Pennies in remembrance: Students give 111,945 pennies to Virginia Holocaust Museum

When the Academic Success Program students at Meadowbrook High School heard of the death of Alexander Lebenstein, a Holocaust survivor who shared his story with them earlier this school year, they wanted to do something in his honor.

The students learned about the Virginia Holocaust Museum’s Penny Campaign, which the museum began in 1999 to honor the 6 million Jews whose lives were taken during the Holocaust, its website says. The goal is to collect 6 million pennies for the 6 million lives lost.

At Meadowbrook on Wednesday, May 26, success program students presented 111,945 pennies to Jay M. Ipson, one of the founders of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, in honor of Lebenstein.

“We are very grateful for your work, and we hope you will continue to teach tolerance,” Ipson said. He encouraged the students to stand up against bullying, which was one of the lessons Lebenstein was trying to teach. Ipson also presented the school with a plaque made of 110 year old wood from the museum.

The students wanted to break the record for the most pennies donated, teacher Mack Scott said. At one point, they thought they’d broken the record, he said, but when they learned they hadn’t, they extended the fundraising program.

“The kids were adamant about wanting to break the record,” he said. The success program students sponsored the school-wide campaign, said teacher Richard Dunn. The students collected money in bill or coin form and exchanged the other denominations for pennies, Scott said.

The students’ actions were “impressive and really inspiring,” he said.

“To me, it makes me feel proud, very proud,” he said of his students concern and empathy. “I believe, no matter your situation, that the way you feel better about yourself … is by helping others.”

Many of Meadowbrook’s students “don’t have a lot,” and to see them give “whatever little bit” they can is inspiring, and flies in the face of many of the perceptions of this generation, he said.

The students’ reaction to Lebenstein’s passing let their teachers know that they’d been deeply touched by his visit, Scott said. When Lebenstein came, he said, Scott told the students to listen, because people with such stories wouldn’t be around forever.

“Obviously, now, it’s hit home,” he said. “They got a message that a lot of people can’t get.”

Student Bryan Campbell, who, along with student Beatrice Johnson, presented the pennies to Ipson, said he just felt great putting forth his “little bit of effort” and “two cents” to help people remember.

“It was really nice of [Lebenstein] to open up and tell us those personal feelings,” student Cherrelle Thompkins said. When he shared his experiences, “I just felt like it became even realer.”

This year, there were 44 freshmen and 40 upperclassmen in the Academic Success Program, and the goal is to expand it next year, said Scott, who was recently named Meadowbrook’s Teacher of the Year.

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