Two years ago, Dustin Harden was doing what any other third-grader would be doing after school — he was watching television — when he was struck by the message of a public service announcement regarding the collection of canned goods for the less fortunate.
"I just thought about it," said Harden, who recently collected 2,000 nonperishable items for a food drive at Lascassas Elementary School. "I just wanted to feed the hungry — people that are not able to get enough food or have enough money."
He is a fifth-grader now and along with his fellow classmates and staff, Lascassas collected 13,340 items that will be picked up by Green House Ministries and distributed to families in need throughout Rutherford County.
This year's food drive took place over a two-week period.
Organizer Marianne Chumley, a third-grade teacher who has been at Lascassas for the past four school years, had initially worried they would not be able to hold their annual food drive because of COVID-related restrictions.
But first-year Principal Kim Marable said, "As long as we could do it safely, we thought this was the most important time to do it. The kids understood we could be helping a lot of people, who have had some changes in their lives."
Lascassas has an enrollment of 479 students with about 81 staff members in the building.
Chumley was hoping they could average five items per person and, perhaps, push beyond 3,000 items. She "never dreamed" they would collectively average nearly 24 items per person.
"Everyone just came together and made it a big deal," said Chumley, who recognized school resource officer Chad Dodson for encouraging the students and playing a significant role throughout the two-week food drive. "At this school, I just think they're very giving."
In addition to Harden's donation — he spent about three hours a night after school for almost two weeks collecting his donations from family and friends of his family — fourth grader Ashlan Godwin and her younger sister Addie, a kindergartner, each brough 1,000 items, while Addie Peay used some of her own savings to purchase and donate 488 items.
Like Harden, Peay is in fifth grade.
"That's kids going home and saying, 'Mom, this is important,'" said Chumley. "For them to want to do that, I really don't have words for it."
"I am very proud of this community," said Marable, who added, "It goes further than what you see here."
She foresees students like Harden and the others as "strong adults" in the community.
Harden recognizes he might be seen as unusually grateful for a 12-year-old, but quickly deferred to the giving spirit of the entire student body.
"It makes me proud of what we did," Harden said.
The breakdown of donations by grade illustrates a schoolwide movement — kindergartners accounted for 2,472 items, whiles first-graders brought in 708, second grade was at 1,490, third was 2,160, fourth was 2,454 and fifth grade accounted for 4,056 items. Chumley said Green House was planning to use a U-Haul to pick up the donations.
"There has been a lot of conversation in the community about struggling families and people not having enough to eat, struggling and losing jobs," Chumley said. "It's the sweetest little community."
"I am blessed to be here," added Marable, who said the kids in Lascassas see their parents giving back and understand they should do something as well. "This is not the only moment I have seen the kids shine."