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Teen counts her pennies for a good cause

By Kimra McPherson

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Since September, Emily Dubois has been preoccupied with pennies.

Pennies in empty milk jugs. Pennies in water bottles. Hundreds of thousands of pennies filling her closet.

Yet the Palo Alto (Calif.) High School junior still wants more.

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Emily is one-third of the way to her goal of collecting one penny for each of the 1.5 million children who some sources estimate died in the Holocaust. When finished, she'll have raised $15,000 -- converted into less clunky cash -- to send to Israeli families who have been victims of terrorism.

"The families that have lost the primary wage earner in the house really have no means of supporting themselves," said Emily, 17. "The drive hopefully will ease that."

The 1.5 Million Penny Drive began when Emily was searching for a service project to lead as vice president for social action and tikun olam -- a Hebrew phrase meaning "save the world" -- of the Palo Alto United Synagogue Youth organization. She found the idea for collecting a penny for each child victim of the Holocaust on a Web site and decided to donate the money she raised to help families in Israel who had been hurt by acts of terror.

She originally pitched the project at her synagogue, Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. That impressed Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, who called the penny drive the "most ambitious project" a youth leader has undertaken in his 30 years at the synagogue.

"Many people really want to do something to reach out" to victims of terror, Lewis said. "This project is right on."

The congregation responded generously, but Emily said she realized more people would have to help out if she wanted to raise $15,000.

She began promoting her effort at events around the San Francisco Bay Area and e-mailing synagogues and Jewish day schools asking if they could participate. Many responded with enthusiasm, said Emily's mother, Ellen Dubois.

"They said, 'Oh, that's so incredible, I'll talk about it Saturday morning at services, I'll send fliers though e-mail to everybody in the congregation, our religious schools will get involved, we'll have a competition between the grades to see who can count the most pennies,'" Dubois said.

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Ultimately, Emily distributed collection jugs to 15 synagogues and five Jewish schools around the Bay Area. Now, she and her mother share the work of picking up the full jugs, replacing them with empties and depositing the change in Emily's closet until she can take the money to a coin-counting machine. When she told managers at Palo Alto grocery store Mollie Stone's Market about her project, they agreed to waive the machine's regular service charge.

But even with people donating larger coins and bills in addition to pennies, collecting $15,000 hasn't been easy. Some synagogues said they couldn't participate because of the gloomy economy, which has made Emily wary of pushing too hard for donations.

At first, she thought she'd gather 1.5 million pennies before the end of the school year. Now she's hoping to finish before she graduates next spring.

"I looked in my closet and it's filled with pennies, but when I put it in the Coinstar and count it, it's not as much as it looks," she said.

But Emily said the people she has met have made her determined to reach her goal.

And pennies keep coming in. At Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto, education director Judy Podolsky said donations have been consistent, if not overwhelming.

"The younger kids love to drop their pennies in," Podolsky said. "The jug is getting heavier and heavier to schlep back and forth."

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