GARDINER — Sara Sims, the principal at Gardiner Regional Middle School, set up camp chairs and a fire pit Sunday afternoon outside the school as she and eight colleagues prepared to spend the night camping in the cold.

Preparations also included a tent and mummy sleeping bags, as food was donated to help meet the students’ goal for the “Camp out for Hunger” challenge.

Sims said she got the idea for the campout after she heard two of her staff members talking about collecting items for the food pantry.

Sims said she began a friendly competition this year among employees – the Staff Olympics – for which employees each month came up with different challenges.

Teachers Sam Robison, right, and Amy Schnur load donated food Sunday into a trailer outside Gardiner Area Middle School. Faculty and staff members intended to spend the night outside to encourage food donations for the needy. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Sims decided to take it a step farther by doing the “Camp out for Hunger” challenge, whose main goal was to help generate enough items to get her to sleep outside on the bus ramp.

The original number of food items needed to get Sims outside was 500, brought in by the middle school students. And when the students quickly surpassed the goal, another staff member was added to the list of those would sleep outside for every each additional 100 food items collected.

Even with hurdles, such as going to the state’s red designation for COVID-19 for a week and a half and Thanksgiving break, the students still exceeded their goal.

“They surpassed (their goal) and donated over 3,000 items,” Sims said. “We could have added the entire school to sleep outside at this point.”

The forecast for Sunday night called for temperatures in low 20s, with the slim possibility of rain early Monday.

Russ Anderson, a STEM teacher – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – at the school helped Sims set up Sunday. He also helped box food donations to be brought to the Tiger Food Pantry at Gardiner Area High School.

Anderson said he was excited to participate in the challenge with his colleagues, and even more excited to be a part of something that gave back to the community.

Brenda Lawrence makes up the twin mattresses on which she planned to sleep inside a tent outside Gardiner Area Middle School. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Both he and Sims emphasized how the community not only donated food to make the goal happen, but Anderson’s wife made chicken noodle soup, another faculty member made chili and Veronica Babcock of the Maine School Administrative District 11 board of directors told them she would bring coffee to keep them warm.

“I see it as a bang for our buck because it accomplishes two things,” Anderson said. “One, it helps the need within the community and, two, it teaches the kids to be good citizens. Down the road, it will hopefully help them do it, even if a teacher isn’t sleeping outside.”

In Sims’ first year as principal at Gardiner Regional Middle School, she said establishing and maintaining relationships are important to her, and the fundraiser served as a way for her to get to know staff members and students on a deeper level.

“I was a drama teacher, so there is a lot of energy and excitement in our day-to-day work,” Sims said. “One of the things I draw closest to my heart is in building relationships, and it’s important for me to get to know my staff, my students, my families. I want them to know they have someone to champion them.”

Sims also reminded students that they, their families and staff members come from different experiences and places in life. She said some families might be food or housing insecure, where “even two cans of tuna” can make a difference.

“It’s important for the kiddos to know we can connect and spread awareness, care and have a sense of community,” Sims said. “These kiddos will be a part of that community when they grow up, and instilling this in them at this age is valuable, and gives them this connection and the ability to be empathic to the needs of others.”

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