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Buncha do-gooders

Rows of Good Sam recreational vehicles gathered on the Wadena County fairgrounds last week for the final Minnesota event of the year. Brian Hansel/Pioneer Journal1 / 4
Kathy Krstean, left and Vikki Ahlbrecht signed up Good Sam members for a variety of games during the rally. The Good Sam Club has a Minnesota membership of 14,000 and a national membership of 1.4 million. Brian Hansel/Pioneer Journal2 / 4
After 22 years of attending Good Sam rallies, Elliot Grapentine, a good-natured camper from Coon Rapids, Minn. has worked his way up to the rank of "chapter agitator." Brian Hansel/Pioneer Journal3 / 4
Jan and Doug Yerka of Hutchinson, Minn. perform the roles of First Lady and Director of the Minnesota Good Sam organization which camped last week on the Wadena County Fairgrounds. More than 100 campers and recreational vehicles took over the county fairgrounds from Tuesday through Sunday for a state RV rally. Brian Hansel/Pioneer Journal4 / 4

A caravan of recreational vehicles camped on the Wadena County Fairgrounds last week creating questions in the minds of some Wadena residents.

Who were these campers? Why were they staying at the fairgrounds when Sunnybrook Park usually hosts them?

More than 100 RV's were registered to spread out over the flat and spacious area bringing with them visitors from many states and even some Canadian provinces.

Like a 21st Century band of explorers, they came to Wadena hoping to meet new people while renewing connections with old friends.

The Good Sam RV Rally began taking shape last fall when Doug and Jan Yerks of Hutchinson traveled to Wadena to check out the fairgrounds. As Good Sam state director, Doug has the job of scouting sites for Good Sam rally events around Minnesota. Jan, who has the honor of being called "the First Lady," is also a director.

The Yerks joined the Good Sam club in 1998. They became acquainted with the club through friends who were already members. Through the years they have been to many other states and even up in Canada. Camping is a summer pursuit for the couple. Both have jobs during the winter months. When Doug, who works part-time for a trucking outfit, was asked to put in more hours he had to be firm with his boss.

"I told him camping comes first," Doug smiled.

Doug makes four trips to each rally the Minnesota Good Sam Club stages. He has the responsibility of pulling an equipment trailer with a 12,000-ton load to a camping site along with his own fifth-wheel camper.

The Good Sam trailer and its contents are owned by the club and contain 18 power boxes, to which 4-5 RV units can be attached, along with a plethora of other supplies.

The Good Sam Club is an international organization with 1.4 million members in the United States. Minnesota has 14,000 of those members in 26 different chapters.

The club's name comes from the Bible parable of the Good Samaritan - a traveler from the region of Samaria who helped a person along the road who had been robbed and beaten.

Good Sam Club members, while on the road, are pledged to signal a stranded motorist by honking and then contacting assistance for them at the earliest opportunity. The Yerks are among the first to admit that opportunities to perform the helpful service have dissipated with the rise in the use of cellular phones by motorists. Yet the club has found many other ways to give. As a non-profit organization they provide financial support many causes - among them Dogs for the Deaf, Puppy Love, K-9 Can Do and Special Olympics - and they can have a big impact on the communities they visit.

"We always try to shop at as many of the hometown businesses as we can," Jan said.

Good Sam members visiting a certain community are encouraged to turn in their business receipts. One of Jan's jobs is to total up these receipts and provide the community with figures that reflect a Good Sam rallies' financial impact. According to long-time Good Sam member Elliot Grapentine of Coon Rapids, Minn., it is not unusual for this financial boost to a town's economy to reach six figures.

The Yerks both sang the praises of a local man who helped make the Good Sam rally in Wadena go - Wadena County Fair Board Member Darin Lehmann. Realizing the Good Sams and Wadena were new to one another, Lehmann volunteered his services as a go-between.

"I said I'd take care of it because I think it's a good thing to have around. I want things to thrive. We have a heckuva fairgrounds and I just don't see why we don't use it more," Lehmann said.

Lehmann was not the only local to lend a helping hand. Yerks was helped by Wadena Fair Board President Mike Olson, and when he asked a local service organization to supply a color guard for the club's opening and closing ceremonies, he did not have to ask twice.

The rally officially began Thursday, but many Good Sam members, known as "Early Birds", began arriving on Tuesday. By Wednesday, Yerks had spotted license plates from Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana and Manitoba.

So what are these visitors to Wadena like? Most are retired but they share an interest in new things and new areas.

"As a rule, your Good Sam people are friendly and helpful," Doug said.

One of Doug's friends has a keen interest in Corvettes, even though he has never owned one. During a Good Sam rally in Bowling Green, Ky. a few years ago, they "just happened" to find themselves near a place where many versions of the famous sports car was on display.

"So we just had to go over there," Doug laughed.

Good Sams take their meals together and make their own fun, be it with games or crafts. They encourage local food vendors to join them at their camp sites. The Minnesota rally invited folk, country, rock legend Sherwin Linton to be their guest Friday evening. They set up catered dinner with the Boondocks Cafe of Wadena for Saturday night.

"We consider ourselves a big, happy family," Doug said.