Kevin Riordan: Charity gets personal for Moorestown eighth graders

Michael Berner, who teaches at William Allen Middle School in Moorestown, NJ, with students (l to r) Melvin Sheppard, Ally Jordan, Olivia West and Darren Trought. (Kevin Riordan / Staff)
Michael Berner, who teaches at William Allen Middle School in Moorestown, NJ, with students (l to r) Melvin Sheppard, Ally Jordan, Olivia West and Darren Trought. (Kevin Riordan / Staff)
Posted: January 03, 2012

Measured in dollars, Melvin Sheppard's gratitude toward the hospital that saved his life stands at more than $1,500.

Which doesn't include $487 his classmates at William Allen Middle School in Moorestown recently collected for the Pennies From Melvin campaign.

The contributions benefit the neonatal intensive care unit at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, where Sheppard, 14, was born nine weeks premature and weighing 2.9 pounds.

The inspiration for Pennies From Melvin "came from my dad," Sheppard says. "He kept telling me how Cooper saved my life, and how it saved my mom's life, because if I died, she would have went with me."

Sheppard started his personal charity six years ago. In December, it became the focus of Michael Berner's "21st Century Challenges" class, which encourages students to find practical answers to philosophical questions.

"Do we have a responsibility to give back to one another?" Berner asks. "What can we do that's simple, and enables us to give back and have a tangible impact?"

I'm in Berner's classroom with Sheppard and fellow eighth graders Darren Trought, 13; Olivia West, 13; and Ally Jordan, 14.

"The students had to [suggest] various charities they felt they wanted to donate to, and Mel had been doing wonderful work for years on his own," Berner says.

"When we came down to finally voting . . . where they wanted this funding to go, it became a natural fit, because they were directly supporting a peer."

For 30 days, students repeatedly filled a coffee can labeled "The Generosity Effect."

No fund-raisers, no checks from parents, no big bills, just leftover lunch money and other eighth-grade pocket change.

"It all added up," says Trought.

West was particularly drawn to the effort because her sister was born prematurely.

And like her classmates, Jordan was unaware of Sheppard's quiet philanthropy.

"When I found out, I just really wanted to go help," she says. "It feels great, helping someone that I know."

The connection helped show the students that an individual really can make a difference, even with something as modest as a few coins, Berner says.

"It wasn't really about the money," he adds. "It was about the fact they were doing something good."

The students weren't the first to be captivated by Sheppard's youthful philanthropy. His neighbors and fellow members of Evergreen Baptist Church in Palmyra also have contributed to Pennies From Melvin.

"He just wants to give back," Denise Sheppard says of her only child. "He's a very compassionate person."

Since he was 8, Melvin and his parents have personally delivered plastic buckets of pennies and other change to Cooper annually. This year, Gary E. Stahl, head of Cooper's division of neonatology, went to Allen Middle School to personally accept the contributions.

"I give the class, the teacher, and the principal a lot of credit," he says. "It was a terrific project."

The donation goes into a Cooper Foundation account earmarked for the NICU, which sees about 500 very young patients annually.

"When they leave, we call them graduates," Stahl says. "We're tickled and pleased when our graduates and their families do well, like Melvin and his family."

Sheppard, who is thinking about a career in medicine, says he was "really shocked" when his classmates chose his charity.

"I was excited that they had enough confidence in me," he says.

The fact that his peers chose to make their difference through Pennies From Melvin?

"I can't describe it in words," Sheppard says.


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

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