GROTON — Four years ago, Groton-Dunstable Middle School was galvanized by the Penny Project, which collected 1.5 million pennies as a permanent memorial to Jewish children murdered during the Holocaust.

This spring, English teacher Niki Rockwell expects to see similar enthusiasm for restoring that monument’s container, which came apart at the seams in November.

“We can re-energize all of the kids by having them be a part of this,” she said.

“They’re actually calling it the Phoenix Project, rising up from the ashes again, which has so many symbols in itself, when you consider the Holocaust,” she said.

At this point, the wounded monument remains at its home near the main entryway to the Middle School performance center, albeit with a mass of red duct tape over the broken seam and three construction braces holding the fish-tank style container together. About one-third of the pennies came out when the seam broke, and Rockwell said those are being stored elsewhere. Rockwell doesn’t know why the container broke. She is more focused on how people are coming together to help fix it.

The list includes Robert Zinck, a local parent who owns a plastics company in Rhode Island and has volunteered those facilities to repair the container. Another donor stepped forward to cover the transportation costs, while Moore Lumber donated 50 large plastic containers to help relocate the pennies during repairs. Rockwell expects that job will take at least 10 hours, but added many students will want to be involved with that.
Rockwell said that’s the type of response she envisioned upon hearing of the break. She said she wasn’t sad, but instead felt there was something deeply symbolic about those pennies breaking free — and offering another generation of students to get involved with this story.

“I don’t know, but I think there’s something very spiritual about this,” she said.

The story of the memorial goes back to 2005, when then-middle-school parent Amy Degen saw the movie Paper Clips, which documented the true story of how students at a small school in Tennessee collected one paper clip for all 11 million victims of the Holocaust. The end result was enough to fill a railroad car, which was put on permanent display at the school.
Upon seeing that film, Degen was resolved to bring it to Groton and worked the next six months to make it a major event for the schools.

Rockwell, who has taught history sections about Holocaust for more than 30 years, described what came next as a confluence of events. She had long been in the practice of challenging students to collect one million of anything, just to illustrate how large that number is. Having seen Paper Clips, the students wanted to create something more permanent that year, and Rockwell said they chose the penny because Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.

Over the course of the next four weeks, Rockwell said students did everything they could to collect those one million pennies, but still fell considerably short at 140,000. Having done that exercise for years, Rockwell said she didn’t expect the students to raise one million pennies in a month — nor was she surprised when they formed a group to keep it going into the next school year.

However, Degen said the project reached a key turning point that summer, when it became known that a temporary worker had walked off with a substantial percentage — $1,200 worth — of the pennies.

At that point, it became international news, Rockwell said. Students turned down at least one benefactor who wanted to give them the entire sum, because the process of gathering those pennies was important. In fact, they eventually opted to go for 1.5 million pennies, to specifically honor the children killed during the Holocaust.

As it turned out, that memorial was dedicated in May 2008, and Degen said that ceremony was filmed by the creator of Paper Clips for inclusion in a followup movie that’s still in the works.

Rockwell and Degen didn’t have a clear timeline on when repairs on the memorial would be complete, but were hoping Groton-Dunstable will host a re-dedication within the year.

“I have no idea at this point,” said Rockwell. “I’m hoping for May or June.”