Students collect pennies for Holocaust project

By Tammy Keith Published January 24, 2016 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: William Harvey

Vilonia Middle School seventh-graders show some of the pennies they have collected so far for their One Cent, One Life project. The students, members of Linda Knapp’s Pre-AP literacy class, have a goal of 6 million pennies to represent the Jews killed in the Holocaust. Students participating include, seated, from left, Ty Heslep, Hannah Johnson, Gabriel Goodwin and Emma Duncan; and standing, Tate Smithhart, Grace Shannon and Lucas Yarbrough.

Seventh-graders Emma Duncan and Hannah Johnson hefted heavy containers full of pennies to the Vilonia Middle School office, each coin representing the life of a Jew killed in the Holocaust.

They are students in one of three Pre-AP literacy classes taught by Linda Knapp at Vilonia Middle School that are participating in a project they created called One Cent, One Life.

The students’ goal is to collect 6 million pennies to represent all the Jews killed in the Holocaust. The plan is to put 1.5 million pennies in a display case in the school to represent the number of children who died in the Holocaust, and send 4.5 million pennies to the Jewish Foundation of Arkansas.

Knapp said she has students in three Pre-AP literacy classes and one regular literacy class study the Holocaust each year and do a research project.

“I chose this [subject] years ago because I really felt it was important to teach tolerance. I find this is a really impressionable age,” she said.

Last year, the students Skyped with Holocaust survivor Magda Brown, and they made a quilt and sent it to her.

“This year, the students wanted to up that a little bit; they wanted to create a permanent display in our school,” Knapp said.

Emma said that this year she and her classmates watched documentaries to get information about the Holocaust. One story described a project in which paper clips were collected to represent Holocaust victims.

Grace Shannon, 12, said Knapp asked if anyone in the class had ideas about a project, and Grace said pennies popped into her mind.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we raise 6 million pennies? Everybody’s life has a value, and a penny has a value,’” Grace said. She said her father, Jerry Shannon, volunteered to make the display case. “It’s going to be really big,” she said.

Emma said it is not lost on the students that 6 million pennies is $60,000. She said although she was worried at first about the money getting stolen, “it would take fork lifts to come in and get it.”

“If we get the 6 million pretty soon, we may try to go for 11 million,” Emma said, which would represent the total number of people killed in the Holocaust.

She and classmate Hannah Johnson are responsible for counting the pennies, although others help in the effort.

Ty Heslep, who will turn 13 this month, said the point the students are trying to get across is “we’re all the same. We can’t kill people for being different. We’re all the same inside.”

Tate Smithhart, 12, said it made an impression on him to see thousands of pennies and view them as people killed in the Holocaust. “It opens your eyes that you don’t need to let that happen again,” Tate said.

“I really hope people become thankful for the lives they live and things they have, because that was a lot of Jews that died, and they really didn’t do anything wrong,” Hannah said.

Gabriel Goodwin, 13, said he was immediately excited about the project. “It was just awesome because we can do something to change the world,” he said.

The students have contacted friends, family, neighbors, foundations, politicians and even celebrities.

Although the students haven’t heard back from actor Adam Sandler or television host Ellen DeGeneres, the students received a penny last week from former Gov. Mike Huckabee. It was taped on an index card.

Knapp said they did speak with gospel singer Colton Dixon. “He’s very supportive and said he’s going to help them out; he said he’s going to

contact TobyMac,” Knapp said.

Students said they have received donations from Central Baptist College, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and Harvard University.

Knapp’s student teacher, Destiny Bray of Vilonia, brought in 3,500 pennies Wednesday that she collected from family members.

Emma said she is asking family members in North Carolina to donate pennies. Gabriel said students also “have literally been picking pennies up off the ground.”

The students had collected 30,000 pennies as of press time. Bray said some people have donated cash, and Centennial Bank in Vilonia is ordering extra pennies each week to make change for the project. Donations may be mailed to Vilonia Middle School, 49 Eagle St., Vilonia, AR 72173; or brought by the school.

Knapp said the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Indiana is going to send a letter of support, as well as pennies.

“Even if they can’t support us monetarily — and some can’t — I hope they’ll at least send us a letter of support,” Knapp said. “This is so important to my students.

“They’re not at all daunted by how overwhelming and huge this undertaking is. They’re courageous and brave and have this great resolve that they’re going to do it.”

Knapp said the project teaches important character qualities. She said a teacher of hers many years ago said, “A teacher is not somebody who just imparts good knowledge, but somebody who makes good citizens.”

“They may never understand what a gerund is,” Knapp said, “but if you learn to show tolerance and compassion, it will carry you through the rest of your life.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or

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