On an otherwise gloomy morning, Morristown High School students gave 12 people a reason to smile under circumstances that normally might produce a frown.
Two students, accompanied by principal Jeremy Powers and English teacher Jim Helsley Jr., were taken around Morristown Tuesday morning by police chief Henry Albrecht to surprise residents and passersby with gift cards to Walmart and Kroger.
The gift cards were paid for through a fundraiser at the high school that normally raises money for Homecoming T-shirts.
Helsley, who is the student council advisor, said he was inspired by his church. Every Christmas, members of the church each give a dollar to help others.
He figured, since the students wear the shirts once, it made more sense to put the money toward something more useful. And since Morristown administrators have been encouraging students to give back to the community this year, it made sense to raise funds for that purpose.
So he approached the student council and after the students gave their approval, he went to Powers.
“There aren’t a lot of words when Jim came to me and said this is what I want to do,” Powers said while awaiting Albrecht’s next pull over. “It was an absolutely awesome idea. I thought absolutely go with it. What a better way to raise the money, use the money for an efficient (purpose) instead of getting shirts.”
For about an hour, Albrecht, accompanied by junior Rylee Kleine and freshman Maggie Lutes in his police SVU, stopped nine drivers around Morristown. Powers and Helsley followed Albrecht as they made their way around town.
The school raised almost $1,200, enough to buy 11 gift cards worth $100 apiece and one worth $50.
Helsley, a 1996 alum, said working at the school has a higher purpose for him.
“This has always been more to me than just a school, let alone a job,” he said. “It’s about the town and the community and how we all come together as a family.”
The drivers who Albrecht pulled over were, not surprisingly, surprised.
One had tears in her eyes. Others started to laugh.
Jaden McPherson was pulled over in front of the elementary school. He said he had just woken up and was heading to work when Albrecht’s blue lights flashed from behind.
“I’m pretty ecstatic,” he said. “I was wondering what I was getting in trouble for. I was obeying the speed limit. I was wondering if there was something wrong with my taillight or something.”
Michael Brinson was the first person pulled over on Main Street. He admitted to being surprised when Albrecht pulled him over.
“I knew it was Henry and I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong,” he said with a laugh. “I knew Henry would tell me if I was.”
Albrecht said the drivers he pulled over initially wondered why they were stopped. He told them they weren’t speeding and they had their seat belts on, then requested they roll down the passenger’s side window because a couple of high school students wanted to speak with them.
“Then they really got a questioned look and you could tell (their) reaction,” he said. “They liked it.”
The other three recipients were specifically chosen, starting with Eliza Goble, a longtime supporter of the school who is perhaps best known for her spaghetti suppers her family hosted over the years.
Those suppers started in the early 1980s, she said, and one in particular stood out.
While watching Wrestlemania one year, she had to send students to the backyard because they were about to bust a window, she said.
“It’s been a joy and even an honor,” she told the students after initially trying to donate the gift card back to the school. “Thank you so, so much. That was a pleasant surprise on a dreary morning.”
The second recipient chosen was Lowell Albertson, a former athletic director and coach at the school.
Albertson was momentarily speechless after being given his gift card.
“I just like kids,” he said. “I just like doing things for them and with them, watching them perform. I’ve had a great career teaching and coaching and everything … just been great.”
The final recipient was Albrecht, who initially said he was going to give it to someone else.
“I can’t believe they did that,” he later said. “There’s people in the community that need it a lot more than I do but I appreciate it.”
Lutes said it was special seeing the reactions that the recipients had.
“They’re going to go home and tell everybody how happy that made them,” she said. “It’s really nice to be a part of that.”
Kleine said she wanted to give back because Morristown was a blessed community.
“People just give and they make a lot of sacrifices and we want to show we’re appreciative and that we don’t want to be just about ourselves and reach out and affect the lives of others,” she said.
Both Helsley and Powers credited the student body for its empathy for others.
When he came up with the idea, Helsley said he had no doubt the student council would jump on board.
“Every school is going to say ‘we have the best kids around,’” Powers said. “I will tell you, there are a lot of good kids that think about others first.”