By Joshua Baethge

For the Anna-Melissa Tribune

MELISSA - When North Creek Elementary School students returned from winter break, School Librarian Stacy Branam thought it would be nice to start the new year with some lessons on kindness.

She talked with students about being kind to themselves, accepting mistakes and learning to forgive. They also discussed ways they could be kind to each other, animals and the world at large

“For elementary school kids, it’s pretty easy to be kind to yourself, others and animals, but sometimes reaching out past themselves can be a little tricky to do,” she said. “I wanted to find something we could do that would encompass all of those ideas.”

Her attention soon turned to the wildfires raging in Australia. Since September, they have consumed more that 27 million acres and killed more than 30 people.

Estimates put the number of homes lost at more than 2,500, and animal deaths now exceed half a billion. The fires only recently came under control thanks to much-needed rains.

Branam decided to start a fundraiser to help the country’s relief and recovery efforts.

After extensively researching options, she opted to split the funds raised between the Australian Red Cross and WIRES, Australia’s largest animal rescue organization.

Students were encouraged to bring change to a designated drop-off point on campus.

Officials at Harry McKillop Elementary later decided that they would also host an Australian Wildfire fundraiser.

At month’s end, the combined funds raised from both schools will be presented to the charities.

In order to pique student curiosity, Branam put koala bear stickers on North Creek’s big library window. A couple of days later, she added a map showing the distance between Melissa and Australia.

She stayed mum for about a week as kids started asking her what was going on. Finally, at the school’s next Wednesday morning assembly, she announced the big fundraiser and why they were doing it as a school.

During the following week when classes came to the library, they talked about the wildfire causes and why they were so devastating.

Students learned about the uniqueness of Australia and the many animals and natural features only found there.

While some older kids were aware of what was going on, many students were learning about the fires, and Australia itself, for the first time.

Branam put together a Power Point presentation that provided more details on the nation, as well as a map showing where the fires were.

For many younger students, striving for something without a personal incentive was a new concept. They were used to working hard for a goal or reward, not only for a cause.

“I explained to the kiddos that when you’re really truly showing kindness, you’re not doing it for a prize,” Branam said. “You’re doing it because the kindness really is the reward itself.”

It seems that the message was well-received. Over two weeks, North Creek raised more than $700. First and second graders led the school with the most donations.

“It was really cool to see the little ones coming in, dumping their change in the bucket and being really proud of themselves,” Branam said.