MAHOPAC, N.Y. - A war took place at Mahopac Middle School last month and everyone came out a winner.

They called it a “Penny War” and it was a way for students to collect money that will be put toward the JennaJackPack Project, a program that strives to help kids who have suddenly and tragically lost a parent or sibling.

The JennaJackPack Project began four years ago with an act of kindness by 13-year-old Johnny Bernardi, who was devastated when MMS student Jenna Nolan’s drowned in Lake Mahopac. A friend of Jenna and her younger brother, John, he sought a way to comfort Jenna’s sibling. So he filled a backpack with treats and other things that Johnny knew his friend would like.

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The idea caught on and the JennaJackPack Project was launched. Now, each year MMS students raise money to buy the backpacks and the treats to put in them. In recent years, students simply dropped spare change into large jugs placed throughout the school. This year, the teachers decided to put a spin on it to make the coin collecting a little more interesting.

“We’ve been doing it for a couple of years, and it was becoming a little routine,” MMS principal Tom Cozzocrea said of the random collections. “We wanted to come up with some new ideas to reinvigorate it and get more kids involved.” The Penny War was born.

The school’s Wingman Program—created by Ian Hockley, whose autistic son, Dylan, died in the Sandy Hook tragedy—oversees the Penny War. 

“Wingman empowers students to stick up for each other,” Cozzocrea said. “It’s for students who need someone to have their back—for kids  to have self-awareness of the kids around who might need a friend.”

Eighth-grade teacher Christina McNeill oversees the Wingman Program with fellow teacher Jennifer Maloney. McNeill said the students have embraced the Penny War. Each day, when their lunch period begins, the students come into the school lobby where the coin jugs are located and drop coins or bills into their team’s container. The object is to accumulate the most positive points, which are garnered by collecting pennies and paper money. Negative points are deducted when silver coins are deposited (although all the money still goes to the JennaJackPack Project). After two weeks, the Penny War has already raised $1,500.

“The teams are developing all kinds of strategies. Kids have been throwing in 20s,” McNeill said. “One girl threw in a $100 bill! We emailed her parents to make sure that was OK.”

Eighth-grader Alexa Collesian said she prefers the Penny War to the way they collected money in the past.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s better than last year.”

Seventh-grader Ginamarie Camacho said the students get a sense of satisfaction from donating to JennaJackPack.

“It feels really good to know I’m helping someone else to feel better,” she said. “We take care of each other.”

“[JennaJackPack] helps kids who are going through a tough time,” added eighth-grader Breseis Forte. “It lets them know they are not alone, and people are thinking of them.”

The team with the highest number of points will be rewarded with an ice cream party.