As Hannibal High School teacher Arlene Laut gears up for retirement at the end of the school year, a classroom project she spearheaded a decade ago is also drawing to an end.
A massive penny collection effort, which was launched in an elective class Laut taught several years back, aimed to teach students the human cost of the Holocaust by having each penny represent a life.
Students and staff were encouraged to bring in as many pennies as possible, with the ultimate goal of 6 million pennies, which would illustrate the death toll of the Holocaust.
“The number 6 million meant nothing, so we came up with this idea to try and raise 6 million pennies,” Laut explained. “Teachers were having competitions with the classes and we took up a huge collection.”
The “huge” collection equated to roughly 330,000 pennies, which were stored in bins located in the cafeteria and in Laut’s classroom.
With Laut’s impending retirement, the time was right to cash in the collection and free up some much-needed space in the building.
“(Custodian) Kenny Greenleaf has been hauling the pennies to the bank, and it looks like we will have close to $3,500,” Laut said, noting that the money will be donated to two nonprofit organizations. “We decided that we’ll take $1,000 and give it to UNICEF. Everything else will go to Safe Haven in Oswego because they are doing a huge addition. It’s the only place in the United States that during World War II we did anything to help refugees … It’s basically our Central New York Statue of Liberty.”
While Laut agreed that the charitable efforts are a rewarding part of the longtime classroom project, she hopes that the reason behind the project is always remembered.
Of the 330,000 pennies that were collected, there were roughly 100,000 stored in Laut’s classroom.
“That wasn’t even the number of children who died, so this is nothing,” she said. “Just looking at that and thinking about the mass numbers helps drive the point home. Every penny is a life that was lost. There’s no way that anyone who has not been a victim, a survivor of the Holocaust or child of survivors, has any idea what it was like. Hopefully the Holocaust and genocide course and the penny collection gave our kids an inkling of the human cost of the Holocaust.”
For Laut, her passion for the subject was sparked after listening to a Holocaust survivor speak during a Belfer Conference more than a decade ago in Washington, D.C.
Since then, educating today’s youth about the Holocaust has become a personal mission.
“I feel like we need to continue to carry the torch. Yes, (Holocaust survivors’) stories are on video and available that way, but to have someone who’s heard first hand from a survivor and repeat those stories has a greater impact on kids than just watching a survivor on film. I am able to share a survivor’s story and I’m able to put as much of my emotion into it as I can.”
Sharing, educating and giving back have been critical not only for Laut, but for her students as well.
She said she is confident that the Hannibal students who have taken the Holocaust and genocide course have walked away feeling empowered to participate in their communities and in organizations that work toward helping others.
“Kids have come back and talked about their work with organizations that work toward world peace, and that’s all that I can ask for … is for them to come away with an understanding that there is something that every individual can do if they choose to participate,” she said. “That’s one less person who is going to walk away. One more person to stand up for what is right.”