St. Luke students collect 54,000 labels to help fund school

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Certain Whitestone students have been rummaging through garbage cans and ransacking the cupboards of extended families to help fund a playground at their school, finding thousands of dollars most people mistake as trash.

Since October kids at St. Luke School, near the corner of 150th Street and 17th Avenue, have feverishly collected more than 54,000 box tops and soup labels they can exchange for cash and school supplies through two nationwide programs. That averages out to 348 box tops collected per day.

The programs, run by food conglomerates General Mills and Campbell Soup Co., have been around for years. But box-top fever has gripped the Queens Catholic school largely due to mothers Heather Summa and Jen Wasiak, who run a surprisingly sophisticated operation to turn the cardboard scraps into real benefits.

“It’s free money,” said Summa, whose two sons are in kindergarten and fourth-grade. “We’re turning garbage into cash.”

After the children salvage the box tops from hundreds of products like yogurt, cereal or frozen vegetables, they bring them to their classrooms and drop them into collection boxes — the first step in the process.

Summa and Wasiak, whose son is also in kindergarten, then round up those boxes and bring them home, where they dump out the tops and count them out into bundles of 50, stacking them around the house before putting them into Ziplock bags — which also boast box tops — and then a box.

Although it might seem strange, at that point the parcel can be worth upwards of $1,000. Summa has to get the package insured before shipping it off.

Each General Mills box top is worth 10 cents, and the school recently received a check for $2,800 for the 28,000 tops kids collected. The 26,000 Campbell Soup Co. Labels for Education are worth points toward purchasing all manner of school supplies.

But the kingpins of the operation were quick to give all the credit to the kids.

“They worked so hard, they deserve it,” Summa said.

Nothing galvanizes an elementary school like a boys vs. girls competition, and this time around the females were leading their male counterparts by a considerable amount in the quest for a coveted prize: the opportunity to wear pajamas to school.

A.J. Wasiak, 9, described why Pajama Day is so great.

“It’s just easier,” he said, describing in a weary voice the arduous morning routine of tying his tie and buttoning up his shirt as part of the Catholic uniform.

In several earlier stages of competitions, which typically last eight to 10 weeks, different grades have competed against each other to win ice cream parities or movie and popcorn events, for example.

“I think it’s a fun activity, and it helps our school,” said 10-year-old Juliana Estevez, who could speak nonchalantly about the box tops and labels since the girls held a comfortable lead.

Assistant Principal Lucy Lugones agrees, citing the fact that the school is funded by donations and the cost of tuition.

“All of this extra money is a huge help,” she said, adding that some of the money will go toward adding more amenities to the newly completed playground outside the school.

Anyone who would like to contribute to the students’ effort can send General Mills box tops or Labels for Education to St. Luke School, at 16-01 150th Place in Whitestone.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4566.

Updated 7:26 pm, May 9, 2012
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