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Amherst sixth-graders raise $2,000 for families displaced by home fires

It all started when the Peshkov family, whose son, Andrey, is a kindergarten student at Wildwood, lost their home to a fire on Jan. 8. When they found out about the fire, Rachel Cummings’ sixth-grade students wanted to help.

Just two weeks later, a fire ravaged Rolling Green, destroying the homes of four other families with children in Amherst schools. The students decided to help those families as well.

Children from the two sixth-grade classes Cummings co-teaches visited the other two sixth grade classes at Wildwood, talked about the fires and how they wanted to help, and soon the whole sixth grade was on board.

They started a piggy bank drive, raiding their savings and asking family members for donations. Sixth-grade students visited third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade classes to talk about their efforts and ask for contributions.

In their free time, student groups went to Atkins Farms Country Market in Amherst and Maple Farm Foods in Hadley to seek funds. During a school band performance, they solicited donations from the audience. A few fourth-graders made origami and jewelry to sell to raise money. This Friday at 7 p.m., AyreCraft — a duo that includes Wildwood music teacher Robert Castellano and plays traditional lute and theorbo music — will perform a benefit concert at the school.

The proceeds from all the fundraising efforts will be split evenly among all of the families affected by the fires, Cummings said.

“The way I framed it for them is — what can I do, what can we do, and then, what can someone else do?” Cummings said. “You can’t be out there with a can asking somebody to do something if we haven’t done something ourselves.”

Alex Lerch, a sixth-grader who has been particularly enthusiastic about the effort, asked his parents for several months of allowance in a lump sum and withdrew money from his savings account.

“I think it’s awesome what we can do just working together,” he said.

Tom Doyle, who is also in Cummings’ class, became something of a freelance fundraiser last weekend. When he attended a show — put on by the dance school his mother, Charlotte, runs — at the Maple Ridge Community Center in Sunderland, Doyle realized that it would be a great opportunity to raise money for the cause. He and his brother, who is in fifth grade at Wildwood, collected more than $100 from the audience.

“Sometimes it can be a little uncomfortable, but I honestly think that this is worth talking to people that I don’t know,” said Doyle. “As human beings we should treat each other with respect, and if somebody needs our help then we should use our power to help them.”

In addition to all their fundraising, the sixth-grade students are hoping to get the Peshkovs a whole new home. When they return from February break, they will be putting together a video and application for the family to appear on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” — a reality television show that renovates homes for families in need.

The idea to apply for “Extreme Makeover” came from Cole Davis-Brand, another sixth-grader. He said he has watched the program a lot and is excited to make the application video, though he doesn’t know whether he will be in front of the camera or behind it. “It’s just been going to be fun helping make it, no matter what,” he said.

The sixth-graders’ efforts to raise money for fire victims have tied into their curriculum perfectly, Cummings said.

They have been discussing the differences in the material possessions people have around the world in social studies, she said. And they have developed math and analytical skills by tracking how much they have raised and putting together PowerPoint presentations to show their progress to the school. “They don’t even realize they’re doing math as they’re making all these graphs and doing all these tallies,” Cummings said.

When they heard about the first fire, the students were already talking about what they could do to help others because they had just seen a documentary about Craig Kielburger, a Canadian activist who has been fighting against child labor since he was 12.

“Kids get really motivated by watching a child be able to actually do something because ... people often want to help and they don’t really know how,” Cummings said. “Kids often feel helpless until you show them they’re not.”

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