Tell 600 elementary school kids that homeless kitties need food, and watch 5,000 cans of cat food roll in as donations. That's what happened at Wesley Chapel Elementary School when PE coach Chris Gorman and his 37 safety patrol members organized a community service project, March Meowness.
Donations from the project were designated for Labor of Love Animal Rescue, an all-volunteer organization working to rescue homeless cats and find them permanent homes. The group also helps control the feral cat population in Pasco and Hillsborough counties through its trap, neuter and return program.
Wesley Chapel Elementary's mascot is the wildcat; the safety patrol extended that idea to helping "wild cats" in their community.
"We set our goal at 2,000 cans of food. I thought maybe we'd get 1,000 cans. I was amazed at 5,000 cans of cat food," said Gorman, who was stunned further when, after emailing every cat food company he could think of, a truck arrived bearing 500 cans from the Weruva Co., producer of a high-end cat food.
Safety patrol members made posters, created television commercials and appeared on a morning news show. As cat food arrived they arranged a display in the cafeteria, allowing students to see daily progress.
Individual cans trickled in, stuffed bags appeared and there were boxes too heavy to carry. Safety patrol members Christina Gregory and J'Sha Jennings, both 11 and both fifth-graders, rolled a cart to the car loop each morning, piled it high with cat food, then headed to the cafeteria's display.
"One time our cart was so full we had to go and get a second cart," Christina says.
Neely Peterson, another fifth-grade safety patrol, says her mom, dad and grandma contributed 30 cans.
The food kept rolling in, partly because kids cared about the homeless kitties and partly because they liked the incentives for themselves and their classes.
"We got to help others see our class maybe get extra days of PE," said fourth-grader Jarrod Smith.
"There were so many positive outcomes from our project," said Gorman, whose plan was to offer incentives that had academic value.
Any student who brought in 10 cans of food earned a highly sought miniature Safety Patrol badge. The individual student from each grade level who donated the most cans received an invitation to participate in the Safety Patrol Water Day Celebration, a special time reserved only for the safety patrol.
The class that brought in the most number of cans earned an extra hour of PE for each of five days, with the class choosing the physical activity. This prize held top value for students.
"I was really happy to see how so many of our students just wanted to have extra days of physical education," Gorman said.
Teachers caught on to the challenge and came up with their own ideas, realizing that five extra hours of planning time, while students were at extra PE, would help them too. Third-grade teachers Amanda Novotny and Marci Williams used the project as a way to increase student reading goals.
They also boosted the collection. Using the computer program iReady, which logs student reading time, the teachers awarded cat food to students based on the amount of time they read. Taylor Mack logged more than 32 hours of reading in two weeks, earning 510 cans of cat food.
"Sometimes I'd get up at 5 a.m. and start reading," said Taylor, 8.
"We wanted kids to support the community service project themselves, not just ask parents to buy cat food," said Williams, who used the cat food drive as a lesson on citizenship, being a team member and even the meaning of "philanthropist."
Williams and Novotny team-teach, and they were thrilled when their 36 students came out on top and won the five extra PE days. They'll use the time to plan more student activities.
Kids saw the real winners as the 250 homeless cats and kittens cared for by Labor of Love volunteers.
"I think what we did was important because we helped animals that don't have homes or anyone that loves them," said fifth-grader Paige Hixenbaugh.