By Rebecca Layne, The Winchester (Va.) Star
WINCHESTER, Va. — Every day, Frederick County Middle School eighth-grader Melissa Cummins checks on the 17 hens roosting in her barn in Gore.
With the help of her sister, Madeline, and four classmates – Sam and Abby Buchholz, Abby Duck and Caroline Macauley – Melissa collects and sells the birds’ eggs for $2.50 a dozen.
All proceeds ($120 so far) will go to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis in honor of Summer Ostinato, a 14-year-old Frederick County Middle School student who died of leukemia in December.
Although Summer was a grade ahead of Melissa and her friends, the girls knew her through church organizations and student clubs.
“I noticed she’d do sweet little things for people she knew,” Melissa said, adding that Summer often donated to St. Jude through an annual “mathathon.”
“I thought if I couldn’t fix what happened to her and her family, I could help people in similar situations,” Melissa said.
The project has been dubbed Cartons of Hope.
Its roots started when Melissa was in sixth grade and incubated eggs for a science project. She instantly fell in love with chickens.
This year, she was finally able to convince her mom that she could handle a bigger project with the little peeps, and in December, she and her classmates painted, cleaned and renovated the unused, but cluttered, barn on her property into a chicken coop.
Her grandparents then bought her chicks in the spring, and her neighbors gave her chicken boxes.
Sam Buchholz said she joined the group not only for the cause, but also because she thought it was unusual for a 13-year-old to have 17 chickens.
“I don’t consider it normal,” she said. “So I thought it would be something cool to get involved in.”
Melissa collects 12 to 15 eggs a day and sells them to neighbors, relatives and her mother’s work friends. She says that by the end of the week, she has sold most or all of them.
Since the spring, she has grown quite attached to her brood, and some of her friends call her the “crazy chicken lady.”
“They’re fun, and once you kinda watch them grow, it’s like a brother or a sister,” she said. After thinking about it, she added, “OK, that’s a bad example.”
Although Melissa maintains her love for the birds, some in the group aren’t so infatuated anymore.
“When they were little, they were cute and fluffy, and that was the fun part,” said Abby Buchholz. “Melissa still likes them even though they are big and scary. They hide in the rafters. It’s like they’re watching you, I swear.”
The hens are still laying eggs, but as winter approaches the number will decrease or stop altogether.
Due to a loss of sales until next spring (and the need for feed over the winter), the price of a dozen eggs will increase to $3.50.
Melissa said she and her friends will continue the project as long as they can or until the chickens die (the birds can live up to 20 years).
“It’s nice knowing we’re making some sort of difference,” Sam said.
The group is accepting donations and feed. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or cartonsofhope.webs.com.