Million penny project reaches happy ending

by Pam Christensen

0904loc1How long does it take to collect one million pennies? That is the question the staff of the Peter White Public Library (PWPL) posed in August 2001. As it turns out, the answer is about seven years.
PWPL hosted “Go Figure,” a traveling exhibit that demonstrates how math concepts are integrated into children’s literature. The exhibit was developed bythe Minnesota Children’s Museum for the American Library Association and the Association for Library Services for Children, with funding from Cargill, 3M and the National Science Foundation. “Go Figure” traveled the United States from September 2000 through December 2002, and PWPL was one of three Michigan stops for the interactive exhibit that appealed to children of all ages.
The American Library Association sponsors a variety of traveling exhibits. Award of an exhibit includes a nationwide training session. Go Figure’s training was set in Arlington (Virginia). PWPL arts and programming coordinator Bryn Smith attended this training session and came back filled with creative programming ideas suggested by the exhibit sponsors. One of these ideas involved collecting a specific number of items so children could see how large or small specific numbers could be. PWPL staff members wracked their brains and finally decided to collect one million pennies. In addition to a visual demonstration of how many one million was, the staff decided pennies could be turned into $10,000 cash once the collection was complete. The million pennies campaign was born.
0904loc2Smith, an NMU graduate with a degree in art education and an analytical mind, set about designing a container to contain one million pennies. She calculated the volume and weight of the pennies and designed a million penny box. There were requirements for the box. It needed to show changes as the penny collection grew, children needed to see into the box and it had to be secure. A big box with a clear top and porthole was designed. Library maintenance services coordinator Stan Peterson set about building a box that would hold the volume and weight of one million pennies.
The million penny box became a fixture in the youth services department of the PWPL. In order to maintain the accuracy of the collection, the pennies were collected in canisters placed throughout the library. As pennies were collected, they would be counted and then added to the box. Volunteers from the Pathways Transition to Work program counted pennies for several years as part of their work assignment. A running total was kept of the number of pennies placed in the box.
0904loc3“People loved the penny box,” said youth services coordinator Cathy Seblonka. “People of all ages would stop in to check on the progress of the penny collection. They loved to watch as the penny level rose in the porthole and beyond. Even as children grew up and stopped coming into the youth services department for items, they would make a point to stop in and check to see if we had reached the million penny mark. Student groups were always excited about the concept of one million pennies, and they always tried to guess what the value of the pennies would be. The penny box was the star attraction of the Children’s Room for a number of years.”
PWPL staff had no idea how long the collection would take. The million penny box plans were shared with staff from the Ishpeming Carnegie Public Library, Munising School Public Library, Spies Public Library and other libraries around Michigan. Much to the dismay of Smith, the other libraries concluded their collections before PWPL. Their success was due in part to community-wide efforts to collect pennies.
The Friends of the Ishpeming Carnegie Public Library and Munising School Public Library Friends group were instrumental in collecting pennies at a record pace and concluding their campaigns before PWPL. Wells Fargo Bank in Menominee supported the Spies Public Library collection by donating surplus pennies on a regular basis.
The million penny campaign was successful and received massive support from Jim Koski, Dennis Whitley and Jill Trudeau at radio station WMQT. Q107 staff held a number of special events to publicize the campaign and collect pennies. Live broadcasts held throughout Marquette County encouraged residents to contribute pennies during the event. Pails and pails of pennies were collected due to the support of Q107.
0904loc4The Mining Journal, WLUC TV-6 and NMU videography students also did spots about the collection over the seven-year collection period. No matter how slow or busy the news day, PWPL could always do a 1,000,000 penny update.
One of the most exciting gifts to the penny campaign came from the baristas at Cruise-n-Coffee in Marquette. They arrived with large coffee cans filled with change that they had collected for the cause.
Bishop Garland also was a frequent donor to the million penny campaign.
“Pennies from heaven,” as the staff called them, were delivered to PWPL with the Bishop’s blessing.
Even people who did not live in Marquette got into the act. One of the NMU students who shot a television story about the million pennies for a class assignment asked her parents whether they would donate their large collection of change to PWPL. They arrived in Marquette for a visit with several pails of pennies. The student also was happy to report she received an “A” on the story.
From the beginning, it was determined that the million pennies, once collected, would be placed in the Peter White Public Library Development Fund at the Marquette Community Foundation. The income from the $10,000 penny collection would be used for youth services programming, materials and services. Robert Glenn, PWPL board member, supported the deposit of the penny funds at the Marquette Community Foundation (MCF).
“The pennies will be invested by the MCF for the benefit of the PWPL,” Glenn said. “The value of the pennies grew as they were collected, and they will continue to grow as part of the PWPL Development Fund. These funds will provide income for the benefit of youth for years to come. It is rewarding to think that the children and grandchildren of the children who deposited pennies into the penny box will still be benefiting from this project into the future.”
During the extended collection period, library staff members were asked why the money wasn’t invested as it was received. People were concerned that the PWPL was not maximizing the return on the pennies as they sat in the million penny box year after year. This is a fair criticism from a financial perspective, but the whole point of the million penny collection was to show children what one million pennies looked like. To empty the box and invest the money seemed to defy the original intent of the collection.
The goal of one million pennies was reached in November 2008. Almost as difficult as collecting the pennies was the disposition of the coins. Not an easy task. One million pennies fills 200 penny collection bags. Each bag holds approximately $50 and weighs thirty pounds. It takes two armored trucks to transport this much weight. Jeremey Mattonen of Wells Fargo Bank came to the rescue of PWPL by coordinating the bagging, pickup and transportation of the pennies. The pennies were sent by armored truck to the Federal Reserve Bank in Milwaukee. Mattonen volunteered his time to help bag and weigh the pennies, and Wells Fargo underwrote the armored truck transportation costs for the penny project.
At the beginning of the collection, children and families were asked to predict when the goal would be reached. Amazingly enough, Daniel Pascoe guessed the closest, naming November 16, 2008 as the date the box would be filled. He missed the date by one day; the count reached one million on November 15, 2008. For his accurate guess, Daniel received a Lake Superior Community Partnership gift check.
The penny box has been retired, but the memories still linger. Adults and children still catch themselves entering the Youth Services Department and glancing at the spot where the box stood for seven long years. Just remember, if anyone asks how long it takes to collect a million pennies—we now know the answer is about seven years or 142,858 pennies a year.

— Pam Christensen
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