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Story Last modified at 10:40 p.m. on Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fired up at Fire Lake

BY MELISSA DeVAUGHN
Alaska Star

photo:Schools

Fire Lake Elementary students (clockwise, from back left) Amiah Raaymakers, Oriana Pulu, Rebekah Henckel, Naomi Shaw, Andrew Smith and Branden Fortes are leading the Pennies for Patients effort at the school. They are raising money to help a Fairbanks boy named Bailey fight his battle against leukemia.
STAR PHOTO by MELISSA DeVAUGHN

Just after the "Pledge of Allegiance" on Monday morning, Fire Lake Elementary School fifth-grader Andrew Smith took his notes to the microphone and began his pitch. It was a familiar topic, and he'd practiced reading through his notes several times before making his all-school announcement.

For the third year, he said over the public-address system, the school would be holding its Pennies for Patients penny drive. The annual event, put on by The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, benefits a child battling blood cancers like leukemia. During the three-week campaign, kids do what they do best – raid their piggy banks, their parents' change jars, the ash tray in their family vehicle – to fill the collection box at the school.

To make it fun, the event is made into a friendly contest among classes – the most successful winning such treats as a pizza or bubblegum party.

To make it meaningful, said the parents and teachers organizing the event, the kids get know a little about the person they will be helping. This year's recipient is an eighth-grader named Bailey, who lives in Fairbanks.

"Pennies for Patients assigns a local child (or as close as they can get) so that the kids become more personalized with the child," said parent and school secretary Kathy Henckel, who is helping lead this year's drive. "Bailey's biography states: T-cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). Eighth grade. Fairbanks North Star Borough, attended seventh grade at Randy Smith Middle School. Bailey was diagnosed with ALL in February 2010. He received his bone marrow transplant on July 1, 2010, and he is currently in remission. Bailey's favorite subject is math, he loves hockey, and he enjoys reading the Warrior book series."

Fire Lake's student council said the event usually gets kids motivated to donate their change.

Fifth-grader Rebekah Henckel said she donated to last years' drive and plans to do the same this year.

"We keep a jar of Disney money and I took a couple of handfuls of it," she said. "It's sort of a contest, so we try to make kids want to donate."

Parent Chantel Smith-Warmack helped start the first Pennies for Patients drive three years ago. She said that year's event was a huge success because the students were able to meet the beneficiary of their efforts. The boy, named Bryant, came to a schoolwide assembly and talked about his disease and what he was going through.

"He was an amazing little boy, and he came in and talked about it," Smith-Warmack said. "He was in remission, he let the kids understand that there's different diseases and how they affect everybody and some do affect kids, and that the pennies help.

"We put collection containers inside each room and every day the kids could bring in change, and every couple of days, we went in and collected it."

In the end, they raised nearly $1,000, she said.

"It was very surprising and we were almost humbled by the kids – they really did put in every penny they could find," she said. "Last year things were a little different, the economy was different and that affected things, but they still raised a lot."

$446.79, to be exact, pointed out Andrew Smith.

"That's what we made last year, so we want to make sure we get more than that this year," he said.

Rebecca Turek, intern principal at Fire Lake, said it has been exciting to see the kids get fired up over the program.

"It's a well run, wonderful program, which raises a lot of money for children who are very sick," she said. "My home school (Aurora Elementary) has done this the past couple years as well. " she said. "Aurora has a lymphoma survivor at the school, so she was able to tell them her story as well and relate how their kindness and generosity help her and other children who are sick."

"The students have learned empathy for others and they have found ways to help out, give back," said Kathy Henckel. "They have learned how to practice the act of kindness."

That, more than anything, is what Smith-Warmack said she finds inspiring about the fundraiser. Kids raise money for their own schools all the time – and they see the benefits of their efforts in the way of new books or playground equipment.

But raising money to help others?

"This was a way to have them involved in something bigger than them and just their school. They learn that they themselves can do something that affects something larger than their immediate world."

Kathy Henckel said the students have become personally attached to the program, too. The recipient of the first year Pennies for Patients drive, Bryant, eventually lost his fight against lymphoma. Henckel said her daughter cried upon hearing the news.

"They are very connected," she said. While the money offers tangible support to help Bailey in his fight against ALL, the kids will send their emotional get-wells.

"Each class will send a Valentine to Bailey."

Melissa DeVaughn can be reached at melissa.devaughn@alaskastar.com.



This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, February 9, 2011.