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A Fund Drive That Pops

West Springfield Elementary students raise money for Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Most people look at a soda can and see refreshment. Sylvia Kojcsich sees an opportunity.

For the second school year, the West Springfield Elementary School special-education teacher has been leading the charge in a program that puts used soda can tabs to use after the can is empty.

Kojcsich and the students, faculty and parents at West Springfield collect the used tabs and donate them to charity in memory of the daughter of a former teacher at the school.

The tabs are collected and will be consolidated at the end of the school year and donated to the Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) nonprofit organization. RMHC sends the tabs — the only part of a soda can made of pure aluminum — to a recycling plant, where they are crushed and reused. Then a check is made out to RMHC for the value of the tabs.

"I think this became a living memorial, where people could actually see that one small thing actually goes a long way," said Kojcsich, who was an assistant to former West Springfield teacher Rachel McDowell.

McDowell taught at West Springfield from 1993-96, before moving to California with her husband, Ken, an Air Force officer. In May 2003, the McDowells gave birth to their first daughter, Hannah, who was born with a congenital heart defect and died just 66 days after being born, spending 60 of those days in a hospital. Because of her illness, the McDowells moved to Philadelphia for Hannah to receive specialized treatment at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. There, they chose to stay at the Ronald McDonald House to save on lodging costs during their two-month stay.

"Ronald McDonald house was our home away from home for nearly two months," said McDowell, who said that the RMH offers rooms for as low as $10 a night to needy families. "And they’re a very giving place. It makes people feel like they have a home when they’re going through trials."

MCDOWELL STAYED in contact with Kojcsich and other teachers at West Springfield during her daughter’s illness, and when the 2003 school year started, the school sprang into action.

As part of the school’s "Community of Caring" service program, students and parents brought in soda can tabs and filled gallon milk jugs with them. Once the jugs were full, they were emptied into larger receptacles.

"It takes a whole lot more than you think to fill a gallon," Kojcsich said.

They called the program "Pop Tops for Hannah" and informed students and parents about the McDowells by sending home fliers and posting information, even turning the program into a contest.

"When they did it last year, it really impressed me that they as a school would want to help outside of their own community," said McDowell, who now lives at Bolling Air Force Base, where her husband is currently stationed.

The goal last year was to reach 30 gallons by year’s end. Thanks to contributions from those outside the community, including the West Springfield High girls lacrosse team, Kojcsich said the school finished with 68 gallons worth of tabs. That was enough to fill five trash cans full.

"I think it brought more meaning to everything. Seeing the kids get excited and see a project grow into something permanent, which is what I hope it could do," she said.

WHEN THE school year ended, Kojcsich and McDowell loaded the trash cans into Kojcsich’s van and drove them to Philadelphia to deliver them personally. There, they found out that the RMH in Philadelphia uses the proceeds from all its soda can tab recycling donations to pay its electric bill annually.

This school year, Kojcsich said the program is already thriving. She has set the goal at 120 gallons and plans to donate the tabs again to the RMH in Philadelphia.

Students at the school are already bringing in milk gallons filled with tabs, said Kojcsich.

"When I see a pop can, I’m like, ‘Dad, give me that pop top,’" said student Jacque Weir.

Another student, first-grader Dalton Roeder, whose mother works as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines and collects hordes of tabs for him, said he brings in the tabs because he knows that they can make a difference.

"They go to help the mommies and the daddies," he said.

As one of those mothers who has been on the other side, McDowell said she appreciated knowing that West Springfield remembered her in their project.

"I remember walking in and seeing my picture with Hannah on one of the fliers, and I said, ‘Wow,’" said McDowell.

"It was striking to know that the connection when you work in a place and you leave, that it doesn’t have to end."