Dixon Elementary teacher Erin Kleber didn't expect to get emotional but seeing the students surrounded by heaping boxes and bags of donated food, she fought back tears.
"I'm so proud of you," she told the third-graders gathered in Dixon's hallway. "You guys have inspired me to give more. You guys are awesome!"
In a four-school food drive to "Stuff the Bus," students collected more than 4,500 items and 8,500 pounds of food for the Hunger Task Force.
Sherrie Tussler, the task force's executive director, said Wednesday she had no idea the donation was coming until the school bus drove up to the Milwaukee nonprofit agency Friday.
"It was huge, we were all shocked," Tussler said. "All of a sudden there’s a bus outside stuffed with 8,500 pounds of food.
"I want to say a big fat 'thank you' to these kids for doing that," she said. "Not just how cool it was that they did it, but it was an unexpected present. It’s just like coming home and finding a gift that is super neat."
Four Elmbrook elementary schools joined for the food drive: Dixon, Hillside, Brookfield and Swanson. Elmbrook's two other elementaries — Tonawanda and Burleigh — collected and donated food to Despensa de la Paz (Council for the Spanish Speaking) Food Pantry in Milwaukee.
Burleigh students gathered 1,700 pounds of food and personal care items, and Tonawanda stuffed about 10 boxes.
Dixon third-grader Rodney Willoughby said he and his sisters brought macaroni and cheese and other items "to help families who can't afford to have enough food."
"They will probably feel good because everyone helped them," he said, adding, "It makes me feel really good."
Ella Macvane, 8, said she and her mother found items at home to donate, including jello, cake mix and canned goods like soup and beans. She also enjoyed getting to talk about the food drive during an announcement over the school public address system.
"It was really fun," she said.
The project was a good opportunity to teach students gratitude and empathy and remind them that there are others struggling, mother Amy Devine said. She said her daughter Lincoln was "so excited" about working to collect enough to fill the bus.
The drive was organized by Kleber and two fellow Dixon third-grade teachers, Michael Fox and Sandy Traylor. They tied the charitable project with their Arts and Community Education (ACE) curriculum, which studies local to global community issues as they relate to the arts, social studies, science and other academic subjects.
The food drive also tied in with Dixon's themes of "Be Safe, Be Responsible and Be Respectful." And the teachers added math work, requiring the students to count and tally every donated item before bringing it out the bus in the chilly, windy weather.
The bus was donated by First Student bus company, which drove the haul to the Hunger Task Force.