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Central Middle students work to ensure happier holidays for the less fortunate

Central Middle School students from left Meghan Conn AmandDavis Anthony Vinci Nicolle Bartak Taylor Grassford decorate box thwill be filled

Central Middle School students, from left, Meghan Conn, Amanda Davis, Anthony Vinci, Nicolle Bartak, and Taylor Grassford decorate a box that will be filled with items for local needy families. | Denise Moran for Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 21, 2014 11:14AM

BURLINGTON — An effort to help the hungry that was initiated by Central Middle School eighth-grade students, teachers and staff became a Community Unit School District 301 project this year.

Operation Holiday Boxes was started in 2011 by Cathy Axen, Central Middle special education teacher.

“It started with a focus on hunger issues and food resources,” Axen said. “It was tied in with an ag project. We made up 25 food boxes in the first year.”

“During the second year, it was tied in with the Feed My Starving Children organization and the Northern Illinois Food Bank,” Axen continued. “Central Middle School and Prairie Knolls Middle School worked together to help 35 families. This year, the district leadership team decided that the project should go districtwide.”

According to district officials, postcards sent to 150 families this year garnered 60 responses. Families either came to Central Middle to pick up the boxes, or the boxes were delivered.

Central Middle students divided into White and Blue teams of five to six students apiece on Thursday afternoon so they could decorate the 60 boxes. First-, second- and third-place awards were given to the students who produced the most creatively decorated boxes. Each box contained food items, gift cards and a holiday card made by the students.

“The generosity has been overflowing,” Axen said.

Student Caden Scott’s parents, along with the parents of two other students, donated the cardboard boxes. Central Middle eighth-grade team leader Kathy McCoy ordered the supplies for decorating the boxes.

Student Jared Waldron was the project’s general manager. He made announcements over the school intercom every day to update students on the project’s progress. He also counted money donations and balanced the amount every day.

Student Jessica Smith raised $235 along with 35 food items, which was the largest amount raised this year by a single student at Central Middle School.

“Everyone in the district has contributed to the success of the food drive,” Axen said. “Prairie Knolls Middle teacher Zandra McGuire helped with the effort there that raised $700. Country Trails Elementary School contributed 695 food items. Central Middle School raised $1,298. One District 301 board member donated $1,000. The Central Middle School basketball team held a fundraiser. One hundred percent of the money raised goes into the boxes.”

District officials reported that the total monetary amount raised this year was $3,410.94. Students collected 3,198 food items.

Axen noted that all of the teachers did their part to make the project a success.

“Education is more than what takes place in the classroom,” Axen said. “We are teaching kids to become total persons who care about others and volunteer. That’s what we do as educators.”

Axen also stressed that while the teachers “provide leadership and advice, we want the kids to own it. It’s their project. The kids do it all.”

Diana Horton, Central Middle administrative assistant, said Operation Holiday Boxes first started on Monday, Dec. 2.

“How amazing it is that we were able to raise so much money and items in such a short period of time,” Horton said.

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