More than a dozen St. James High School students were part of a bus trip earlier this month that had them making meals at food service outfits, touring colleges, and getting to see Chicago.

It was the seventh annual Students Today, Leaders Forever (STLF) Pay it Forward Trip. None of the St. James students had to pay for the trip, but they had to complete volunteer work--like crafting meals and helping remove invasive vegetation from forest preserves--along the way.

Anyone from the high school was eligible to sign up for the trip, and one could make multiple trips, said Shawna Asendorf, the youth development coordinator for the district who accompanied the local students on the trip. All but one of the St. James High School students were on their first of these trips.

The adventures always culminate in a major metropolitan market, Asendorf said. This year, it was Chicago, but past excursions have landed in St. Louis and Kansas City.

The whole idea was the creation of four University of Minnesota students, and, this year, six college leaders from multiple universities acted as guides, she said. There were 36 high school students on the trip from schools like New Ulm, Springfield, and Sleepy Eye.

“The first time we went on the trip was seven years ago, so we were in on the ground floor,” Asendorf said. “All credit goes to Sue Harris, who heard about this (first).”

The students departed June 10, and Rochester, Minn., was their first stop. There, they did a service project, helping to eradicate garlic mustard, or Alliaria Petiolata--considered an invasive species by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources--before staying overnight in a local church. From there, it was on to Madison, Wis., where they did meat packing at a food distribution center. Like in Rochester, where they toured Minnesota’s Rochester campus, they also toured a college in Madison--the University of Wisconsin.

“We were all really tired going to (UW), and there was a lot of walking,” said rising junior Madi Carlson. “But, it was beautiful.”

Elizabeth Asendorf, a rising sophomore and Shawna Asendorf’s daughter, said her three older sisters either currently attend or have attended UW, so she’s made multiple trips there in the past. She’s been so impressed that the school is the leader in the clubhouse to gain her attendance in a couple years.

Following Madison, the group hit another food distribution center, this one in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, before retiring for the evening in a church in Elgin, Ill. Finally, they arrived in Chicago, and, though they were only granted three hours, they managed to hit a fair number of culturally significant sites.

For example, they took photos in front of Cloud Gate while in Millenium Park. Also known as “The Bean,” Cloud Gate is British artist Anish Kapoor's first public outdoor work installed in the United States, and it’s an immensely popular attraction.

The 110-ton elliptical sculpture is forged of a seamless series of highly polished stainless steel plates, which reflect Chicago’s famous skyline and the clouds above. according to the city of Chicago. A 12-foot-high arch provides a "gate" to the concave chamber beneath the sculpture, inviting visitors to touch its mirror-like surface and see their image reflected back from a variety of perspectives. Inspired by liquid mercury, the sculpture is among the largest of its kind in the world, measuring 66-feet long by 33-feet high.

They also spent time on the “Magnificent Mile.” Among the sublime restaurants and nightlife, the Michigan Avenue district is home to some of the finest shopping in the world.

They also got to stroll along Navy Pier and bring home an assortment of souvenirs. Perhaps their favorite part of the Chicago leg of the journey, however, was finally getting to stay in a hotel after multiple nights sleeping in churches.

During the trip, nights usually consisted of a variety of getting-to-know-you activities and forced mingling, which many in the St. James contingent found awkward. However, by the end of the trip, the students said they appreciated getting to learn from their contemporaries in other school districts, and they way they grew closer to their fellow St. James students--even though most in the group did not travel in the same social circles prior to the trip.

“The college leaders were really fun and good; I don’t think I’ve ever laughed that much,” Carlson said. “The bus (riding) was one of the most fun parts; we did most of our bonding on the bus, and we all opened up at the same time. It was a fun atmosphere.”

Carolina Benavente, a rising senior who eventually wants to become a nurse, added, “We got so close in such a short period of time.”

“A highlight for me was watching how relationships can develop in such a short period of time,” Shawna Asendorf said. “People actually put their phones down, and they’re great kids; it makes me confident in the next generation of youth.”

Asendorf’s daughter added, “At first, I was shy, but I opened up and got a lot closer to the people from St. James.”

Karen Hernandez, a rising senior who would eventually like to be a nurse, said knowing how many people were helped through the packing of the meals was a highlight for her, as was getting to know her classmates better.

Many of the St. James students also expressed an interest in not only going on next year’s trip, but, when they reach college, becoming a leader of one of these expeditions. 

For the complete story, please see the June 26 print edition of the St. James Plaindealer.

Ryan Anderson can be reached at randerson@stjamesnews and followed on Twitter @randerson_ryan