Pope John Paul High School’s Students Exceed Expectations in Annual Chili Drive

From left: Cole Pascher, Sophia Webster, Gabriella Ybarra, Joe Oczkewicz, Mercedes Ayala Mckay, Anna Brown, Nicia Schmiedeberg and Ella Kapust. Seniors from Pope John Paul High School led the drive for collecting cans of chili for Homeless Backpacks. Photo courtesy: Pope John Paul II High School

Anna and her classmates at Pope John Paul II High School (PJPII) in Lacey decided that pandemic limitations would not stand in the way of the traditional chili can collection in support of Homeless Backpacks. With a goal of 600 cans and a determination by the senior class to excel, the school collected 1,246 cans. National Honor Society President Anna Brown led her team to a satisfying victory.

Putnam Lieb Potvin Dailey LogoA sprinkle of healthy competitive spirit between classes ignited this year’s drive. Anna remembers that as a freshman, her class was the top collector. However, over the past two years, her grade lost to the students in the year behind her. She and her friends wanted to bring victory back to their class. The seniors went into high gear. “Last year we had 800 cans,” says Anna. “We had to take into account that some students were attending remotely,” she adds. There are 100 students in the entire student body. What was a realistic goal?

The mission of JPII includes providing education that develops students who are committed to service. “We were helping so many kids,” says Anna, adding that participating in the drive is both satisfying and humbling.

Anna Brown is a senior at Pope John Paul High School and president of the National Honor Society. In addition to the chili drive, she worked with her friends to collect donations for Toys for Tots. Photo credit: Mary Ellen Psaltis

“Pope John Paul High School has been such a great support to Homeless Backpacks,” says Kelly Wilson, the organization’s chair and founding board member “Chili is the most expensive item we put into the bags, so it is always at the top of our wish list!” Prior to pandemic circumstances, about 600 students were be served each week. Homeless Backpacks is currently providing weekend food to 1,300 students in Thurston County. So, the chili was definitely needed.

Anna admits that the juniors pushed them to increase collections. It’s hard to out-wit and out-achieve motivated seniors. In order to fool the other classes, cases of cans were hidden behind cupboards. There were 200 stashed in an athletic closet. “I hid 108 in my car,” admits one student. Students made videos and posted inspirational announcements in the school’s newsletter and social media. The outcome was uncertain until the final count was completed – and it was recounted 3 times. The juniors collected 364 to the seniors’ 500 cans. It will go down in history as one of the most successful drives ever. “It was completely crazy,” admits Anna, but the good-natured fun reaped big benefits for Homeless Backpacks.

When not collecting cans, Anna is busy with her school studies. She is an English tutor for some of her classmates. Anna plays both basketball and volleyball and likes being an officer of the National Honor Society. Her goodwill spreads to the homeless during her weekly lunch volunteering at the First Baptist Church. Anna will graduate in June and plans to pursue a major in political science leading to her law degree. She has her sights set on a couple of small private schools including Carroll College in Helena, Montana, and Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.

From left: Gabriella Ybarra, Vivi Kondrat, Anna Brown and Jeremy Kochrian. The Toys for Tots collection was another successful, community supporting event for the students at Pope John Paul High School. Photo courtesy: Pope John Paul II High School

As the last chili can was being counted, the NHS students along with the ASB (Associated Student Body) members planned a drive-by toy drive for Toys for Tots. “We had to find a plan that was COVID safe,” says Anna. One sunny Friday afternoon the students dressed warmly, donned their masks and collected unwrapped gifts for the toy drive. In appreciation of people’s donations, the students put together festive holiday craft bags with paint, a brush and an ornament to paint. I’m proud to say I painted my ornament with a snowman and a Christmas tree, and it’s now hanging on our tree. It was unexpected fun.

In times when we need extra inspiration, it is heartwarming to know that young people in our community are going the extra mile. Students are helping those in need of food and the simple joys of the holidays. At the same time, they are studying and paving the way for their adult lives. “COVID has put a damper on things,” says Anna, “but if teens can do it, anybody can do it.” PJII students are planning a drive for socks and underwear and also a tuna can drive for the food bank. It is also important to thank the teachers, staff and parents who are essential components in their students’ lives.

You can read more about Pope John Paul High School’s full spectrum of activities or find other information on the school’s Facebook page. You can also support Homeless Backpacks with donations of food and service.

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