SPRING HILL — As some Hernando residents sit down for dinner today, they'll have an 8-year-old — and a lot of her classmates — to thank.
When Katie Pease, a third-grader at Explorer K-8 School, celebrated her birthday this summer, instead of presents, she asked her friends to bring canned food. The donations went to the food pantry at Forest Oaks Lutheran Church.
Not only did Katie collect the food, she helped deliver it to the pantry, unloaded the truck, unpacked boxes and helped distribute it.
As it turned out, that was just the start for Katie.
When school started in August, she suggested that Explorer collect food for the pantry in time for Thanksgiving.
Natural allies were reading and writing resource teacher Jocelyn Fischer, whose husband, the Rev. Glenn Fischer, is pastor at Forest Oaks Lutheran, and third-grade teachers Shannon Pease — Katie's mother — and April Watkins. Also helping was Shannon Hess, the third-grade exceptional education teacher.
The collection was spearheaded by both third-grade classes, and they began Oct. 16.
"We are up to record amounts of food," Fischer said — about 6,000 items as of earlier this week.
All of the items collected were piled into two classrooms.
"The kids like having it in the rooms so they can see it," said Hess.
On Tuesday, the food was loaded into trucks and carried to the church pantry.
The food didn't go alone. The teachers, Hess said, paid for a school bus to take the students along on the delivery.
"We really think they need to see the finality," she said.
The third-graders created posters, bearing slogans such as "Canned Food Drives Me," "Think Outside the Can" and "Help Us Help Others" to motivate donations.
The teachers contacted the rest of the school using email.
The children went around to classrooms, Katie said, to pick up the donations.
After a lot of donations initially, interest waned a bit, and the third-graders worked to reignite it. Collections were divided into grade-level competitions. Special days were advertised for prizes.
"We did one called Thanksgiving Thursday," Hess said, where foods related to the holiday were encouraged. There was a Mashed Potato Monday, a Two-Can Tuesday and a Wash-It-Up Wednesday.
The class that brought in the most items on one of those particular days won prizes, such as Thanksgiving pencils, stickers or erasers; Ring Pops; Silly Bands; and frozen treats.
The class that collected the most items overall will get a pizza party. But for many of the children, there was also a less tangible, more meaningful reward.
"Because it helps poor people," said Damon Grosso, 8. "They're being helped, just like we are."
Ashlyne Poder agreed.
"It gives people more food," she said.