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Julie Krueger and a few willing students have spent lunch this week lugging large plastic containers around the Lincoln Southeast High School cafeteria with posters of administrators sporting all manner of fashionable garb.

She and the students (and the administrators who agreed to don superhero costumes, Hawaiian attire and other outfits) are on a mission -- raising money for this year’s Dunks for Dollars, an annual event that pits staff against each other on the basketball court for a good cause.

The English teacher is not thrilled to have a newspaper photographer trailing her, or a reporter lurking in the background, but she wasn’t sure she had a choice, and anyway, it might help raise money for the Food Bank of Lincoln’s backpack program -- this year’s good cause -- so she soldiers on.

She tries hard to get her students to be humble, to focus on others and not themselves, so she'd like NOT to be in the spotlight.

But she's also touched that the reason she’s being trailed is that one of her students nominated her in this year’s Thank You Teacher contest -- and her letter was among five winners chosen from about 500 nominations.

Trinity Babcock, a junior at Southeast, took a composition class from Krueger last semester and said her teacher pushed her to be a better writer and encouraged her students to reach their potential.

But that’s not what changed her outlook on life, Babcock said.

“She took the role of being a teacher as an opportunity to make changes in the community,” Babcock wrote. “She is constantly working to get students out into the community and give them experiences with raising money and organizing events.”

Everybody knew that Krueger’s class was the one to beat during the annual student hunger drive for the Food Bank, Babcock wrote, and she figured Krueger was offering students some kind of incentive to bring in lots of food.

Then Krueger became Babcock's teacher and the student realized she was all wrong about that.

Her teacher shared stories to help kids understand why the Food Bank was important. She went door to door on the weekends seeking donations.

“It wasn’t a matter of winning or losing, it was a matter of changing somebody’s life because they were able to have a meal over the break,” Babcock wrote.

OK, let's be honest: Krueger is competitive. The woman who played softball at Doane and Nebraska Wesleyan likes to win. But the thing is, the fruits of all her victories benefit others.

This year, a competition developed between the teachers (led by Krueger) and the administration to collect donations for the Food Bank.

The deal had been this: if the teachers won, the administrators would cover a class for the top 10 donors. If the administration won, the teachers would buy pie for the secretarial staff.

Sensing that the teachers were losing footing, Krueger made a deal with the secretaries: she’d go out and buy everybody pie THAT DAY if they’d give her all the food donations from the administrators. They were easily bought.

In the end, administrators held up their end of the bargain, the secretarial staff got pie -- and the Food Bank got a whole bunch of food.

Krueger's been raising money for good causes since her kids were in day care, but she didn’t immediately find teaching as her life’s work.

She graduated from Nebraska Wesleyan with an English major and journalism minor and spent a year as a newspaper reporter in York, then worked a number of other jobs before her mind turned to teaching. 

“I had always loved school,” she said. She'd been inspired by teachers -- including East’s Anne Cognard, an English teacher who encouraged her writing.

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"I fell back on ‘what am I passionate about,'” she said.

Teaching wasn’t easy at first, and mentors such as Crystal Folden are why she stuck with it.

Things really jelled when her boys got to school, she said, and she saw things through the eyes of a parent.  

She saw her own kids -- one of whom graduated from Southeast, one who's there now and another who will be there next year -- mentored and taught by great role models, she said.

So she strives to do the same thing, to make her lessons applicable to real life.

One of those lessons is the “act of kindness” project based on John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl,” the theme that money doesn’t buy happiness.

“I wanted to get them to think outside the box, about something other than themselves,” she said.

She sponsors the student club that organizes the Dunks for Dollars event and last year expanded its mission beyond raising money for cancer research and renamed it the Act of Kindness Club.

They raised $4,100 for Special Olympics last year, and this year hope to raise $5,000 for the backpack program.

Babcock says Krueger wouldn’t let her students write her a letter about how she’s helped shape who they are -- so she wrote a letter to the Thank You Teacher contest instead.

“Thank you, Mrs. Krueger for constantly putting your students before yourself and always striving to help others in the community."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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