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DRACUT– A great deal of thought went into choosing the Play-Doh gift set that 7-year-old Shaylin Vella proudly held while she waited for the firetruck to arrive at the Brookside Elementary School.

She was excited to see the firefighter, but she was even more excited to show everyone the way her gift worked.

“You put the Play-Doh in there and push it out so the hair comes out on the puppy,” she said.

She went on to explain that she had the same one at home, which is why she chose the set as her gift since she’s had so much fun with it herself.

Donating four boxes of toys to the Toys for Tots program in partnership with the Dracut Fire Department is just one of the three charities that Shaylin and her second-grade class were involved with the week before Christmas.

Each day of the week, the children took turns rolling a cart through the building to collect canned goods for donations to the new Dracut Food Pantry — slated to open in February 2007 — and monetary donations for the Sun Santa Fund.

“I want to teach the kids that the holidays are not all about getting stuff,” said Michelle Cooke, the children’s teacher.

Cooke, who has been teaching at Brookside for 11 years, organizes a different type of charity for the children each year. When she heard about the new food pantry opening in Dracut, she decided it would be the perfect addition to this year’s charity lineup.

The students were broken into groups each morning to count the donated money as part of their math lesson for the week. And to keep them interested and involved in the project, Cooke added some extra tantalizing incentives for the kids.

Each day, the children who brought in a canned good or 50 cents for one of the charities were allowed to participate in the day’s silly game. On Monday, crazy hats were the theme. Tuesday was slipper day; Wednesday, everyone wore their clothes inside out; Thursday, each child chose their favorite stuffed animal to share with the class; and on Friday, it was the battle of the sports teams as everyone showed off their sports jerseys.

“I only asked them to bring in a toy for the one day since we had the firetruck coming to pick up the boxes,” said Cooke.

As the firetruck pulled up, the driver turned the sirens on and the group of children erupted. Dracut firefighter Tim Grimes climbed out of the truck to collect the toys and show off some of the truck’s gadgets to the eagerly awaiting group.

Grimes has been in charge of the Toys for Tots program at the Fire Department for four years.

“Seeing the look on the parents faces when we deliver the toys really makes it all worth it,” he said.

The Brookside students raised $576 in monetary donations and about 300 cans of food for the pantry.

“The kids knew the donations were going to help people that need it,” said Cooke. “It was their way of giving and they gave huge.”

Have a story idea? contact Heidi Smith at hsmith@thevalleydispatch.com.