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Spring breakers from up north do work in Longview

By Alex Byrd abyrd@news-journal.com
March 18, 2014 at 10 p.m.

Minneapolis-area spring breakers switched places Tuesday morning with the troops of the Salvation Army and rang their bell, for a change.

As part of the nine-day "Pay it Forward Tour," the Mystery Machine arrived Tuesday morning in Longview carrying University of Minnesota students simply wanting to help strangers during their week off from classes and professors.

"We ultimately want to break stereotypes," sophomore bus leader Zac Bair said of their decision to volunteer.

"Our generation isn't filled with people that just want to get drunk in Panama City."

The university's Students Today, Leaders Forever members traveled more than 1,177 miles south to St. Joseph, Mo., Broken Arrow, Okla., Pine Bluff, Ark., Houston and Longview in a figuratively blindfolded fashion.

With just a day's notice, about two dozen students visited the Lone Star State for the first time.

"We have six buses that leave from the University of Minnesota - there's a classic bus where the students know where they're staying and what they'll be doing, then there's the mystery bus that finds out the city right before we get there," Bair said of surprise. "It's more fun this way."

While cleaning the future meditation prayer garden overrun with leaves and giving the church hallway a painted facelift at Longview's Salvation Army, volunteers beamed as they compared the Texas sunshine to the wintry land they came from.

The students, all in their 20s, laughed about road trip jokes.

"Mom, this was God all of the way," Longview Salvation Army Advisory Board Chairman Emily Belue said to her mother.

"Who knows when all of this would have gotten done if they had not shown up."

Since their initial start in Minnesota 11 years ago, 21,201 volunteers have served 295,000 volunteer hours during 531 tours. The leaders carried out various fundraisers to provide everyone who wanted to volunteer a fair chance to come along and help out.

"It was a fun way to bond and get everyone involved," said Kaila Formanek, senior communications sciences and disorder student, of gathering money for the group.

Two months ago, Belue followed her mother's example and join the Salvation Army, a nearly two-century-old Christian group of 1.5 million strong.

"My husband insists that I don't have to work, but I just love serving the community in this way," Belue said. "I'm just floored they randomly called me one day wanting to help. It's just the icing on the cake."



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