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Students turn school rivalry into good deeds

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Cross-town school rivals in Weirton banded together last year to help children and adults in need, collecting more than 5,000 pounds of food, more than 300 pairs of socks, backpacks and kids’ clothing and a nationwide prize for “making a difference” in their community.

Now the students, members of the Interact clubs at Weir High School and Madonna High School, are at it again, making plans this year to help the Weirton Christian Center, a local group that provides supervised preschool and after-school care, meals and learning programs for children in the community.

“Two rival high schools came together to make a difference in our community,” said Renee Howard, sponsor of the Weir High Interact club. “Our clubs are not that large. We have about 40 members, but all the kids tried to participate in one way or another — even the ones who were busy with sports still did what they could do.”

The “Make A Difference Day” contest, sponsored by Points of Light, Gannett and USA Weekend, was a nationwide competition, drawing thousands of entries from across the country. A total of 13 awards were distributed, three of them to cities.

The Weirton group, one of the three city award winners, tagged the project, “warm your heart and warm your sole,” as a reference to the socks that were collected.

The kids went door-to-door to collect non-perishables and toiletries for the Salvation Army and the Community Breadbasket, and also manned donation bins at local sporting events. The result? Enough food to fill up an SUV, a pickup and the Salvation Army food truck.

“It was a lot of food, and they were just so thankful for the help,” Howard said. “This is a very giving community.”

The clubs also supplied socks, backpacks, sweatpants and sweatshirts to help disadvantaged kids at an elementary school.

And when a family in a neighboring community lost everything, including a child, in a house explosion, the group added the family to the list.

Howard said she thinks the contest judges not only appreciated the fact that young people were trying to help their community, but also that a community devastated by downsizing in the domestic steel industry would rally together to help them do it.

“I guess they did their research, found out (what the community has been through),” she said. “That and the fact that it was children helping children, the two high schools coming together.”

What came as a surprise to many in the community was the fact that students from the two schools, bitter rivals on the playing field, could and would work together.

“That was one of the things I’m proudest of,” said Alisandra Welch, a former member of Madonna Interact. “A lot of people were hesitant about the two schools trying to work together, but it worked out better than I could have imagined. The support was there from both sides.”

Howard said the project garnered widespread support, with groups like Rotary and Kiwanis pitching in. City employees also staged a food drive to help the cause.

“Weirton being such a small city, I honestly didn’t know that we could do something so big,” Weir High Interact member Jennifer Kinder said. “It’s mind blowing that we could do (it).”

Welch said she figured the project was a long shot to win — at best.

“We entered the contest to kind of record what we did; I didn’t really think we had a shot of winning,” she said. “When I found out we were one of the winners ... I can’t even put it into words.”

As winners, the group earned a $10,000 cash prize for the charities of their choice. They gave half to the Salvation Army, the other half to Community Breadbasket.

Howard and Madonna’s Lauren Parsons attended the awards dinner in Washington, D.C., hosted by Jenna Bush Hager. Also in attendance were Jon Bon Jovi and Today Show hosts Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie.

Howard said the clubs are already at work on the Christian Center project, which will involve redoing one of the rooms in the building, interacting with children over summer break and helping improve a nearby playground.

“I have higher hopes now, and knowing that we actually won something I expect a lot more,” Kinder said. “We definitely have to work a lot harder this year.”