NEW RICHMOND -- Since last November, fires have been burning throughout Australia. Among the most damaged regions have been the forests and brushlands. Since the fires started spreading, people across the world have started to ask how best they can help the animals being rescued.

With the animal shelters in dire need of supplies and handmade items, Hillside Elementary third grade teacher Kathryn Bourassa approached Principal Frank Norton about what local students could do.

“It all started with social media. I was scrolling through Facebook one night and a picture came up on somebody's page of a poster from an Australian rescue that was desperately seeking a lot of handmade items for the animals they had been saving,” Bourassa said. “I looked at it, and since I love animals, I thought I’d start sewing. When I came to school the next day, I remembered that January’s Tiger Trait is service. So of course, I hunted Mr. Norton down and showed him the poster I’d seen and told him I had an idea.”

After discussing the idea to involve all of the kids in the school in a large group project, Bourassa was given the green light. The school started the project on a Monday with the "Coins for Critters” drive, which raised nearly $1,300 in five days, to put toward the postage to get the items created by the students to Australia.

“I helped bring in stuff for the project. I liked making the posters we put up around the school. I brought in 12 coins for the ‘Coins for Critters’ drive.’ I’ll be pretty happy when all the items make it over to Australia,” second grader Remi Bieniek-Phelps said.

Roughly 200 fourth and fifth grade students at Hillside Elementary in New Richmond, as well as 30 staff members, took an hour and a half on Jan. 17 to trace and cut out templates for pouches. The pouches are being sewn and eventually will be delivered to animal shelters in Australia. Submitted photo
Roughly 200 fourth and fifth grade students at Hillside Elementary in New Richmond, as well as 30 staff members, took an hour and a half on Jan. 17 to trace and cut out templates for pouches. The pouches are being sewn and eventually will be delivered to animal shelters in Australia. Submitted photo

The second graders were put in charge of making posters to put up around the school. The third graders were given the task of creating the templates for the pouches and animal belts.

“I was part of getting the templates traced and cut out. I also helped fold the templates so the fourth and fifth graders knew where to pull. I wanted to be part of the project because I wanted to save the animals and see that they got good care,” said third grader KayMarie Jeffries. “I feel proud that the animals will be safe once our items make it over to Australia.”

On Friday, Jan. 17, roughly 200 fourth and fifth grade students and 30 adults gathered for an hour and a half of tracing the patterns onto fabric and cutting the fabric.

“I put the pins in the templates for the pouches so people knew where to sew. I really like animals and I think that Australia could be really cool and I don’t want to see animals die. I’ll feel happy that I’ve been able to help with this project once the pouches make it to Australia. It feels nice that so many people care enough to help out with this project,” fifth grader Rosie Ware said.

First grade classes including Fiona Bostow’s worked on thanking the businesses who donated or helped with the project in some way.

“I love koalas and think they are cute. My letter said, ‘Dear Joann Fabrics, thank you for all of the fabric. We are using that fabric to make pouches. The pouches are for the baby animals since their moms are dying,’” Bostow said. “It makes me feel good to help. I’ll feel really good when the pouches make it to Australia.”

To speed up the sewing process, the school held a sew-in on Saturday, Jan. 25. The school has received emails from retired teachers saying they would be willing to help sew some of the items together as well.

Hillside Elementary students Hailey Campeau, Samantha Ash, Payton Dols and Olivia Koop helped their fellow students trace and cut fabric that would be sewn into pouches to help the animals in shelters throughout Australia. Submitted photo
Hillside Elementary students Hailey Campeau, Samantha Ash, Payton Dols and Olivia Koop helped their fellow students trace and cut fabric that would be sewn into pouches to help the animals in shelters throughout Australia. Submitted photo

“It was incredible. The passion the fourth and fifth graders for helping with this project was amazing. I got to go around to each group and show them a finished pouch and explain how it was used. They would all just melt and then go back to work 10 times harder,” Bourassa said. “Kids empathize with animals before they learn to empathize with human beings, so even the kindergarten and first graders were showing up with their little fists full of pennies. We just kept saying every single penny helps, so they just kept coming back.”

Among the businesses and people to make donations to the Hillside project were Walmart, which gave a donation to help the school purchase pins, needles and vinegar. The school needed vinegar because every finished product has to be washed in vinegar before it can be mailed due to how compromised the animals’ immune systems are. Joann Fabrics in Woodbury, once they saw what the school was using the fabric for, allowed the school to purchase $800 worth of fabric for $200. Little Piece of Mind in New Richmond also donated 50 pieces of fabric to the project. A social media post Bourassa put on Facebook describing the school’s project was even noticed by a woman in Woodbury who donated $211.

“The project was a fast and furious thing where we wanted to come together and see what we could do. I’m still awestruck by the response. As the products are getting finished each day, we will be putting them on the steps in the front lobby area of the school,” Bourassa said. “It takes a village to not only raise a child, but also to pull off a service project. And we’ve gotten so much help from our community and beyond.”

Bourassa is working with a state and United States group that each have a shelter in Australia which they are looking to help. However, she has yet to decide which shelter in Australia will receive the items created by the Hillside students. That decision will be made depending on which shelter has the highest need for the items the school has made.

“There are different dates for when supplies and items will be sent over. Because the response was so widespread across the country, right now some of the rescues in Australia have said ‘You’ve loved us so much, could you please hold for a minute so we can dig out from under what we need,’” Bourassa said. “That has led to different state hubs working towards this project contacting other rescues around Australia and then putting out the calls for which items those locations need. When we finish our projects, I’ll keep an out for due dates and when there is an express need and send out the items as they are called for.”