," said Sinner. "I'm honored to be here tonight and I'm humbled by this award. Teaching is my profession. It's not just my job. It's what I love."
Brainerd Police Chief John Bolduc introduced Officer Brian Brewer, a DARE instructor in the Brainerd School District for 10 years and a member of the Brainerd Police Department, who was honored as 2004 Outstanding Law Enforcement Officer.
"He'll be surrounded by kids at a football game and they'll run up and ask if he remembers them and the answer is always yes," said Bolduc, of Brewer. "They may be 21 years old and Brian remembers them as fifth-graders. They made an impact on Brian and he made an impact on them."
Brewer said he considers himself lucky to work in the Brainerd Police Department, where he has been able to work with about 6,000 children during the past 10 years through the DARE program.
"I consider this quite an honor," said Brewer, of the award.
Cindy Peterson, named 2004 Outstanding Child Care Provider, thanked her day-care parents and children.
"They keep me hopping, but they are a caring group of kids," said Peterson, of her young charges. "They taught me to be patient and help me feel young at heart. And when the day is going rough, they always have a hug and kiss for you that really brightens your day and makes it all worthwhile."
Steve Esser, the 2004 Outstanding Citizen of the Year, was presented with his award by Brainerd Mayor James Wallin and Baxter City Council member Mark Cross.
Esser said not long after he and his wife, Linda, moved back to Brainerd in 1975, he met Marv Campbell, a former banker and the 1975 Brainerd Citizen of the Year. Campbell, he said, told him he had to become involved in the community.
"Marv said, 'You have no choice, Steve, you're going to be involved in this community. And that's an order,'" Esser recalled. "I owed Marv money so I thought I'd better do what he said."
Esser thanked his family for putting up with him not being home because he was attending a meeting, and thanked his 95-year-old mother, Alma, who wasn't feeling well and was unable to attend the banquet.
"She's anxiously waiting to hear, as a mother does, to know if I fell off stage tonight or if I spilled food on my shirt," said Esser with a smile.
JODIE TWEED can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5858.
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