How can solving a math problem help save a life? Just ask Lorenzo Sandlin, principal of O'Neal Elementary of Poplar Bluff, Mo. For the past 21 years, Sandlin has spearheaded district participation in St. Jude Children's Research Hospital's Math-A-Thon, helping students raise more than half a million dollars to help cure pediatric cancers and other catastrophic illnesses. Along the way, his students learned priceless lessons in compassion while they mastered core math skills.

Similar to walk-a-thons and other fundraisers that rely on donors to make pledges for completion of a task, a new generation of school "learn-a-thons" has moved beyond sales of candy bars and school sweatshirts in their efforts to raise funds for natural disasters, build shelter for the needy, and preserve habitats for birds. These activities offer significant value not only to the worthy causes earmarked for the funds, but in the curriculum lessons incorporated within the programs.

The Stanwich School of Greenwich, Conn., participates in a host of service and volunteerism-related programs, from decorating treat bags for children in crisis filled with donated Halloween candy and messages of support to raising money to adopt two dogs trained to locate minefields (that will be sent to war-torn countries). Always looking for good opportunities to include even her youngest students, Laurel Peterson, the school's director of student services, was especially drawn to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital's Math-A-Thon as a fun and effective way to mix learning with giving.

The Perfect Equation

Through St. Jude's Math-A-Thon, teacher coordinators host school events and share high-interest leveled workbooks, called Funbooks, with their students. Students get pledges from friends and relatives, complete the activities in the books, and collect donations that go directly to help the hospital. St. Jude's policy is never to turn away a patient who cannot afford to pay, so proceeds from the Math-A-Thon and similar fundraisers are key to their mission.

For the 2009-10 program, St. Jude worked with Scholastic to develop a brand-new series of engaging, visually appealing math activities for the Funbooks, each aligned to NCTM standards. The Funbooks range from Level K through Level 8, and teachers can mix and match levels to meet the precise needs of their students. Each Funbook stars a series of cartoon characters called the Numerators, who use their superpowers of division, subtraction, and more to battle childhood cancer. The books also feature personal stories from real St. Jude patients. An online version of the program is enhanced by automatic scoring, sound effects, and animation as kids work through math challenges to achieve their goals.

"In grades K-3 we have 86 percent sign-up to participate in the program," says Peterson. "In grades 4-6 we have 100 percent participation. The teachers really get behind the program and support it in their classrooms and give the students incentives."

Since 2007, Stanwich School's participation in St. Jude's Math-A-Thon has raised nearly $118,000, with $35,000 in the past year alone.

"We are a values-based school, and the values lead many of our community service projects," adds Peterson. "In December, we study compassion school wide and promote ‘the gift is in the giving.' In January, when we do the Math-A-Thon, we study wisdom and we use doing math as a way of using your wisdom to help others."

One of the older students was moved to create a housework chores coupon system for students to sell to their families, netting the hospital an additional $5,000 in donations.

Passion and Purpose

Lorenzo Sandlin, principal of O'Neal Elementary, can appreciate the passion that goes into such fundraising efforts.

"Until you've been in that position and seen what depth of good they do, not only in the care of the children as patients, but in making life easier for Mom and Dad — who are struggling with practical issues like worrying about insurance details and problems; realizing they'll need to stay near the hospital for several weeks and not knowing where the funds will come from for a hotel; and worrying about car engine problems and other practical matters that heap on, all the while battling for their child's life — you just can't imagine the depth of the caring that they show to still manage to leave patients and their families with a sense of hope," he explains.

This cause is a personal one for Sandlin. His own child received care at the St. Jude hospital in Memphis until his final days. For 21 years, Sandlin has been involved with the Math-A-Thon program, recruiting other schools to take part, and organizing a bus trip to the hospital for the top earners and their faculty advisors for the past 14 years.

"Every year St. Jude arranges a different program to show the kids what their raised money does," says Sandlin. "We have met with patients who are doing well, patients who are now in remission, adults who were patients, even some adults who have gone on to take a degree in nursing or medicine to spend their career helping someone else. They are back working in the hospital after having seen for themselves, as patients, how much good the program did for all involved."

Participation in the programs not only carries over into the students' home lives, as they share what they learn with their parents, but into their everyday behavior and outlook in the community.

"We're giving them the opportunity to serve humanity. We have taken that theme throughout our school as well," adds Sandlin. "We started a program called SAK awards, Showing Acts of Kindness. We catch kids doing things that no one asks them to do and they receive a little certificate saying you were caught being cool doing this or that neat thing. We see that carry over with kids helping their fellow students at school, helping their teachers out in various roles, opening doors and being polite to people. I do think that total picture ties in and blows over into their rest of their life as well."

Serving Others

This lesson is one Sandlin feels he learned through his experience as a St. Jude parent. Although the elementary school itself has raised an impressive $198,000 within the past 20 years (with the greater Poplar Bluff School District, led by Sandlin, besting the half-million mark), passing along that message was his biggest motivation for getting the school involved in the Math-A-Thon. (To learn more about the St. Jude Math-A-Thon, visit or call 1-800-FUNBOOK.)

"This is an easy avenue that students can be provided to help their fellow humans out," Sandlin concludes. From the biggest fund collector to the student who comes in with the smallest offering, the program offers the opportunity to learn the importance and benefit of serving others." And, when students are helping other kids just like themselves, that message is even more powerful.

Money Makers

Students across the country are finding ways, with the help of dedicated teachers, to raise funds for causes near and dear to their hearts. While kids earn bucks for bird habitats, children's libraries, and heart health, they learn lessons that will help them succeed in school-and in life.

Feathered Friends

To feather the nests of an important nature fund and use skills right out of a science textbook, The Branch School of West Houston, Texas, took to the fields and forests to find more than 45 species of birds in their Bird-A-Thon. Teams earn pledges for each fledgling or flat donations to benefit the 40-year-old Houston Audubon, a chapter of the National Audubon Society. The 24th Houston Audubon Bird-A-Thon raised over $56,000 to promote the conservation and appreciation of birds and wildlife habitat.

Bonus: In identifying specific species, students learn about habitats, ecology, and preservation, all while getting exercise.

C-H-A-R-I-T-Y, Charity

Students of Mahanoy Area Elementary of Mahanoy City, Pa., can even use that in a sentence to describe their participation in the Spell-A-Thon to raise funds to improve their community. This school's correctly spelled words were worth four thousand dollars when combined with other fundraising efforts throughout the year, a portion of which they used to purchase a large decorative area rug and drapes for the children's room at the local library to encourage the love of reading.

Bonus: Some teams accepted children's book donations for an area school or library-in-need at the door. 10 books equaled one "save" to keep the donating team alive in the bee.

Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack...

...raised a lot of greenback, back, backs for the American Heart Association — as do schools like French Road Elementary of Rochester, N.Y., which topped the 2009 list of participating schools in Jump Rope for Heart, a jump-rope-a-thon, with a whopping $67,432. A "Wall of Honor" stands at one end of the gym, each paper heart bearing the name of a patient for students to see as they jump in honor of that child. The program, coordinated by physical education teachers, earned pledges per jump and playground rhymes free of charge.

Bonus: Per jump pledges offer students practice with multiplication and money handling skills, with science and health, too!