- Associated Press - Thursday, December 25, 2014

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) - What began as a quiet conversation on a plane evolved into a community-wide effort to help students in need stay warm this winter.

Charlotte Ragland, a manager at Hampton Inn & Suites, struck up a conversation with another passenger on a flight to Williston. The passenger, a Wilkinson Elementary School teacher, mentioned how badly students needed winter clothes and the seed was planted.

“There shouldn’t be a need in this town,” Ragland said.

Back in town, Ragland read an article discussing the increasing number of homeless students in Williston Public School District No. 1. There are 186 homeless students in the district as of Dec. 4.

Natasha Holman, a Hampton Inn administrator, told Ragland about students who can’t play outside because they don’t have proper winter clothing. Holman has three children, including a fifth grader enrolled at Wilkinson.

“Not everybody is making as much money as oilfield workers,” Holman said. “I told my boss, there are kids wearing the same old clothes every day, and not warm enough. She took it from there.”

Ragland’s started a “hat tree” in the Hampton Inn lobby, where people contribute hats, gloves and other articles of winter clothing for students in need. Like other Williston hotels, the Hampton Inn hosts oil industry workers for weeks or even months.

Hugo Olmedo and Robert Franke, of San Antonio, Texas, stay at the hotel. They work as technicians at TD Williamson Pipeline Service, and have made weekly stays at the Hampton Inn since March.

They donated 20 hats.

“We wanted to help out,” Olmedo said. “Every community needs help.”

Ragland didn’t stop there. She contacted Jeremy Mehlhoff, Wilkinson’s principal, and found another way to help.

Wilkinson hosts an annual cookie drive during the holidays. Students frost and decorate sugar cookies bought from the grocery store, and the drive usually raises $600 to $700.

This year, sugar cookies cost too much for the drive to make a profit. Ragland took note of the issue and developed a solution.

“(Ragland) said: ‘Not a problem, consider it done,’” Mehlhoff said.

Ragland contacted her food supplier, Sysco, and explained the situation. She bought the cookies this year, and Sysco matched her case-for-case.

Cookie sales tripled this year, and Mehlhoff said the donations will help 60 students.

“Thanks to the generosity of the Hampton Inn and its employees and the people who are staying here,” Mehlhoff said. “It’s just awesome.”

The Wilkinson fifth-grade class recently sang Christmas carols at the Hampton Inn to thank the hotel and the community for their efforts following a complimentary dinner. Pat Sherrett, Wilkinson’s music teacher, played the accordion.

Dusduy Hove, of Williston, attended to watch his fifth-grade son, Dillon, sing.

“They all did a good job,” Hove said.

“It was a good turnout. This is what we like,” said Cindy Massa, chief engineer at Hampton Inn.

There are 334 students enrolled at Wilkinson this school year, up from 310 students last year. Before the boom, there were less than 300.

“There are students that have needs not being met,” Mehlhoff said. “As more students come, there’s more of a need.”

Local business owners who donated to the drive also attended the event.

Rodney Wallace, owner of R2 Oilfield Service and Supply, LLC, gathered donations from Williston businesses like Secure Energy Services and SOKA Mattress & Furniture.

“I’ve seen hard places and I will do anything I can,” Wallace said.

Wallace came to Williston from South Central Los Angeles four years ago, staying periodically at the Hampton Inn. He has since moved to Williston with his family, and has children enrolled in Lewis & Clark Elementary and Williston Middle School.

“I feel Williston is a growing community and I wanted to help,” Wallace said. “It’s a diverse blend of cultures now. This is basically a new world. We could set the pace.”

Wallace maintains ties to the Hampton Inn, where his older daughter, Kila, works as a manager.

“I’ve got great guests and great employees,” Ragland said. The 98 rooms in her hotel are usually booked.

Microtel Inn & Suites contributed to the drive. A Microtel housekeeper donated about 35 sets of hats and gloves for the children.

The Workrite Uniform Company donated $250 in gift cards.

“The community is coming together,” Holman said.

___

Information from: Williston Herald, http://www.willistonherald.com

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