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The Pay it Forward tour--28 U of M students, 10 North Dakota students, and two mothers--about to leave to do good deeds on a spring break cross-country trip.

Paying it forward: a group of students show how one good act can lead to many mo

how one good act can lead to many more

By Jamie Proulx, University News Service

Imagine this chain of events. A passerby smiles at a stranger and says hello. That stranger, now in a buoyant mood, walks into a coffee shop and buys an extra coffee for his bus driver. That bus driver, so touched by this gesture, greets every passenger kindly, making one overworked rider feel more at ease.

If you've ever made a ripple in a stream, you know how one simple act can set a tumble of events in motion. In the above case, it was a stranger saying hello. Catherine Ryan Hyde wrote about this concept in her best-selling novel Pay it Forward, and 28 University of Minnesota students, from the organization Students Today, Leaders Forever (STLF), took that concept on the road during their recent spring break.

The idea for Students Today, Leaders Forever was born from a chance meeting in Australia between U of M freshman Greg Tehven and another participant at a leadership conference. After a day of activities and reflection, the person challenged Tehven to take what he learned and pay it forward in the United States.

On the "Operation: Pay it Forward Tour," the U of M students--along with 10 students from North Dakota and two mothers--traveled across the country doing community service. The tour stopped in cities across the country including Chicago, Canton, Ohio, Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.

"People didn't really know what to make of us at first," says Tehven. "They couldn't understand why we were coming to help total strangers pick up trash and pack boxes of food for the elderly. But after a while they understood our wish to make their lives better, and in the end it wasn't just about picking up trash, it was about building a community through kindness." On the weeklong trip, the group's activities varied and at times they would split up to accomplish more. Their first effort in Chicago remains fresh in the mind of Irene Fernandez, U of M freshman and STLF co-founder. While half of the group helped a local community put on a jobs expo and translate for some of the Spanish-speaking attendees, the other half, including Fernandez, worked at the YMCA.

"We were making vases for the elderly community for St. Patrick's Day and several local children were helping out," Fernandez said. "In the beginning they were super quiet and not talking a lot. But by the end we were able to draw them out and they actually shared things about their family and who they had a crush on. It was really rewarding."

Looking back on their work, Tehven will be the first to say he underestimated his friends and is surprised by all of their accomplishments. The group always arrived in a city late at night, trekked to the local YMCA or high school where they were staying, and prepared for an early morning of service.

While speaking with Tehven, you might question how this unassuming, soft-spoken boy-next-door from West Fargo, North Dakota could change a life in Canton, Ohio or inner city Chicago, and that's exactly what he wants you to think about. In the end, all of us can make a difference, according to Tehven, and we just have to take one step to see how powerful and good it feels to pay it forward.

In fact, opportunities to help others started falling in their laps. On one occasion, Tehven and his friends found $40 in a Philadelphia coffee shop. After failing to find the owner, they bought their own lunch with the money and lunch for the next two people in line. That felt so good, they bought lunch for two young students at another nearby restaurant.

"Paying it forward is really about what you do with the things you have in order to help those around you," Tehven said. "That moment in Philadelphia made us realize it's not about the trip anymore. It's about our lives and how we will choose to lead them."

Watching all of this growth and excitement unfold, was Greg's mother Kathy Tehven. "We came together on a bus and I assumed everyone knew each other," says Kathy Tehven. "But I came to find out that several of the students were complete strangers to each other. After one bus ride it was as if they were old friends. The collaborative effort these kids made was inspiring. You hear all the negative stories surrounding our youth, but these students truly warmed my heart and shattered that stereotype."

What's next for Students Today, Leaders Forever? They plan to make Operation Pay it Forward an annual tour. Several other colleges including North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota are creating their own chapter of STLF. And each month they plan to sponsor a community service project in their own communities.

"People think too small scale sometimes and underestimate themselves. We hope to remind people they should always dream big and count on their abilities to get them there," Tehven said.

To learn more about STLF and the Pay it Forward tour visit their Web site at

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