Irondale's STRIPES program combines service and college prep

MOUNDS VIEW, Minn. - The pile of cut wood in front of Cindy Lillemo's home was daunting. So daunting, Lillemo, nearly seven months pregnant, realized her husband could never move it on his own before the snow started to fly.

Unable to help because of her pregnancy, Lillemo started calling around and ended up connecting with Irondale High School students.

"And they got here this morning ready and raring to go," said Lillemo.

The students are part of the school's S.T.R.I.P.E.S. program. "S.T.R.I.P.E.S. stands for Students Together Respecting the Importance and Purpose of Education in Schools," said program director Marvin Sims.

The goal of the program is putting students on a college track and preparing them for that transition. Now in its third year, the program has grown from 15 students to 75. Many of the first graduates are now in college.

"S.T.R.I.P.E.S. changed my life, definitely. I feel blessed to be in it," said 10th grader Jesus Ruiz.

On this day, he's helping to move that stack of wood from Lillemo's driveway to a storage space in the basement of the home. On other days, he's involved in test prep, homework and other skills to aimed at helping him navigate through high school and into college.

Early on in the program, Sims decided to reach out to the community.

"The first thing I though of was how can we partner with communities? How can we partner with teachers -- just caring people that have really an investment in our kids to make sure that they're not going to fail on our watch," said Sims.

One of those partnerships is with Caring Souls, a non-profit based in Eagan that connects high school and college student volunteers with members of the community to need a helping hand.

Sims works with Caring Souls' Scott O'Malley to arrange service projects like the one at the Lillemo house that will occur on a monthly basis. "I think it's important to try to instill the idea of being aware that people in your own neighborhood sometimes need help," said O'Malley.

Sims sees it as a "takes a village" concept. By having his students connect with and invest in the community, the community will have a stronger interest in ensuring Irondale's students are successful.

Ultimately, that helps everyone.

"Because when you get kids invested in their community, it makes their school stronger," said Sims.


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