Thousands of pennies are used in floor tiles at Lincoln restaurant in Washington. (James M. Thresher/For The Washington Post)

Inside the mailbox was a small plastic bag of pennies, not even enough to make a dollar. But to the congregation of the New Creation Church in Wheaton, it was worth all the money in the world.

The New Creation Church’s youth council began to gather the coins in March 2010 as part of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ national “Penny Project” to raise 14 million pennies. The number represents the 14 million children affected by poverty in the 50 U.S. states and Puerto Rico.

But in January 2011, someone broke into New Creation and stole 40,000 pennies.

“The membership was stunned,” said the Rev. Ella Redfield, the 70-member church’s pastor. “Just the thought of someone breaking into a house of God.”

The youth council suddenly found itself — after 10 months of penny-pinching — flat broke.

Then the donations began flooding in from as close as Southeast Washington and College Park and as far as Washington state and Idaho after a Washington Post story detailed the break-in.

The coins came in all forms. Ten pennies in a pocket, hundreds of pennies in a water jug and thousands of pennies in a giant tub brought over by a fellow Maryland church.

And 50 cents’ worth of pennies in a little plastic bag, thanks to an anonymous donor.

“It wasn’t the amount of pennies, it was the act,” Redfield said. “That was just so kind.”

This summer, the church reached 300,000 pennies, triple the original goal of 100,000.

“God has a way of just turning negative things around and making things positive,” Redfield said. “And we have seen that.”

And on Tuesday, in an effort to show the government “the image” of how many children are suffering from poverty, eight members of the congregation presented some of the pennies to the Montgomery County Council and received a proclamation.

Montgomery County’s poverty rate was 7.7 percent in 2010, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The state’s poverty rate was 9.9 percent.

“It’s a very real issue,” County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) said.

New Creation plans to donate the money — in the form of a check — to Greentree Shelter in Bethesda and Mid-County United Ministries, based in Wheaton.

“It’s like hope in a jar,” said Heidi Webb, director of development and institutional advancement for the National Center for Children and Families, which oversees Greentree and 13 other programs. “There are lots of other things I’m sure they could have raised pennies for — iTunes cards, toys.”

But the youth council, only a half-dozen kids in middle or high school, wanted to give back to the community, Redfield said: “This is children helping children.”

The church is beginning to plan its summer projects to help local schools, she said.

But for now, it’s trying to figure out how to take all those pennies to the bank.


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