Can by can, the baskets outside the office at Northeast Elementary School fill up.
Students at the Greenwood elementary school bring in canned vegetables, jars of peanut butter, boxes of macaroni and cheese and all kinds of other non-perishable food to be collected. Over the course of three weeks, their contributions will grow to be a mountain of food — often between 2,000 and 3,000 items.
Like students across Johnson County, the kids at Northeast are on a mission this holiday season to collect food for the annual Good Cheer Fund distribution.
The school has been one of the most active in collecting over the years, as students take to hearing that every can of food they bring in helps someone else in their community, or maybe even one of their own classmates.
“It’s really rewarding that I work with such a caring student and family environment. Even in their time of need, they’re able to recognize that they have the opportunity to give to others as well,” said Jaime Oeffinger, student services director at Northeast Elementary.
The Good Cheer Fund is an annual food giveaway that helps needy families throughout the county. Baskets are filled with fresh food, such as ham, eggs, milk and bread, to provide families with meals around Christmas.
But a majority of items included in the deliveries will be non-perishable soups, fruit, vegetables and meal mixes that students themselves bring in.
Schools are typically responsible for more than 35,000 canned food goods each year.
Without the schools helping out, the Good Cheer Fund would not be nearly as successful as it is, chairman Jacob Sappenfield said.
“The school systems are the heartbeat of our community,” he said.
In addition to providing the vast majority of the items that are distributed throughout the county, schools are integral in ensuring families in need are identified and considered for Good Cheer baskets.
“The teachers and staff understand where the issues are and who are in need,” Sappenfield said. “We lean on them to help us identify families who are struggling and may need a boost during the holidays.”
Throughout the school, a spirit of giving, even among students whose families may be struggling themselves, is pervasive, Oeffinger said.
When she first learned about the important role schools and student participation play in making the Good Cheer Fund possible, she wanted to implement a canned food collection at Northeast.
And they have done it every year since.
“I like to convey the message of paying it forward, or being able to give back,” Oeffinger said. “That’s a lot of my verbiage to the school and to parents — this is a chance for you to pay it forward to somebody else, to help out another family.”
Motivating students and families to take part is never an issue, she said. Excitement builds as individual classrooms and grade levels turn the non-perishable food collection into a heated competition.
Kids bring their canned goods to their classrooms each day, then that day’s collection goes down to Oeffinger’s office.
“The students are really working together, but then also working against one another, to collect the most cans or items,” she said. “That has been really successful.”
Northeast also holds an annual Winter Ball, an after-school event for music and activities. Prior to the pandemic-disrupted 2020, students and family members could bring canned goods for admission.
Oeffiner remembers one fifth-grade student who set aside his allowance money in November and early December to buy canned and boxed food goods for the collection.
“It was important for him that he raise the number for his class, and helping,” she said. “He was using his own money, and his parents were taking him out to grocery shop.”