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Willmar Middle School holds collection competition to raise money for South American nation devastated by earthquake

Mary Carlson, from left, Michelle Carlson, Ben Carlson and Noah Vreeman talk about the Penny War for Chile as they stand at the fundraiser table Tuesday in the Willmar Middle School cafeteria. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- Hector Pinochet of Willmar was in Santiago, Chile, when an enormous earthquake shook the ground for 3½ minutes in the early morning of Feb. 27.

Pinochet, pastor at the Asemblea de Dios Espana in Willmar, saw the devastation all around him and spent the next month working to help people who had lost homes and loved ones. He called home when he could, usually for just a couple minutes each time.

Pinochet was not hurt, but members of his family were injured, and at least one relative was washed away in the ensuing tsunami.

Pinochet returned to Minnesota in early April, and he and his wife, Sara Reyes, have been spreading the word about the devastation in their home country and recruiting help for rebuilding.

They are grateful to the churches who have offered to help and particularly grateful to the students of Willmar Middle School, where pennies and other donations are piling up in huge water jugs.

Middle School counselor Jeff Winter, a member of Willmar's First Covenant Church, learned about Pinochet's experience and decided to try to do something to help. Pinochet's congregation also gathers at First Covenant Church.

He spoke to his church and showed a PowerPoint slide show made up of Pinochet's before and after photos from Chile. Then he took it to the Middle School Student Council, which decided to hold a penny war.

Donations will be used to help build small new homes for people who have been homeless since the earthquake.

The students have been at war now for a couple weeks. Winter put out a jug for each grade. At first students put money into the jugs, but they got to be pretty heavy. Now, Winter puts smaller buckets out in front of the jugs to collect each day's donations.

Each morning, Winter said, he announces which grade is ahead in the war, and cheers can be heard from one corner of the school or another. The sixth, seventh and eighth grades have each been in the lead at some point.

The grade with the most pennies today will win a root beer float party in the cafeteria.

There's a twist to the penny war, though. Each jug will be judged on the total amount of money inside -- pennies add points, but coins and paper money deduct points.

It's illustrated by a seventh-grade boy who approached the jugs in the cafeteria earlier this week. He tossed his pennies into the container for his class and split his other coins between the sixth and eighth grades.

Another seventh-grade girl tossed a dollar bill into the bucket for the eighth grade, which had been in the lead that day.

Winter joked that the penny war has been a good way to teach the kids about negative numbers. Because of the coins and cash thrown in the jugs, most of the classes have a negative score, he said.

Student Council members said they are glad to be doing something for Chile. Two of the Pinochets' children are students at the school.

Several sixth-grade members of the Student Council said they felt good knowing that their donations could be helping kids their age.

"We felt bad" when they saw the photos of collapsed buildings and other damage, said Alexis Miley, 12.

"It was so beautiful before," said Ingrid Figenskau, 12.

Michelle Carlson, 11, said she's seen lots of kids putting money in the buckets, and some of them have brought in money their parents told them to donate.

"We were in first place a couple times," Alexis said, "but the big kids wanted to take us down."

Pinochet described the devastation in Chile earlier this week, when he visited the Middle School.

His sister owns a funeral business and donated many small-sized coffins to be used for children killed in the earthquake, he said.

Strong aftershocks rattled the nerves of the survivors, he said.

"Everybody is really scared," Reyes said.

Pinochet said they are organizing a trip to help in Chile this summer. If people can pay their own airfare to Chile, the churches in Chile will provide food and shelter. "As long as they know how to hammer a nail, they are welcome to help," Reyes said.

Government help is coming, but it is slow to reach all areas, Pinochet said, so churches in Chile are working with the government to bring aid to more areas.

The churches have helped to build temporary schools and new homes, and they have taken food, water and clothing to people who had nothing left.

With winter coming, "things are hard right now," he said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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