Mama Dehne

Hero: Mary Jean Dehne

Dehne assists attendees of the Legacy Children’s Foundation with a project. Dave Wallis / The Forum

The Forum would also like to congratulate Mary Jean Dehne on receiving a Jefferson Award nomination. The Jefferson Awards is a national celebration to recognize leaders who exude America’s spirit of excellence. Dehne will receive a trip to Washington, D.C., to attend the 45th Annual Jefferson Award ceremony June 21-23.

Mary Jean Dehne won’t accept any credit. She does not consider herself a hero despite her lifelong mission to lift up at-risk youth; to her, this is just her daily routine.

For her entire career, Dehne has worked in Fargo area schools. She and her husband Jeff are teachers “by both trade and passion.” While working at Benjamin Franklin Middle School, three students came to Dehne with concerns about reaching graduation.

“It really all started at my kitchen room table,” Dehne says.

Dehne listened while the three students explained the need for afterschool resources in order to complete some of their classes’ requirements.

“Mary Jean resigned from her teaching position at Ben Franklin and took a huge leap of faith to serve at-risk youth—creating the Legacy Children’s Foundation in 2011,” says Theresa Gravdahl, physical education teacher at Benjamin Franklin Middle School.

Legacy Children’s Foundation began modestly in the Dehne’s home with 11 students. These “student-founders” bestowed a loving nickname to their teacher and friend: “Mama Dehne.”

“This came from her first Legacy students, two twin brothers, who named her this because as she was working with them to create Legacy, she was all-knowing,” Gravdahl says. “They recognized that she had their best interests in mind.”

With help from the Fargo community, Dehne was able to move the Legacy Children’s Foundation from her home to a house in the Madison neighborhood where the student founders lived; more than $225,000 was raised to purchase and remodel this home.

“I wanted to develop a lasting resource for low-income students to rise out of poverty like my parents did,” Dehne says.

Dehne and her parents wrote the mission of Legacy Children’s Foundation, which focuses education, perseverance, faith and honesty. Today, the Legacy Children’s Foundation, a private 501(c)3 nonprofit, serves 57 students with its own location at 725 28th Street North.

“The home is in the heart of the Golden Ridge neighborhood; it provides an opportunity to receive study time, mentoring, tutoring, counseling and more in their own neighborhood,” Gravdahl says. “It also provides a place to safely socialize without the pressures of the ‘neighborhood’.”

Legacy Children’s Foundation works with a variety of community services like Sylvan Learning Center of Fargo and area faith-based organizations with volunteers from area colleges.

It also takes a holistic approach to empowering each of its students, each student receives homework tutoring, literacy exercises along with music and art activities. Every student is required to complete four hours of community service each month. Legacy students have gathered and prepared food, fleece scarves and blankets for the Gladys Rae Shelter, Community Homes and the Fargo Police Department.

“They also gather to plan trips, to Colorado, for example, to see their first mountains,”Gravdahl says.

Maria Modi, a Fargo North High Junior and former Legacy student, credits the program as the reason for her success.

“I am so blessed to be where I am now in my life. I have become a confident, motivated and talented person. If Legacy never existed I think I would have given up on myself and that is scary,” Modi says.

In the last two years, both of Dehne’s parents passed away but she continues to be inspired by their strength and faithfulness.

“Legacy is in honor of my parents’ life work to love children as well as the belief in education and faith in the God-given talents of every person,” Dehne says.

Dehne’s selflessness is recognized by her students, colleges and others in the community.

“If giving time is selfless, she’s the champ! If caring more about kids than money is selfless, she’s the champ,” Gravdahl says. “She makes daily, personal sacrifices to serve her legacy kids.”

Whatever the struggle, Dehne never grows tired of the work to serve area youth.

“I don’t find it hard to get up in the morning, I feel very fulfilled by seeing any student’s success,” Dehne says.

To find out more about the Legacy Children’s Foundation visit legacychildrensfoundation.com. Connect with Legacy on Facebook or email legacychildrensfoundation@gmail.com to learn about current programs.