Cullin Egge wants to be an inspirational voice in the world — and the St. John’s Preparatory School sophomore is well on his way.
When he heard from one of his instructors about a video contest giving students a chance to become philanthropists, he took the idea and ran with it.
The contest’s sponsor is VING Project, which describes itself as a “national movement sparking the next generation of givers.” Backed by an anonymous family in Chicago that believes in the spirit of giving, the organization gives teens an opportunity “to give an individual in need an encouraging boost by surprising them with $1,000.”
Students, ages 14 to 18, must create a two-minute video answering the question, “If you had $1,000 to give to a person in need, who would you VING it to? ”
Egge entered the contest and was named a winner, giving him the opportunity to present the person in his video with a check for $1,000.
With the support of his teachers, including School Sister of Notre Dame Bridget Waldorf, a campus minister at the school, Egge organized an all-school assembly May 11 and invited the recipient — Minnesota poet, author and storyteller Julia Dinsmore — to visit the school and talk about her experiences of poverty and homelessness.
She knew nothing about the prize money or his intention to give it to her.
“He really wanted this to be a surprise,” Sister Bridget said. “He did all the work to prepare for it and plan it, all down to the last detail.”
Egge met Dinsmore three years ago at a youth leadership conference on social justice hosted by the Center for Service Learning and Social Change in St. Cloud where Dinsmore, who has written about her experiences living in poverty, was the keynote speaker.
Kevin LaNave, founder and director of the center, said Dinsmore has a “wisdom of lived experience that is really powerful.”
“She teaches how it’s really important for us to see people’s dignity and not just their needs. She teaches us to see people as assets,” he said.
LaNave met Dinsmore in the early 1990s, when Mimi Bitzan, former faith formation director for St. Paul Parish in St. Cloud, brought Dinsmore to the parish to talk about social justice and poverty.
“Someone recommended her to me, and we just bonded immediately,” Bitzan recalled. “Her work is phenomenal. She meets students where they are at. She helps them find their voice. She’s so good at helping all of us find our voices. We have learned from each other. We have been kind of ‘soul mothers’ together.”
A few years ago, when Bitzan and her husband, Dick, were leading the United Way campaign, she wrote a grant to the Central Minnesota Community Foundation and the Minnesota Arts Board to invite Dinsmore as a Spoken Word artist to work with area youth.
“We thought she could help tell the story of different things that United Way is involved with in a really creative way and use the arts to bring that message home,” Mimi Bitzan said.
Since then, Dinsmore has spoken at many area schools, including the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, and now St. John’s Prep School in Collegeville. She is the author of a book titled, “My Name Is Child of God … Not ‘Those People’: A First Person Look at Poverty.”
Egge said the first time he met Dinsmore, he noticed a “particular twinkle in her eye.”
“I knew right away they were eyes that held a thousand stories and had a seen a world I had not experienced before,” he said.
Dinsmore saw something special in Egge, too.
“I liked his shine very much and when he talked in a small group, I thought, ‘This is an old soul.’ The wisdom in him is undeniable,” Dinsmore said. “When Cullin shared his story at that conference about overcoming bullying … I was struck by the courage it took to risk exposing pain and injury. But even more compelling was that he fought to uphold his own dignity. And, by doing so, became a powerful witness to other youth.”
Egge was excited to have Dinsmore speak to the student body.
“Listening to Julia speak gives me an overwhelming sense of happiness and inspiration and I hope bringing her in will do the same for you,” he said when introducing her. “Today she will be speaking about overcoming obstacles, following your dreams and using your passion to make a change.”
Dinsmore shared parts of her life story mixed into one of her most famous poems, “My Name is Not Those People.” After her dramatic presentation, Egge revealed the real reason she was there — not only to share her story with the students but also to receive the $1,000 check.
“She’s been in need for a really long time. She has had a rough life yet she still inspires others including myself to push themselves harder, to go after what they are dreaming of and use their passion to make a change. It is inspiring to me knowing she has gone through so much and she still picks herself up every day and inspires others to go for their dreams. It takes a really special person to be able to do that,” he said.
“I thought it was really inspiring how she wrote that poem so that she could share her story and change people’s lives,” said Alexis Akre, a freshman at the prep school.
“I thought it was really cool how Cullin was doing something for someone in need,” added Anya Hulsevus, also a freshman. “It was also cool that he was able to share his experience and bring her out to share her story. It made me think about all the things I could do that I’m not and it motivates me to make a change.”
For Dinsmore, who has been honored with awards and gifts before, this was the “single most important and valuable award” she could think of, she said.
“I’m feeling so many emotions right now,” she said. “To be honored by a young person is a really big deal. The Lakota people have a word for children which means ‘sacred being.’ This sacred being honoring me — well, I cannot think of any greater award.”