COTTONWOOD - At Lakeview Schools in Cottonwood, the students get a chance to learn life lessons as well as schoolwork. "They learn how to be good people," said Billie Jo Varpness, a first-grade teacher at Lakeview.
Every year, students at Lakeview Schools and residents of the surrounding communities gear up to do a service project around the holidays as a way to reach out to others.
This year, Varpness was thinking about what kind of service project her class would do. She decided that helping families who are struggling with premature deliveries would be just the thing.
Lakeview school readiness classes posed with clothes they donated to help premature babies.
She enlisted her colleague, Tiffany Teske, a school readiness teacher at Lakeview, to help because Teske was experienced with fund-raising and was a fellow mom who had had children prematurely.
Both were grateful to Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., and the neonatal intensive care unit, the nurses and the Ronald McDonald House where they stayed while their babies were being cared for.
"My child is 3 now, and I was always thinking, 'how can I give back?'" Varpness said.
The project was two-fold: collect new clothing for premature babies - a Precious Preemie Clothing Drive, they called it - and also collect money and items to fill a bag to give to the families while they stayed at the Ronald McDonald House.
The project took off past Varpness' expectations.
"I thought we would collect maybe 20 items of clothing for the babies," she said.
"We got 20 the first day," said Teske. "One class contributed 20 pieces of clothing. One family donated 20."
The two chapters of the Honor Society, junior and senior high students, donated clothing and student council members sold suckers during their lunch hours.
The elementary hallway had a clothesline filled with clothing for premature babies. Varpness said the second-grade classes also collected items for the bed rest mommies at Avera, including lotion, crossword books, pencils and comfy socks.
More than 150 items of clothing for tiny babies were collected. The two teachers drove to the neonatal intensive care unit at Avera McKennan in November and helped the March of Dimes set up a preemie boutique. Families with preemies were able to "shop" for preemie clothing, Teske said.
"It was an amazing event," Teske said. "Billie Jo and I got to talk with some of the parents and share stories."
They didn't forget the dedicated nurses either.
"We brought the nurses chocolate treats," Teske said.
The whole school and residents and businesses in the surrounding communities pitched in on the bags for the families. Kim Sander, who sells bags from her 31 Gifts business, offered cloth bags that people could buy and donate or if they bought a bag for themselves, a portion of the proceeds would go to the Lakeview fundraiser.
"We received 29 bags," said Teske.
Inside the bags are items such as gift cards, coloring books, games, tissues, stuffed toys and thank-you cards. The items were purchased with money from sucker sales.
Tam French of Tastefully Simple donated items for the bag and offered a portion of sales to the fundraiser.
The 29 bags will be given to parents who have children in the NICU and are staying at the two Ronald McDonald Houses near Avera McKennan. A catered event will take place at the end of January. A local corporation will pay for the catering.
"The Lakeview communities are so giving," said Varpness. "I'm honored to be part of the community and this school."
"Everyone just takes care of each other," Teske said.