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Penny project shows children have cents of purpose
By Michelle Bearden

A penny here, a penny there.

How often do you run into the convenience store, grab an item and tell the cashier, "Keep the change," because it's just a penny or two?

I've actually thrown out pennies stuck together with gum and hair at the bottom of my purse. Pick up a penny on the sidewalk? Too much trouble.

This little story about a group of Good Hearts may just get you - and me - rethinking the value of a penny.

Sixth-graders at St. Mary's Episcopal Day School, under the direction of teachers Linda Boza and Andrea Cardenas, spent a month collecting change and raising money for a project that links them to a small village in southeastern Uganda. They called it Pennies for Papoli, the recipient community.

They raided their piggy banks, worked backyard carnivals and car washes, did extra chores around the house and dug out change in the cupholders of their parents' cars. One boy donated the $20 his grandfather had given him for Christmas.

In all, 45 kids brought in $1,200 - which comes to 120,000 pennies. When put in that perspective, the little copper coin seems to have a lot more clout.

One hundred percent of the money will be sent to Village Partners International. The nonprofit organization, led by Tampa physician Sylvia Campbell, sets up partnerships between a United States entity - such as a church or community group - and an overseas village in need of help with health, education, housing and business.

It's not meant to be a charity organization. The goal is to build relationships and develop projects that will ultimately lead to independence and self-sufficiency for those villages. Work is already under way in Uganda and Haiti, two parts of the world that make our problems in the United States seem much less dire.

The sixth-graders' donation will be directed to a pediatric care center, sorely needed in Papoli. Already, the village has a primary school and preschool thanks mostly to the efforts of supporters at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church.

"I'm proud of these kids, but not terribly surprised," says Boza. "They like to go and do. This gives them a purpose. If you point a child in the right direction, you can get amazing results."

But the story doesn't end here. The students want to share their success with other youngsters and encourage them to take on "Pennies" projects of their own.

Last week, they helped create a video that tells the story of Pennies for Papoli. Each student delivered a line, detailing the experience from start to finish. They provided information about the region and offered advice on organizing such an effort. Carol Stefany, the school's technology director, did the filming.

By the end of the school year, that video will be posted on http://village partnersinternational.org. The kids hope other students will be inspired by what they've accomplished.

More than 2,500 children live in Papoli and surrounding villages, and more than half are orphans. Most have lost their parents to the AIDS epidemic that has devastated the region. A pediatric care center will make a big difference in these children's lives.

Campbell gets emotional when she talks about what the St. Mary's sixth-graders accomplished.

"Children are the future of our world," she says. "And when they begin to understand that we do not stand alone, that we are all part of a family that is interconnected, then there is hope for peace, understanding and healing in this world."

Listen to 12-year-old Maddie James and you, too, will find reason to hope.

Maddie's younger brother and his friend wanted to help with her class project. So they proposed a backyard carnival to raise pennies, and she enthusiastically joined in. They sold snow cones, had a penny toss and a race-car rally. In all, the resourceful kids raised $85.

Maddie had a personal stake in this. Her parents, Molly and Hunt James, had taken the family to Africa, and Maddie remembered how the children there waved and beamed whenever she waved at them.

"I never knew a wave could make a person so happy," she says. "It did make me a little sad, though, because I know how lucky I am and I just wish other kids could be that lucky."

Maddie hopes to visit Africa again one day, but next time, she wants to go on a mission trip to offer support. For now, she's happy with sending her contribution to the fund to build the pediatric care center.

Not all school lessons are taught from a textbook. This one required some creative thinking and action. Bravo to these sixth-graders, and let's hope other Bay area classes get inspired by the video.

"The main thing I would say to people is that you can indeed make a difference. Every single person can make a difference," says Boza. "The pennies that one child here gathered might provide a shot to a child over there that will prevent a disease."

Add up pennies, add up small actions - and see how good will multiplies.


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