CALEDONIA -- When Caledonia High School student Madison Winjum was asked by a faculty member to start a Diversity Club, the 17-year-old seized upon the opportunity both to help organize it and be a spokesperson.

It can be wrenching enough for a young person to grapple with issues related to sexual identity, race and mental health in any community, much less one that is small, rural and largely white.

"It's kind of hard to be open about things like that, and it's a really small place," said Winjum, a Caledonia senior. "And so, it's scary to be open about like LGBT (identity) and how people struggle to be in a minority group and different things like that."

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But the start up of the small intramural club soon became enmeshed in a larger community conversation for this 2,750-population town 75 miles southeast of Rochester.

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The spark was lit when the Caledonia High School football coach Carl Fruechte wrote a letter to the editor in the town's local newspaper, The Argus, raising concerns about the club and suggesting it would be intolerant of divergent views.

"If the year 2020 has taught us anything, it is that free thinking isn't allowed when it comes to diverse issues," Fruechte wrote. "Who gets to decide what is acceptable and not acceptable speech? Are you going to allow students who disagree with your opinions? What if someone joins your group and believes homosexuality is wrong -- are you going to be understanding and let them share their view or are you going to shut them down?"

Fruechte went on to say that he loved all the students in the Caledonia community, "but disagree with some of the things that this group will stand for."

Fruechte declined to be interviewed for this story.

Caledonia head coach Carl Fruechte talks to the players before a Class AA State Quarterfinal game on Nov. 8, 2019, at Mayo HighSchool in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Caledonia head coach Carl Fruechte talks to the players before a Class AA State Quarterfinal game on Nov. 8, 2019, at Mayo HighSchool in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Winjum said she was "kind of surprised" by the letter, which had the inadvertent effect of boosting the club's profile, but was diplomatic in responding to it.

"I don't want to start anything and fuel the flames that have been going around our community," she said.

After the letter appeared, Caledonia Public Schools Superintendent Craig Ihrke voiced his support for the club in an interview with a Rochester television station, saying such an organization should have been created a while ago.

"It's a safe place for people to come and share their opinions," Ihrke said. "I think it's something that should have happened long before everywhere. Not just in Caledonia, but it's obvious that we need to embrace others and celebrate differences when it's appropriate to do so."

Winjum said community feedback has been almost universally positive, not only from residents of Caledonia but from towns surrounding it.

"Even towns like Spring Grove -- they showed us support, and I'm very thankful for that," she said.

In talking with Caledonia alumni, Winjum learned that the current Diversity Club is not the first to be formed in the district. One was started about a decade ago, but apparently died out.

Winjum's own sensitivity to marginalized populations stems from having a brother who has Down Syndrome and observing how others are not always as generous and accepting of other people's differences as they should be. That's why she took the lead in forming the club: To create a space where LGBT students and others, regardless of race or ethnicity, can feel comfortable.

"I do know that there are several kids in my school who are part of the LGBT community," she said. "I just want to make a safe place for them and have everybody share how they're feeling and their opinions and be respected."