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Don't throw money in the trash

Susan Thelen, a health teacher at Discovery Middle School in Alexandria, coordinates the Box Tops for Education program, which raises funds for schools. (Photo by Lowell Anderson)

Box tops aren't just from cereal anymore. They can be clipped from Kleenex and broccoli and soup and milk. They can even be found on underwear packaging.

Best of all, box tops mean free money for schools.

"You have a lot of value in your cupboards right now. It's things you would never expect," said Susan Thelen, a 7th and 8th grade health teacher at Discovery Middle School (DMS) in Alexandria.

Since 1993, Thelen has been the coordinator of DMS Recycles, a program that uses recycled items to bring in extra needed cash for the students. In 1998, she incorporated the Box Tops for Education (BTFE) into that program.

When it comes to BTFE, Thelen is rare. At most schools, coordinators of the program are parent volunteers, and it is usually preschool and elementary schools that participate in the fundraiser. But Thelen sees no reason why middle schools shouldn't be part of such an easy way to raise a little extra cash.

When BTFE began in 1996, students collected box tops from General Mills cereal, sent them in and earned 10 cents for each one. That program has since expanded to more than 240 BTFE brands, including Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Kleenex, Ziploc, Hefty, Juicy Juice, Land O' Lakes and Hanes - with 10 cents still the rate for each box top collected.

"This is from stuff that would get thrown into the garbage," Thelen said. "It's really a win-win."

The proceeds from the box tops can be spent how each individual school chooses. Thelen divides the funds equally between 7th, 8th and 9th grades, mostly for team projects, competitions, busing for field trips, and to support school programs. She also purchases small prizes and other incentives to encourage students and their families to continue collecting box tops.

Thelen also keeps the fire going when school is out with her "Beat Mrs. Thelen over the summer" incentive. Each student who collects more box tops over the summer than she does is invited to a kick-off party in the fall. Some students have collected 500 items.

In addition to saving box tops, students, parents and anyone who shops online can help schools earn extra cash. Thelen explained that by visiting the website and clicking on the marketplace, any item you purchase through the participating businesses earns money for the school of your choice.

"If you are ordering online, go through the marketplace and our school will get credit, from almost anyplace you would want to order stuff from," Thelen suggested. "It's huge!"

Since Thelen implemented BTFE in 1998, DMS has earned $12,000. But she says there is a lot of room to grow. Each school can earn up to $25,000 a year. Nationwide, the program has grown from contributing $1 million in 1997 to $74 million in 2012.

And it's all from something that would normally get thrown into the trash.

"Bottom line, give them to somebody," Thelen said. "Don't throw them in the garbage. They add up very quickly."