Long journey ending

BOTTINEAU After 22 years of service, Harold and Avonne Gessner have decided to retire from running the North Dakota chapter of the Orphan Grain Train.

“I wish we were 20 years younger,” said Avonne Gessner, so they could keep maintaining the storehouse in Bottineau for the Christian volunteer network that ships donated food, clothing, medical and other needed items to people in 61 different countries, including the USA.

The Gessners will be honored at a dinner at 5 p.m. April 27 at the Cobblestone Inn and Suites in Bottineau. The dinner is free, but people are asked to make reservations by April 13 by emailing

Age and health issues have made it impossible for the Gessners to keep running the North Dakota chapter.

“The first thought was looking for a N.D. chairperson locally as we had an excellent group of volunteers to work at our N.D. warehouse here in Bottineau,” said the Gessners. “Finding no such person led to maybe relocating the branch and warehouse elsewhere in North Dakota. However, having little response, we have come to the point that we must close our doors permanently.”

The Gessners’ long journey of service began 22 years ago when they were invited to take a trip to Latvia with the Lutheran Laymen’s League.

Harold Gessner said he had heard people in the country, which had been part of the former Soviet Union before its fall, were starving in jails and orphanages.

Gessner and some other members decided they wanted to take food along to give to the Latvians. Their efforts grew and it was determined that the Fund for Democracy would pay for shipments of food out of the State Mill and Elevator. Enough money was raised to purchase 5,000 pounds of flour.

The shipment didn’t arrive without incident. It was held up and didn’t arrive during Gessner’s visit, but a Lutheran pastor from Nebraska called the Rev.

Ray Wilke was with another group that visited the country later and helped oversee the distribution.

The Latvians asked Wilke to keep helping them after he went home and he agreed to do so. Wilke imagined a train that would travel throughout the Midwest, picking up cars along the way, until it reached a port where grain could be shipped. When he came home, Wilke contacted Clayton Andrews, president of Andrews Van Lines, which transported items worldwide. Together the men founded the Orphan Grain Train.

Wilke’s original idea has evolved and includes a national network that now includes 18 state branches.

The Gessners and volunteers in the state have been involved in shipping food and other items to Kenya, Monrovia, Liberia, Haiti and Nicaragua in the last two decades. They have also helped get needed items to places in the United States. For instance, about 10 years ago, the local branch was involved in shipping cattle donated by Montana ranchers to ranchers in South Dakota who had lost their livestock after a blizzard. Harold Gessner said it was called the “One Good Cow” program. They did a cattle drive into Williston and the Orphan Grain Train picked up the cattle there and transported them.

The North Dakota branch of the Orphan Grain Train also helped deliver goods to Florida after a hurricane and distributed meals to volunteers following the 2011 flood in Minot.

One major project has been a church and school sponsored by the North Dakota chapter in Monrovia, Liberia. The school is named after the Gessners.

Harold Gessner has visited Liberia a couple of times.

The Gessners said they have felt called to do this work for so many years.

One New Year’s, Harold Gessner received a phone call from a young man in Liberia who wanted to thank him for supporting the Christian school there for so many years. The young man had attended the school for 12 years and went on to college and planned to become a pastor. Harold Gessner gets teary-eyed when he thinks of that young man.

“It was the Lord’s direction,” said Avonne Gessner. “We just feel like we were driven to do it. We have seen people receive. It just does something to the heart. Every ounce of energy we used was worth it.”