The History of The Penny Project

Over several years, the 8th grade teachers at the Groton Dunstable Regional Middle School, in Groton, Massachusetts, put together a project in order that their students would better understand the concept of one million when studying  the Holocaust. During a one-month period, students would gather items such as kernels of popcorn, rice, fingerprints. soda can tabs, and Skittle candy. It quickly became apparent what a large number one million is, putting to perspective numbers like 20 millions Soviet citizens dying during WWII; 11 million people murdered in concentration; 6 millions Jews; 1.5 million Jewish children.

The Penny is Chosen

The 8th graders from the years 2005-2006 did not want to collect items that could be simply discarded. Much discussion followed on what would have "value" and why. They settled on the penny. It was something everyone could contribute and collect. The penny has the word Liberty on it  - something that was denied to all those victimized bu the Nazis, and as well, Lincoln emancipated African Americans. the money collected would used towards diversity awareness in the school.

A Club is Formed

At the end of the month and after viewing the movie Paperclips. the students of Ms. Rockwell's homeroom committed themselves that they would, no matter how long it would take, acquire one million pennies. Letters went to all Middle School students and their families and cans were placed in local stores to collect pennies. An after-school club was created, dedicated to counting the pennies and treating each as if it was the soul of a human being. The collecting and counting took endless hours and much patience.

The Collecting Begins

Events unfolded, and once the media caught wind of the loss of over $1200 worth of pennies that were stolen over the summer of 2006, a deluge of pennies descended on the Club. Donors brought lifetime collections - and their stories. A Brinks truck brought larger donations. During this time, the students never lost sight of the importance of their project, and of the lives these pennies represented.

Children Remembering Children

When one million became 1.6 million pennies, a decision was reached by the Club members to make a permanent memorial to commemorate the Jewish children murdered in the death camps. Children remembering children. For years to come, Groton Dunstable Regional Middle School students and the broader community would have a visual representation of where discrimination can lead.

A Dream is Realized

The Penny Project has involved many young people, from both the  Middle School and High School, community members and parents, as well as great effort by every staff member of your school to make this project a reality. There is something of a miracle when dream comes true as this one has. It is hard not to believe that the souls of the children that the pennies represent didn't help this happen.

The Penny Project Story

Paper Clips Movie

Back in 2006 when the project was about to begin, students were further moved after seeing the documentary film Paper Clips, by producer, writer, director Joe Fab. It told the story of middle school students in Whitwell, TN who collected 6 million paper clips to represent the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The film was brought to Groton by resident Amy Degen, who arranged for not only the students to see the film, but also the community, with two public showings followed by a post-film discussion with Joe Fab.

From the onset, the towns of Groton and Dunstable quickly embraced the project and by summer of 2006, the students had already collected about 200,000 pennies through middle school collections and by placing collection containers at local businesses in order to raise one million pennies, the project’s original goal.

In September of that year, the Million Penny Project became the subject of national news when teacher Niki Rockwell returned for a new school year to learn that about half of the 200,000 pennies had been stolen over the summer. Following the theft and the resulting Boston media and national news coverage, donations began coming in from the greater metro area, as well as some donations as far away as Maryland.

A. Raymond Tye

One of the two largest benefactors to the original project was retired businessman and philanthropist A. Raymond Tye from Braintree, former owner of United Liquors and founder of the Ray Tye Medical Foundation, who donated $5000 to the Million Penny Project upon learning of the theft.

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, the great philanthropist passed away in 2010.

After the original container broke in 2009, the Raymond Tye Foundation made an additional $5000 donation to the Million Penny Project Children’s Holocaust Memorial, in order to construct a new container in 2011.

Norman Salsitz

One of the Million Penny Project’s additional largest donors was Norman Salsitz, a Polish Jew who was a Holocaust survivor. Salsitz was an author and successful businessman who emigrated to the U.S. in 1947 with his wife Amalie, also a survivor.

When he watched the news story of the plight of the Groton-Dunstable students and their loss of half of their pennies during the summer of 2006, Salsitz lay dying in a Boston hospital. He asked his daughter Ester Dezube to make a donation of  $6000 to the project,

“So we will never forget.” Salsitz died four days later.

Salsitz’ daughter and Ray Tye were honored guests at the dedication of the original Memorial.

More than two years of hard work collecting pennies and donations for a container to hold them culminated in a ceremony to dedicate the Memorial on May 31, 2008.

The Memorial consisted of a clear acrylic case that was five-feet long by six-feet tall by two-feet deep, filled with 1.5 million pennies.

Joe Fab

After the completion of what became known as The Penny Project Children’s Holocaust Memorial, Joe Fab, producer, writer of Paper Clips wrote this inspirational letter which is inscribed on a plaque and hangs adjacent to the memorial:

“To my friends at Groton-Dunstable Regional Middle School... About two years ago, you and your school opened your doors and your hearts to me. Nothing has dimmed my memory of my time with you. In fact, I’ve traveled to many schools since then and often speak about my visit to Groton. What do I say? Well, I tell them that your school is home to young people who are not just members of the Groton student body, not just players in the local community...
I tell them that you are citizens of this planet. I announce that about you in a strong, firm voice. And I don’t mind you knowing that I say it with tears of pride in my eyes.

“Nothing gives me greater encouragement or a more profound sense of hope than students like yourselves.

You’ve looked beyond the distractions around you—Xboxes, iPods, websites, the mall—and focused on the bigger picture, the humanity that connects us all. As Maya  Angelou says, ‘We are more alike than we are unalike.’

You’ve perceived that truth, and you’ve acted on it. And therein lies the possibility of a better world. It is often said that, after Hitler and the Nazis themselves, the most to blame for the horrors of the Holocaust were the bystanders: those who knew, but did nothing.

Through your project, you’ve declared that you are not bystanders.

“And here’s the big news: you can never go back to being unconscious; you can never go back to claiming ignorance as an excuse for inaction. And that big news is GOOD news. Because you’re the ones we’ve been waiting for. You are citizens of the planet. I’m counting on you, we’re all counting on you, to keep doing what you¹re doing. Stand for compassion, stand
for justice... THINK BIG! ...and change the world."

-Joe Fab