by Marc and Julie Anderson
AXTELL — The drive between here and Ashland is more than five hours, but it’s recently been shortened somewhat by the generosity of this year’s graduating seniors of Axtell High School.
On spring break this past March, Maddy Kuckelman, then senior class president and a member of St. Michael Parish in Axtell, learned on Facebook of the devastation caused by the wildfires burning at the time in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas.
She knew she wanted to help the ranchers and their families, especially after she learned classmates Nick Buessing and Burke Deters had spent part of their spring break delivering two truckloads of supplies to the impacted area and helping the ranchers.
In Kansas, the wildfires set a state record as the largest in history, claiming more than 651,000 acres of land, at least 20 homes, more than 30 buildings, thousands of cattle, and hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of fencing.
In Clark County alone, although the fires didn’t touch the county seat of Ashland, the fires claimed approximately 85 percent of the land.
Kuckelman thought about it, prayed about it and then came up with a plan.
“I knew I wanted to do something,” she said, adding it wasn’t until after spring break that her plan was realized.
Kuckelman suggested to her classmates they give up their senior class trip. Instead, they would give their money, a sum of $2,200, to help those in Ashland.
All 15 of her classmates agreed. Nine of them are Catholic like Kuckelman, and represent three different parishes: St. Michael, Sacred Heart Parish in Baileyville and Holy Family Parish in Summerfield.
The decision was hailed by many, including Kuckelman’s fellow class member and parishioner Patricia Heiman, as “genius.”
“I thought, ‘Maddy, you’re a genius. That’s a brilliant idea,’” Heiman said.
So Kuckelman approached the school principal Larry Geist to ask whether the money was the seniors to spend as they saw fit.
“Obviously, it was,” Geist said, although he suggested it would be nice if the class would make a trip to Ashland to present the money instead of just mailing the donation. The class agreed.
Geist contacted USD 220 superintendent Jamie Wetig and made the arrangements. On April 19, class members, accompanied by Geist and class sponsor Pam Buessing, both of whom belong to St. Michael, traveled to Ashland.
In addition to delivering the check, the class listened to the stories of a few of the students affected by the fires, including then-senior Quanah Gardiner. Gardiner’s family had not only lost their home, but some 42,000 acres — representing more than 87 percent of their land — 600 cattle and 270 miles of fencing.
Gardiner, whose family is staying at an apartment in their sale barn, said he was profoundly touched by the students’ generosity.
A Methodist, he said he believed the students possess a genuine willingness to give to others, in large part due to two factors — being part of a rural community and their strong Christian faith.
That’s a sentiment with which Pam Buessing completely agrees.
“I think they are just hometown kids that help others in their time of need,” she said. “When they found out that two of the seniors from Ashland had lost their homes, they put themselves in the Ashland students’ shoes and tried to feel what they were going through.”
After the trip, stories started appearing in print and on television. More than one donor offered to replace the kids’ senior trip funds, and the cycle of giving started all over again.
This time, the Axtell students invited the entire Ashland senior class to join them on a May 15 trip to Kansas City, Missouri, which included stops at Union Station and Worlds of Fun. When Worlds of Fun learned of the plan, the amusement park provided free admission, a hotel in Seneca provided hotel rooms for the Ashland class and their chaperones, and a local merchant gave everyone a pizza party the night before the trip to allow everyone to get acquainted.
Both Geist and Father Aaron Peters, a member of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison who is currently handling some of the Masses for St. Michael’s, said the students never wanted any recognition for their efforts nor did they expect anything in return.
In fact, many students have expressed being embarrassed by the media attention. Yet, it’s been gratifying for both to see the students’ act of Christian love.
“It was their faith that prompted them to do this,” said Father Aaron.
“The Gospel says that what you give from your heart, you’ll get back tenfold,” Geist said. “These kids didn’t give from their surplus. They gave everything they had.”
The students, though, insist they’re nothing special.
“Growing up in a small town, we’re always well aware of those around us,” said Heiman.
She and her classmates just did what came naturally to them, she said, but knows that the experience will “definitely stay with me.”
“I’ll always have in mind that giving is what I’m called to do, it’s what I can do, and it’s what I need to do,” said Heiman. “That will definitely guide my life.”