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updated: 8/24/2013 3:37 PM

Wheaton teacher and her students prove to be one in a million

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  • Elaine Cimino, a second-grade teacher at Wiesbrook Elementary School in Wheaton, and her students spent the past eight years collecting 1 million pop can tops to donate to Ronald McDonald House Charities.

       Elaine Cimino, a second-grade teacher at Wiesbrook Elementary School in Wheaton, and her students spent the past eight years collecting 1 million pop can tops to donate to Ronald McDonald House Charities.
    Photos by Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Zach Choromokos, now a third-grader, helped collect the tabs that put Cimino's class over the 1 million pop tab mark last spring.

      Zach Choromokos, now a third-grader, helped collect the tabs that put Cimino's class over the 1 million pop tab mark last spring.

  • Elaine Cimino, second-grade teacher at Wiesbrook Elementary School in Wheaton, holds a box of pop can tops with third-grader Nate Kruse.

       Elaine Cimino, second-grade teacher at Wiesbrook Elementary School in Wheaton, holds a box of pop can tops with third-grader Nate Kruse.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 

Kids in a typical second-grade classroom regularly will brag about having "a million toys" or complain about "a million pages of homework."

Eight years ago, a second-grade teacher in Wheaton decided to teach her students about a million ways to help someone.

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In 2005, Wiesbrook Elementary School teacher Elaine Cimino and her class started collecting pop tabs with a goal of reaching 1 million to donate to the Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Two days before the end of the past school year, Cimino and her students reached the goal. Friday morning, during Wiesbrook's welcome back assembly, Cimino and her former students celebrated the achievement.

"That was a big project we undertook," she said. "I never imagined it would be an eight-year project, but it was."

Zach Choromokos and Giana Girup are now third-graders, but they both contributed to the last few boxes that put the class over the magic mark last spring.

"We are kids, and we helped other kids by bringing these in," Zach said.

Giana agreed.

"It was easy. People gave us tabs, and our teacher made them help kids for us," she said.

Ronald McDonald House Charities officials did not reply to a request for comment Friday, but their website states the organization "collects pop tabs because they are clean, compact, easy and have the highest-grade aluminum in the entire can. So, the pop tab has the highest recycling value!"

Those pop tabs are then recycled by United Scrap Metal, and the charity receives the market value of the recycled metal, plus a charitable match from United Scrap. Last year, Ronald McDonald House of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana raised more than $40,000 from the program.

According to an online calculator, 1,250 tabs equals 1 pound. So Cimino's 1 million tabs weigh more than 800 pounds.

Kimberly Reddington, a United Scrap account executive who assists the Ronald McDonald House Charities with the pop tab program, said 800 pounds of aluminum is currently valued around $480.

"It costs $50 a night for a family to stay at a Ronald McDonald House so, over time, these students have paid for almost 10 nights for a family in need," Reddington said. "That's an amazing gift."

Cimino said she grew up near the Ronald McDonald House associated with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and had an appreciation for its mission.

"There's nothing more that a child wants than to have their parents right next to them when they're sick, so that's why we chose them," she said. "It was as close to helping children as I could get, because 100 percent of the donations go directly to the charity rather than administration."

Since 2005, students have been bringing her tabs from home and fellow teachers and members of her church joined in. Organizers of block parties in her community even set out cups during their events to collect tabs for Cimino.

On Friday afternoons, her students would spend about an hour counting and sorting, the pop tabs by 10s, 50s and 500s, and bagging them 500 to a sandwich bag.

On a good day, Cimino said, she and her students could count and sort 30,000 tabs in an hour.

"I would then take these bagged and boxed tabs to my house with the idea that I would collect a million and make a big deal out of turning them in," Cimino said. "But once I got to about a half million, I had to get these boxes out of my garage so I began turning them in more frequently as the students counted them."

Now that they've all been counted, Cimino said she'll soon be bringing the remaining three boxes (of about 30,000 tabs each) to her local McDonald's.

"It's been fun but we're going to find new ways to help for a few years," she said. "Eight years and one million tabs is a lot."

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