Most third graders play with bikes, Xbox or Barbies. They don't devote their time to rounding up half a ton of food to feed hungry families.
But then, most third graders aren't the amazing kids at Robert Mascenik School #26 in Iselin.
The 48 students of the school's two third-grade classes responded to the township's annual "Have a Heart" food drive in February by collecting 1,000 lbs. of canned goods and other staples from their fellow students to help stock the township's ten food banks.
In return, the big-hearted 8 year olds received proclamations from Mayor John McCormac, who was on hand to personally thank the youngsters for their hard work.
"It's hard to imagine in a town as good as ours that people go to bed hungry," McCormac said to the children gathered in the school's gymnasium. "You're helping a lot of people who can't afford to have good meals every night."
Principal Sharon Strack beamed from the sidelines. She chose the "Have a Heart" program as the youngsters' monthly altruism project, designed to expose the children to the joys of doing good deeds for others.
The food drive follows a "giving tree" Strack designed for Christmas, in which she created ornaments replete with the childrens' names in her own calligraphy to decorate the tree. This season's heavy snowstorms made it impossible for the kids to go outside to play, so the principal put the students' pent-up energy to good use.
"We made valentines for the senior citizens," Strack said. "We received quite a few thank you notes from that."
The mayor stood up in front of the table, piled high with bagged food, and introduced Peter Barcellona, who heads the "Have a Heart" program for the township
Township-wide, this year's program collected 15,000 lbs. of food and $10,000. Barcellona explained that the money is needed to fill in gaps at the township's 10 food pantries: when a particularly crucial item is in short supply, the funds are available to buy the missing foodstuff. The town's food pantries help feed approximately 500 families a month.
"Your contribution stays in your neighborhood. You've done a phenomenal job," Barcellona said to the students.
As he handed out proclamations to the children, McCormac tried to cajole them into saying something for the camera - the event was being videotaped for the township's television station.
Most of the youngsters were shy and demurred, but not Eric Vittitoe. The plucky 8 year old took the microphone and went to town.
"There are some people who don't have houses or food. They can almost die," Eric said as he got a huge round of applause. "I know lots of you do this because you want to help everybody."
The mayor shook the boy's hand and quipped, "Are you going to run for mayor? No? I'm safe for a few more terms!"
McCormac opened up the event to questions from the children, and their hands flew up like a shot. Both he and the students obviously enjoyed the exchange:
- Do you like Star Wars? No!
- What's your favorite fast food? Does Boston Market count? No? Then Wendy's.
- Are you rich? No, but I wish I was.
- How long have you wanted to be mayor? Ever since I was a boy scout and I was made mayor for a day.
- Do you ever get nervous? I don't like making speeches. I'd rather just get up here and talk.
Afterwards Kristie Manente and Lora Bucior, the two teachers who oversaw the drive for their third grade students, lined their students up to enjoy the refreshments Barcellona brought for the children.
"This is the 14th year I've done this. It's good for the students and the community," Manente said.