Abby Rapien’s third-grade class from St. Bruno School in Dousman bought gifts for others at a local Target store. (Submitted photo)

When it comes to instilling a sense of charity in her students, Abby Rapien feels it’s important to start by empowering them.

“I really want them to be at the forefront of being charitable. I want them to see how good it feels to be able to give,” said Rapien, who is in her first year teaching third grade at St. Bruno Parish School in Dousman. “I think a lot of times you tell children how good it is to give, but you buy the gift and you say, ‘Go drop this off at school,’ or ‘Put this in the charity bin.’”

Rapien wants her students to feel a sense of ownership over their acts of service. “I wanted them to feel like they were actually paying for it,” she said — a goal that posed a conundrum for the 12 third-graders, who had no money of their own to spend.

But as she brainstormed possible class service projects, Rapien realized that her students did have something to offer: their good acts.

Like millions of other teachers around the world, Rapien utilizes ClassDojo, a communication platform that links educators, students and their parents. Via the app, instructors can share announcements and assignments, privately message parents, share photos and videos, assemble a digital portfolio for their students and more. In Rapien’s class, students are individually awarded points on ClassDojo when they exhibit good behavior. After achieving 40 points, the students are allowed to select a reward from a prize bin Rapien keeps in the classroom.

“I said, ‘Guys, I think we should do something more worthwhile with our points,’” Rapien said. “I asked my kids, ‘What do you guys think about doing a service project using our points to buy children gifts?’”

The concept was simple: transform the students’ good deeds into blessings for less fortunate kids. Starting in November, ClassDojo points would translate to real money (provided by Rapien) that the class could use to purchase gifts and necessities for families in need.

The students’ reaction was immediately enthusiastic. “When Ms. Rapien suggested the project, I was so excited that I could hardly sleep,” said student Ali Witte.

“I was so excited because that meant I could go shopping with my friends and buy presents that people need more than us,” said her classmate Viviana Valadez.

“To be honest, this project, I think, helped their behavior,” said Rapien. “They didn’t want to get points taken away because they wanted to go shopping and buy some gifts for these kids.”

“I really liked saving up my points because it made it fun trying to earn them,” said student Lulu Guebard.

“I loved saving up my points,” agreed classmate Trent Wesson. “It made me want to earn more and more.”

On Saturday, Dec. 11, Rapien met her students and their parents at the local Target store for a shopping trip to purchase toys and clothes for families served by Life’s Connection, Toys for Tots and St. Ben’s Community Meal. Many of the parents had liked Rapien’s idea so much that they pitched in money to support the gift fund as well.

“I didn’t pick out a single thing — (the kids) were the ones picking out all of the toys, all of the clothes. They were the ones going up to the kiosk checking the price, adding up how much each item was,” said Rapien.

The experience certainly left an impression on Rapien’s students. Third-grader Cally Schneider described the project as “amazing” and “the best idea in the world.”

“My favorite gifts we bought were the clothes, because you don’t need toys, you need clothes,” she said.

“I learned that giving is better than receiving,” said fellow student Leiahna Fowler. “It made me really happy that I could make a kid’s Christmas special.”

On the following Monday, the students helped Rapien unload and sort the donations.

“It made me realize how lucky I am to be a teacher. I’ve never met a group of students who were so giving and so excited to do good for others,” said Rapien. “All of my kids said, ‘Can we do this next month?’”