Gail Rosenblum
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For 13 years, Northfield’s Tackling Obstacles, Raising College Hopes (TORCH) program has thought big.

The multipronged outreach to low-income and first-generation high schoolers makes sure students don’t just graduate, but also see college in their future.

From 2004 to 2017, the high school graduation rate of Northfield’s Latino students who are enrolled in TORCH shot up from less than 40 percent to well over 90 percent. More than 60 percent of TORCH students now attend a college or technical program.

So when that impressive progress slipped, TORCH’s leaders knew just what to do:

Think small.

For the past year, surprise packages have arrived quarterly at TORCH students’ college doorsteps and dorm rooms, filled with snacks, a $20 bill or gift card, home-baked cookies and encouraging notes. The gesture is sweet, for sure. But it’s playing a role as essential for college retention as assisting students with ACT prep or student aid applications.

“It’s the most actionable thing we could do,” said TORCH alumni services coordinator Teddy Gelderman, who has worked for the college-success program since 2011.

Gelderman had noticed that promising high school students were dropping out of college — some before classes even started. It wasn’t because of grades, “but because they didn’t feel like they had a community at the college,” he said.

“Many TORCH students attend college without the financial support of family. Others have parents living in other countries. Often, these students feel like they are going to college on their own.”

The smallest things can remind them of that great divide.

“Everyone is going out for pizza,” Gelderman said. “Everyone is wearing the school T-shirt or hat — seemingly small items that they cannot afford. One student stayed in her dorm room over Labor Day when her roommates went to the State Fair, because she didn’t have any spending money. She dropped out within a week.”

Twenty bucks can put gas in the tank or cover a meal with fellow students. And cookies?

“Cookies are strategic, they’re something to share,” he said. “They break the ice.”

But personal notes, written by members of the nine participating Northfield churches and neighborhood groups, often are the students’ favorite item.

“The notes buoy them,” Gelderman said. “They let them know someone is rooting for them, aside from their families.”

Sixty students got the first round of care packages last April, said Betsy Spethmann, a board member of Northfield Healthy Community Initiative, a nonprofit that supports TORCH. This month, 98 packages are going out, “just in time for finals,” she said.

TORCH graduate Cheyenne David, now attending Riverland Community College in Austin, Minn., was among the grateful recipients.

“Lately, I’ve hit my lowest low in a while and it’s hard to be myself,” she posted to Facebook. “Today, I got to my apartment and found this random package on my doorstep, opened it and started crying like a baby. I needed this so much.”

TORCH (northfieldtorch.org) began in 2005 after the town’s educators started seeing “huge gaps” in graduation rates, particularly between non-Hispanic and Latino students, Gelderman said.

Elementary school counselor Beth Berry started meeting students during lunch or study halls, assisting them with academic advising, financial aid applications and postsecondary enrollment options, which allows students to earn college credits while still in high school.

TORCH participation requires no minimum GPA. “The lowest- and the highest-ranked students are in the mix,” Gelderman said. Some go off to prestigious four-year colleges, others to technical programs, full-time jobs or military service.

The program has grown to include more than 600 students who drop in at one of three TORCH offices anytime during the school day, no appointment necessary. In 2017, TORCH graduated its 500th high school student. Not surprisingly, the program is expanding annually.

Stephanie Garcia, 20, graduated from Northfield Senior High School in 2016 and attended a semester at Inver Hills Community College before deciding to take a gap year to refocus. She plans to attend Riverland this summer to study accounting or nursing.

She’s touched that perfect strangers are supporting whatever decision she makes. Her box of goodies arrived at her home in mid-April, with plentiful snacks and a Walmart gift card.

“Money is tight,” said Garcia, who currently works a full-time fast-food job. “My mom doesn’t speak English. Being first-generation is hard.”

Maggie Lindenfelser, 18, is taking four online courses at Riverland, and studying business. She’s also the first in her family to go to college.

“I knew I was going to do it,” she said. “I just didn’t know how.” A cousin told her about TORCH, which helped her in high school with homework, ACT readiness and applying for financial aid.

Her most recent gift box included pens, pencils, hot cocoa and apple cider. “It was really nice,” she said. “It encouraged me to study.”

Odalis Andrade, who will be 21 on April 24, drives from Northfield to Minneapolis every day to attend Dunwoody College of Technology, where she’s a third-year architecture student.

“At first, I just wanted to get my diploma and go. I was never an academic student,” she said. Then TORCH made college look possible. But she’s still sleep-deprived and time-crunched.

That makes the little box with sweets and money all the better. “I’m all by myself and, suddenly, I was getting care packages. ‘Oh, my gosh. Someone cares about me,’ ” she said. “It gives you that encouragement to finish.”

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350 • Twitter: @grosenblum