Nothing stops the ‘Lil’ Pirates’ train of kindness.

December 23, 2021

Fourth graders Trinity Hovey and Lola House help count and pack the canned goods.

Nothing stops the ‘Lil’ Pirates’ train of kindness.

Pirate News is a presentation of Hart Public Schools in partnership with Oceana County Press.  

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

HART — Students at Hart Public Schools Spitler Elementary School — the “Lil’ Pirates as they’re called — continued the momentum of the giving train by collecting 1,255 canned goods during this year’s Spitler Polar Express Canned Goods Drive.

This year’s collection total ranks in the top three since the tradition began in 2013.

Last year, COVID-19 restrictions did nothing to deter the Lil’ Pirates’ spirit of giving. Their train of kindness went full steam ahead with the highest amount of canned goods collected so far — 1,314.

Their reward for donating is watching the Polar Express movie, a children’s holiday favorite, in the school district’s auditorium.

“Due to the wind day this year and COVID last year, we were unable to go to the auditorium,” said Spitler Principal Andrea Degen. A wind storm closed the schools Dec. 16. 

Principal Andrea Degen and Dean of Students Michelle Lewandoski.

The cancellation of classes caused plans to be quickly changed. Students were able to watch the holiday movie in their classrooms Friday, Dec. 17 — the last day before Christmas break.

“It’s a pretty special thing, because it’s an annual thing we have done since 2013,” said Degen, who dresses like a train conductor and punches the students’ train tickets like Tom Hanks’ animated character in the movie. Dean of Students Michelle Lewandowski also plays the role of train conductor.

Since 2013 when former Spitler Principal Amy Taranko launched the program, nearly 10,000 canned goods have been collected that are donated to the Bread of Life Food Pantry in Hart. 

Normally, the principal does a live reading of the Grand Rapids-based Polar Express book by Chris VanAllsburg, but instead did a fun video last year and this year due to COVID-19 precautions. The diminutive Degen, barely 5 feet tall, dresses like an elf and appears in various locations throughout the district like Elf on a Shelf, showing up in front of the Hart Public Schools outdoor sign; sitting underneath a table; lying on a bench; and even sitting on Superintendent Mark Platt’s desk.

“I read the ‘Polar Express,’ but it was kind of an Elf on Shelf thing because I am like the size of an Elf on a Shelf,” she said with a laugh.

“With COVID last year, I couldn’t read to all of the classes, so we really tried to think outside of the box.”

In addition to the students, the principal offers festive events for the staff — such as having them over to her house to paint on canvases and organizing fun staff meetings.

“It’s just a way to lighten up everything that’s going on in the schools,” referring to the hardships schools across the country have faced due to COVID-19, school shootings and copycat threats.

Fourth graders who helped count and pack up the canned goods received special recognition — Lola House, JoJo Mitchell, Eliel Lopez, Eric Udell, Austyn Smallegan, Lincoln Schiller and Trinity Hovey. 

“It’s a nice thing to have at the end of the Christmas season. It teaches them giving and to have fun with it as well.”

  • Contributed photos

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