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Sean Kirst: At JFK High School, one mysterious dollar inspires – and explodes into a cause

It was only a dollar. Dylan Belscher noticed it on the floor a few weeks ago as he sat at the back of English class in room 141 of John F. Kennedy High School, in Cheektowaga. Someone had dropped it, an old wrinkled bill, near the hanging caddie where students place their mobile phones during class.

When the school day ended, Belscher watched his classmates descend upon the caddie for their phones. Once they all but emptied it, Belscher wandered over. The dollar was still there, on the tile floor. He could easily have pocketed it without thinking twice.

Instead, he picked it up and brought it to his English teacher, Katie Mattison.

"It wasn't my money," Belscher said, which he sees as ample explanation. Mattison said she was a little surprised, knowing a lot of people would have just kept the dollar. She suggested that Belscher tape it to the whiteboard in front of class, the place where she always puts lost things, because maybe the dollar was part of lunch or bus fare for the student who dropped it.

"You can can always tell when someone is looking for something," Mattison said.

Belscher taped it to the board. A day or two later, the school shut down for Easter break. Neither the teacher nor her student thought twice about the dollar. Taping it up "was just good karma," said Belscher, who works part-time as a cook at the Polish Villa restaurant, and intends to enlist in the Air Force after graduation.

Teacher Katie Mattison points to Dylan Belscher's "found" dollar bill that started a mysterious campaign that soon grew beyond $300. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Hunter Rose, another senior, soon noticed the whiteboard. He was in English class just after break when he spotted the dollar. On a spring day, near the school year's end, it made him wonder.

There was a mystery to it, Rose said. After class, he asked Mattison why it was there. She was still waiting for the original owner to claim it, so she did not want to say too much.

"I don't know," Mattison replied.

Rose took the tape from her desk, and taped a second dollar to the board.

That got it rolling. Mattison, 52, teaches five classes in that room every day. The sight of the two dollar bills, side by side, triggered something in her students. They started asking about the purpose of the money, to which Mattison always gave the same answer.

She didn't know. At that point, it was absolutely true.

More students, intrigued, taped up single dollar bills. Mattison – a veteran teacher who recognized a phenomenon in the making – wrote the initials of each student on each specific bill, and she started to leave the tape on the tray of the whiteboard.

The effort snowballed. Even with no specific purpose, many students wanted to be part of whatever this was. Jake Braniecki, another senior, said everyone understood the eventual purpose of the dollars would be for "something good," and their teacher "wasn't going to do anything stupid with the money."

Teacher Katie Mattison of John F. Kennedy High School in Cheektowaga stands directly behind Dylan Belscher, who found the lost dollar bill that triggered an unlikely campaign, along with a group of Belscher's fellow seniors, left to right: Autumn Lucas, Preston Lopez, Kyle Lighten, Belscher, Mattison, Madison Pawarski, Jake Braniecki and Bella Zdzinski. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The students, among themselves, decided Mattison must have some unspoken goal, some mysterious threshold, a point at which she would reveal the secret. They figured bigger donations could only help them get there faster.

Braniecki, who works part-time for Target, taped a $20 and a $10 bill to the whiteboard. Megan Makowski, who dug into her Christmas and birthday savings and was relentless in her curiosity, taped up another $20.

"I kept pestering her the whole time," she said of her teacher.

Then there was Preston Lopez, a JFK senior who often works after school on an assembly line at Servotronics so he can afford to pay for gasoline and insurance for his car, a car in which he routinely deposits his loose change in a compartment next to the cup holders.

He put $4 on the board before he knew the purpose of the money.

Once he learned where it would go, he went to his car, scooped $3.70 in change into an envelope, and taped that to the whiteboard.

Mattison knew her students were convinced there had to be some unspoken cause. The truth is, at the beginning, there was nothing beyond the energy they generated among themselves, the idea – as senior Kelsey Flynn put it – that sometimes it is worth it to take a chance.

The amount kept growing over several weeks, until it reached $175.76. As for the original dollar, the person who lost it never came looking.

That left Mattison to decide upon the best resolution. She kept thinking about her brother-in-law, Jack Hains, a guy she described as a wonderful human being, a lawyer who had been Godfather to Mattison's daughter Tess.

Eight years ago, Hains died of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a rare and devastating neurological disease. Three years later, his sister, Jean Hains Grant, died of the same condition.

Mattison told that story to all five classes. She explained how Jack had been married to her sister Terry, and how Terry raises money every spring for the ALS Therapy Development Institute, established to seek a cure for the disease.

To Mattison, the greatest message of the board filled with cash was the sense of community her students brought to it. She asked the teens if they minded if she donated the dollars, in their name, in honor of Jack Hains.

Their answer, over the next few days, was to tape enough money to the whiteboard to push the amount to $321.06. Mattison, choking back tears as she recalled the moment, carefully peeled the cash off the board and made the donation just before the beginning of May, which is National ALS Awareness Month.

That was Saturday. By Monday afternoon, eight more dollars had been taped to the board.

The whiteboard in Room 141 at John F. Kennedy High School in Cheektowaga, before teacher Katie Mattison donated this money to a campaign to cure ALS. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Mattison intends to buy all the students pizza as a gesture of appreciation. Still, she thinks the larger reward will be the memory itself, what the teens recall of this effort – and their classmates – in 20 or 30 years.

As an English teacher, her greatest mission is finding ways of encouraging her students to read, a skill that she sees as a pivot in life. In a world that often disparages teenagers, her work has taught her to believe in them. She tries to find books or essays that will captivate young people, and some that might even offer a life lesson.

Among the readings this year was a selection from the late Randy Pausch, who wrote the "Last Lecture" – and inspired millions – while dying from pancreatic cancer.

One of the points Pausch made, Mattison said, is that if you summon enough patience and faith, people will always surprise and impress you.

Her kids did their reading. At JFK, one wrinkled dollar at a time, they passed that test.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

 

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