Students put their pennies toward a just cause

Pennies are positive. All silver coins are negative.

  • Tuesday, May 13, 2008 2:20pm
  • News

Sunrise Elementary School first-grade pals Taylor Akiyama

Pennies are positive. All silver coins are negative.

Those are the rules of the Penny War now raging at Sunrise Elementary School in Kent.

Since May 5, students have come to school heavily laden with change, excitedly adding pennies to their own classroom’s Penny War buckets and “bombing” other classrooms’ buckets with nickels, dimes and quarters. Cries of “Attack!” could be heard Friday morning at the school as the change accumulated past the standing total of $2,092, the students battling for an ice-cream party but also benefitting breast-cancer research in the process.

One little girl with carrot-red hair, 6-year-old Lauren Simpson, dumped a particularly large bag of pennies into her classroom’s bucket, knowing full well the importance of the coin battle. It was set up in memory of another battle her late mother began fighting less than four years ago.

“In July 2004, six weeks after our second child was born, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer,” said Gene Simpson, 38, Lauren’s father. “She fought with it for 17 months and finally lost in November 2005.”

Tana Simpson was 37 years old when she died from the disease, leaving her husband, a 4-year-old Lauren and an 18-month-old son, Tyler, behind. Gene said it was a tragic time for the family, but out of the tragedy has come inspiration to honor the memory of his wife as well as his seven-year, cancer-survivor mother.

“Much of the time since her passing has been focused on my kids as we worked to re-define our lives and get through the challenge without their mom,” Simpson said. “Last year, I felt like it was time to do something, to just remember her in the right way and do something to help others.”

He has shown his passion to help by becoming an regular participant in the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s Breast Cancer 3-Day, a 60-mile walk to benefit the fight against the disease. It was during last year’s walk that he first learned about a unique way to get kids involved in the cause.

“I talked to some teachers that were involved in the walk, and they had done this Penny War thing and had a lot of success with it,” Simpson said. “So I approached (Sunrise Principal Lynn Hancock) with the idea this year, and she loved it.”

Each teacher was equipped with a bucket — 23 in total — and flyers were sent home with the students explaining the fundraiser and its cause. Simpson said he hoped it would be a hit, but he couldn’t have anticipated the level of response. On Friday, after only four days of the Penny War, the total of $2,092 was continuing to rise as the buckets filled up with change. The competition will end May 16.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I was just floored, but I think it’s indicative of the cause. Breast cancer touches so many people. It’s tragic how many lives have been touched by it, but out of that tragedy comes tremendous support.”

He said it’s become a large task to collect all the change from the school and drive it to First Savings Bank in Renton, the only bank he found willing to lend its coin counter to the cause. It took half a day to count the change from just the first two days of the competition.

The money will go a long way toward completing the fundraising commitment Simpson’s team made for this year’s Breast Cancer 3-Day walk, which takes place Sept. 12-14 in Seattle. Called the “Breastie Boys” — a word play on the hip-hop group Beastie Boys — the team is composed of five men who have committed to raising $2,200 each for the cause.

Simpson said he walks not only for his wife and mother, but also for Lauren. He said her risk of developing the disease later in life is statistically much higher considering her family history.

“My mantra when I walk is that I walk in support of my mom, in memory of my wife and in hope for my daughter,” he said.

The bereaved husband and hopeful father will continue to support the cause, he said, and he plans to organize a repeat Penny War next year as long as the school is willing to host it. Based on the enthusiasm of the Sunrise students and administration, it seems he won’t have a problem.

“It just so great,” Hancock said. “The kids are having so much fun with it. You see these little kids carrying buckets of change down the hall, and they’re so heavy, sometimes it takes two of them.”

To learn how to donate to Simpson’s team, visit

Contact Daniel Mooney at 253-437-6012 or

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