Palo Alto teen seeks 1.5 million pennies for Israelis: Common cents to aid terror victims

It's eight months into her campaign to collect 1.5 million pennies for charity, and Emily Dubois can tell you one thing: They definitely don't come from heaven.

Steadily, but oh so slowly, the 17-year-old Palo Alto student is amassing pennies — along with larger coins, bills and even checks — in gallon milk jugs, empty mayonnaise jars, Ziploc bags and just about any other container she scrounges up.

She regularly drops off empties at some 20 synagogues and day schools on the Peninsula and in the South Bay and then picks them up once they're filled.

Her goal is to collect $15,000. With it, she plans to make direct grants to struggling Israeli families who have lost loved ones to acts of terror.

So far, she's got $4,792.66 in the bank — not including all the coins, bills and checks waiting to be picked up at the various donation sites.

"I want to help all families that have lost their primary wage earner and can't make ends meet," said Dubois, who is in charge of social action and tikkun olam projects as a chairperson for Palo Alto United Synagogue Youth, a Conservative movement organization.

Dubois, who visited Israel in the summer after her bat mitzvah and has relatives living there, notes that $100 can feed a family of four for a week.

"I really want the money to go directly to the families," she said.

The 1.5 million figure represents the number of children who perished in the Holocaust. Collecting that many pennies was an idea she came across while researching potential social action projects for her synagogue youth group.

To date, she is "not sick of pennies," she said. "I wish we had more of them."

Since launching the campaign in September, Dubois has written pitches, paid visits to numerous congregations and day schools and staffed a booth at a "Feast of Jewish Learning" event. Collection jugs have been dropped off and picked up — and Dubois still is collecting.

Though the pennies add up slowly, Dubois is "amazed" by the support she has received. Classes at Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School, for instance, held a contest to see who could raise the most.

Recently, she began taking a different tack — encouraging local synagogues to send e-mails to their members, asking for donations to her cause in honor of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, which was commemorated April 29.

"We are not using an intermediary organization; you are guaranteed that every penny will be sent to families in need," the e-mail reads.

The effort paid off with a donation of some 7,000 pennies from Janet and Zale Teman, a Redwood City couple who belong to Temple Beth Jacob.

Dubois, a member of Palo Alto Congregation Kol Emeth, says she's not losing steam in the slightest. "Hopefully, before I graduate we will have the 1.5 million raised."

Now finishing up her junior year at Palo Alto High School, this year she was named a Diller Teen Fellow, a leadership program for Jewish high school students.

Her mother, Ellen, who helped with the shlepping until Dubois recently got her driver's license, figures that 20 empty milk jugs sit in their garage, waiting to be deposited and filled at collection sites.

"We save every milk jug," she said. In addition, Ellen Dubois has spent a couple of hours feeding eight gallons' worth of coins into a dispenser at Mollie Stone's Market in Palo Alto.

The store's management has agreed to waive the 8.9 percent processing fee to use the machine and convert the change into bills.

Emily's parents applaud their daughter's initiative — and her perseverance.

"She's committed," said Ellen Dubois. "She's optimistic it can be done. It's not happening as fast as we would like."

While collecting money, Emily Dubois also is exploring ways to locate the needy families she wants to help. She's called the Israeli consulate in San Francisco, spoken to local contacts and with her Israeli relatives. Recently, Kol Emeth Rabbi Sheldon Lewis offered to help.

"It's really in the beginning stages," she said. "Right now, I'm trying to get the word out about the program."

She pledges that once she reaches her monetary goal, 100 percent of the proceeds will go to the families who need it. "I didn't want it to be a big thing with red tape."

Dubois has longed to visit Israel during the past two summers but hasn't done so because of the ongoing terrorism there. At the same time, it's thoughts about the consequences of that violence that fuel her drive.

"All the families that have lost family members are definitely suffering," she said. "My heart goes out to them.

"Hopefully, by the time we get the 1.5, there will be peace. But it's extremely doubtful."

Collection jugs are located at many Peninsula and South Bay synagogues. Checks may be mailed to "Kol Emeth — $1.5" at Congregation Kol Emeth, 4175 Manuela Ave., Palo Alto, CA 94306.