Just before the school year ended, 11-year-old Mary Lou Street of Northfield, Minn., got an important math lesson:

The generous actions of a few people can grow far bigger than the sum of their parts.

Mary Lou is a fifth-grader at Greenvale Park Elementary. In early May, she and her peers learned about the plight of Ukrainian children through a Scholastic magazine article and video. Determined to do something, a few students including Mary Lou decided to make bracelets in the Ukrainian colors of blue and yellow and sell them for a few weeks at the local farmers market.

Eventually, they invited three other local elementary schools to join them, potentially expanding their effort from 60 students to more than 250. Offerings grew from bracelets to key chains with leather tassels, sunflower earrings, buttons and more.

A temporary home at the market became a regular weekly presence all summer. A few hundred dollars became nearly $5,000 for the Alight Ukrainian response fund.

And the four feeder elementary schools are working now to create a service club when they all meet up in the fall in middle school.

"We all think it's kinda insane," Mary Lou said. "One kid puts in just a little, but then you have a lot of kids in total and you have this amazing reward."

A difficult lesson

In early May, with news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine difficult to ignore, teachers began talking with their students in an age-appropriate way.

"We were trying to find a balance," said Greenvale fifth-grade teacher Kate Carlson, "not getting political at all; just focused on the facts."

Alight, formerly the American Refuge Committee, estimates that 25% of Ukrainians have left their homes behind, with 5 million fleeing to neighboring countries and 3 million entering Poland.

The Scholastic article, Carlson said, "was so well-written and kept the story focused on the kids." Some history was included for context, and the article and an accompanying video "helped students connect on a human level."

Fellow fifth-grade teacher Michelle Sickler agreed, adding that the article helped the students grasp something powerful: This was not a history lesson; this was a current events lesson.

"Some students didn't actually realize that this was happening right now," Sickler said.

When they did come to understand that this was the reality for other kids — many losing their schools, homes and, sometimes, a beloved family member — "the reaction on their faces really said it all," she said.

"That was the turning point for empathy and genuine concern for the people of Ukraine and the heartache and hardship they're dealing with."

Carlson credits Mary Lou's mom, Nena Lenz, with turning the kids' concerns into action. "If Nena hadn't gotten involved, none of this would have happened," Carlson said. "She's a superstar."

Lenz said that when students couldn't find sunflower-themed bracelets to purchase — sunflowers being the national flower of Ukraine — they decided to make their own; they'd sell them at the Youth Booth of the Northfield Riverwalk Market Fair the last three Saturdays of the school year.

For four weeks, in school, after school and at home, the students made those bracelets, along with key chains, earrings and pins, ranging in price from a few dollars to $20.

They made more than 1,000 items and raised $1,200 in their first four hours of selling. "Since everyone loved it and we were having so much fun, we decided to do it all summer," Lenz said.

Fifth-grader Cammie Sammon said she really liked "working with the other fifth-graders" and learning about Ukrainian cities and its national flower.

In addition to selling bracelets and key chains, some of the students walked around the market selling raffle tickets, Cammie said. "When we told them what we were doing, they'd just donate money. They didn't even want the raffle tickets."

Alight CEO Jocelyn Wyatt said she was moved by "these children's goodness."

Carlson noted that the Ukraine relief effort was especially welcome for students coming out of two difficult years of the COVID epidemic.

"During a time when so much was out of their control," Carlson said, "It's really been a gift to the students to be able to make a difference."