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Junior Demonstrates 'Power Of Pennies,' Service For Project Contest

May 31, 2013
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt

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Jennifer Seay, a junior English major from Utopia, was selected in the spring as the winner of the SHSU American Democracy Project's essay contest, wherein students were asked to submit a short, personal narrative demonstrating the theme “The measure of a Life is its Service” to highlight the true stories of real SHSU students' committment to "extraordinary service and civic engagement." Entries were judged by the SHSU Writing Center, and as the winner, Seay was recognized with a $1,000 scholarship. Below is her submitted essay "The Power of Pennies."


The Power of Pennies


When the McCalebs’s house burned down in my junior year of high school, I had no idea that it would affect me more personally than the natural disturbance a person feels when a well-known family suddenly loses their home. News spread through town about the incident as fast as that fire had torn apart the lives of the McCaleb family. They lost everything but the clothes on their backs—clichés like that become dangerous when they enter the physical world and show themselves to be true.

The next day, my friend Shane and I used our English class to vent our frustrations at the world’s imbalance, blaming fate, karma, Hades. Then I expressed a sentiment I never fully intended to act upon; I wanted to help the oldest son, Justin, a sophomore. Shane agreed, and in the time it takes to sneeze, plans formed from the words whirling between us. Our English teacher, Mrs. VanPelt, overheard our discussion and immediately encouraged our idea, saying she would be more than happy to help us accomplish our goal: a school-wide fundraiser for Justin McCaleb.

Shane and I had decided that we would set up a “Penny War” fundraiser where each of the twelve grades was pitted against the others in a competition to win; every penny dropped in their own jar was a point, but other grades could sabotage the score with silver coins or dollar bills, which counted negatively. Being a small school, we expected to raise a few hundred dollars at most. I suppose we had neglected to account for our school’s extreme competitive streak.

Bailey Wren (left) and Aria Shirani (center), with Seay, were also recognized as the winners of the ADP's contest and were awarded with $750 and $250 scholarships for second and third places, respectively. —Photos by Brian Blalock

For the next two weeks, Mrs. VanPelt, Shane, and I spent any and all our spare time collecting each grade’s jars to calculate the points. We developed elaborate excel sheets to keep up with all of the positives and negatives, constantly shuffled stacks of coins into bank wrappers, and kept large coffee cans filled to the brim with each class’s earnings hidden behind Mrs. VanPelt’s desk. Any time we finished work early in one class, we headed to Mrs. VanPelt’s room to roll a few more coins before our next class started, and several days each week we stayed after school to finish the counting.

At first, the project was surreal. I simply could not believe we were hosting such a large-scale fundraiser or that the school was responding with bucket loads of enthusiasm and pennies. Counting coins and bills was a thrill to begin with—Shane and I packaged volumes of coins with the fervor of treasure hunters plundering a fortune. In time, our fingers blackened with green from the copper, and the scent of dirty money could not be washed away. Our packing skills became more precise, mechanical motions optimizing production at the cost of our sanity. Shane and I wondered why we had enlisted in this venture. Finally, the two weeks allotted for the fundraiser ended, and we were free from the swamps of coins that had been sucking away our lives.

Mrs. VanPelt had been in charge of exchanging the coins and bills for larger, lighter units of money. Shane and I had not looked at the final count of money in days, and I nearly fainted when I saw the final amount our school had gleaned from couch crevices and vehicle consoles. Slumping in our desks with shock, we read a dollar amount that neared $1,600. Mrs. VanPelt beamed at us when she handed us the final amount to give to Mrs. Patti for Justin, and Shane cradled the envelope in her arms. When we asked Mrs. VanPelt to accompany us, she declined, saying that it had been our idea, and she had only helped in the execution.

We found Mrs. Patti by the gym, and, by some mad coincidence, Justin was with her for the moment. Shane handed him the envelope and spoke for the both of us; my voice had disappeared. We were unsure of what to announce, so Shane chose the direct method and told them exactly how much the school had raised for them. Mrs. Patti is one of the most composed women I have ever known, keeping a strict boundary between student and faculty. Never before had I seen her display any deep, human emotion in the presence of a student. At the sight of the envelope, though, her eyes bubbled with tears. She grabbed Justin and hugged him tight for several minutes, thanking us. It was the most sincere utterance I have ever heard, and I had to look away, embarrassed by this frankness.

Here was a woman I had known almost my entire life, a woman who had chastised me since kindergarten for my playground pranks, allowing me a glimpse at the person she was behind the guise of authority. One freak accident had stripped her of all of her comforts, everything that made her safe. One small wish helped ease that pain, if only by a little. Shane and I had not set out to do much for the family other than offer support and show that we cared for them, but the pennies multiplied unprecedentedly from our tightly knit community. Before that day, I never understood what my Dad meant when he drilled into my head the idea that I needed to find a problem in my community and fix it. I could not believe I had the capacity to change anybody’s life; it took a chance set of events to show me that I could help the people around me, even if it was only one person at a time. I want to glimpse more of that inner humanity people hide until they are lifted from their lowest point, that sense of awe that both parties, helping and helped, have of the nature of humanity and life and joy. More people should smile from help given by others because everyone needs to experience those blissful tears of human connection and empathy.

 

 

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