FAIRMONT - When Matt and Ryan Heckman were assigned an extra credit project at St. Paul Lutheran School last winter, they had no idea the attention they would receive.
In fact, both boys were reluctant to even complete the assignment.
The brothers were given the opportunity to answer in essay form the question, "What my father means to me."
Ryan and Matt Heckman pose at Target Field, where they watched a Twins baseball game.
However, Ryan and Matt do not have a positive relationship with their father.
So their mom, Jenny Heckman, encouraged them to think of a role model they look up to and write about him. That is just what they did, and their efforts were rewarded.
Matt won first place in the state for fourth grade, while Ryan won fourth place for sixth grade after their essays were forwarded for state review by the National Center for Fathering.
More than 4,200 essays were submitted in the contest from students in first through 12th grade.
Matt chose his football and basketball coach, Tim Hested.
Ryan chose his Boy Scout leader, Corey Klanderud.
The boys were invited to the Illusion Theater in downtown Minneapolis for a celebration banquet, and then were treated to a Twins game.
Because Matt won first place in his grade level, he was invited to read his essay aloud to more than 250 people.
"He is always encouraging me because he believes in me and cheers me on," Matt wrote in his essay. "Points or no points, he is proud of me. He believes in me and treats me like there is nothing I cannot achieve. ... I am so thankful for Tim's point of view and the impact he is having on my life right now because he makes me feel like I am not pointless."
Ryan described in his essay his decision to choose a path influenced by good role models.
"We cannot choose our fathers," he wrote, "and I am choosing to make the best out of my life and model great leaders of our community to teach me what it means to be a great father."
Klanderud was chosen in the top 10 out of 60 for Father of the Year.
Jenny Heckman said the boys moved the audience with their stories. The emcee of the banquet, Minnesota Vikings assistant coach Craig Johnson, embraced Matt after reading his essay and told him in front of the crowd that Matt showed a lot of courage and how proud he was of Matt.
"It is stories like Matthew's that make me realize how important my job as a coach is and the impact I am having on our youth," Johnson said.
Twenty-four million children in the United States live in homes without a father figure. This includes fathers who are present but emotionally withdrawn.
"You think if there is a father in the home everything is fine," Jenny said. "But if there is an addiction or they are a workaholic, that is not OK."
Jenny said her sons' experience has shown her just how important mentors are in a child's life.
"I felt as a single mom I could give them everything they need," she said. "But I can't. ... I had to learn how to ask for help, including going to get them a mentor."
In addition to Klanderud, Ryan recently was matched with a mentor through Martin County Mentoring, and two of his younger brothers are still waiting to be matched.
Ryan goes shooting and canoeing with his mentor, who also attends his baseball games.
"His eyes light up [after his spends time with his mentor]," Jenny said. "He needs a good male role model in his life."