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A small band of students braved chilly temperatures Wednesday morning to help load some 3,000 canned food items onto a truck bound for the Salvation Army in downtown Medford.

The donation was the culmination of a week's worth of effort by students at McLoughlin Middle School, including fourth- through sixth-graders displaced from Jackson Elementary School.

The Salvation Army recently put out a desperate plea for nonperishable food items and turkeys, saying it was 700 bags short of the 1,000 it needed to prepare for local families' holiday meals.

During the seven-day collection effort, students were seen lugging bag after bag of canned food items to the school, said Assistant Principal Joe Cramer.

With a little nudging from teachers and administrators, a friendly competition ensued.

Classrooms challenged other classrooms and students challenged one another to see who could bring the most items to class.

"It was just a really neat way to teach the kids empathy and compassion for others and have some fun, too," Cramer said.

Kristi Burkett's fourth-grade class from Jackson collected the most nonperishables, rounding up some 740 food items from students' homes and a "special mission" one weekend. The class will receive a trophy and pizza party for its efforts. Second- and third-place winning classrooms will receive donut parties.

Burkett said many of her students come from lower-income families who can relate to "feeling hungry and going without food."

"It's especially impressive because they're actually part of the population that gets food from food banks," Burkett said.

"There are a lot of families who struggle to make ends meet, but I think the lesson of giving is so important. These kids prove that, even if you don't have a lot to give, everyone can help out."

Burkett said her students piled their 700-plus cans in every nook and cranny of her classroom, keeping careful watch on their daily tally.

"The kids really got into it. They felt very prideful of bringing in so much," she said.

"Some of the kids, we actually had to tell them, if food is scarce around your house please don't bring anything. We'll go ask people that can donate."

Eighth-grader Brianna Pettipas, who was one of the top two food contributors in her homeroom class, said her motivation was helping her community.

"I think most people just did it because they felt like they would be doing something for the community," she said.

"It made me feel really good to be able to help some because I know how it feels to go hungry. My family has to go to the food bank, so I thought, 'Why not give back some of what they've done for us?'"

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffypollock@juno.com.

McLoughlin Middle School eighth-graders load canned goods collected by their classmates and students from Jackson Elementary into a Salvation Army truck Wednesday. Todd Raduski of the Salvation Army stands at right. - Jim Craven