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'I was trying to help as many people as I could': Phoenix 8th grader uses class project to raise hundreds for people in need

Diego Salas Salas, an eighth-grader at Bennett Academy in Phoenix started a penny challenge at his school to raise money for The Salvation Army.

PHOENIX — Sitting behind a small table full of coins and bills, Diego Salas Salas says what’s there, exceeded his goal.

“I was trying to help as many people as I could,” Salas Salas said.

To have a big impact, Salas Salas had to start small on an ambitious idea.

“He said, basically, I want to learn about how I can be a selfless hero,” Cheryl Johnson, Director of Education at Bennett Academy said. “And that just warms my heart, like that’s an amazing thing to come from an 8th grader.”
Johnson mentored Salas Salas through his capstone project.

The project is for 8th graders at the school to come up with an idea that helps make a change and educate or inspire others over the course of the school year.

Johnson said Salas Salas’ project is the only one that actually raised money to help make a change.

“I started a penny war, a penny challenge,” Salas Salas said.

Each grade at Bennett Academy was challenged to outraise the other grades.

Pennies are counted toward their total, while other coins or bills were deducted from other grades’ totals.

“He had a goal of like maybe $100,” Johnson said.

The money is to help The Salvation Army in the Valley.

“I wanted to help because my parents came from Mexico and they started off with nothing and they’re here and get fed every day,” Salas Salas said. “There are lots of people who don’t have food or homes and I wish they - more people could have food and home.”

Over the course of a school week, interest grew and the money added up.

“I got the message saying, ‘We want you to come and pick up some pennies from a penny collection,'" said Lt. Colonel Ivan Wild, Divisional Commander of the Southwest Division of The Salvation Army. “And so I'm thinking, that's nice.”

“He was able to raise $600,” Johnson said.

All the coins and bills were counted by the classes and Salas Salas over a few days.

“When I heard it was over $600, it was just amazing,” Wild said.

Wild said the $600, is enough for about 400 meals, or three kids staying a week at The Salvation Army’s summer camp or to cover a family for a few weeks in the shelter.

“To think that Diego, potentially could take a family off the streets and put them into our family shelter for about 20 nights, and that’s just amazing,” Wild said.

Wild said the money will stay in the Valley to help people in need.

It was the small items, that added up to something much greater.

“If everybody donated at least something, most people could have houses and food all the time,” Salas Salas said.

Salas Salas, was happy to see how his school community came together to help so many people.

“I hope that people realize that there’s still hope in the younger generation,” Salas Salas said.

VERSIÓN EN ESPAÑOL: 'Estaba tratando de ayudar a muchas personas': Un estudiante de octavo grado de Phoenix usa un proyecto de clase para poder ayudar a otros

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