It's been 13 years since a group of middle-school students turned their tiny Tennessee town into a national model of tolerance education — and their lesson is still going strong.
"This is about 16 children who wanted to know more, who were not content with the answers they'd been given," said Sandra Roberts, the eighth-grade language arts teacher from Whitwell, Tenn., who helped launch the Paper Clips project, which began with students attempting to gather 6 million paper clips to represent the 6 million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.
"This is about how those 16 children chose to celebrate the victims," Roberts, 41, said during a visit to Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley on Nov. 20. There, she showed a film about the project and spoke to high school students, families and members about the post-Paper Clip world, both hers and theirs.
The film, Paper Clips, chronicles Whitwell Middle School's groundbreaking project, which emanated from a town with a population of only 1,600 — a town that only has two stop lights, no Jews, no Catholics and a spattering of minorities.
The principal and two teachers, including Roberts, wanted to introduce a diversity project in 1998. Three years later, they ended up creating a lasting memorial at their school to the victims of the Holocaust.
"We wanted to teach our children what happens when intolerance reigns and prejudice goes unchecked," Roberts says in the beginning of the film.
The students chose paper clips because Norwegians wore them during the German occupation to protest Hitler's regime. When the film was released in 2004, Whitwell Middle School's Holocaust project had far surpassed the original goal and had collected 27 million paper clips.
The cattle car that would become the memorial at their school initially housed 11 million of the paper clips (six for the Jews who died and five for the gypsies, homosexuals and Jehovah's Witnesses who were also killed). Today, there are another 1 million paper clips that have been added from donations through the years, along with a sculpture made of 12 million clips in honor of the children who died at Theresienstadt, though the number of clips is greater than the number of young people who perished in the camp north of Prague.
Roberts, who still teaches at Whitwell, said her hope is that her students' message resonates in more affluent communities like Penn Valley.
Amy and Randy Stein sponsored the event that brought Roberts to Har Zion.
"I thought our own kids could be inspired in our community," Amy Stein said. "It's not just important for us to remember the Holocaust, but it is also important for us to let other people know about it."
The irony that a small town in Tennessee is doing so much to remember the lives of those murdered in the camps is not lost on Roberts.
She said that most people in her town have never met a Jew and 82 percent of residents in Whitwell live below the poverty line. Roberts sold candy bars out of her classroom to pay for the postage for the students to write letters asking for paper clips.
"I had children who had never eaten at McDonald's because they couldn't afford it," she said.
Before Whitwell Middle School began the Holocaust Project in 1998, just 10 out of 110 graduating seniors went on to college and only five of those students obtained a four-year degree. Now, Roberts said, 90 percent of the kids who come through the Holocaust project go to college and 75 percent of them obtain a four-year degree.
She attributes the turnaround directly to the project, noting that the students "meet people through traveling and speaking — doctors, lawyers — and they realize they are just regular people," she said. "They always thought of doctors and lawyers as above them, unobtainable, but they realize they are just an average person and they think 'I can do this.' "
Supporters of the project also created a $500,000 college scholarship fund in honor of principal Linda Hooper for the children who participate in the program.
The school itself got a makeover, and three years ago moved into a new facility, which includes an enclosed visitor's center for the rail-car memorial. The kids act as docents, giving tours and talking to visiting groups about the project and the Holocaust. In 10 years, Roberts said there has never been a single act of vandalism at the memorial.
That the residents of Whitwell continue to be the stewards of these memories is inspirational, as indicated by the reaction of the audience. One area resident, Harold Sampson, said he has been to Whitwell twice and that he wears a paper clip every day because "we have to keep reminding ourselves that you cannot teach tolerance enough."
During the program, Har Zion co-principal Norman Einhorn vowed to take the temple's high school students to Whitwell, and by the end of the program, a sponsor had come forward pledging to fund 50 percent of the trip's cost.
Roberts echoed Stein's sentiments and urged the young people and families gathered at the event to do their part.
"You have so much," she said. "I don't mean stuff. You have grandparents, Holocaust survivors. Do you know their stories?
This movie is about making you ask, 'What does this mean I'm supposed to do?' If not, I failed, my kids failed."
Roberts, who was diagnosed with cancer three years ago and although cancer-free today still cannot have biological children, sees her students as her children.
"I call them my children," she said. "I had my chance to change the world. I did what any good parent would do. I challenged my babies to pick up that mantle and to leave the world a little bit of a better place."
To those assembled at Har Zion, she added: "I challenge you to pick up the mantle, to change the world."