April 4, 2018

In April of 2016, Mayville State University students, faculty, and staff embarked on a project to secure 200 backpacks to send to school children in Nepal. Their project was pursued in support of the goals and dreams of Ann Nicole Nelson, Stanley, N.D. native, who perished in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.

Dr. Mary Stammen, Director of Special Education with the Griggs, Steele, Traill Special Education Unit and personal friend of Ann Nicole Nelson, approached folks in the Mayville State University Division of Education regarding the project, asking for their support.  

The people of Mayville State were on board and were able to secure the financial assistance needed to purchase the backpacks. Dr. Brittany Hagen, Assistant Professor of Education, coordinated the efforts on behalf of Mayville State. Several Mayville State personnel helped out, as did May-Port CG Public School FBLA, Mayville United Ministry, a ladies aid group from New Town, N.D., and Teresa Delorme from Belcourt, N.D., as well as others.

“The members of the Mayville State family have a warm place in their hearts for school children, as the university’s original mission of educating school teachers is still going strong today,” said Dr. Brittany Hagen. “The backpack project was a perfect fit.”

Once the funds were raised, 200 colorful backpacks were purchased, with the help of Pam Soholt, director of the MSU Bookstore, and the generosity of Jansport of Appleton, Wis., the maker of the backpacks. The backpacks were ready to be packed up and sent to Nepal, but not before an extra measure of kindness was added.

Donalee Strand, coordinator of the Mayville State Education and Innovation Center, worked with leaders at the local elementary school on a project that involved the students writing personal notes to be inserted into each of the backpacks. The hope was to encourage pen pals and some communication among school children in Nepal and North Dakota, reinforcing the overall message of love and kindness among all people of the world.

The backpacks were packed up and shipped to Nepal, but there was a bit of a hold-up in getting the gift to its destination, when Customs officials flagged the shipment. North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp and her staff came to the aid of project leaders and were successful in getting the backpacks released so they could get to their intended recipients.

The Backpacks for Nepal project came full circle Wednesday, April 4, 2018, when the children of Peter Boe, Jr. Elementary were able to share the letters of thanks they had recently received from their friends in Nepal with one another and with an audience of parents, grandparents, news media, and others.

A special guest in the crowd who gathered to learn more about this meaningful project was Senator Heitkamp, who addressed the children and thanked them for the message of hope they carried through their letter-writing project. Heitkamp also presented Mary Stammen with an American flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol.

“Mayville State University has long been known for the personal service that is provided, not only on campus, but also in the community, across the country, and around the world,” said Dr. Gary Hagen, MSU president. “This personal service has shone brightly, as the backpack project has personified what made Ann so special - loving people deeply, embracing diversity, and learning about and traveling the world.”

See story (including video) by WDAY News.

Who was Ann Nicole Nelson?

Ann Nicole Nelson was known as a positive, purposeful, and adventuresome person. She was a bond broker for the Cantor Fitzgerald Company. Sadly, at 30 years old, Ann perished in the World Trade Towers, where her office was located. This happened just four days after she started working there.

When her computer was returned to her parents after her death, a precious discovery was made. Among the documents on Ann’s computer was a file entitled “Top 100.” The list was a compilation of goals and dreams Ann wanted to accomplish and experience in her lifetime. The list included being healthier, building a house in North Dakota, and going helicopter skiing with her dad. The list was incomplete with only 37 items. The list and story were published in the New York Times and Cosmopolitan magazine.

A house in North Dakota

Seeing the story inspired Jeff Parness, founder of New York Says Thank You (NYSTY), to contact the Nelson family to explore the possibility of a project. Out of those discussions grew a plan to build a year-around adaptive recreation facility for wounded veterans and people with disabilities. Annie’s House, a collaborative effort by NYSTY, Bottineau (N.D.) Winter Park, and friends and family from across the country, brought Ann’s dream to build a home in North Dakota to life.

#6. Nepal

Item #6 on Ann’s list was “Nepal.” On the anniversary of 9/11 in 2015, volunteers with NSYTY travelled to Nepal to help rebuild schools destroyed in a deadly earthquake and lift the spirits of children in Katmandu as part of their emotional recovery from the tragedy. Stars of HOPE were painted and funds were raised. An early childhood development center was built in Ann’s memory. It is located in Singulpuchek, Nepal, one of the areas hit hardest in the earthquake.

What does this have to do with the backpack project?

Deepa Tamang, a teacher in the Alchemist Academy in Katmandu, was so moved by this international gesture to “pay it forward” on the 9/11 anniversary, and so inspired by Ann’s story, that she decided to “pay it forward” as well. Deepa has been helping the remote village in the Sinulpuchek region by bringing clothes and books for the young children. It is her way to keep this chain of love and kindness going.

Deepa asked for 200 weather-proof backpacks that she can give to the children to use to carry their books to and from school. The children have to climb very steep hills to get to school and backpacks could make their lives easier and make a very big statement – that we care.