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Group establishes fund for UJ students who had items stolen during trip

University of Jamestown students work on a Habitat for Humanity house in Wichita Falls, Texas, shortly after the group had $12,000 worth of items stolen from them. A fund has been established at the university to raise money to help the students replace some of their lost belongings. Photo courtesy / Brooke Lietzke

A group of students at the University of Jamestown is making efforts to help another UJ student group, which had $12,000 worth of items stolen from it during a trip to Texas to build a house for Habitat for Humanity International over spring break.

The students in the Character and Leadership program at UJ established the fund shortly after the March 9 theft in Dallas. Rebecca O’Toole, a senior from Crystal, N.D., majoring in English education and minoring in mass communication and character and leadership, approached Myra Watts, a professor in the Character and Leadership program, on March 10 about how to get the fund off the ground.

O’Toole, who is currently student teaching freshmen English in Grafton, N.D., said via email Wednesday she was speechless and “couldn’t stop thinking about those affected” when a friend on the Texas trip told her about the group’s losses.

“I couldn’t imagine losing so much at this point in my life as a college student,” she said in the email. “I know how I am struggling day by day with school and work, and I haven’t lost anything.

“I feel if more people know about what happened to these students they would open their hearts to help. I wanted to start a fund because I wanted to help them, and I know I cannot do it on my own,” she said.

Brooke Lietzke, a junior from Dickinson, N.D., double majoring in religion and philosophy and mass communication, took the trip to Texas with nine other students, a UJ staff member and a local pastor.

Lietzke said most of the group had flown into Dallas on the evening of March 8 and stayed overnight there to wait for another trip member to arrive Sunday. After attending church services Sunday morning, the group parked two rental vans in a paid parking lot in downtown Dallas a few blocks from where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.

Lietzke said after touring the JFK site, milling around downtown Dallas and having lunch, the group returned three hours later to find that their vans had been broken into and their bags and belongings missing.

“My backpack was stolen, which had my laptop and textbooks and pieces of my camera, iPod. My Bible was in my backpack; I was really sad about that,” Lietzke said Thursday. “It also contained my wallet, which had my debit cards, Social Security card and check blanks in it, so that was fun to deal with.”

Lietzke, an avid photographer, said her digital camera memory cards were also in the bag, and those pictures were only backed up on the laptop that was stolen. She said she lost nearly every photo she has taken in the last three years or so, and she also lost her current journal, which she took with her last summer on mission work in Northern Ireland.

“A lot of it, they’re memories, so they’re things that I’ll never be able to get back and that’s the part that was worse than the fact that my stuff was stolen,” she said. “It was just like, ‘OK, it’s stuff, it doesn’t really matter that much,’ but then losing stuff that’s irreplaceable is a little bit less fun to deal with.”

Lietzke said the random group of students really pulled together during its week in Texas, working on a three-bedroom home for a single woman who is raising two children and a grandchild in Wichita Falls.

“I kept noticing throughout the week our group was just constantly, collectively laughing as a whole,” she said. “Our running joke was, when someone would ask if somebody had something, we would say, ‘oh, I had one of those once, but then it got stolen.’ … We were able to really just put aside the fact that that happened to us and still continue to do the work that we were there to do.”

Watts said the students began raising funds by setting up tables outside the university’s cafeteria to solicit donations as well as sending out requests through campus email.

“I just asked this morning and I think we’re at about $500,” Watts said Tuesday. “We’re hoping for $12,000. There’s a little disparity there.”

Lietzke said the fact that the fund was started by a student was “very kind” and “humbling.”

“It’s just comforting to know that we go to school in a place where it’s more like a family than anything and people are just looking out for us,” she said. “It’s nice to know that sort of thing can happen and it doesn’t go unnoticed and people care enough to try and do something about it.”

O’Toole said it is commendable that the students would give up their spring break to serve others and hopes the $12,000 goal can be reached by the end of the semester in May.

“The humility that those students had during their trip really tells something about their character,” she said. “Despite their unfortunate events they carried on with their purpose and mission to build a home for someone else less fortunate.”

Donations to the fund can be sent to the University of Jamestown, care of Marlene Wiest, 6082 College Lane, Jamestown, ND, 58405.

Sun reporter David Luessen can be reached at 701-952-8455 or by email at