For the fourth year, Olde Sawmill Elementary School students are learning the importance of helping those in need through a yearlong service learning project.

For the fourth year, Olde Sawmill Elementary School students are learning the importance of helping those in need through a yearlong service learning project.

It's called the Penny Harvest and it is a three-phase program from the organization See Kids Dream, which integrates community service into education.

This is the seventh year that See Kids Dream has been involved with central Ohio schools.

It has grown from seven schools to now 40 schools, according to Laura Grindle, one of the co-founders of See Kids Dream and its director of programming.

"We wanted to give the opportunity to all kids to volunteer and get involved in their community so that is why we reached out to schools," Grindle said.

She said the most important thing about the program is that kids have the ability to make decisions themselves.

"Student voice is such an important part of service learning," Grindle said.

"They get more engag- ed and excited about learn- ing when they have a say in how the money is spent," she said.

The Penny Harvest at Olde Sawmill started when students charted their ideas onto a "Symphony of Concerns" bulletin board that featured a musical instrument for each issue.

Then they voted on issues that they believed were important in their community.

Next, the students spent four weeks raising money. The grade level that raised the most won a pizza party.

Instead of doing fundraising projects, all the money came from students finding loose change, such as between the cushions of furniture or on the floor of a car.

In the past three years the students have raised about $2,500 each year.

Janet DiSilvestro, gifted instruction specialist at Olde Sawmill and LEAP teacher, said this year the students' goal is $3,000.

LEAP, which is an acronym for logic, enrichment and pursuit is a class of identified fourth- or fifth-grade students who receive extended training in academic content and thinking skills.

They must have scored at the 95th percentile or higher in their academic area of strength.

Students and parents were invited to Whetstone High School for a Purpose For Our Penny assembly scheduled for last night, Wednesday, Dec. 10.

It was a kickoff of the research phase of the project and also a celebration of the students fundraising efforts.

Non-profit organizations were invited to set up tables and talk with students.

This was a great opportunity for students to collect business cards and start initial inquiries about the organizations.

"During the event, parents came up and told me, 'I had no idea my child could do this' or 'I had no idea my child was so passionate about this,' " Grindle said.

Starting in January, student leaders will research the various philanthropic organizations that address problems students have mentioned on the "Symphony of Concerns" bulletin board.

They will research the issues and try to understand the factors causing the issues in their community.

Representatives from the organizations are then invited to come to the classroom and meet with students.

"This gives the students an opportunity to learn how to meet and greet, ask questions that are not already answered in the flyers and websites and how to take good notes as the person is being interviewed," DiSilvestro said.

Grindle said officials from the organizations often say they are impressed by the tough questions the kids ask.

"The kids really want their money to make the most impact and so they aren't afraid to ask lots of questions," Grindle said.

The last phase of the Penny Harvest is to choose who to give the money to and how much they should receive.

Every student in the school gets to vote on the one organization they want to give our money to.

"In the spring, we invite those winning organizations to our school and we have a schoolwide assembly to present our big checks to them," DiSilvestro said.

"It is a very moving, amazing time and the students all feel such a part of the decision-making process," DiSilvestro said.

The assembly is organized by the students, which teaches them event-planning and logistics skills.

On May 20, there will be a Power of the Penny event where students can share with other community leaders what they have learned and work together to make a difference.

"Helping others," Grindle said, "is just inherent in all of us, no matter what our age."