SOUTH PORTLAND — Whether 8 or 8,000 miles apart, students and faculty at Holy Cross School are doing their part to help local and international communities in need. 

During National Catholic Schools Week, which ran from Jan. 27-Feb. 2, the pre-K through eighth-grade Catholic school on Broadway raised more than $2,500 to benefit a school in Tsholotsho, Zimbabwe. They also collected gift cards for local U.S. Coast Guard families who were coping with the recent government shutdown.

Principal Christine L’Abbe traveled to Tsholotsho for the first time in 2015 after a trip to South Africa for an educational conference. While getting a tour of the Ngamo Primary and Secondary Schools, she saw a student being sent home. When she asked why, she was told the student’s family could not afford tuition.

“It cost $10 per trimester to attend,” L’Abbe said. “That’s like a trip to Starbucks here.”

So she and a traveling companion dug around in their pockets and came up with enough cash to ensure the student could attend for another term.

“That was the turning point,” L’Abbe said. “When I came home, I told a lot of people about the school and what it needed and … they couldn’t believe it.”

So, L’Abbe and Holy Cross decided to “adopt” the Ngamo schools.

“People got excited and wanted to help,” she said. “It sort of just happened.”

Over the past three school years, Holy Cross has raised about $10,000, primarily through its annual, week-long Penny Challenge fundraiser. 

Ten teams participate in the challenge; each team has one representative from each grade level. Each penny put in a team’s jar is worth a point, but the value of each silver coin or dollar bill is subtracted from the total.

The goal is for each team to stuff their own jars with pennies, while tossing nickels, dimes, quarters and dollars in their competitors’ jars.

At the end of the week, L’Abbe awarded two teams – the one with the most points and the one that raised the most amount of money, which was about $305. This year’s fundraiser was the most successful ever.

“The kids really love it,” L’Abbe said. “It’s really great fun and is great for team building … (and) forming a sense of camaraderie and school spirit.”

The funds raised will help Ngamo finish a classroom. 

“The Ngamo students were stuck outside to sit on benches and try and learn as they were exposed to the outside elements since they needed a new classroom and couldn’t afford it,” said L’Abbe, who has visited Ngamo each year since 2015 to confirm the status of projects.

Holy Cross donations have already paid for new piping to provide fresh water at the village school; two flush toilets and a shower; tuition assistance for students unable to afford the fee; uniforms; new thatched roofs for teacher housing, and other construction projects. 

Other Catholic schools, including All Saints School in Bangor and St. Michael School in Augusta, have helped Holy Cross by holding Ngamo fundraisers of their own. Parents in Tsholotsho have chipped by making 35,000 bricks.

With the amount raised so far, L’Abbe said she’s on track to have enough raised by the end of the school year to take back to Ngamo in July to fund the completion of the new classroom.

“Who would’ve ever known it would grow to be this huge support system for them,” L’Abbe said. “Each donation makes a huge difference.”

Those who would like to donate or get involved in fundraising can email L’Abbe at [email protected]

Holy Cross also collected about $1,500 in gift cards to provide some relief to Coast Guard families recovering from the recent partial government shutdown.

The shutdown, which began Dec. 22, 2018, and ended Jan. 25, was the longest in the country’s history and affected about 800,000 federal employees.

L’Abbe said the school accepted gift cards for gasoline, supermarkets, department stores, and coffee shops.

“We give the gift cards to help the Coast Guard because it is like giving a gift on Christmas,” eighth-grader Rilan Smith said. “It’s better to give than receive.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

Who else but Brady Cash would count the money his team collected during the annual Penny Challenge at Holy Cross School in South Portland?

Teacher Ed McGarrity and Holy Cross School students hold up gift cards collected to benefit U.S. Coast Guard families in the South Portland area.