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Provider Pals make connection with Worthington Middle School students

Andrew Tunison (left) of Troy, Mont., visited Worthington Middle School Friday as part of the Provider Pals program. Tunison, a miner, uses fifth-grade student Brandon Gutierrez to model the gear he normally wears during a day in the copper/silver mine.3 / 3

WORTHINGTON -- Fifth- grade students at Worthington Middle School spent Friday learning about life as a farmer, a forester and a miner, as explained by their adopted Provider Pals.

The students in each fifth-grade classroom adopted a pal this fall, and have spent the school year writing letters back and forth with their provider. The kids sent questions; the pals provided answers.

Provider Pals began as a pilot project in Montana in 1997. During the 1997-1998 school year, it included a number of small and large towns throughout the state such as Billings, Missoula, Libby and Thompson Falls. The classrooms included kindergarten through the eighth grade.

Provider Pals Executive Director Bruce Vincent said the program began as a cultural exchange linking urban and rural classrooms to people who provide basics of everyday life.

The mission of Provider Pals is to build a common-ground bridge of understanding and respect between urban youth, rural youth and their natural resource providers.

Vincent, a logger from Libby, Mont., was the first adoptee, and that happened mostly by accident. While in Washington, D.C., testifying about the logging industry, he realized the urbanites who lived there knew nothing about what he did for a living. So he walked six blocks until he came to a school, went inside and asked the principal if the school would like to adopt a logger.

From there, the program grew. Provider Pals has been in the nation's capital for 10 years and is part of classrooms all over the country, from California to Florida and New York to Arkansas.

With roughly 200 adoptees in his "stable" of volunteers, Vincent and Provider Pals are helping children learn about the world around them, both locally and across the nation.

For instance, the pals for Friday's presentations, all Worthington Middle School adoptees, are farmers from Easton, a farmer from Jordan, a forester from Rochester and a miner from Troy, Mont. The program also includes ranchers and cowboys from Montana, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Kansas, and fisherman from California and North Carolina.

Andrew Tunison, the Troy miner, brought work clothes, tools and rock samples from his everyday work at Revett Minerals.

"I've been a logger, a miner, worked in sawmills and for the farms of Anheuser-Busch and built homes and motels -- a lot of jobs that have to do with natural resources," Tunison told a class of fifth-graders.

Revett Minerals mines copper and silver, he said, which are metals used in every-day products such as computers and cellphones, as well as being precious metals used for jewelry and coins.

Passing around samples of fool's gold, quartzite, galena and crystals, Tunison spoke of the different types of mining, how the ore is extracted from the rock and what happens with both the ore and the left-over rock. The concentrate, which is approximately 70 percent copper and 30 percent silver, is loaded onto a railcar to head to the smelter. About 4,000 tons of the ore is moved each work day.

"My job is to make the mine safe," he explained. "I put the ground supports in the mine to keep it from falling in."

Tunison described some of the huge machines used to move rock, grind it to powder and dig, speaking of trucks with tires 6 feet tall and loaders with buckets that can hold tons of material.

"You mean it's not like the old days when you had to smash the rocks?" one student asked.

"Nope," Tunison replied with a smile. "We use equipment."

He also spoke frankly about the dangers of mining and how safeguards are put in place to protect the miners. Just a few days ago, he said, "the back fell out" in one area. He explained how chicken wire is put on the ceilings of the underground mines to keep rocks from falling on people, and how any fire causes an immediate evacuation.

The miners get to work each shift and meet in a room, where they are assigned a position for that day. Then they are driven by bus through the mine to their work station. It can be a ruthless job, he said, and there are rules in place to keep a dangerous job as safe as possible.

The mine in Troy is large, with more than 1,000 miles of drivable road underground.

"Students all over the country -- urban and rural alike -- are learning about this," Vincent said. "A lot of kids don't know there are these kinds of options as careers."

Provider Pals also arranges a student exchange between urban and rural kids. Rural students can spend five days visiting their peers in an inner-city classroom, learning about city life, and urban students are matched up with local rural students at Camp Raven in Montana.

Another aspect of Provider Pals in a web program called "Provider World," an online educational site where students can interact with other kids and other cultures. The game starts with City Center, which is a hub for mining, logging, farming, fishing and ranching worlds. Each one of the worlds reflects the various aspects of real life in that field, containing games that challenge and teach about the jobs and products in those environments.

Provider Pals is a fully-funded non-profit organization, sponsored by Ford Motor Company, Caterpillar, the Pacific Forest Foundation, Revett Minerals, John Deere and the Minnesota Pork Board, among others. For more information, visit

Daily Globe Reporter Justine Wettschreck may be reached at 376-7322.