Baskets fully loaded with food filled the office space at Clark-Pleasant Intermediate School.
Cans of vegetable soup, green beans, corn and sliced peaches were loaded to the top. Packages of macaroni and cheese and jars of peanut butter spilled over the sides.
The students had spent the past two weeks bringing in all of the nonperishable food they could find for the annual Good Cheer Fund food giveaway. The room with the most to contribute before Thanksgiving would get to mash a cream pie in the face of Principal Kurt Saugstad.
A good laugh at their principal’s expense was the immediate motivator for the students’ generosity. But underlying their efforts was a desire to help those in need.
“Anything we can do to get them excited, and they love it. It’s pretty easy to get them on board,” Saugstad said.
Schoolchildren have become the engine that drives the Good Cheer Fund. Every year, schools contribute about 35,000 canned goods to the cause, providing more than half of the items eventually given away to 775 needy families in the county.
Without the kids’ help, fewer than half of those families would receive a basket, fund chairman Jake Sappenfield said.
“We’d have to cut back on the baskets. There’s no way we could match the need without the schools,” he said.
“It makes you feel like a good person, knowing that you’ve made a difference by helping a lot of people,” said Isabel Auger, an eighth-grader at Franklin Community Middle School.
The Good Cheer Fund is an annual drive to collect money to provide food for the hungry in Johnson County. The fund was started in 1921 and has been a tradition in the community every year since.
Donations from the community are used to buy fresh goods such as eggs, milk, bread and a Christmas ham, while canned goods collected by local schools supplement the baskets.
In the days before Christmas, volunteers will distribute 350 baskets throughout Franklin, Bargersville and Trafalgar. The Greenwood Fraternal Order of Police will pass out another 225 in the northern part of the county, while the Edinburgh Fire Department will pass out 200 in the southern portion.
Children have been an integral part of the fundraising effort for more than 50 years.
For many years, the Artcraft Theatre used to host a Saturday viewing event where the price of admission was a canned good. Kids used to wait in long lines, their cans in hand, to watch cartoons on the big screen.
Longtime director Eddy Teets started competitions among Franklin elementary schools, and others in the county soon started conducting their own food drives. That tradition has endured.
Franklin’s middle school sets a goal every year to contribute 9,000 canned goods to the drive. Starting right after Thanksgiving and extending all the way to Christmas break, students and staff fill bins in each classroom with whatever they can contribute.
Nearly everyone in the school participates, dean of students Walt Raines said. Some bring dozens of items.
“There are a lot of people out there that need our help. And there are kids in our own building who benefit from this,” Raines said. “We really stress to them that we need to help our community. We talk about that every day at lunch. The teachers talk about it in the mornings.”
The drive is spearheaded by the student council. The members make posters to get classmates’ attention and compose daily announcements to get the student body fired up.
They organize contests between homerooms, get businesses such as Dairy Queen and Ritter’s to donate prizes, and do all of the counting of whatever comes in.
Last year, anyone who brought in a food item was able to get into a middle school basketball game at half-price.
“We want to stress the importance to the students that we can help other people in the community. That’s especially important to this age group,” said Ellie VanderBeen, an eighth-grader and the student council president.
At Clark-Pleasant Intermediate School, the situation is similar.
The chance to do something good is usually all of the motivation the students need to contribute, Saugstad said. But an extra reward often doesn’t hurt either.
In the past, administrators have offered to let the classroom bringing in the most canned goods to hit them with cream pies and dump ice cream sundaes on their heads. Before Thanksgiving break, every kid who brought in a can got out of class to watch a special staff vs. staff volleyball game.
“It’s service learning. So many people give these kids a part of themselves, that it’s good for them to give back,” Saugstad said.
Center Grove Middle School Central ties their year-end holiday dance in with their food drives. In addition to donations collected in the classrooms, those who want to attend have to bring a nonperishable food item as the admission.
Kids are already excited about helping with the Good Cheer Fund and about the dance itself, Principal Jack Parker said. This idea ties the two together with a worthwhile life lesson.
“We work with students to teach them all of the school curriculum subjects, but what we also teach is citizenship,” Parker said. “It’s part of learning how to be a productive adult in our community. When they can do that as a group, they have a more collective ownership of the lesson.”
Continuing to foster the schools’ participation is key for Good Cheer Fund organizers, Sappenfield said. In recent years, some schools have started planning their own fundraisers for other causes during the holidays.
While serving the community in a variety of ways is always a good thing, Sappenfield stressed how important the fund is for local families. Without the schools, needy people would see a significant drop in the help they receive every Christmas.
“When the children help, we don’t have to go out and buy the canned goods with what they’re able to give. If we didn’t have them, we just couldn’t do this,” Sappenfield said.