Collecting for a cause

ELLSWORTH -- It isn't about winning or losing, but about helping a family in need that had students in Ellsworth Public School carrying out a good ol' fashioned penny war during the past two weeks.

ELLSWORTH -- It isn't about winning or losing, but about helping a family in need that had students in Ellsworth Public School carrying out a good ol' fashioned penny war during the past two weeks.

An all-school assembly Monday afternoon recognized the top class in the elementary (pre-kindergarten through sixth grade) that collected the greatest weight of coins, and the top class in seventh through 12th grades that collected the largest number of pennies. All of the money was then presented to the family of school secretary Darcey Groen, whose 15-year-old son, Justin, will travel to Rochester this week for bladder repair surgery, which will lead to a kidney transplant in June. Justin is a freshman at George-Little Rock, Iowa, High School.

With banks in Little Rock and Ellsworth asked to help count the pennies, Cathy Steinmetz announced to students during the assembly that the final tally wasn't yet available -- the Little Rock bank was still counting pennies collected by the school's kindergarten class. Still, the school was able to present a check for $2,973.11 to Groen and her husband, Steve.

Steinmetz, one of four high school teachers who planned the penny war, said the success of the competition was much greater than she had imagined.

"This has snowballed a little bit -- OK, a lot a bit -- more than what we had expected," Steinmetz said. "This has blown me away. I was thinking each class would do maybe $50 or $100. I had no idea how much the kids would get into it."


Before students were sent home early last Wednesday as a result of the blizzard, which kept them out of school until Monday, Steinmetz said the preschool class alone had collected about $200 worth of coins, while the high school seniors had about $500 that had been turned in.

In the high school competition, only pennies counted toward the collection in each grade, while other coins and paper currency counted against their total. Therefore, if an eighth-grader put a $5 bill in the 12th grade jar, it would subtract 500 pennies from the seniors' tally. Steinmetz said a couple of jars had contained a $20 bill each, forcing students to go on a penny hunt.

The contest has not only impacted the students, but also at least one local business.

"We've been creating a penny shortage in the Ellsworth bank," Steinmetz said. "Not many banks keep that many pennies on hand.

"There were some kids ... that were actually coming down and had pulled money out of their savings account, and they wanted it all in pennies to contribute to this," she added. "It's definitely showing that the kids are getting so much into this because of Darcey and caring for the situation she's in. The prize they're getting is not worth the effort they're putting into accumulating (the money)."

The prizes may not mean much to the teachers, but for the students, it's all in the bragging rights.

Ellsworth High School senior Ryan Kix took money from his savings account and did some extra work for the cooks in the school to be able to contribute $40 in pennies toward the seniors' collection.

"I think it's a good idea that we're doing it," said Kix, who attends the same church as the Groen family. Kix said he and his classmates collected 14 large pickle jars full of pennies.


The winning elementary class will receive a pizza party with pop and a movie on a school day, while the prize in the high school is five full days of dress down "which, in Ellsworth, means they get to wear shorts in the winter and first privileges in the lunch line," Steinmetz said. Not even the teachers can budge in front of the winning class during those five days.

Show of support

Justin Groen will have surgery on Thursday to repair his bladder, which will mean an eight- to 10-day stay in Rochester for Darcey. When he returns home, Groen will then begin dialysis treatments three times each week until June, when a surgery is planned for Justin to receive a kidney transplant. The kidney will come from his father, Steve.

"That's going to put Darcey and Justin out in Rochester for four to five weeks minimum," Steinmetz said.

As a mother of a boy who encountered medical difficulties a couple of years ago, Steinmetz is fully aware of the extra costs not covered by insurance, such as travel and living away from home.

She hopes the school's penny war will not only help ease those financial concerns, but also provide Darcey and her family with the knowledge there are people back in Ellsworth willing to support them.

"You know you have people behind you when you have everything from 4-year-olds to high school juniors -- who really don't want to participate in much of anything -- bringing in little baggies of pennies to add to the tally," Steinmetz said.

Friends and family may follow Justin's progress on a Web site that has been set up for him at . From there, people must register with an e-mail address and password. The final step is to enter the Care Pages member name: justingroen.


Darcey Groen said she was overwhelmed by the amount of support she and her family have received from the school.

"I didn't know there was this many pennies in this town," Groen told students during the assembly with tears in her eyes. "Words cannot describe what I feel right now. Thank you."

To hear an audio clip from an Ellsworth student who contributed money, visit .

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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