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Robin Huebner, Published November 30 2013

Robin Huebner Reports: Fargo native has soft spot, tough love for troubled youth

There are things Karen Light Edmonds has seen that she wishes she hadn’t.

The Fargo native who lives in Rochester, Minn., knows of girls being raped by their fathers and others being sold for crack in that otherwise affluent city.

She knows of kids with rotting teeth because Mom will pay for drugs but not the dentist.

She knows kids who force their feet into shoes three sizes too small because it’s all they have.

Light Edmonds is on a crusade to lift up those children through Project Legacy, an opportunity program she runs in Rochester for minority youth.

Via Facebook, Light Edmonds has reconnected with and received help from former classmates, all late-1970s or early-1980s graduates of Fargo North High School. About 20 are involved in one way or another – with some going far above and beyond.

“We’re talking about people who’ve paid for apartments and college tuition,” she said of her circle of childhood friends.

Why reach out to kids they don’t know?

“You can’t ignore it, what these kids are going through,” said Lauri Nellermoe, who now lives in Savannah, Ga. “Besides, it’s hard to say no to Karen.”

Facebook connection

Before catching up online, many of those northside friends hadn’t seen Light Edmonds since early high school, when she transferred to Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo.

“Without Facebook, we wouldn’t have made that connection,” Nellermoe said.

Light Edmonds’ use of social media rallies her troops. She shares kids’ stories and, when needed, puts out a request for clothing, shoes or positive thoughts and prayers.

Friends don’t hesitate to respond.

“I know if I send Karen money, these kids are going to be able to eat for a week,” said Suzie Bock, now living in Omaha, Neb.

Bobette Berno, now of Plymouth, Minn., sent cash to Light Edmonds to cover tuxes and dinner for two boys to attend the high school homecoming dance.

“She, in turn, sent me a picture of them all dressed up with their dates and huge smiles on their faces,” Berno said.

Berno was pleased the boys could enjoy “what too many kids take for granted.”

Destined to help

Since graduating with a special education degree from Minnesota State University Moorhead 30 years ago, Light Edmonds has worked with children who have emotional and behavioral disorders and those with severe physical and mental disabilities.

But she has a soft spot for children born into another kind of difficulty – a world of drug addiction, incest and poverty. She did even as a teenager.

“Karen has a heart of service,” said former classmate Lisa Farnham of Fargo. “Social justice was very important to her in high school.”

The Project Legacy work began in 2008, when Light Edmonds was teaching in Rochester. She noticed a handful of kids had neither money nor transportation for after-school activities.

So she started a free yoga program for them.

“The word spread: ‘There’s someone who will pick us up and take us to do fun things,’” she said.

Before long, interest exploded, eventually allowing Light Edmonds to help about 200 children in need, ages 3 to 22.

That evolved into Project Legacy, which now provides intensive support to eight young adults and outreach support to 15 high school teens who are homeless, gang-affiliated, chemically dependent or have a child of their own.

It has brought kids of all ages and circumstances into Light Edmonds’ life and, often, her home.

While she has two grown children from a previous marriage and two school-age children from her current marriage, she frequently opens her door to those most troubled.

The problems she deals with are difficult, too difficult for some to acknowledge.

“We want to close our eyes in our comfortable homes,” she said. “We don’t want to believe that some children live in hell.”

A lifesaver

Twenty-year-old Kevin Lee was one such child.

His father died when he was 9 years old. His mother was often cold and distant.

In eighth grade, with others at home mixed up in drugs and gangs, reality hit hard.

“Police came to my school and told me my house was being raided – that crack was being dealt there,” Lee said.

By high school, Lee had become a product of his surroundings, smoking marijuana and dropping out of school.

“I loved weed at the time,” he said. “I’d go to bed high and wake up high.”

When Lee’s foster care ended, and with no money or place to live, Light Edmonds took him in. In order to stay, he needed random drug tests to show he was accountable. But he just couldn’t get clean.

“Nine months of pure hell,” said Light Edmonds.

She told him to move out.

“He flunked out of college, quit his jobs,” she said.

This fall, Light Edmonds saw a Facebook post from Lee, saying he had a gun and was going to kill himself. She called Rochester police, who found him and took him to a psych ward, where he was diagnosed with psychosis and severe depression.

After completing in-patient drug treatment, Lee is now at a halfway house in Wisconsin.

He’s prepping for his ACT and wants to study to become a neurologist.

Lee says he’s grateful for the woman he calls Mom, who showed him motherly love he never knew. Where would he be without Light Edmonds?

“Probably dead,” said Lee, pausing and adding, “I’m just being honest.”

From street to school

While Lee dreams of college, several Project Legacy kids are already there.

Devontae “Tae” Evans is a 20-year-old freshman at Marymount College in Palos Verdes, Calif., thanks to another Fargo North grad, Peter Boesen Jr., who lives in nearby Redondo Beach. Boesen saw Evans’ story on Facebook last January.

Evans was born to a drug-addicted mother who died when he was a baby. An aunt adopted him, but she later died of kidney disease, leaving him homeless.

“This one hit me,” Boesen said.

He decided to help Evans with housing and college.

“I wanted to break the pattern of whatever he was involved in,” he said.

While Evans has hit some bumps in college, the only father figure he’s known thinks he’ll adjust.

“He’s a really good kid,” Boesen said.

Twenty-year-old Maurice Cain is another college enrollee. During his teens, Cain was the only “parent” in the house, helping care for an ill mother and a disabled sister.

After meeting Light Edmonds, she often took him grocery shopping.

“Her being there was like a blessing to my family,” he said.

Cain was nominated for and won a $2,500 scholarship. It’s helping cover tuition at North Central University in Minneapolis, where he’s studying sports management and playing on the basketball team.

Light Edmonds goes to as many games as she can.

“She just wants to see us kids grow up to be something,” Cain said.

There are no failures

Light Edmonds gives kids a family structure of rules and expectations, which many of them have never had. They talk about drugs, gang activity and disrespect – hard conversations the kids sometimes don’t want to hear. A few take many false starts before getting on track.

“We have to remember there’s no such thing as failure in this work,” Light Edmonds said.

Former classmates are full of praise.

“Her emotional fortitude is unbelievable,” said Anne Barlow, who now lives in Maple Grove, Minn.

“She’s a genuine person,” Barlow added. “Kids seek her out.”

Still, Light Edmonds has had a few detractors in Rochester.

She says she’s heard the comments:

“What’s Karen doing with all those black children?”

“Who does she think she is, the woman from (the movie) ‘The Blind Side’?”

She tries to let the words roll off her back and instead stay focused on her work.

“It’s the right thing to do,” she said. “Every child is a child who I value.”

Why do old classmates rally around her cause?

“We’re all at a place in our lives where we know what’s important,” Lisa Farnham said.

Another friend summed it up this way:

“North Fargo, it’s a weird thing,” Kari Teschendorf said. “We stick together, forever.”

Light Edmonds calls it a reflection of upbringing.

“It’s a testament to the people who live in North Dakota,” she said.