WATERVILLE — Alice Willette and Gabbie St. Peter seem like typical second-graders: silly, joyful and full of energy.
Yet officials said Wednesday the two 8-year-old girls from George J. Mitchell Elementary School showed impressive selflessness and maturity over the past month by raising thousands of dollars and hundreds of food items for their school’s food pantry in lieu of birthday gifts.
Born one day apart in the middle of February, Alice and Gabbie had the idea that instead of birthday presents, they’d have a party and have friends bring food for the school’s food pantry. The pantry opened this fall to serve food for students, 68 percent of whom accept free or reduced-price lunch. Leading up to their party, the girls received a list of items the pantry needed and ended up filling dozens of boxes and grocery bags with hundreds of food items, in addition to $6,000.
On Wednesday at the elementary school, a surprise assembly was held to honor Alice and Gabbie, with the entire school and many state leaders in attendance to show their support, including former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, for whom the school is named.
“The lesson that Gabbie and Alice have taught us all today is that each person can make a difference,” Mitchell said, addressing several hundred students and teachers, most dressed colorfully and quirkily as the school celebrated Dr. Seuss’ birthday this week. “I congratulate them on the example they set not only for the students here, but for the adults.”
Sen. Colleen Lachowicz; Bill Alfond, a trustee of the philanthropic Harold Alfond Foundation; Waterville Mayor Karen Heck; and representatives for U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud also were in attendance to show their support.
Altogether, with the help from several surprise donations from Mitchell, his sister Barbara, Alfond, Heck and Taconnet Federal Credit Union, the girls raised more than $17,000 for the food pantry.
“I was 100 percent surprised,” Gabbie said, while Alice admitted that she was “speechless”; and according to her, that doesn’t happen often.
“I thought we were just going to get a thank-you,” Gabbie said.
Students and teachers from kindergarten through third grade filed into the cafeteria, while Gabbie and Alice came in last to see the surprise of each of their families and entire school. School Principal Alan Martin addressed the audience and congratulated the girls for their benevolent deed.
“These girls did something extraordinary and it started as an act of kindness,” Martin said. “The purpose of today is to have you folks understand that out of one small act of kindness, this can happen.”
Pam Trinward, who was representing Pingree’s office, surprised Gabbie and Alice by telling them that Pingree addressed the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday night to share the girls’ story. Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority owner of Maine Today Media, which publishes the Morning Sentinel.
“Mr. Speaker, I want to talk for one minute about two very special young girls from Waterville, Maine, Gabbie St. Peter and Alice Willette,” Pingree said in her speech at the floor of the House. “Their compassion and generosity is inspiring, and I want to recognize and thank these two emerging leaders from Maine.”
The surprise the two girls seemed to enjoy the most, however, was when Jennifer Johnson, president of George J. Mitchell School Parent Teacher Organization, which started the food pantry this year, announced that the school’s pantry would be named after them.
“What they did ended up being so big I wanted to recognize that,” Johnson said. “We have Senator Mitchell here, who has this building named after him; and we have Mr. Alfond here, who — his family has a lot of buildings named after them. I don’t have a building I can name after people, but the PTO decided that we have a little room, and from now it’s not just the food pantry. It’s going to be Gabbie and Alice’s Purple Panther Pantry.”
While the pantry is still in its first year, Johnson isn’t exactly sure how much it will cost to stock it for its students. She figured it should cost between $4,000 and $5,000 per year. What the girls raised will help supplement the pantry for years, according to Johnson.
“The amount of money that was raised by those girls will be able to help fund the pantry until the girls are out of high school,” she said. “It was an incredibly generous and compassionate thing to do.”
Johnson, who helped the girls achieve their goal, also asked the state’s leaders if they would send along a word or two of gratitude for the girls unselfishness. She didn’t expect many of them to rearrange schedules and donate their time and money.
“I just asked most of them if they’d be interested in sending a letter of thanks, but they all said they’d like to be there and thank them personally,” she said. “I contacted Senator Mitchell and asked if he could write a letter to the girls. He ended up changing his schedule and flew into Waterville just for this.”
Gov. Paul LePage was invited to the assembly but couldn’t make it because of a scheduling conflict, according to spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett. He has invited both Alice and Gabbie to the State House in May to visit.
The two girls, surprised and slightly overwhelmed by the special assembly in their honor, sat in front of their peers with ear-to-ear smiles.
“I’m lucky that I have all the stuff that I have, and some people at my school don’t have what I have,” Alice said. “So we wanted to share the stuff that we had so kids in our school and class could have the same stuff.”
This idea of giving rather than receiving during their birthdays is not new for the lifelong best friends. “They became friends in nursery school,” said Scott St. Peter, Gabbie’s father, “but they’ll tell you they’ve been friends since they were both born. They’ve both been very giving children throughout the years.”
For the past three years, both Alice and Gabbie have done similar fundraising events in lieu of their birthday gifts, with Alice collecting school supplies last year and money for the homeless shelter the year before; while Gabbie has helped gather food for the Waterville Humane Society.
Just minutes after they were lauded for their latest act, the girls announced that for next year’s birthday, they plan to raise money for breast cancer awareness and research.
“It makes me tremendously proud that she recognizes the needs around her and appreciates what she has and realizes that maybe it’s enough,” said Ann Willette, Alice’s mother. “For me, as her mom, it’s who she is. It’s amazing. It’s something innate. You can learn compassion, but you can also be born with a lot of compassion.”
After the assembly had ended, Johnson gave both of them a pink cape. The girls’ eyes lit up as they threw on the fabric and raced around the now near-empty cafeteria, arms outstretched, giggling and laughing.
“I’m a superhero!” Gabbie yelled.