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Students create peace park as thanks

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How do you say thank you in a very big way? With a big very gift … like maybe a park.

That was the idea seven Woodstock North High School students came up with to thank the community for supporting their middle school Lego League team’s trip to an international competition in 2012.

“It’s neat to give back to the community because they supported us by paying for our plane tickets and housing and food,” said student Anna Gabrielson. 

Last month, the students, their families and people from the community came together to place bricks along the perimeter of a large concrete peace symbol, which marks Peace Park, located in Dick Tracy Way Park on Lake Avenue. The park’s design denotes global connectedness and a spirit of giving back.

“It was very hot that day, and we had people come out who ranged from age 5 to 76,” said GiGi Carlson, a gifted program facilitator with Woodstock School District 200 and a teacher in the Challenge Corps program. 

The park is a collaboration between the students, the city of Woodstock and the Bull Valley Garden Club. Impact Hardscape and Landscape Inc. of Wonder Lake, and Countryside of Crystal Lake also are involved in the project.

The next steps for the park include installation of benches made from recycled milk jugs and planting perennials within the peace sign circle. 

The project has been about two years in the making and began in the summer of 2012, when the students, Carlson and other chaperones returned from a trip to the FIRST LEGO League Open European Championship in Germany.

The students — Bella Biwar, Anna Gabrielson, Gwen Paulsen, Tim Kempster, Annica Slavin, Julia Slomski and John Stevens — were members of the Corn Stalkers, a Northwood Middle School Challenge Corps FIRST LEGO League robotics team. After receiving the Inspiration Award at the 2012 FIRST LEGO League state championship, the  Corn Stalkers were one of five U.S. teams invited to attend the international competition in Germany, which drew a total of 100 teams from 37 countries.

With only about three weeks to raise money for the trip, the students embarked on a letter-writing campaign and also applied for community grants.

“We missed the deadline to apply for a grant from the McHenry County Community Foundation, but a couple of individual members came through with sizeable donations,” said Linda Gabrielson, mother of one of the students and a District 200 teacher.

“Community members really stepped up because it was so unique that a team from a smaller community in Illinois was picked to represent the United States. We had kids donating four quarters, up through people from the community who contributed significant amounts,” Carlson said.

During their time in Germany, the students kept a blog so supporters could enjoy the adventure with them.

Carlson declined to name the exact amount the students raised, but said the team decided to pay forward the funds that remained after their expenses were met. Thus the Peace Park idea was born. 

For the students, the experience will live on not only in the park but also through the opportunities they had to interact with teens from around the world. 

“It was neat because it wasn’t just getting to experience German culture because there were 37 countries there,” said Julia Slomski. “We danced with the team from Israel, got T-shirts from Brazil.”

Each team brought souvenirs to hand out to other competitors. The Corn Stalkers brought pins decorated with American flags and ears of corn and necklaces with a domino, a symbol used by Challenge Corps.

The Corn Stalkers’ decision to name their Lego robot after a character in “The Big Bang Theory” TV series struck a chord with students from around the world. “It was amazing how many people recognized ‘Sheldon.’ Even though we come from opposite ends of the worlds, we all kind of fit together,” said Tim Kempster.

“Even students who knew no English knew enough to ask ‘Sheldon Cooper?’” said Carlson.

Most exciting is the possibility that their research project could make a difference on a global scale. When the Corn Stalkers presented their idea of using spices to control a fungus that grows on South African corn, one of the competition judges turned out to be a South African, who passed the students’ information along to his nation’s agricultural ministry, Carlson said.

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