We climbed the steps of the bus parked outside Albert S. Hall School in Waterville and scrambled to our seats in the back.

There were 18 of us — 10 girls, five boys, teacher Mary Dunn, me, and of course the bus driver, Mark Gauthier.

We were on a mission and very excited.

With about 200 pounds of onions packed in the storage unit under the bus, we headed to the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter a couple of miles away.

The fifth grade students were finally going to be able to carry out their plan of donating onions to the shelter despite the recent theft of 100 onions from their school garden plot.

After a column I wrote about the theft appeared in the Morning Sentinel, people from all over the country donated onions to the class — more than 700 pounds, in fact. There were all sorts — yellow onions, white boiler onions, red onions, Scottish onions, shallots and more.

Onions arrived at the school from Texas, Arizona, New York, North and South Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, Washington, Florida, California, Maine and even the National Onion Association.

The class received other surprises, including a $250 personal check and letter from Donna E. Shalala, University of Miami president and former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton.

“She sent the check for the kids to use as part of the pay-it-forward,” Dunn said of Shalala, as the bus rumbled along sunny Pleasant Street Thursday. “She wants the kids to decide how to use it. I talked with (school principal) Barbara Jordan about it this morning, and we’re going to open it to the whole school for the kids to suggest how we use it.”

Last weekend, Dunn met a couple from Texas who drove a load of onions all the way from that state to Waterville — onions they had grown in their garden. The couple was moving to Maine and had read about the onion theft while still in Texas, contacted Dunn, and asked if they could meet her.

A Boy Scout troop from Colorado also made a generous donation.

“They passed the hat one night and collected $112 for us,” Dunn said. “And then we got a lovely letter from a woman in Georgia who sent us a dollar.”

All of these donations allowed the students to give onions not only to the homeless shelter and school kitchen, but also to other schools, area soup kitchens, food pantries, residential programs for people dealing with substance abuse issues, churches, the Muskie Center and Meals on Wheels.

“I like that people are giving back to us, and we got so many onions, now we get to donate to every school in Waterville — to districts outside Waterville, to Oakland, to Augusta,” said Eleanor King, 10. “That makes me really happy. None of us ever imagined it would get this big and go so viral.”

After we arrived at the homeless shelter Thursday, King and the other students met Tanya Fossett, the executive assistant there. She answered questions about the shelter and thanked the students for their generosity.

“We love getting donations,” she said. “We could not feed our people without donations. I can’t wait to see what we’re going to make with all these onions.”

We boarded the bus again and headed to a new destination.

Dunn said we were going to the Colby College gardens off Washington Street to pick pumpkins. A master gardener, Dunn teaches her students about the importance of healthful eating, coordinates a school gardening program and uses the produce students grow in her math, science and literature curriculum.

She and Ellen Paul, also a master gardener who coordinates the Colby staff and faculty gardens, planted the pumpkins last spring. Paul works for Fedco, which donated the pumpkins seeds.

What the students didn’t know on the bus ride to Colby is that they were about to receive another surprise.

Dunn told me privately that she and Paul early in the growing season went up to the garden and carved each student’s name on a pumpkin, and as the pumpkins grew, so did the names.

Paul was waiting for us when we arrived at the garden, and Dunn announced the surprise. The kids frolicked around the pumpkin patch, searching for their personalized pumpkins.

“I love mine!” exclaimed 10-year-old Ebba Heaton-Jones as she clutched her smallish, round pumpkin. “It’s perfect.”

Earlier, Dunn had told me that she and Jordan, the school principal, continue to talk about the message the onion saga brought to the children, the lesson they learned from it and how the whole incident kind of replicates life.

“You have a loss — onions,” Dunn said. “You get sad and here’s that critical thing — you reach out, and then you get people that show you love and generosity and caring and then you pay it forward, just like they did today, and then you move on.

“We’re moving on. We’re picking pumpkins. That’s our transition — pumpkins.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 26 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]

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