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Road trip

Julie Saetre | Jan 12, 2018

University of Montana's Cooper Sprunk meets his California pen-pals face-to-face.

One day this past October 19, fourth- and fifth-grade students from Gerber, California, scrambled excitedly onto a bus, followed by nine adult chaperones, ready for an excursion. But this journey was no everyday field trip.

These youth were traveling 460 miles via luxury motor coach to Portland State University in Oregon to attend a football game between the home team Vikings and the University of Montana Grizzlies. Why? To watch Cooper Sprunk — their pen pal and mentor — play. And Kiwanians in Montana and California made it possible.

Sprunk, a University of Montana senior and offensive lineman for the Grizzlies, connected with the students through Gerber Elementary School’s affiliation with the No Excuses University Network of Schools. As part of the program, a university assigns a representative to “adopt” an elementary, middle or high school class and encourage its students to achieve academically and plan for a college education.

“Our kids come from a rough area, and a lot them have home lives that aren’t that great,” says Keri Stengel, a third-grade teacher. “Some of them don’t have dads around or don’t have the greatest role models.”
 
As a sophomore, Sprunk began exchanging letters with Stengel’s students. Before long, Skype sessions were added.

When those students moved on to fourth grade, Sprunk worked with Stengel’s next third-grade class.

A year ago, he traveled to Gerber on his winter break to meet both groups of youth.
In January 2017, Michelle Wheeler, a member of the Sentinel Kiwanis Club in Missoula, Montana, read an article detailing Sprunk’s devotion to the students.

“It’s a really beautiful relationship that he’s formed,” she says. “And so my thought as I was reading was, ‘He’s got a Kiwanis heart.’”

She decided to raise funds to allow “Cooper’s Kids” to attend a University of Montana football game, and the one closest to Gerber was in Portland. So Wheeler contacted three additional Kiwanis clubs — Missoula in Montana and Red Bluff and Central Tehama County, Los Molinos in California — and formed a fundraising quartet. The University of Montana pitched in with its own campaign, and Montana businesses and residents joined the effort.

“It takes a village,” says Wheeler, “and the village definitely stepped up on this project.”
 In September, Cooper’s Kids—many of whom had never been out of Gerber—made the eight-and-a-half-hour trip to Portland.
 
"There were so many wonderful parts (to the experience),” says chaperone Stengel. “But when Cooper was done with the game, came out on the field, raised his arms and (the students) all hugged him, that is probably the biggest one that sticks with me. The look on Cooper’s face—you can tell he loves them as much as they love him.”

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