NewsColumbine: 25 Years Later


‘500,000 acts of love’: After Columbine, the elementary school penny drive that helped a community heal

What began as a class project became a grassroots effort to rebuild, made possible by the unwavering optimism of a group of elementary school students.
Posted: 5:00 AM, Apr 16, 2024
Updated: 2024-04-17 12:19:06-04

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — We could all learn something from the innocence of children. Their belief isn’t clouded by worry. Their imagination is unimpeded by doubt.

As the saying goes, their innocence is a gift.

That’s never been more clear than it was in Jefferson County, Colorado in the weeks after tragedy unfolded at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.

A few miles away, at Columbine Hills Elementary School, what began as a class project became a grassroots effort to rebuild, made possible by the unwavering optimism of a group of elementary school students.

Elementary school penny drive helped community heal post-Columbine

Students there, from kindergarten through sixth grade, collected a half-million pennies and donated them to the high school to help build its new library.

“That's 500,000 acts of love from little kids who were never told they couldn't do it,” said Dawn Anna, the mother of Laura Townsend and the spokesperson for the H.O.P.E. – Healing of People Everywhere – group at the time.

“Everybody can do something. That's the story that these kids showed everyone else. That's what they showed me."

Twenty-five years later, Denver7 sat down with some of the students involved in the penny drive, and the teacher who started it.

A math lesson becomes so much more

Steve Christiansen was a fifth-grade teacher at Columbine Hills. He had a particular zest for the job.

“I never worked a day in my life,” he said. “I was always having fun with the kids.”

Around 1995, he wanted to find a creative way to show just how big one million is – a concept that, for kids especially, is “really, really hard to understand,” he said.

He arrived at collecting one million pennies. The goal was to donate the pennies to technology for the school.

Over the next few years, his classes collected thousands of pennies. They would fill a jar before upgrading to a bigger container.

“It was just to have fun,” Christiansen said.

The tune changed in the spring of 1999. As the community recovered, H.O.P.E. was formed with the goal of raising more than $3 million to build a new library at Columbine High School.

Those young and old looked for a way to help. An elementary school student first had the idea: What if they donated the pennies to the high school?

“This was a renewed purpose for kids,” Christiansen said. “And the goal was to build that library.”

That renewed purpose became the “Pennies for HOPE” penny drive.


‘It was all we could do’

Vinny Sonderby, who was in first grade at Columbine Hills in 1999, remembers going everywhere with a milk carton to collect pennies.

Ted Martinez, a fourth grader at the time, recalled checking his parents’ money jar and pulling up couch cushions looking for pennies. There were contests in his classroom for who could collect the most.

Even though most didn’t fully understand what had happened at the high school, the kids wanted to help in their own small way.

“It was something that we did because it was all we could do at the time,” Martinez said. “I was in fourth grade and we couldn't do much, [but] we could collect pennies and that's what we did.”

It became a movement. The sound of loose change jingling in pockets became familiar throughout the community, Sonderby said. People wanted to help.

“No matter where you went, everybody was excited and hopeful and really happy to be able to do something,” he said, “even if we were just kids.”

It’s unclear how many pennies had been collected by April 20, 1999. In the year that followed, though, the collection had multiplied to roughly 500,000 of them – $5,000 that was then donated to the high school to help build the library.

“For a lot of other people, $5,000 isn't that much,” Martinez said. “To us, that was huge.”

“For a first grader, $5 was a lot of money back then,” Sonderby added. “So seeing this tank full of pennies was crazy. And then to be able to be a part of the funds to be able to have this new library to be a part of that was really, really special.”

‘Nothing you do is too little’

A penny, of course, is rather small – just three-quarters of an inch wide and weighing only 2.5 grams, according to the U.S. Mint.

But those small coins, collected by those small people 25 years ago, had a big meaning.

“A penny meant everything,” said Dawn Anna. “It just warmed my heart for them to think that they could participate and contribute to a broken community.”

“It's more powerful than what happened that day [in 1999].”

“Looking back now, it's almost bigger than what I remember it being,” Sonderby said. “[It was] a fun thing as a kid to see that the community – no matter where you were – was helping and willing to do something to help heal yourself but also to help heal the community.”

Dawn Anna, a former Columbine volleyball coach who sent all four of her children to Columbine Hills, speaks to schools and groups across the country to this day. She shares the penny story with audiences as a reminder of what people are capable of when they’re not told their contributions aren’t enough.

“This is a powerful reminder of how just a single penny, joined with this single penny, and joined with this single penny can be put together and really mean something,” she said. “Just like [one] little act of kindness and [another] act of kindness and [another] act of kindness woven together can change the world.”

To Dawn Anna, those 500,000 pennies were just that: 500,000 acts of kindness meant to heal a broken community. Because no one told those kids a penny was too small.

“And that needs to be a message to everybody,” she said, “that nothing you do is too little.”

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‘I won’t leave a penny behind’

Pennies still hold a special place in the hearts of those we interviewed, and others connected to Columbine High School and Columbine Hills Elementary. Dawn Anna told Denver7 she keeps jars of pennies at home. Everyone we spoke to for this story said they always pick up a penny if they see one.

“I've picked up pennies off the ground since that happened, since 1999,” Christiansen said. “It always reminds me of the students that I had.”

“I will almost get hit in traffic sometimes trying to pick up the penny in the crosswalk,” Sonderby said. “Or I'm always at the grocery store, like, ‘There's one, gotta grab it.’ I will not go [anywhere] and leave a penny behind”

“Some people say, ‘Oh, don't pick it up unless it's heads up. It's not lucky unless it's heads up.’ Oh no, a penny is a penny is a penny and it's important,” Dawn Anna said.