Giving back: Ethan students hold Rustler Day of Caring to spruce up community

Cleanup, organization, beautification all part of service effort

Claire Mellegaard, right, a junior at Ethan High School, works with Aiyana Lewis and Jerzie Muntefering, both fourth graders, Tuesday afternoon as they tie blankets for the the Avera St. Benedict Health Center in Parkston.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

ETHAN, S.D. — It’s just a few days away from the end of the 2023-24 school year, but the students at the Ethan School District aren’t slacking off as summer approaches.

They were working harder than ever Tuesday afternoon. Students and staff at the school took the afternoon off from classes and activities to take part in the Rustler Day of Giving, a project of the freshman leadership class that brings everyone together to give back to a community they say has been nothing but supportive to the school and its students.

“I think it’s really nice because the community does so much for us that it’s just nice to give back and help them out,” said Jayden Digmann, a member of the freshman leadership class and one of the supervisors for the Tuesday chores.

Initiated three years ago, the day of giving is organized around various classes ranging from pre-kindergarten to the 10th grade.

Each class is assigned a project around town or at the school, and they spend the afternoon working to complete that project. Some were getting ready to assemble gift baskets for first responders, others were assigned to help clean up the local veterans park. Others were assembling to tie blankets for the Avera St. Benedict Health Center in Parkston.


Students at the Ethan School District gather prior to heading out for their Rustler Day of Giving, a community service project organized by the freshman leadership class.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

Katrina Hostler, the family and consumer sciences teacher for the Ethan School District, said the day of giving is one of two service projects the leadership class undertakes a year, with the other being a Christmas event at the end of the second semester, where a parade of lights is held and Santa Claus is on hand.

It all comes down to a lesson in organization and service, Hostler said.

“In the leadership class we do a community service project where they all work together and learn parliamentary procedure, running a meeting, all that good stuff,” Hostler said. “And the end result is putting together a community service project.”

Hostler said students are required to reach out to various local service organizations, the city and other entities in town to see what needs to be done in the community’s public spaces.

The project was a success from the get-go, and the dozens of student and teacher volunteers made excellent headway their first year. In fact, they were so effective that a lot of the larger clean-up projects were completed during the inaugural event.

Brynley Williams and Mya Storm, both sixth graders in the Ethan School District, measure out ingredients Tuesday, May 16, for dog treats that will be given away, along with dog toys, to the Sioux Falls Humane Society as part of the Rustler Day of Giving.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

“We reach out to different organizations in town — the Legion and the Ammo Box and other businesses on Main Street — and reached out to city personnel to see what was needed. We did a lot of their big projects last time, so there wasn’t quite as much there this time,” Hostler said. “Last time we were painting street signs, fire hydrants and that kind of thing. (The students) have to make a lot of contacts. They put a lot of work into it.”

After an assembly in the school gym to divide into their respective work groups, the students fan out across the community of about 350 people. Second-grade students were hard at work making chalk drawings on downtown sidewalks. Seventh graders grabbed garbage bags and prepared to walk the streets picking up any trash they found. Sophomores were helping out at the Farm Life Creamery, where heavy winter snows damaged a series of sheds.

It can be a lot of walking and work, and while it may have taken a little convincing to get some classes excited about the project, everyone eventually came around to the idea of giving back to the Ethan community.


“There were certainly some classes that didn’t want to take any part in it. The kids weren’t really fond of going around and picking up garbage,” said Amira Jerke, another member of the freshman leadership class. “But (they came around) when they knew they were giving back to a community that had done a lot for them.”

Hostler said an unusually strong bond between the school district and community exists in Ethan. The community is always stepping up to support school athletics, activities and other projects. That’s evident by the gymnasium bleachers and other district gathering places full of spectators there to root on the Rustlers.

That made it make sense to center a service project around the betterment of the town.

Katrina Hostler, center, a family and consumer sciences teacher with the Ethan School District, helps Ethan students Tuesday, May 16 as they pick up trash around Ethan as part of the school's Rustler Day of Giving.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

“Not just going back to sports, but our sports teams have been very successful in the last few years, and I coached cheerleading for a long time. I always told my cheerleaders — look up at the stands. Not every school has that,” Hostler said. “This community just gives and gives and gives and gives. The parents, the grandparents. People who aren’t even connected to any kids at school at the moment, they just show up and support us like crazy.”

With the assembly over and students divided into their work teams, they begin to empty their classrooms and school hallways to head out into the community to do their share in supporting the community of Ethan.

“We leave the secretary in the office to answer the phone and (Superintendent Tim) Hawkins to handle any big problems, but everybody else in this building is contributing in community service today,” Hostler said.

Before the 2020-2021 school year wraps up, Ethan students scattered across the small town that sits just 10 miles south of Mitchell to spruce up pockets of the community during the Ethan Rustler’s Day of Giving Back.

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at
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