It hasn't been the easiest year to take on a fundraiser. Yet, students across Rochester found a way to make it work, bringing in thousands of dollars for local charities.

Dubbed "RPS Gives," Rochester's three public high schools run the fundraiser every year, often bringing in $100,000 or more. This year, they had to think outside the box a little more than they normally would.

There was the challenge of hosting events while remaining virtual or socially distant. There was the lack of word-of-mouth communication to rely on. The pandemic also hasn’t allowed students to build as strong of a community as they normally would have.

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Freshmen haven’t had any class time in the actual buildings since distance learning began. Sophomores have had less than a full school year in the buildings. Yezi Gugsa, student body president for Mayo High School, said finding ways to rally everyone around the fundraiser helped recreate a little bit of that school spirit.

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“It's just been a struggle to find some sort of connection during this time ... we definitely have lost that feeling of unity within our student body. But, I think GOFA (the fundraiser) has kind of sparked that a little bit,” she said. “With the pandemic, we’ve had to be a lot more creative.”

The funds will go to Bear Creek Services, Paws and Claws, Christmas Anonymous, the Dorothy Day Hospitality House and the Rochester Women's Shelter.

Even though they haven’t been able to raise money in person, they have still had quite a bit of success. They made T-shirts and sweatshirts. There were silent auctions and plant sales. There were events focused on video games, which brought in students who would not normally have been interested, Gugsa said.

At Mayo High School, they had the “Mayo Mayo Challenge.” Per the rules, if someone is nominated, they either have to donate $5 or eat a spoonful of Mayo.

In normal years, the fundraiser is a huge event for the schools.

"A lot of students really look forward to it," said Salma Caamir, student body co-president at Century High School. "When we're in school, the energy's electric. The school is buzzing with chatter about what's happening that day, what tournaments are going on, what people are selling in the cafeteria."

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This year, the fundraiser didn't just provide a way to connect students within each of the high schools; it also provided a way for the schools to work together. Student leaders from the three high schools spent a lot of time collaborating this year, swapping ideas and strategies.

"This year, we spent a lot of time going back and forth," Caamir said.

In years past, the high schools have raised around $100,000, if not more. With all the unusual circumstances this year, they set their sights a little lower. The RPS webpage dedicated to the fundraiser shows a goal of $70,000.

A post on Mayo High School’s Facebook page reported that the school had raised $30,000, beating its goal of $20,000. John Marshall Student Body President Sierra Pieper said her school raised more than $25,000. By midweek leading up to the school's Big Reveal, Caamir did not yet have an estimate for the amount Century raised.

The students leading the fundraisers didn't really know what to expect. Pieper said John Marshall initially set a goal of $10,000, an amount the school more than doubled.

"Honestly, we did not really have expectations going into the different things we were doing," Pieper said. "I think $15,000 is the most anyone thought we would make. It was really exciting to see us make a whole lot more than that when the Big Reveal came out."

In spite of its success, the fundraiser has been bittersweet for the students. It was heartwarming to see the donations come in., sometimes in the increment of a single dollar. Other times, by the hundreds.

Yet, it was one more thing the students had to adapt to in an already chaotic year.

"It definitely hurts not to feel the unity and be in the building with the rest of my peers and celebrate this huge accomplishment together," Gugsa said. "At the same time, I can't be more grateful to be a part of the Mayo High School community and the RPS community in general."