Make a Difference!

Elementary Service Projects

The Make a Difference Planning Group

Sometimes people come together to make something good happen in the face of an unhappy event. A few years ago, a six-year-old boy was in an automobile accident in our community. When the ambulance arrived on the scene, someone gave the boy a small, “gently used” teddy bear to hold for comfort as the emergency medical crew prepared him for the ambulance ride to the hospital. This small gesture of kindness was the catalyst for a series of events that led to the annual Make a Difference Day at Red Bridge Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri, where the boy was a student.

Coming Together

Teachers, staff, students, and parents at Red Bridge Elementary have historically supported several community service activities. The fifth grade Environment Club recycled aluminum cans throughout the year; the funds raised were used to beautify the school grounds. We held hat and mitten collection drives and collected canned goods and used books for local charitable organizations. In 1995, when we began collecting stuffed toys for the metropolitan ambulance project, it occurred to several adults that our various projects were all separate and uncoordinated.

In 1998, the schoo#146;s Community Outreach Committee, under the leadership of our Health Aide, Beth Wolfenbarger, decided to do something new. We envisioned that our efforts could involve more volunteers, provide more learning opportunities for the students, and better answer the targeted needs of the community if we involved all of the children in the school and coordinated all of the activities in partnership with community organizations. In short, we sought total participation in the 1998 Make a Difference Day Campaign.1


Planning and Publicity

An assessment of community needs led to a unanimous decision on the part of the faculty and staff to participate in a campaign titled “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle—Make a Difference in Our Community.” Our efforts were to coincide with the national campaign, “Make a Difference Day,” on October 24, 1998. We hoped to involve more students (in the planning as well as in the drive itself) and a broader range of community members this year than last. Parent volunteers and teachers prepared a skit that was performed at a school wide assembly early in October to kick off the event. The PTA distributed press releases to local newspapers, radio stations, and school newspaper staff. School-sponsored scouting organizations publicized the collection drive by handing out flyers in the neighborhood and designing, making, and distributing posters to area businesses. Students designed posters announcing the donation needs, drop-off site, and October 24 collection date. Daily “recycle” jokes were read during morning announcements over the school intercom. These jokes were eventually compiled and copied for distribution to area senior citizens.


Collecting Materials

Students began to bring in donations soon after the kick-off assembly. Parents and students worked together to organize these early collections and to categorize the incoming material. Additional volunteers from the community came to the school during the Saturday drop-off on October 24. The entrance to Red Bridge Elementary was filled to overflowing with the following items:


Distribution and Follow-Up

After the collection drive, parents and staff members volunteered to deliver the hundreds of items throughout the community. A letter identifying the Red Bridge Elementary School as the donor accompanied each box and bag. Results of the collection campaign were discussed by students in classrooms across the school.

Students wrote about the experience and sent thank you letters to donors. The schoo#146;s Community Outreach Committee met to evaluate the effort, compare it with previous drives, and make further suggestions for community outreach.


Measures of Success

Overall, our school and nearby community collected more than 1,000 items for distribution to needy children and families in Jackson County, Missouri. More than 575 pounds of aluminum were recycled. More than 16,000 can tabs were given to the local Ronald McDonald House to support its mission of providing lodging for families with seriously ill children. But the success of the project was measured in more than numbers and pounds. An important aspect throughout the process was total involvement by the school community. Students enjoyed making their one-of-a-kind posters. Scouts worked together on publicity. Several sixth grade students created their own books on tape, which were sent to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. Everyone gathered items from home. Parents and staff volunteered for the October 24th collection day as well as for community delivery responsibilities. Donated “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle” bookmarks were given to each student who volunteered for the project.

The next year, 1999, the entire Center School District participated in “Make a Difference Day” and, for this reason, USA Today recognized our school district with a $2,000 award, to go to a charity of our choice; we chose the Organ Transplant Unit of Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. Our ’99 theme was “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—Make a Difference in Kansas City.” The expanded effort included delivering used magazines to the literacy program at the Kansas City Jail and the Red Cross Bloodmobile. We also set up information tables about the bone marrow registry and organ and tissue donations. We are already beginning to plan for the campaign in October 2000. Increasing student involvement in the planning and evaluation of the campaign is one of our goals for next year.

Thanks to a thoughtful gesture involving one small boy (who is a 5th grader now and is doing fine) and one “gently used” stuffed bear, we now have an annual school- and community-wide campaign. Our students see that school can be a place where one learns about more than just the ABCs—it’s a place that can be “All ‘Bout Caring,” something for which Red Bridge Elementary has an even greater reputation now that we have begun coordinating our efforts to “Make a Difference.”



1. National Make a Difference Day is sponsored by USA Weekend in partnership with The Points of Light Foundation, 1400 Eye Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005-2208. Phone:
(800) 416-3824. Web site:


About the Authors

The Make a Difference Planning Group consists of Health Aide Beth Wolfenbarger; Teachers Suzanne Turner, Debbie Lerner, Beth Sloyer, and Jan Comstock; PTA members Judy Unruh, Penny Selle, Linda Tarpley, Leslie Alford, Patty Frank, and Teresa Hall; and Administrator Mike Windes, all of the Red Bridge Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri.
Debbie Lerner, who served as corresponding author, was recognized by National Council for the Social Studies as Outstanding Elementary Social Studies Teacher of the Year in 1995, and she serves on the Educational Advisory Board for The American Promise curriculum project.


A Few “Recycled” Jokes


Q: What is plastic, could be recycled, runs on batteries, and counts cattle?

A: A cow-culator.


Q: What food comes in a can, sounds cold, but is always hot?

A: Chili beans.


Q: How would a tyrannosaurus re-use cable wire?

A: She’d use it as dental floss.


Q: What kind of notebook grows on trees?

A: A loose-leaf notebook.